Durham News: Opinion

Marcia Morey: When traffic court becomes debtors’ prison

Marcia Morey
Marcia Morey

For some judges, presiding over traffic infractions cases is like watching paint dry. Other than more serious offenses like driving while impaired, the seemingly never-ending line of exasperated drivers lament to the judge their bad luck at getting caught.

The “speeder” protests: “No way I was going that fast.” Drivers with unfastened seat belts claim: “That cop couldn’t have seen through my window.” And the driver with an expired tag or registration resigns aloud: “Oops.”

Judges appear to be like Walmart cashiers endlessly repeating, “That’ll be $25 fine and $180 cost of court. Have a nice day, next …” The courtroom atmosphere has a faint presence of “justice” and feels more like a Duke Power bill collection office.

One day, as I presided over traffic court, Walter Smith (not his real name, but an actual case) appeared in front of me charged with driving on a revoked license.

His license was revoked because he failed to pay a speeding ticket in 2013. In North Carolina, failure to pay a court-ordered traffic fine will result in an automatic suspension of a driver’s license. After 20 days went by and he could not pay the $180 court costs and $50 fine, the Department of Motor Vehicles automatically revoked his license.

On March 1, Mr. Smith now had two problems: His old unpaid ticket and his license suspension. Appearing in front of me, he requested a public defender. I told him, I could not appoint him one, since it was the lowest level misdemeanor and that two years ago, the General Assembly changed the law whereby people charged with Class 3 misdemeanors were not eligible for court-appointed lawyers. I understood his frustration, but explained that he had to either hire his own lawyer or represent himself.

“Your Honor,” he protested, “I got picked up while driving to the grocery store. I was taken to jail because I didn’t pay that old ticket and y’all yanked my license. I have heart disease and can’t work. Now do you really think I can afford to hire my own lawyer? I need some help here.”

Walter Smith was standing in front of me in desperation, and there was nothing I could do to help him with his plea. I said, “Sir, I am very sorry. I have to follow the law which does not allow me to appoint you and attorney.

In a nutshell: Jail became the punishment for poverty.

The assistant district attorney agreed to talk to him after hearing his plight. Within a few minutes, an agreement was reached. Mr. Smith could get his day in jail as credit against his nonpayment and the new charge was dismissed.

I “waived” (forgave) his court costs and $40 jail fee. He was unemployed, disabled and simply had no money or ability to pay. I wished him well. As he walked out of the courtroom, he grumbled to others, “All they want is damn money.”

The same week I waived his court costs, a “report card” listed all the judges in North Carolina who waived court costs. The General Assembly had demanded a report of these judges and counted the number of waivers granted. Evidently the legislators wanted to know who the “soft” judges were that allowed people not to fork over money they did not have.

And legislators were concerned because court costs do not support or fund the courts. Millions of dollars of court costs are deposited in the general state operating fund. In other words, people who come to court and pay filing fees and costs of court supplement the general operating budget of North Carolina.

Coincidently, the same week, the report card on North Carolina judges came out, the U.S. Department of Justice sent out a warning to all state, federal judges and court officials throughout the country. The warning: It is unconstitutional to incarcerate people charged with minor, nonviolent offenses, because of poverty.

Thus comes to mind Walter Smith. He spent a day in jail because he could not pay his traffic ticket. Not that he chose or willfully refused to. He simply had no money or means to pay it. According to the Department of Justice, that was against the law.

And every day, people all over North Carolina face a judge for a minor offense or traffic infraction and are ordered to make payments of hundreds of dollars they simply cannot afford. Far too often nonpayment is not willful. It is because he or she is unemployed, disabled, or suffers from mental illness or addiction.

Similarly, when a person is arrested on a minor offense like trespassing, marijuana, disorderly conduct – or someone has failed to appear in court, a bond is required. For many a $500 bond might as well be $5 million. They are held, not because they are a danger to the community, but because they are poor. Jail becomes “debtor’s prison.”

Durham, like most counties, has suggested bond amounts to be used as guidelines for magistrates and judges. The amount is based on the seriousness of the offense and likelihood a person will appear in court. The ability to pay should not be a factor. The constitution mandates the accused is innocent until proven beyond a reasonable doubt they are guilty.

That is the bedrock of the criminal justice system.

According to the Department of Justice letter, a meaningful court hearing must be held on a person’s bond or willful failure to pay court costs before he loses his liberty and is locked into a jail cell.

If a person violates the law, but cannot pay $180 court costs, additional fines or fees, judges can require community service in lieu of court costs. There are other choices and alternatives to sentencing. Give a person an opportunity to pay back by helping others.

Every day, as hundreds of people walk into the massive, imposing doors of courthouses throughout North Carolina, many are heard saying, “What a rip off. All the judicial system wants is our money.”

Is that what we want? Yes, there must be consequences for violating ordinances and laws, but perhaps a more equitable system would be payment on a sliding scale for those whose earnings are at or close to the poverty level. And perhaps, community service.

When I became a judge in 1999, court costs were $81. Today it is $180. The cost, set by the legislature, has more than doubled in 17 years, resulting in more people incarcerated because of poverty.

Justice is about fairness and following the law, but it should never be measured by the thickness of a person’s wallet.

And for someone like me who got a speeding ticket a few years ago, going 47 mph in a 35 zone? (Yes, judges get stopped and charged.) I hired an attorney and paid my fine and court costs simply because I could afford it. But what if I couldn’t? What if I was Walter Smith?

Marcia Morey is chief District Court judge in Durham County. Write to her in c/o The Durham News at editor@newsobserver.com