Fixing Our Broken Driving License Regime

North Carolina recognizes a privilege, not a right, to drive on its roads. This is true of most states, but in North Carolina the failure to be properly licensed can create significant hardships to the unsuspecting.

For instance, I’ve seen people walk into court and plead guilty to a single instance of a Driving While License Revoked, believing that the conviction is the equivalent of a mere traffic citation.

Unfortunately, a single DWLR conviction causes an automatic one-year suspension of a license. Subsequent DWLR convictions can result in longer suspensions, or even worse.

For some reason, Driving While License Revoked cases inspire a good deal of concern among prosecutors and judges that really is hard for me to understand. I am certainly not sympathetic to the person who is habitually coming to court, having failed to properly be licensed.

But in an era of budget cuts, and real violent crime, imprisoning someone – even someone who habitually flaunts the law – seems to me indulgent on behalf of the criminal justice system at best, and cruel at worst.

After all DWLR and related crimes are, by definition, victimless crimes. Yes, the “state” in all its majesty has been offended by a person’s failure to get licensed and obey the law. But these crimes are basically paperwork crimes.

In a world where driving were a right – and I certainly think it’s closer to a right than a privilege, given how important driving is to maintaining a job, a household, and caring for children – punishing someone for their failure to have the proper papers would seem odd. After all, we don’t punish people for their failure to carry a passport or a driver license as they walk down the streets. And nor should we.

This is a free country.

But more to the point: if North Carolina had a simple and inexpensive way to regain licensing, then punishing people for failure to do so would at least seem proportional to the crime. But North Carolina does not.

First, an old forgotten traffic ticket can create a revocation. While middle and upper-middle class people might wonder why someone doesn’t handle an old speeding ticket, the poor amongst us might realize that if the choice is between paying the rent, the phone bill, or for food, that choice is easy, and the old speeding ticket goes unpaid.

Second, the court system tacks on penalties. Not only does someone have to pay a $190 court cost, plus fines, the person may have to pay an additional $250 for a Failure to Comply or Failure to Appear fee.

In addition, the person then has to pay money to the DMV for the license reinstatement. These fees add up.

The key is this: we would want as many licensed and insured drivers on the road as possible. We shouldn’t try to throw up road blocks (so to speak) that prevent people from being law abiding.

Amnesty programs would be helpful as a quick and easy measure to re-license people. Cooperation among DA’s offices would also help, so that people who have multiple infractions or tickets in various counties can get them all resolved without paying repeated FTA, FTC, and court costs.

But the legislature needs to stop trying to balance the budget on the backs of criminal and traffic offenders. The criminal courts should be about stopping crime and punishing crimes, not budget reconciliation.

One way to save a ton of money in this process is to make the DWLR and NOL infractions, rather than criminal cases. And to end the practice of Voluntary Dismissals with Leave (VL) that place all the power in the prosecutor’s hands to avoid reinstating cases until a person pleads guilty.

If we want to encourage law abiding behavior, making it easy to be law abiding is the right way to go.

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.