by Jon Guze
Senior Fellow, Legal Studies, John Locke Foundation
Most North Carolinians probably know that the “Regulators” were a group of Piedmont farmers who opposed the heavy-handed enforcement of taxes and fees by the colonial government in the years preceding the War of Independence. What they may not know, however, is that an issue that inspired one of the Regulators’ most infamous acts of rebellion continues to be an issue in North Carolina today.
In the 18th century, a farmer’s horse was essential to his livelihood, not to mention his ability to pay whatever he might owe in the way of taxes. It is understandable, therefore, that the Regulators became incensed when a local sheriff seized the horse of a farmer who had fallen behind with his taxes. According to historian Troy Kickler, “Approximately eighty Regulators searched for and seized the sheriff … took [him] to Hillsborough and made him sit backward on the mare while riding through town.” This and similar acts of defiance led to the Regulators’ violent suppression by the colonial administration and their eventual defeat in the Battle of Alamance in 1771.
Very few North Carolinians depend on horses for their livelihoods today, but most do depend on their ability drive a car. And yet, under current law, those who fall behind with the payment of court debt are often punished by having their driver’s licenses suspended. This is just as counterproductive as seizing a farmer’s horse. Losing the ability to drive makes it hard for the debtor to get or keep a job, and that, in turn, makes it much less likely that the debt will ever be paid.
Fortunately, North Carolinians today are governed, not by unresponsive colonial officers, but by elected representatives. Four members of the North Carolina House— Representatives Jason Saine (R-97), Ashton Wheeler Clemmons (D-57), Allen Chesser (R-25), and Joe John (D-40)—have introduced a bill to fix the problem. HB 888 (“An Act to Remove Barriers to Employment from Court Debt”) repeals or modifies existing statutes so as eliminate the suspension of drivers’ licenses for nonpayment of fines and other court debt. It also automatically reinstates licenses previously suspended under those statutes.
The John Locke Foundation supports this sensible proposal, and so does the National Taxpayers Union. From a recent NTU op-ed:
The act of suspending a person’s driver’s license for failure to pay a fine or appear in court greatly impairs their ability to remedy the initial cause for suspension. How can someone be expected to earn an income and pay off their fines or appear before a court if they do not have access to transportation? This problem is accentuated when one considers the reliance that many rural North Carolinians have on cars for transportation. …
It is also worth considering that North Carolina suffers from a major labor shortage, where “even if every unemployed worker was connected with an available job, there would still be nearly 160,000 open positions and no one to fill them.” …
Imposing obstacles to desperately needed employment like suspending driver’s licenses has only intensified this problem. The abolition of this ill-conceived practice will help rid North Carolina of one of the major obstacles many in the state have to finding work.