WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.  (WGHP) – A federal judge finally has signed off on a court settlement involving the N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles in a class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of drivers who lost their licenses because they didn’t pay fines in a timely basis.

The case is 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.

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina Chief Judge Thomas D. Schroeder heard a settlement agreement last week and today approved those terms, which both sides had said they thought would be automatic.

This settlement requires the N.C. DMV to send a special notice to tens of thousands of drivers about how they can request a court hearing to determine if revocation of their driver’s licenses was the result of an inability to pay fines and fees and if they may be eligible for an adjustment in these costs and reinstatement of their licenses, a release from the American Civil Liberties Union stated.

Federal courthouse in Winston-Salem. (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.

“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 the release. “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.”

Later on Thursday, the DMV issued a statement about the settlement, citing an earlier ruling by a federal court that the DMV’s notification system was sufficient “and not misleading.”

“However, not long after the lawsuit was filed in May 2018, the state offered to make improvements to the notice, but that offer was rejected by the plaintiffs. The state opted not to make changes to the notice at that time because it was uncertain how the legal case would be resolved,” the statement said.

“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.

“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.”

In addition to the special notice, the DMV will be required:

  • To include in future notices specific information about how a driver can petition and show to the court an inability to pay a traffic-related fine or before receiving a revocation notice.
  • To fund an informational website to be created and administered by the North Carolina Justice Center that will include videos, written explanations and other materials on how to prevent loss of license because of non-payment. This site would include pro bono legal resources for those who need them.
  • To reference this website in the special and newly revised notices for 18 months and to include this information on the DMV’s website and in its various offices across the state.

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.

“Today’s settlement brings the state one step closer to affording these North Carolinians their due process under the law and blunting a punitive system that disproportionately impacts people of color, driving more of our neighbors into needless cycles of debt,” Jeff Loperfido, senior voting rights counsel for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said in the release.