A Shell Game: The Class 3 DWLR misdemeanor

I was interviewed last week by a reporter from the North Carolina Lawyer’s Weekly about the North Carolina General Assembly’s 2013 budget which has quietly re-classified various misdemeanor crimes – largely traffic crimes – from Class 1 misdemeanors to Class 3 misdemeanors.

Chief among them was Driving While License Revoked. DWLR is a fairly common charge in North Carolina, and occurs when someone is caught driving while their license is suspended on revoked. There are a few aspects to a DWLR as it existed under current law – prior to the 2013 change.

A DWLR is a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by up to 120 days in jail. While it may seem harsh, some judges will sentence a defendant to active jail time for failure to have a valid license while driving. (It is rare for someone to get 120 days, however.) This is particularly true where a person is convicted of a DWLR after having been suspended for a Driving While Impaired offense, and in those circumstances, while I don’t agree with an active sentence, I can see the logic behind a judge wanting to ensure the person who was convicted of a DWI does not drive further until properly licensed.

But in a garden variety DWLR case, a person last lost his license because he has failed to take care of some other minor traffic offense in either Wake County or another county or state. The failure to resolve a traffic offense, even an infraction, and to fully pay the costs and fines, will result in a suspension of the persons’s lesson.

For people with money, this can be merely an inconvenience, even if it’s sometimes expensive to resolve. But for people who are not wealthy – for the working poor, college kids, single moms, etc. – the failure to take care of an underlying offense, will trigger a suspension that can be cost-prohibitive to ultimately resolve. Paying for food for the kids is more important than paying fines and costs to a court. I’ve written elsewhere about the Toilet Bowl Effect of DWLR leading to permanent revocation of a license.

So a DWLR conviction will have criminal consequences, and also effects on a person’s license, making it more difficult for them to ultimately get a valid license.

The new law that changes a DWLR from a class 1 to class 3 misdemeanor does nothing to resolve the licensing issue. It merely reduces the criminal penalties associated with a DWLR. Since the vast majority of people were never given a jail punishment, this will have very little practical effect on the day-to-day lives of people convicted of DWLR.

Why, then, did the legislature change the law? The NCGA has been looking for ways to reduce the cost of the criminal system, particularly by reducing the money available to criminal defendants.

The result is an underfunded Indigent Defense Service and the move to a contract-based court appointment system that underfunds the provision of private attorneys who agree to accept criminal cases.

Because Level 1 and 2 Class 3 misdemeanants (people with little or no criminal record) are not eligible for jail time under Structured Sentencing, the General Assembly argues that those people will not be permitted court appointed lawyers if they can’t afford to hire their own. Hence, the savings.

It’s a cheap – I mean that in the negative way – of solving what is a complex problem, without affording the defendant any relief when it comes to recovering a valid license.

As I told the reporter from the Lawyer’s Weekly, the policy of North Carolina should be in favor of drivers who have valid licenses, and who are insured.

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Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.