Johnson, et al. v. Jessup

Plaintiffs allege that the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles automatically revokes the drivers’ licenses of people who do not pay their traffic tickets in full within forty days. Drivers must pay the complete amount regardless of their ability to pay within 60 days of receiving the notice of revocation. According to the complaint, 91% of the residents travel to work by car in North Carolina and a driver’s license is a common requirement for employment. In many instances, drivers choose between losing their job or driving with a revoked license. Plaintiffs contend that suspending driver’s licenses without first conducting an ability to pay hearing violates both procedural and substantive due process, as well as equal protection.  They further allege that North Carolina’s failure to provide adequate notice of the driver’s license suspensions also violates procedural due process.


Before the District Court was Defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings, Plaintiffs motion for class certification and Plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction. The Court granted in part and denied in part the motion for judgment on the pleadings. First, the Court found that it had subject matter jurisdiction and rejected Defendants’ arguments that the Eleventh Amendment bars Plaintiffs’ claims. Turning to the merits, the Court found that because no fundamental right or interest is implicated by wealth-based license suspensions, the fundamental fairness doctrine did not apply. As such, rational basis review was the appropriate test, and the law at issue was rationally related to the legitimate state interest of providing some traffic defendants with an incentive to pay fines and costs. For these reasons, the court granted Defendant’s motion for judgment on the pleadings as to the equal protection and substantive due process claim; that claim was dismissed with prejudice. Given that Defendant did not present an argument for judgment on the pleadings on Plaintiffs’ procedural due process claims, those claims survived.

The court granted the motion for class certification, but denied the motion for a preliminary injunction. Plaintiffs’ claimed that the hearing procedure contained within the law was insufficient because it required traffic defendants to move for a hearing, rather than affirmatively mandating a pre-revocation hearing in every case. In proceeding to the Mathews balancing test, the court first recognized the importance of a driver’s license, but found that it did serve to overcome Fourth Circuit precedent (Tomai-Minogue v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 770 F.2d 1228, 1235 (4th Cir. 1985) (citing Dixon, 431 U.S. at 113)), which holds that the private interest in driver’s licenses is insufficient to mandate a pre-revocation evidentiary hearing. It then noted that the law’s mandate that traffic defendants be provided a hearing within a reasonable time of moving for one substantially alleviated the risk of erroneous deprivations under the statute. The court further determined that the government interest at stake, coupled with the law’s mitigation of the risk of erroneous deprivations by providing an ability-to-pay hearing within a reasonable time upon request counselled against a finding that North Carolina must provide additional process. Finally, the court found that while the Official Notice sent to traffic defendants failed to include notification of the law’s ability-to-pay and hearing provisions, it was not so misleading as to render the notice inadequate. Because Plaintiffs failed to show they were likely to succeed on either of their remaining procedural due process claims, the motion for a preliminary injunction was denied.

On April 23, 2019, the court stayed the action, pending a decision on Plaintiffs’ appeal, contesting the grant of the judgment on the pleadings and denial of the preliminary injunction, before the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

You can find a detailed summary and relevant documents via the ACLU.

42 U.S.C. § 1983 (alleging due process and equal protection violations)
May 2018
Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU National, ACLU of North Carolina, Southern Coalition for Social Justice