ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. (WGHP) – If your drivers license has been revoked because you didn’t pay your fines and fees on time, you will be hearing soon from the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

NCDOT, in following up on a court settlement from earlier this month, said it would be reaching out to some 185,000 drivers in the next two months to tell them how they can have their licenses restored.

That information was revealed Monday in a release from the NCDOT that elaborates an agreement in the federal lawsuit Johnson v. Jessup, which involved motorists who had lost licenses because they failed to pay traffic fines and court costs in full within 40 days, as required by North Carolina statute. That settlement was approved on March 3 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in Winston-Salem.

NCDOT said in its release that drivers would receive a special notice to have the NCDOT lift those revocations, as long as the court in which they were sentenced agrees that their failure to pay the file wasn’t neglectful but based on an ability to meet the debt within the specified time frame.

NCDT created Form AOC-CR-415  that drivers can use to ask the court for relief. Until September, six months after the decision was announced, the NCDMV will mail copies of this template motion to drivers upon request, the release said.

(WGHP File Photo)

In accordance with the settlement agreement, the DMV also has adjusted the official notice it will send to drivers who might face revocation of their licenses under existing statute. Previously such drivers had been told only that there was a hard deadline to pay all fines and fees and that failure to meet that timetable would mean revocation.

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.

The written settlement agreement will be made available at www.ncdot.gov/dmv and at local NCDMV offices, and in the North Carolina Driver Handbook, the release said.

The release reinforced that the NCDMV also had agreed to help fund a North Carolina legal advocacy organization’s creation, monitoring and administration of a website where the public can access additional information and best practices on how to prevent or remove a license suspension for non-payment from their record. There also would be pro bono resources that may be able to provide representation to the public. The special and revised notices will reference the website for 18 months.

If you have a question about your options under the settlement and for preventing a pending revocation, you should visit www.resolvetrafficdebtNC.org.

About the settlement

“We expect this settlement will help mitigate the harms of the unnecessarily harsh and punitive practice of revoking people’s drivers’ licenses because they are not wealthy, a practice which has disproportionately affected people and communities of color,” ACLU of North Carolina attorney Michele Delgado said in a release when the settlement was approved. “People should know that there’s a process to request a court hearing and possible relief if they believe their driver’s licenses were wrongly revoked. The public should have clear information about their rights to a state court hearing regarding their ability to pay traffic-related fines and costs before their license is taken away from them.”

The DMV said at the time that it had offered to make improvements at the time the suit was filed but that it had been awaiting court proceedings before doing so.

“We have now settled this case nearly four years later with the same conditions the state offered not long after the lawsuit was originally filed,” DMV said in a release at the time. “The new notices will inform drivers that North Carolina General Statute 20-24.1 permits them to prevent the revocation of their license by filing with the sentencing court a motion for relief from fines and fees.

“NCDMV always looks for new ways to improve communications as we strive to provide outstanding customer service to all North Carolinians.”

Background on the suit

North Carolina 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.  The suit had 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.

Attorneys for the NC DMV had 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.