Driving While Poor

It wasn’t long into my career as an Assistant DA that I recognized the depressing reality that the court system places a disproportionate burden on low-income individuals.

Take revoked driver’s licenses. Most people assume that if your license is revoked it must be for impaired driving, speeding or reckless driving, but those actually account for a tiny fraction of Driving While License Revoked (DWLR) cases. The vast majority are revoked for financial reasons.

Here’s a pretty common scenario: John gets a ticket for a relatively minor offense, which may have little or nothing to do with driver safety, like an expired registration. He could get the case quickly dismissed and pay nothing if he gets the registration renewed before his court date, but he might not have the money for the taxes, inspection or registration fees. So the ticket goes unpaid and his license is revoked. John has to keep driving to provide for himself, his family and the mounting court fees. Eventually he gets charged with DWLR, he faces even more court fees, and the cycle continues. Lawyers working in the criminal courts often call this this the “DWLR spiral” or “Driving While Poor.” John would face four months in jail for just one count of DWLR and all he really did wrong was not having enough money to renew his tags.

I saw the above scenario repeat in our community and the inherent injustice was evident to me, so I took action. In 2009, I co-founded a pro bono project with the law schools at NCCU and UNC. We trained and supervised law students who provided free legal services to people in this situation. In 2011, I wrote about DWLR problems in The True Bill and then worked with state legislators from both parties to help craft legislation which removed some of the barriers to license restoration, though there is more work to be done. In 2016, I was also called to testify in federal court in the trial over our state’s voter ID law about how license revocation (i.e. loss of ID) disproportionately affected the poor and people of color. In 2019, I helped Orange County hire a full-time restoration attorney, the first position of its kind in North Carolina.

Drivers should have valid licenses for safe driving on our streets, but I believe license suspensions should be tied to dangerous driving, not poverty. I’ve made ending the criminalization of poverty a major part of my platform, and Driving While Poor is a prime example. Our community deserves a DA who not only talks about problems in our criminal justice system, but has a proven track record of taking action to improve it.

I appreciate your support to continue to address this issue and all of my campaign priorities as District Attorney.

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