Durham County program aims to dismiss traffic ticket fines

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Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry is continuing a program aimed at dismissing thousands of low-level traffic tickets.

Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry is continuing a program aimed at dismissing thousands of fines from low-level traffic tickets in an effort to restore driving privileges to members of the community.

"When they can't afford the fines and fees, they end up driving with their license suspended or not driving at all, which means they don't get the opportunity to really participate fully economically in our community. So if you can't drive, you can't go to work, you can't go to school," said Deberry, as she discussed the initiative which began under former District Attorney Roger Echols.

Deberry said her office dismissed about 500 fines connected to traffic tickets in January and identified about 15,000 additional cases they'd like to address by the end of 2019.

The program does not outright dismiss the original offense; however, the district attorney's office is dismissing fines and fees associated with the offense.

"Those 15,000 cases have already been adjudicated. That means sentence has been passed, fines and fees have been assessed, and for those 15,000 people, they've met all the other requirements for the judgment, except the fines and fees," Deberry said.

She pointed to statistics that showed people who did not pay traffic ticket fines from two years back likely never will, though the prospect of more severe punishment for driving on a suspended license continues to loom.

"They're in fear of if they go through a roadblock or if they get stopped, they're going to go to jail. They're going to lose the job that they had, they're subject to losing their housing," said Andrea Hudson, a community advocate who serves as the Director of the North Carolina Community Bail Fund of Durham.

Most of the cases Deberry's office is handling are at least five years old, though she noted some are as old as 30 years old. They are working alongside Durham Expunction and Restoration program, known as DEAR, to help identify those cases.

"Just because a person's poor, doesn't mean they need to be locked out of being on the road," explained Joseph Laizure, a staff attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina who works with DEAR.

Advocates believe the restoration of driving privileges can have a major impact in the community.

"To have work that suits their skill sets, not just work that they can walk to or work that's on the bus line, but it allows people to get out of poverty, have a regular paycheck," Laizure said.

Hudson added some people shied away from even applying to certain jobs since they didn't have a license, limiting their work opportunities.

She believes the program will enhance the relationship between community members and the judicial system.
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