FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Pitt County elected judicial officials have completed a restorative justice project providing relief for unpaid traffic debt affecting the driving privileges of 3,200 local residents, and a new website, ncfairchance.org, will allow previously ticketed drivers to see if this relief applies to them.
District Attorney Faris Dixon partnered with other Pitt County court officials, including the Pitt County Clerk of Court, and the North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center (NCPBRC) to remit unpaid court fees and fines for certain categories of traffic cases that had resulted in a driver’s license suspension. The debt remittance removes a major barrier disproportionately affecting the county’s African-American population.
People who have had a traffic ticket in Pitt County can now see whether they qualified for this program by visiting ncfairchance.org. People who visit the site can also sign up for an advice letter from a pro bono attorney who will review their driving record and provide advice.
This mass debt relief project included long-term driver’s license suspensions caused by unpaid fines and fees for minor traffic offenses in Pitt County, where more than 72% of people whose licenses are suspended for failure to pay are black, even though African-Americans make up just under 36% of the population. People whose licenses were suspended for more serious traffic offenses, such as Driving While Intoxicated (DWI), are not eligible for the program.
“The people we are helping have come to court and taken responsibility for their traffic offense but simply haven’t had the means to pay off their court costs and fines,” District Attorney Faris Dixon said. “The ability of citizens to support themselves and their families, and of local businesses to recover economically, is directly related to the average person being able to drive to work. For many citizens, a driver’s license can make the difference not only between employment and unemployment, but also between groceries and hunger, or between receiving health care and going untreated. That’s why I wanted to bring the Driver’s License Restoration Project to Pitt County—to help our citizens and our businesses in a practical, effective way.”
Driver’s license suspensions have dire consequences for drivers and their families, said Leigh Wicclair, restorative justice program director at the NCPBRC.
“Having a revoked or suspended license perpetuates poverty by trapping economically vulnerable people in a vicious cycle of structural oppression. Once ticketed, many low-income people cannot afford to pay traffic fees or take time off work to appear in court, resulting in the loss of driving privileges. This loss propagates employment insecurity, and people who continue to drive with a suspended license risk being charged with criminal offenses, which will lead to more fines and fees they cannot pay.”
Wicclair added that the problem particularly impacts North Carolinians who are already economically vulnerable and those who live in rural areas without reliable public transportation.
According to North Carolina law, the state’s Division of Motor Vehicles must revoke a person’s license if that person fails to appear in traffic court or fails to “pay a fine, penalty, or court costs ordered by the court,” even if it’s a first offense. For that reason, 1.2 million North Carolinians have suspended driver’s licenses.
However, the law allows the district attorney to “at any time petition the sentencing court for a remission or revocation of the fine or costs.”
The City of Durham, through its Durham Expunction & Restoration Program, created a model for mass debt relief through a collaboration involving the courts, the NC Justice Center, Legal Aid of North Carolina, the NC Equal Access to Justice Commission, the NC Pro Bono Resource Center, local law schools, and Code for Durham.
In Pitt County, as in Durham, the NCPBRC acquired data from the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts to identify the cases that met the criteria Dixon set. The cases that qualified for the program were heard by Judge Gwyn Hilburn in three court sessions held in April and May.
A remaining challenge to mass debt relief is notifying those affected that they are eligible. Because the average length of a driver’s license suspension in North Carolina is more than eight and a half years, the address on record with the court is often outdated. NCPBRC hopes to share more broadly the tools available on the ncfairchance.org website.
Volunteer attorneys will also draft driver’s license restoration advice letters for anyone requesting advice through the ncfairchance.org website.
About the NC Pro Bono Resource Center
The North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center (PBRC) was established by the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission in 2016 to assist lawyers in fulfilling their professional responsibility to provide pro bono legal services. The PBRC serves as the statewide clearinghouse linking lawyers to meaningful pro bono opportunities, including projects it develops with partners to address emerging civil legal needs. The PBRC also manages statewide pro bono reporting and recognizes outstanding pro bono service through the North Carolina Pro Bono Honor Society.