Lawsuit Against North Carolina Shows How the Justice System Keeps Poor People Poor

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The ACLU of North Carolina, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice have slapped the state of North Carolina with a federal lawsuit over the state’s practice of suspending drivers’ licenses over unpaid tickets.

In North Carolina, the DMV is required by state law to automatically revoke a license after it receives notice from the court that a person has failed to pay their fines or penalties or associated costs. The lawsuit alleges that this state law violates the Fourteenth Amendment.

The two plaintiffs in the case are 27-year old Seti Johnson and 31-year old Sharee Smoot. According to the lawsuit, Johnson has been unemployed and can’t afford to pay off a traffic ticket as well as support his three children; he cobbled $700 to get his license back last year, but before he was able to finally pay it off, he was hit with another ticket for $100 plus $208 in court costs. He was able to pay the $100 despite having over $300 to his name, but still owes $228 in court costs, and will lose his license sometime around the end of July.


He just obtained a new job, but as the lawsuit says, “he will have to either forego the job and figure out a different way to get his children to school, daycare, and the doctor’s office, or he will have to illegally drive.”

“I’d previously fallen behind on my rent and sacrificed the needs of my children just to keep my license,” Johnson said in a statement provided by the ACLU of North Carolina. “I cannot afford to do that again. This has to stop.” Added Smoot, a single mother who works at a call center 45 minutes away from her home to help support her grandmother as well as her nine-year old daughter: “I just want a fair chance to take care of my family. I can’t afford to pay the tickets right now, but that shouldn’t prevent me from having a driver’s license.”


As of fall of 2017, the groups say, over 436,000 people have had their licenses indefinitely suspended by the state’s Division of Motor Vehicles for failure to pay fines and costs. In North Carolina, losing your license is all the more serious considering that public transportation is so rare; the lawsuit cites statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation showing that only 1.1 percent of the state’s population used public transportation to get to work in 2013.

This is a national problem as well; a Washington Post report from earlier this month found that over 7 million people around the country may have had their licenses revoked for traffic debt-related reasons, although that number could be much higher. And given that study after study has shown evidence of racism in traffic stops, searches, and arrests—both Johnson and Smoot are black—it’s just another way that both the institutionalized racism and classism of America’s criminal justice system kneecaps the poor.


“North Carolina is denying a basic necessity–having a driver’s license–to hundreds of thousands of residents simply because of their economic standing, trapping countless people in a cycle of poverty,” ACLU of North Carolina criminal debt fellow Cristina Becker said in a statement. “This unfair and unconstitutional system must end.”

You can read the complaint below.