WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) – A federal court on Tuesday is scheduled to consider the settlement of a suit that the could help protect drivers who have lost their licenses for non-payment of fines and fees.

The case is Johnson v. Jessup, a class action suit filed on behalf of motorists who lost licenses because they failed to pay traffic fines and court costs in full within 40 days, as required by North Carolina statute.

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina Chief Judge Thomas D. Schroeder is scheduled to hold a final hearing on what is described as “a proposed class action settlement” at 10 a.m.

U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina courthouse. (WGHP File Photo)

The Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice sued in May 2018 on behalf of Seti Johnson and Sharee Smoot under the 14th Amendment. In August 2019 an amended filing made this a class-action suit to represent all who were in similar circumstances.

Torre Jessup, then commissioner of the NCDMV, was named as the defendant. The suit cites the 1-page official notice that alerts defendants that their licenses are about to be revoked but, the suit alleges, doesn’t tell them all their rights.

The suit sought to have North Carolina’s law declared unconstitutional, to prevent NC DMV from revoking licenses without a hearing and without establishing options to repay the fines and fees and to require the DMV to restore any licenses that were revoked solely because fines and fees weren’t paid on time.

Johnson, described in court filings as a young, Black father of three, had lost his job and was unable to pay off his traffic ticket, which moved the DMV to revoke and suspend his license, which, his suit says, prevented him from driving to a job and taking his children to school and daycare.

Smoot, described as a Black mother, faced the same situation for two different violations, the suit alleges. She was forced to drive in violation of the law or to lose her job.

State law gives motorists 40 days to pay their fines and fees or revoke the license indefinitely. The suit said that law affected 436,000 drivers just in the fall of 2017. Plaintiffs argued that the law unfairly targeted people living in poverty, citing the 15% of North Carolinians living below the poverty line at the time of the filing.

Attorneys for the NC DMV argued that the 11th Amendment of the Constitution precluded the federal court from hearing the suit, saying it was a state matter, that the “fundamental fairness” doctrine does not apply.