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Driving While License Revoked

Prior to December 1, 2013, Driving While License Revoked (or DWLR) was a Class 1 Misdemeanor, punishable by up to 120 days in jail.  Last year, the law was changed.  Under the new law, most DWLR offenses are reduced to a Class 3 misdemeanor that is NOT punishable with jail time.  If the defendant has three or fewer prior convictions, the judge can only sentence them to pay court costs and a fine.  The powers that be did create a new DWLR crime that is a Class 1 Misdemeanor, punishable by jail time, if the defendant’s license “was originally revoked for an impaired driving revocation.” 

In reducing penalties, has the General Assembly gone soft on crime?  No.  Have they finally realized that DWLR disproportionately affects the poor and working class and decided to take the threat of jail time away? No.  In fact, quite the opposite.  But first, a little background on DWLR.

 

How Does Someone’s License Get Revoked?

Revocation can happen a number of ways.  Felony death by motor vehicle, DWI’s, and failing to pay child support all come to mind.  However, the typical DWLR client is revoked for financial reasons.   In eight years of representing DWLR defendants, I can say most of those client’s revocations can be traced back to either a missed court date or not being able to pay their court costs.  DMV has, and continues to have, the authority to suspend licenses for Failure to Appear or Failure to Comply.

 

Failing to Appear

Yes, everyone should go to court when ordered to do so.  However, it can be very difficult to get to downtown Raleigh without a license or a car.  It’s increasingly difficult when you work a job that doesn’t offer scheduling flexibility.  Add to that, if you aren’t willing to plead guilty to the charge, you will likely need to return to court several times.  Who faces this problem the most? Those who can’t afford to hire an attorney, those that work multiple low end jobs to try and get by, those that cannot afford an attorney and should have one appointed to them.

Failing to Comply

Court Costs are currently $188 for an infraction in North Carolina.  That is more than 25 hours, pretax, at a minimum wage job.  Again, those that can afford an attorney usually do not have a problem paying their Court Costs, but those on the lower end of the economic scale often struggle to cover the costs.

 

What happens when someone fails to appear or comply?

After a period of time, the Court will tack on additional fines and notify DMV.  DMV will send a letter saying your license will be revoked if you don’t resolve it in 60 days.  Again, the people that face this are typically those that couldn’t afford to hire an attorney, couldn’t afford to take off work, or couldn’t afford to pay their costs.  Hitting them with an extra fine (currently $200 for FTA, $50 for FTC) only makes it less likely they will be able to fix the issue.

 

“You have the right to an attorney, if you cannot afford one, one will be appointed to you”

The landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) guarantees all defendants, regardless of their ability to pay, the right to an attorney.  However, that right is generally limited to times when the Defendant faces the threat of jail time.  By removing the threat of jail time for anyone who wasn’t originally revoked for an impaired driving revocation, the State no longer has to provide a Public Defender or Court Appointed Attorney to people charged with DWLR, unless they have more than three priors.

 

Now, back to why the law was changed.  The move was blatantly designed to save money on Indigent Defense Services (the court-appointed system) and it likely has reduced the workload of some Public Defender Offices.  At least in Wake County, the dockets are heavy with DWLRs.  I would imagine cases get resolved quicker once someone is told they aren’t going to be given a lawyer, but they don’t have to worry about going to jail.  However, in our experience, people were rarely sentenced to jail for a first, second or third DWLR.  The main punishment comes not from the courts, but from DMV.  A first conviction of DWLR will revoke your license for one year, a second for two years, and a third conviction will permanently suspend your privilege to drive.  Even if the charge is reduced, suspensions will come for a conviction of any moving violation committed while the license was revoked.

Without a change to DMV’s automatic suspensions, defendants who resolve a DWLR on their own are almost certainly going to find themselves suspended even longer.  When people are forced to decide between breaking the law driving to work, or getting fired for not showing, most will drive themselves.  This increases the chances they are caught, charged again, thrown into the system without an attorney, and revoked even longer.  Once they accumulate a few convictions, they will face jail time and be given an attorney.  At that point, the Defendant won’t be worried about their license, but will simply be trying to stay out of jail.  The dockets will still be clogged with DWLR’s because more of the population remain revoked and the courts will have to appoint attorneys.  The short-sightedness of the General Assembly may save a few dollars on lawyers initially, but will end up costing substantially more by denying indigent defendants the help that can keep them from a lifetime of motor vehicle charges.

 

If your license is currently revoked, or you have a Driving While Revoked charge, know that you won’t be given a court-appointed attorney and what happens if you plead guilty.  Contact us today.  We have the experience to help get you back on the road and keep your license.

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