Why is Durham dismissing hundreds of speeding tickets, with thousands more expected?

Deon Burton couldn’t afford to pay two speeding tickets 20 years ago. When he kept driving with a suspended license, he racked up more fines and then struggled to keep a job without reliable transportation.

On Monday, a Durham County judge dismissed the charges against Burton and hundreds of others who owed fines totaling $95,000.

“It’s a blessing,” said Burton, 40, a father of seven. “I’ve been looking for any kind of help financially to resolve this, but it’s just been so difficult.”

Satana Deberry, the new district attorney in Durham County, successfully asked a judge to erase fines and court costs for 559 traffic charges. Over the next year, she hopes fines for about 15,000 cases will be dismissed as part of an effort to improve opportunities for people who have been charged and convicted of crimes.

The initiative dates back to 2017, before Deberry was elected to office. Local government and nonprofits have come together to restore licenses for people who did not pay traffic fines and court fees.

Advocacy groups across the nation have been pushing for change to criminal justice policies, including fines and court fees that some say criminalize being poor.

The dismissals seek to make the community safer, Deberry said, by allowing people to drive legally.

“With their debts forgiven, these individuals can now get a driver’s license,” Deberry said. “They can get insurance. They can go to work and to school. “

The fines dismissed this week were between five and 25 years old. None of the cases included driving while intoxicated or similar charges.

Typical speeding tickets in North Carolina carry a fine between $10 and $50, but related court fees can push the cost upwards of $200.

The General Assembly typically dictates court fees and how most of the money is spent, according to the North Carolina Judicial Branch. A large share of paid fees goes to the state’s general fund, but portions are also distributed to various government agencies at the state and local level.

Deberry said the state isn’t losing money because most people would likely never pay the fines for old cases.

“Our research shows that anybody that hasn’t paid within two years is not going to pay,” she said in an interview.

In response to questions about whether the the N.C. Administrative Office of Courts is concerned about the mass dismissal of fines, spokeswoman Sharon Gladwell wrote in an email that the effort is being conducted by local officials “whose responsibility it is to administer justice in Durham County cases.”

State legislators raised court fees over the years and made it harder for people to get fees and fines waived, said Daniel Bowes, senior attorney with the nonprofit N.C. Justice Center, which has been helping with the Durham initiative. The general “court of justice” fee for anyone who is convicted has gone from $47 in 1995 to $147.50 now.

The Durham Police Department did not respond specifically to questions about whether they had concerns about the dismissals.

Police are “focused on curtailing violent criminal activity,” department spokesman Wil Glenn said, but officers will continue to enforce traffic rules.

“We conduct monthly speeding enforcement operations,” he said. “We are very concerned about speeding, and reckless and aggressive driving – and the overall safety of our community.”

Nearly 1.2 million people across North Carolina had their licenses suspended in 2017 for failing to pay fines or show up to court, according to the N.C. Pro Bono Resource Center and the N.C. Justice Center.

The centers are working with Durham officials as well as on initiatives in other counties to address criminal charges and fines that are preventing people from driving and finding housing and jobs.

The state can suspend a driver’s license for various reasons, but the cases dismissed in Durham Monday were those in which the defendant came to court but failed to pay the fines and fees.

District attorneys have the authority to ask that the money be remitted, but cases that involve someone who failed to appear in court on traffic citations require a more involved process, officials said.

Durham created an “innovation team” in the fall of 2017 after the city got a $1.2 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, which is funding teams across the country to use innovative practices to tackle community problems. The city chipped in another $400,000.

The team worked with former district attorney Roger Echols, who lost his re-election bid to Deberry last year, to improve upon a previous amnesty-like initiative.

Research showed that 46,000 people, or one in five adults in Durham County, had a suspended driver’s license in the fall of 2017. About 80 percent of those people were black or Hispanic, said Ryan Smith, director of the team.

The pilot program allowed people, who may be hesitant to come to the courthouse or unable to go during the day, to text or email their names and dates of birth so officials could explore whether they were eligible to have old fees or charges dismissed.

About 2,500 charges for about 500 people were eventually dismissed, Smith said. Fines were dismissed against another 80 people over the summer of 2018 after individuals attended legal clinics.

During the process, Smith said, the collaborators realized they weren’t reaching thousands of people who were eligible for help, and only 40 percent of those who applied were eligible.

With lessons learned, the team sought to streamline its efforts by using public records to seek dismissals for people who qualified. Meanwhile, the team and its partners were also working to provide other related legal services for free.

Eventually the team, along with partners, judges, the city and the county, worked together to create the Durham Expunction and Restoration Program, which recently opened an office on the sixth floor of the courthouse.

Having a central office makes it easier for people to have previous charges expunged or fines dismissed, Smith said. An online portal for those seeking relief from unpaid traffic tickets will come online next month.

The people whose fines were dismissed this week didn’t have to go to court — “by design,” Smith said, adding that it eliminates one barrier for defendants.

Deon Burton, however, did go to court. He had signed up for a court notification system, which sent him a reminder text message.

When he got there, he learned his traffic fines were being erased, and also the money he owed in court fees.

Not having a driver’s license has created so many challenges, Burton said, from not qualifying for jobs to not being able to get to the job if was hired. Two of his youngest children live in Virginia, he said, and it is hard to see them.

The last time Burton checked, he owed about $2,000, he said.

“I’ve tried to knock down some of my fines. But after a while, it is so overwhelming.”

Once Burton gets his license back, he said, working full time will be much easier.

“I will be the first one in line to try to get my license back,” he said. “It is a lot of neglect that you can’t kind of take care of because you don’t realize all the things you can’t take care of until you don’t have a license.”

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Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in Orange and Durham counties for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. She has worked for newspapers for more than 15 years. In 2017, the N.C. Press Association awarded her first place for beat feature reporting. The N.C. State Bar Association awarded her the 2018 Media & Law Award for Best Series.