North Carolina Drivers Still Face “Debt Traps” Despite Some Local Reforms

A DA cleared the soaring fines and fees that prevented thousands from legally driving, but advocates say the problem needs broader statewide relief.

Roshan Abraham   |    May 16, 2022

(Durham County DA’s Office/Facebook)

Speeding or other traffic tickets can quickly spiral out of control for people in North Carolina, not just because of the ticket cost or court fees that follow, but also the added punishment that can impair their livelihood: When people cannot pay off traffic debts, North Carolina automatically suspends their driver’s licenses.

These suspensions can rapidly escalate. People may lose their ability to travel to their jobs, which compounds their inability to pay the underlying fines and fees. Because their livelihoods depend on it, people often continue to drive, risking arrest and prosecution for driving with a suspended license, and potentially jail and new fines and fees. A 2019 analysis from Legal Aid Justice Center, a legal advocacy nonprofit, found that about 1.2 million North Carolinians—about 15 percent of the state’s driving-age population, and disproportionately Black drivers—had suspended licenses for failing to pay court costs or for failing to appear in court, which is the other major driver of license suspensions. A recent survey from Duke University found that 28.5 percent of people in this situation faced eviction as a result. 

While running for district attorney in 2018 in Durham, where nearly one in five residents have had their licenses revoked or suspended at some point, Satana Deberry denounced the fines and fees that make low-level cases into “debt traps that people cannot escape.” After her election, she made it a priority to confront these exploding court costs. Over her first term, she has partnered with the Durham Expunction and Restoration program, or DEAR, to use her broad authority to clear thousands of suspended licenses. This has helped thousands of Durham residents regain their right to drive and earn a livelihood.

Deberry is running for re-election in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, up against a challenger who says her office has been too lax in some cases. The primary has centered on violent crime, yet Deberry will also be judged on how she has dealt with entrenched poverty driven by the court system.

But Deberry’s approach to suspended licenses can also not contend with the rapid rate at which people are stripped of their licenses in the state. The state has adopted multiple laws over the past 15 years that have made it more likely North Carolinians will be hit with fines and fees they cannot pay. The DA’s office, some advocates stress, is not the optimal place to run after the issue. With other avenues for reform seemingly blocked, though, alternatives are hard to come by.

North Carolina joined many other states during the Great Recession in amping up its use of fines and court fees as revenue generators. Democratic and Republican politicians agreed during that period to increase regressive court costs and fees for driver’s license restoration; these moves hiked the costs of the court system by tens of millions of dollars. The fees were often justified as necessary to upkeep courts, but as of 2018, the vast majority of court fees went to the state’s general fund and other state agencies.

If nationwide trends are an indicator, this approach is hardly profitable: a 2019 Brennan Center report found that fines and fees are an inefficient source of government revenue. Despite this, North Carolina’s legislatures doubled down with laws meant to ensure reliance on fines and fees. 

On paper, judges can waive these costs whenever defendants can’t afford them thanks to a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision. But a North Carolina law passed in 2011 requires that the court system publish the names of judges who waive fines and fees along with the total dollar amount. That list is still regularly published as of March 7

“One of the biggest complaints that we get from the judges is: my name is going to end up on that list,” says Laura Holland, an attorney with the North Carolina Justice Center who has represented clients with traffic debt. She says judges told her that, if they waive fees, “it’s going to look like I’m waiving debt, and my county needs funds.”

Daniel Bowes, director of policy and advocacy of ACLU of North Carolina, said the 2011 law “had a clear chilling effect” on judges. “Judges have broad discretion,” Bowes said. “It’s just that they’ve been pushed politically not to waive the fees.” 

Bowes also points to a 2017 law that requires judges who wish to waive a defendant’s fees to first send a letter to every city agency losing out on revenue so they can weigh in. The North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts decided to issue a monthly notice to all impacted agencies, towns or other entities, offering their lawyers to sit in on criminal court cases if they want. The notice also asked agencies to check a box if they object to court costs being waived, and the court regularly publishes a table of these responses.

Roger Echols, Durham’s DA between 2014 and 2019, piloted DEAR’s driver’s license clinic to provide pro bono legal assistance for people looking to clear the underlying fines and fees that led to their driver’s license suspensions. DEAR attorneys help people ask the court to clear unpaid debt, with the DA’s blessing. But this approach put the responsibility on residents to know their rights and initiate the waiver process, meaning people with suspended licenses were driving to the clinic or arranging for someone else to do so, often during work hours. 

After defeating Echols and entering office in 2019, Deberry worked with DEAR to expand a program offering mass remittances that began during her predecessor’s final weeks in office. 

Deberry relied on a North Carolina statute that allows prosecutors to petition the state directly, rather than wait for license holders to request it, shifting the burden onto the state. Deberry’s mass remittances covered license suspensions for non-payment of court fees or failure to appear that were at least two years old, absolving court debt from as far back as 1987. With DEAR’s help, Deberry’s office made hundreds of requests for remittance every week.

“I wanted to provide as broad relief as possible without people having to hire lawyers, without people having to get caught up in the paperwork,” Deberry told Bolts. “That is the whole reason that the fines and fees got to the point that they were, because people weren’t able to follow all of these steps.”

Thanks to these petitions, more than 11,000 people in Durham regained their right to a driver’s license and $2.7 million worth of debt was remitted, according to Deberry’s office. Deberry’s office stopped the mass remittance program in late 2020 when they had worked their way through pre-2018 suspensions, but four years worth of new suspensions have since piled up. Will Crozier, a Duke University professor who has studied driver’s license suspensions in North Carolina, credits the work that DEAR has accomplished, but suspects, “it’s not curing old licenses nearly as fast as they’re getting imposed.”

Data obtained by Bolts show thousands of suspensions for failure to pay court debt and failing to appear in court have been issued in Durham since 2018. 

Deberry’s office also says gathering records for a new round of mass relief is time and resource-intensive, and that they now refer people with suspensions to DEAR for help. Deberry has also said she’s open to more mass debt relief actions in the future, something advocates argue will be necessary after a pandemic.

Deberry has also adopted new policies to try to prevent license suspensions in the first place. The office drops some fines, when it determines that a ticketed person can not afford it. Sarah Willets, who handles communication for the Durham DA’s office, says prosecutors consider a person’s ability to pay and “if they can be held accountable without incurring those costs.” In these cases, Willets says, the DA’s traffic team dismisses some cases or agrees to a dismissal in exchange for taking a safe driving course or writing an essay.

Holland says Deberry’s overall approach has changed the culture of Durham County when it comes to fines and fees, affecting decisions from judges as well. “They’re actually more often than not inquiring about someone’s ability to pay,” she says of county judges. “It just kind of shifted the day to day operations of the courthouse.”

“We’ve been actively working to make the courts consider a person’s ability to pay before imposing fines and fees, particularly on indigent defendants in court,” Deberry confirms. 

Deberry’s office also said it dismisses charges when police arrest someone for driving on a suspended license, but only under the condition that they get their license restored. The office did not respond to a follow-up when asked if they considered dismissing all charges where the license suspension resulted from non-payment; some reform-minded prosecutors have adopted such a declination policy.

Moreover, in relying on prosecutorial discretion, Deberry’s proactive approach is vulnerable to the political winds, which could soon change. 

Deberry is now focused on Tuesday’s primary against attorney Jonathan Wilson II. Another opponent, Daniel Meier, suspended his campaign and endorsed Wilson on April 28, writing that Deberry was “unwilling to accept any responsibility” for violent crime and that he would rather work to elect Wilson than divide the vote of those critical of Deberry’s tenure.

Wilson did not respond to requests for comment from Bolts on his views on fines and fees. He has said elsewhere he would “reduce violent crime and restore the swift administration of justice” by relying more on pre-trial detention for people charged with violent crimes. 

Data released earlier this year by the city of Durham (which makes up the vast majority of the county) showed that violent crime declined there in 2021, but homicides jumped significantly. Other jurisdictions in North Carolina and around the country have seen similar trends, and Deberry points out that the rise in homicides has happened in places with tough-on-crime prosecutors as well as reform-minded ones. 

Advocates fighting to end predatory fines and fees are asking for bolder solutions that can only happen at the state level. 

A program like Deberry’s only goes so far if state agencies do not cooperate or waive fees. Lifting a suspension does not mean people can legally drive; each person still needs to reapply for their license and pay a mandatory reinstatement fee with the DMV, which can’t be forgiven. There is no data available on how many people had their licenses fully restored, which requires a wait that can stretch on for months.

“We’re kind of putting the burden on the district attorneys and the clerks to take care of this, and it results in something that’s really piecemeal,” says B. Leigh Wicclair, a staff attorney at the North Carolina Pro Bono Research Center. “There’s some things that should just be sort of uniform policies across the state,” she says. 

Wicclair also says a disparity in resources between counties makes it unrealistic to set up a program like DEAR everywhere.

Yet there is little momentum around the most obvious path for change: statewide legislation that would end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses. Many states have adopted such laws in recent years, including neighboring Virginia. But similar bills to end automatic suspensions for non-payment, to allow restoration fees to be waived and make it easier to pay off court costs have not passed in North Carolina.

DEAR’s work would also be less necessary if judges waived more court costs to begin with, an uphill climb due to the laws adopted over the past decade and the legislature’s current composition. Shirley Randleman, a former state senator who played a leading role in orchestrating the laws that targeted what judges can do, left politics for several years but is now mounting a comeback

Deberry says the biggest help to addressing the issue would be legislative reform. “I think the answer to that is change in the General Assembly, where fines and fees are not exorbitant,” Deberry says. For now, though, she says much of the responsibility still lies with prosecutors. 

Holland says future change will depend on how the issue is framed. “This is not about scoffing the law and people not paying because they didn’t want to pay,” she says. “This is about not punishing poor people.”