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Pender, New Hanover Co. restore 1000s of drivers’ licenses

New Hanover and Pender counties have wiped the slate clean for thousands of people who had their drivers’ licenses suspended because of unpaid traffic court courts and fines.

Judge Richard Russell Davis said in an Aug. 26 order that “the proper administration of justice” required that fines and fees in 5,409 traffic cases in New Hanover County be deemed remitted. Davis signed a similar order for 1,749 cases in Pender County.

The order comes as the North Carolina Pro Bono Resource center and the N.C. Justice Center have worked with district attorneys across the state to restore driving privileges for people who have lost them because of the unpaid court costs and fines. 

Benjamin David, district attorney for New Hanover and Pender counties, said that the orders are part of his office’s efforts to reduce the collateral damage that often falls upon low-income people who’ve committed lower-level traffic crimes.

“Prosecutors have a duty to do justice, not prosecute at all costs,” David said. “Of all the things that should be criminalized, not having money shouldn’t be one of them.”

Leigh Wicclair, director of the Pro Bono Resources Center’s Restorative Justice Project, said that so far in 2020 the project has helped eliminate $2.57 million in fines and court costs on behalf of 9,168 people with license suspensions in Durham, Guilford, Mecklenburg, and Vance counties. 

Last spring, Pitt County remitted court costs and fines for 4,285 traffic cases that had caused long-term driver’s license suspensions for over 3,200 drivers. The project is now working with district attorneys in Guilford and Buncombe counties on relief debt remittance.

Wicclair said license suspensions perpetuate poverty by trapping people who are economically vulnerable in “a vicious cycle of structural oppression.” Many people can’t afford to pay traffic fees or take time off work to appear in court, resulting in the loss of driving privileges. And people who continue to drive with a suspended license risk being charged again, which leads to more fines and fees they can’t pay.

Combating driver’s license suspension due to court debt is also an issue of racial equity, Wicclair said. In North Carolina, Black people have active suspensions for unpaid traffic court fines and fees at a rate four times higher than those of non-Hispanic White drivers, Wicclair said.

“District attorneys are uniquely positioned to assist with license restoration, and we are thrilled that Pender and New Hanover counties are taking this important step,” Wicclair said. “We are excited to work with more district attorneys across the state who choose to follow suit.”


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