In North Carolina, 1.25 million people – one in seven adults – has a suspended driver license. That alone is a massive public problem. After all, driving is “a virtual necessity for most Americans,” as the U.S. Supreme Court has noted, and there are few communities where a resident can get to work, school, or everyday errands without a car.
But what is even more troubling is that many of these people may not know it.
North Carolina is one of 44 states that suspends drivers’ licenses for non-driving related reasons, such as failure to pay a traffic ticket or appear in court. Last year we published a study that establishes how license suspensions in the state disproportionately affect residents based on race and poverty level, and called for an end to automatic suspensions.
Recently, we conducted a follow-up study to find out how suspensions impact people’s lives by mailing surveys to 300 randomly selected people in Wake County whose licenses had been suspended in the past two years. We used the same addresses that the Department of Motor Vehicles uses to send license suspension notices.
We found that a large number of the addresses on file were inaccurate – more than one-third of the mail surveys were returned. Of those 107 returned envelopes, 32 had an “insufficient” address; 22 were not deliverable as addressed; 15 were returned with no known forwarding address; 11 were unclaimed; eight were returned for nonexistent street or street number; and the rest were returned for similar reasons.
This suggests that large numbers of North Carolina drivers never receive actual notice of either their court date or the consequences for non-appearance. Indeed, only eight people responded to the survey – and some told us they did not know their licenses were suspended.
Because many of these people may have no idea the state suspended their license, they may suffer severe consequences if they are later stopped for any reason and found to be driving with a revoked license.
This raises due process questions regarding the state taking action against liberty and property without giving adequate notice. But a recent federal lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s license suspension law illustrates a catch-22: While the judge struck down the due process claim, in part because the state offers the opportunity for a post-revocation hearing, he failed to consider that a person can request such a hearing only after receiving notice of the revocation. And our survey results indicate that many do not.
It is true that individuals have a statutory obligation to update their address with the DMV within 60 days of a change in address. But low-income individuals disparately affected by suspensions tend to be more likely to move frequently because their housing is less stable; indeed, court debt contributes to the cycle of poverty that can lead to eviction. And many people may not even be aware that failing to pay court fees carries such dire consequences as losing one’s license or being charged with a crime.
Increasingly, litigation, legislation, and policy efforts have focused on changing automatic license suspensions and states are beginning to drop them: Virginia and Texas recently passed laws curtailing such programs, and a bill that would end the practice in Florida was filed this week with bipartisan support. A similar solution is needed in North Carolina where, absent a legislative fix, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley has proposed bringing license restoration and expungement clinics into places of worship.
At a minimum, the state should reconsider imposing serious consequences for driving with a revoked license when a person has not received notice that it was suspended. More broadly, we need better ways to ensure people actually know about important court dates and consequences; North Carolina enacted a text-based notification system in fall 2018, but few people are currently using it.
Rather than depend on unreliable mass mailings, North Carolina should rethink – and replace – these automatic and inaccurate systems. This would prevent vast numbers of people from being punished through the issuing of warrants, the imposition of large fines, the removal of driver’s licenses, even the arresting and jailing of individuals – counterproductive measures that hinder people’s ability to be contributing members of society.
Brandon L. Garrett is the L. Neil Williams Professor of Law at Duke Law and the director of the Duke Center for Science and Justice. William Crozier and Karima Modjadidi are post-doctoral fellows at Duke Law and the Duke Center for Science and Justice.