Jail: The Punishment for Poverty

From Judge Marcia Morey, in The News & Observer:

For some judges, presiding over traffic infractions cases is like watching paint dry. Other than more serious offenses like driving while impaired, the seemingly never-ending line of exasperated drivers lament to the judge their bad luck at getting caught.

The “speeder” protests: “No way I was going that fast.” Drivers with unfastened seat belts claim: “That cop couldn’t have seen through my window.” And the driver with an expired tag or registration resigns aloud: “Oops.”

Judges appear to be like Walmart cashiers endlessly repeating, “That’ll be $25 fine and $180 cost of court. Have a nice day, next …” The courtroom atmosphere has a faint presence of “justice” and feels more like a Duke Power bill collection office.

One day, as I presided over traffic court, Walter Smith (not his real name, but an actual case) appeared in front of me charged with driving on a revoked license. 

His license was revoked because he failed to pay a speeding ticket in 2013. In North Carolina, failure to pay a court-ordered traffic fine will result in an automatic suspension of a driver’s license. After 20 days went by and he could not pay the $180 court costs and $50 fine, the Department of Motor Vehicles automatically revoked his license. 

On March 1, Mr. Smith now had two problems: His old unpaid ticket and his license suspension. Appearing in front of me, he requested a public defender. I told him, I could not appoint him one, since it was the lowest level misdemeanor and that two years ago, the General Assembly changed the law whereby people charged with Class 3 misdemeanors were not eligible for court-appointed lawyers. I understood his frustration, but explained that he had to either hire his own lawyer or represent himself.

“Your Honor,” he protested, “I got picked up while driving to the grocery store. I was taken to jail because I didn’t pay that old ticket and y’all yanked my license. I have heart disease and can’t work. Now do you really think I can afford to hire my own lawyer? I need some help here.”

Walter Smith was standing in front of me in desperation, and there was nothing I could do to help him with his plea. I said, “Sir, I am very sorry. I have to follow the law which does not allow me to appoint you and attorney.

In a nutshell:  Jail became the punishment for poverty.


Read the full commentary here.

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