Limited Driving Privilege Law Will Help End Cycle Of Unpaid Fines

By Amber Nimocks

Among the accomplishments NCAJ member legislators can point to from the General Assembly’s 2020 short session is the adoption of North Carolina’s New Limited Driving Privilege Law. It’s a big win both for marginalized North Carolinians struggling to get out from under onerous debt due to failure to pay fines, penalties or court costs and for the legislators who persisted in getting the legislation passed.

Rep. Sydney Batch and Rep. Robert Reives worked to draft and advance the legislation with help and advice from other practicing attorneys, the North Carolina Justice Center and the Administrative Office of the Courts. Both Batch and Reives are NCAJ members, and they described the effects of the new law and how it came to be during an NCAJ Member Webinar this week. Find the accompanying PowerPoint presentation here.

Under the new law, which takes effect Dec. 1, 2020:

  • A person whose license is revoked for a failure to pay a fine, penalty, or costs for a motor vehicle offense can apply for a limited driving privilege.
  • The court may grant the limited driving privilege under the same terms and conditions that courts currently may grant limited driving privileges.
  • The privilege is only available if no other privilege under this section of the law has been granted within the past three years.

The limited driving privilege will be granted only in situations arising from failure to pay costs, fines, and penalties. The privilege will last less than a year without an extension from the court. Those who gain the privilege will not be eligible for another privilege for three years.

Batch, a child welfare attorney, and Reives, who practices criminal defense, understand the cycle that traps poor and working class clients when they lose their drivers’ licenses because they are unable to pay court costs and fines. In order to pay off their fines or regain custody of their children, they must have a job, but having a job depends on being able to drive, which they can’t do without a license.

Reives said it’s just one way our criminal justice system criminalizes poverty.

“We want people who can’t pay their costs and fines — if they are making a lot of efforts to get that done — to still be able to drive to work and take care of their families because ultimately that makes them more productive, it keeps them out of the criminal justice system,  and morally, it’s the best thing to do for these folks,” Reives said.

Reives sponsored HB 853, and it gained bipartisan support. But it died in the House Judiciary Committee. Like 96 other bills sitting with that committee, it never got a hearing.

In June, attitudes toward the criminal justice reform changed with the eruption of protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the growing momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“There was a lot of pressure and energy in the space of criminal justice reform and equity issues within our criminal justice system,” Batch said.

Democrats and Republicans got together to identify bills that could move forward. After a dizzying process, the Limited Driving Privilege language wound up in a conference committee, where a diluted version of the original bill was approved. None of the legislators who approved the final version of the law were lawyers.

“The people making decisions about the laws, oftentimes, are not lawyers and don’t know what it means to be in some of the situations that our clients are in or, more importantly, even how a courtroom works,” Batch said.

Reives said the original version would have allowed judges the freedom to waive certain court costs and fines and would have granted judges the discretion to monitor the progress of those granted the limited driving privilege beyond one year.

“The reality is, if somebody making $8 an hour owes $3,000 in court costs, it’s not realistic to think that, in a year, they’re going to have all that swept away,” he said.

Reives and Batch will continue to push for more changes in this vein in the future.

Now the challenge is to get the word out to clerks, judges and district attorneys and help people take advantage of the new law.

The Administrative Office of the Courts has emailed a summary of criminal and motor vehicle bills enacted in 2020 to judges throughout the state and will be covering it with elected clerks at their annual conference in September. The North Carolina Justice Center is working with legal aid offices to set up clinics to reach those who can be helped by the new law. And the UNC School of Government mentioned the new law it in a recent blog post.

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