The all-too-common practice of squeezing money out of poor people with traffic fines and court fees is under legal scrutiny again, this time in North Carolina.
President Barack Obama’s administration investigated municipalities, such as Ferguson, Missouri, and shed light on a system of using the police and courts to raise revenue by targeting African Americans for traffic violations. When people can’t pay, the courts add fines on top of the original amount. Municipalities also allow local authorities to confiscate the debtor’s wages or property.
In the latest attempt to end that system, attorneys filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday against North Carolina’s practice of revoking the drivers’ licenses of people who can’t afford to pay their traffic fines and court costs, the Associated Press reported.
The law “disproportionately punishes impoverished residents,” the suit stated, “taking away crucial means of self-sufficiency and further pushing them into poverty.”
North Carolina authorities revoked the driver’s license of one plaintiff in the lawsuit because he couldn’t pay his original $228 fine. The other plaintiff lost her license over $648. Not having a license has made it difficult to get to their low-wage jobs, the plaintiffs’ said. The law, which ignores the ability to pay, is unconstitutional because it violates equal protection and due process. The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
Some municipalities go so far as to incarcerate people who fail to pay their traffic fines—leading to allegations of operating modern-day debtor’s jails. In 2016, several plaintiffs filed a historic class-action suit against 13 towns outside of St. Louis County, Missouri for operating a system that targeted Black motorists for traffic stops in a revenue-generating scheme. Some of the plaintiffs were put in jail for their inability to pay the fines.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration has taken steps to reverse the progress made under Obama. Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked 25 Justice Department guidance documents on a range of federal laws in December. One of them, from President Obama’s DOJ, called on courts to stop trapping poor people in cycles of fines, debt and jail.