Orange County

Change will help Orange, Chatham drivers caught without a license

North Carolina Deptartment of Motor Vehicles officers operate a “Click It or Ticket” checkpoint in this 2002 file photo. A new policy in Orange and Chatham counties will allow people charged with driving without a license to get it dismissed if they have a clean criminal and driving record, and can meet other requirements.
North Carolina Deptartment of Motor Vehicles officers operate a “Click It or Ticket” checkpoint in this 2002 file photo. A new policy in Orange and Chatham counties will allow people charged with driving without a license to get it dismissed if they have a clean criminal and driving record, and can meet other requirements. ssharpe@newsobserver.com

The Orange-Chatham district attorney’s office is giving some drivers a second chance if they are caught without a license in the two counties.

The new policy responds to a state law that bars illegal and undocumented immigrants from getting a driver’s license. Advocates say many unlicensed immigrants risk driving to take their children to school, go to work or be involved in the community.

Getting caught can mean $238 in fines and court fees.

The policy helps a limited number of drivers keep an otherwise clean criminal and driving record, said Orange-Chatham District Attorney Jim Woodall, who drafted the policy with help from law enforcement and immigrant advocates.

The change lets them get the charge dismissed if they provide an ID and pay to take a safe driving class, a civics and law enforcement education class, and an elective course, such as a primer on family or immigration law.

Drivers must have insurance and a car that is registered. Those without or who have multiple or prior charges are not eligible.

“They’re good, responsible residents, they’re not in trouble, they’re working, but they’ve got this problem. They can’t get a driver’s license, there’s no way out of this for them,” Woodall said. “And we’re trying to get them some driver’s education, because virtually none of the people we’re talking about have ever been given any type of driver’s education.”

Orange County Justice United, a nonprofit advocacy group, noted that 7,541 drivers were cited in both counties for driving without a license in the last seven years. Roughly 77 percent were Hispanic, the group found. It’s unclear how many of those faced multiple charges, Woodall said.

But the change will resolve a frustration that judges, prosecutors and law enforcement have felt in trying to help drivers comply with the law, he said. It also builds trust with law enforcement, so immigrants who are victims or witness a crime can come forward with what they know without fear of deportation, he said.

Local law enforcement agencies support the new policy, officials said. A statement from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office noted that the policy does not prevent deputies from enforcing state law.

“I want to send a message to that community that you are a part of our community,” Woodall said. “You may be undocumented, but sometimes we need your help, sometimes you’re going to need our help, and I’m willing to try to do my part ... to promote some goodwill and trust here.”

But the policy only works if the person can be identified, he said. That likely will happen through the local Faith ID program, which gives ID cards to applicants who can prove their country of origin or provide an expired driver’s license, and offer proof of where they live.

The Faith ID is not a driver’s license or government-issued ID card. However, it is threatened by a bill filed by state Sen. Norman Sanderson, of Pamlico County. The bill, in part, would ban such “community IDs,” which Sanderson said mislead law enforcement about someone’s immigration status.

The move comes as the federal government considers withholding law enforcement grants from departments that don’t cooperate with immigration enforcement. While conservative groups have called Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Durham “sanctuary cities” – locales that protect people who are in the country illegally – none have policies that violate state or federal law.

It’s not the Republican Party’s first attempt to stop Faith ID programs, said House Rep. Graig Meyer, an Orange County Democrat who got a Faith ID to show solidarity with immigrants. A 2015 bill failed in its attempt to prevent government and law enforcement officials from accepting community-issued identification documents.

Meyer pointed out, however, that Republican lawmakers are among the biggest proponents of licensing to bolster public safety. A recently filed bill from House Rep. Harry Warren, a Rowan County Republican, would provide immigrants with limited driver’s licenses and ID cards.

Attorneys and others told him the people his office wants to help aren’t the focus of federal conversations, Woodall said.

“These are not criminals. These are average everyday citizens. They are not going to be deported through any policy that anybody’s talked about,” he said. “They’re going to be here for years and years. We have to work with them.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

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