Feature: Local DEAR Program Helping Residents Restore Licenses

By Ruthie Kesri

The Durham Expunction And Restoration (DEAR) program provides free legal services to in-need Durham residents to file expunction petitions and restore suspended or revoked drivers’ licenses.

DEAR’s mission centers on ensuring all people have equal access to legal relief. The program has identified that having a criminal record or a suspended driver's license is a root cause of inequity, as those suffering from these issues are at a higher risk of struggling with job and home insecurity.

Thousands of Durham residents are negatively impacted by these issues, and many are unable to afford the legal representation necessary to help them expunge criminal records, restore drivers’ licenses, and obtain certificates of relief. Pro-bono assistance is only available to a few hundred residents each year, leaving many low-income residents to suffer disproportionate consequences when compared to wealthier counterparts. Indeed, many of these consequences disproportionately affect Durham’s Black and Latinx residents as well.

A collaboration between the Legal Aid of North Carolina and the North Carolina Justice Center, DEAR recognizes both the historical legal disenfranchisement of communities of color and the pressing need for a more just and equitable court system. What sets DEAR apart from other legal aid organizations is its application of a racial equity framework and employment of data-driven approaches to better target legal services to those who are eligible. Using novel approaches to address the institutional practices that have perpetuated inequity, DEAR is actively reimagining the criminal justice framework with an emphasis on giving people a second chance.

As of this article’s publication, DEAR has dismissed more than 51,000 traffic charges and remitted 6,500 unpaid traffic tickets that cause long-term drivers licence susperions. More than 35,600 people have been assisted, thanks to the dedicated effort of the DEAR team. The number of p​etitions for expungement filed in Durham County has increased ​from 338 in 2017 to 960 in 2019.

Q&A with Lauren Robbins, DEAR Paralegal:

How does work DEAR conducts help people? Have you noticed tangible change?

In regards to driver’s license restoration, we have been able to waive 2.5 million dollars in fines and fees for the citizens of Durham. And we have been able to assist multiple people with getting their driver's licence back. And for expunctions, we have been able to obtain expunctions for, I would say... 1,000 people at this point. And we’ve been able to help people obtain housing and job opportunities because ... their records have been expunged.

I would love to hear more about your experience working with people impacted by driver's license suspensions. What have you noticed about the suspensions' very real impact on individuals?

I handle all intakes. So everyone who comes through the DEAR program has to come through me first. So I see a lot of people; the majority of our clients are coming in asking for assistance with driver’s licence restoration because they were unable to pay a fine or a fee from 10+ years ago or 5+ years ago and that has hindered them to be able to make important doctor’s appointments, to get their kids back and forth from school, obtain and keep employment. It’s really difficult for a lot of people to be productive members of society if they don't have reliable transportation to get back and forth to handle their needs and to get back and forth to work ...

With people who are just trying to get back on the road so they can just handle their personal business and get back and forth to work.

Are there any impacts people might not think about or associate with driver’s license suspensions?

No one is able, no one is really trying to circumvent the responsibilities or the consequences for driving without a license. But a lot of people’s driver’s licences have been suspended because they are just unable to pay the fines and the fees, and the fees have increased year after year after year. So even people who are unable to pay the fines when it was initially given to them, or assessed to them, then three, four, five years down the line, it’s way more than it was in the beginning.

Public transportation is in Durham, obviously. But there are some places where public transportation does not go. I am from Morrisville. I used to live in Morrisville, and Morrisville does not have public transportation. So when I lived in Morrisville, if I was commuting into Durham, I would have to pay someone to take me. And that’s what a lot of people are facing, where they can’t afford the fines or the fees and they can’t pay an Uber to take them. I think that people really don’t understand the impact that it has on multiple levels, not being able to have your driver's license.

No one goes forever without paying their fines and fees if they can. Nobody wants to be without a driver’s licence. And a lot of our clients, a majority of our clients, come in and they say they don’t have access to a ride. It’s just, it’s bigger than just not having your drivers licence. It affects a lot more people than just the person who doesn’t have the license.

Is there anything else you would like to add that may have not been covered in this interview?

I think it’s very important that a lot of people in Durham county have received relief through our mass relief efforts, and they don’t know it. A big issue that we have run into is trying to get

the word out to people. I really want to be able to direct people to the second chance driving website, so they can put their information in and see if they have already received relief from the DEAR program and possibly be able to get their license back. (https://secondchancedriving.org​)

When you say that people might have already received relief from the DEAR program, what does that look like?

The first year of the DEAR program, we had mass relief. We were able to petition the District Attorney’s office to waive any fines or fees that clients were not able to pay, or to dismiss failure to appears. That’s where the $2.5 million comes from. It was a year-long effort, and we were able to help around 1,100 people get their fines and fees waived or get their failure-to-appears dismissed. These are not people that came in and applied to the program, these are not people that were referred to the program ... We just petitioned the courts on their behalf and they don’t know unless they call and say, “hey we heard about the program, is there something that you could do to help?” And then I’ll run their name through our database and say, “hey we already assisted with this ticket.” And a lot of the times we took care of the traffic tickets they needed to get taken care of before their license could get restored.

Q&A with Freida Watson, a DEAR client:

Would you mind speaking to your initial experience having your licence suspended?

This is a difficult question. There’s a lot of little things that go into it. I don’t know if you've ever gotten a ticket or had to go to Court for a ticket—

I haven’t had to go to Court. 

I’ve gone, and I remember this feeling — all Black people can tell you — of thinking: Where is everybody? Why does it look like everybody down here is Black or Brown?

And our licences were on line, you know. I thought that was, like, crazy. And I know the circumstances surrounding why I haven’t been there. I can tell you what the case was and what makes my story significant. My name is Freida... Sort of like free-love. I live in that spice. I’m mystically-oriented, metaphysically-inclined. I’m just in that space.

I’m in the park, you know. I’ve got two babies under two. It’s Friday the 13th, 2015, a November. My son’s going to be two soon and we were celebrating. I remember this day. I remember how great I felt… They [were] taking a nap, I was waiting on one of my mama’s to come out and I was just like.. [exhale], and, you know, it’s fall so the leaves are blowing. And I’m like “Oh God don’t wake these kids up.” I remember going back and forth to the car, and I’d swing by the car and go around and there was a park ranger. This guy asks to speak to me by my name. So he’s read my plates, looked me up, and decided, “well now today’s your day to go to jail.” Two kids under two in the car. He didn’t care about that. I wasn’t doing anything. I was just, like, chilling, waiting for my mama’s friend. So I call my doula (childbirth nurse) to help me. Marvin and Fred are still in the backseat. I’m in the crux of this whole thing and I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” And, I put my hands out, he handcuffs me, and I’m thinking “Oh my god, I’m going to have my licence suspended.”

My licence is suspended. I’m getting ready to go to jail. It was so embarrassing. But it was also like: What possessed you to run my plate? Come up to me by my name? I couldn’t believe it — I was going to jail. My partner was getting ready to leave right after my older son’s birthday, so I was grateful he was around. He was able to come get the kids. It was all early because we were doing stuff to prepare for the new job.

I was grateful it all worked out. I had to bail myself out, $500. I remember speaking about this to a group at Second Chance and another group that helps bail mama’s out of jail. You might have heard of them or seen them at the Courthouse. And so I supported that and shared that story of how often something like that changes things for folks who don’t necessarily have $500 to get out of jail. And on the weekend, they might miss a shift at work or not have anyone to look after their kids, and that tumbles down. I felt so fortunate then, to have $500 and just get out of [jail].

It was little stuff, not even like speeding tickets, like having two kids under two. I bought a brand new car, and it was little things like that. And so that’s what the situation was and why I wasn’t able to show up to court in Orange County. Orange County had the so-called warrant. And the park ranger, different county, so many variables. Those things are more prevalent, and people have even sillier stories than that and how it might impact them. But I knew I was there, you know, right on cuff so that I had my car. And my car was always a late model and I had this thing, and all these tickets to clear up. And I’m not sure how much it was worth, but it was an impediment for so many years. And it kinda went on until I was gonna make those changes, looking into other options, and one month I read about DEAR in the paper so I jumped on that and the folks were really great. I remember during the intake — and this is funny maybe if you could get the paperwork of something like that, it might be cute to see — the [DEAR office] asked me about the reason why I wanted to do this and my answer was, “peace of mind.” Because, like I said, you don’t have this at the forefront of your mind, but you always have it at the back of your mind. And you know it when you pass cop cars and just drop cortisol and it feels like you’re going belly-up. So, before it was like all these things were piling up. And afterward, well, it was like nothing. And you’re just grateful that it was almost nothing all the time. But for you it was something.

So how long did that period elapse from when you experienced having your drivers licence suspended to DEAR helping you? 

I want to say it was several years. I can’t remember exactly, but it wasn’t like a year or two. It was a few years. So I really just got [my driver’s licence] back... It was four or five years maybe.

Oh my goodness. So you discovered DEAR in the newspaper, you went in, and how exactly did they help you? Was it something related to the fines and fees?

The fines and fees were negotiated with the County. I’m a veteran, as well, and I have a fixed income. I fit within the income parameters — I’m not in complete destitution, but I did fit within the parameters. [DEAR] was able to sort those [fines and fees] out, and attorneys helped on their behalf. It was a wonderful intake process where there were volunteer attorneys and things like that. And I thought that was so nice. I think that’s what it’s all about: coming together to make a difference in a person’s life.

That’s amazing to hear. I know a lot of times we talk about actually helping people, and I think that’s something DEAR does really, really well. And it’s amazing to see the impact they’ve had on your life. So you said you just got your drivers licence back?

About a year ago, yes.

How does it feel?

It felt great. I actually didn’t pass my driver’s test the first time. And I had a Texas license plate that they had to convert too. Oh, and I got these backup cameras and stuff too now.

I got it back at the very beginning of 2020, just before everything [with the pandemic] happened.

I just want to say, I’m very glad you were able to get out of that situation. Because it’s incredibly difficult for anyone involved.

Something has to give, we know there is a systemic power behind all of this, and DEAR counterbalances that.

I was a homeowner, I had a nice car, and lived in a great neighborhood. But still, all day every day, was looking like this. It could happen to anyone.

Ruthie Kesri is an undergraduate student at Duke University working this semester with the Wilson Center for Science and Justice.