2021 Driving Injustice: Consequences and Disparities in North Carolina Legal and Traffic Debt


North Carolina’s criminal debt load is well over $100 million, with over 650,000 people with unpaid criminal court debt.

An increase in fines, fees, and license suspension for traffic tickets, infractions, and misdemeanors has created a vicious cycle of court debt. People who do not pay their debt within months are unlikely to do so, and many of the current suspensions in North Carolina are at least five years old. As a result, court debt has long-lasting effects on North Carolinians, including loss of employment, housing, public assistance, and voting rights. In addition, the harms from court debt disproportionately impact people of color and low-income individuals. This report examines individual-level traffic case data from the late 1980s to January 2021 provided by the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), and survey results from North Carolinians about the impact of having a suspended license.  The report also includes two short interviews discussing the work of the Durham Expunction and Restoration Program program to restore suspended or revoked driver’s licenses.

You can read the full text here.

Key Findings:

  • North Carolina’s criminal debt load is well over $100 million, with over 650,000 people with unpaid criminal court debt.
  • Over 1.2 million people in North Carolina have active suspensions for failure to comply (failure to pay court costs in a criminal case) and failure to appear.
  • Failure to comply with debt from traffic offenses is the most common reason for driver’s license suspensions.
  • North Carolina is one of 33 states that requires suspension of driver’s licenses for non-driving-related reasons.
  • Black people and other people of color are twice as likely to have their license suspended than white people.
  • 28.5 percent of people surveyed reported they were evicted as a result of the suspension of their license.
  • North Carolinians who make over $50,000 per year are 46 percent less likely to have a suspension than those who make less.


  • End the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses indefinitely for nondriving-related offenses, including failure to pay and appear in court.
  • Require an ability to pay assessment for all individuals and explicitly give judges the power to waive or reduce fines and fees based on an individual’s inability to pay.
  • Presume indigency for individuals eligible for a public defender, receive public assistance, have a household income that does not exceed 200% of the federal poverty guidelines, are homeless, or are mandated to a correctional institution or treatment facility.
  • Adopt a system for debt relief from criminal legal debt and driver’s license suspensions.
Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law