Politics & Government

NC House panel backs jail time for driving without a license

Rep. Chris Millis, left, a Pender County Republican, won support from the House Appropriations Committee Wednesday for his bill to increase penalties for people who drive without a license and aren’t legally eligible for one.
Rep. Chris Millis, left, a Pender County Republican, won support from the House Appropriations Committee Wednesday for his bill to increase penalties for people who drive without a license and aren’t legally eligible for one. rwillett@newsobserver.com

An N.C. House bill would toughen penalties for driving without a license and add the threat of jail time – a move critics say is targeted at immigrants in the state illegally.

The bill passed the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday morning, mostly along party lines. The penalties would only become harsher for drivers who don’t meet the state’s legal requirements for a license, such as having a valid Social Security number. Those drivers could face jail time starting with their third offense, and their vehicles could be seized by law enforcement.

Rep. Chris Millis, a Pender County Republican and the bill’s sponsor, said the current law is too lax and lets drivers off the hook repeatedly if they pay a small fine.

“What we currently have may be alarming, and this bill is greatly needed,” he said. “On behalf of public safety, we need to make sure our laws are a deterrent. There is no incentive whatsoever to even get a driver’s license.”

Democrats said the proposal is unfair because it would treat drivers differently for the same infraction. “To me that sets up two classes of punishment for the same type of offense,” said Rep. Darren Jackson, a Knightdale Democrat. “I can’t believe that’s constitutional.”

No legislators mentioned immigrants during Tuesday’s committee debate. But it’s clear that drivers who aren’t in the country legally – and therefore don’t meet the state’s license requirements – would be affected by the increased penalties. And at least one group that advocates against illegal immigration is lobbying for the bill.

North Carolinians For Immigration Reform and Enforcement, or NCFIRE, called on its members to contact their legislators.

“We think it could absolutely cut down on the instances of illegal aliens who are driving without a license, who are drunk driving without a license,” said the group’s president, James Johnson. “We think it would have a dramatic effect of decreasing those numbers. The bill is designed for everyone, but there seems to be an inordinate amount of driving without a license and drunk driving without a license by the illegal community.”

The liberal N.C. Justice Center argues that public safety concerns could be better addressed by allowing immigrants to receive driver’s licenses.

“This bill is concerning to us,” said Dani Moore, director of the center’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “The legislature should consider ways for all drivers in North Carolina to get licenses.”

A bill that allows immigrants here illegally to seek licenses passed the House Judiciary I Committee in April, but it stalled in the Finance Committee and hasn’t received a hearing. Applicants would need to have records clean of criminal violations and pass a written and road test conducted by the state Division of Motor Vehicles.

The ID card, which would note the lack of legal status, could not be used to vote, board a plane, enter a federal building or obtain public assistance. That proposal, from Republican Rep. Harry Warren of Salisbury, is the latest effort to settle the debate over whether immigrants here illegally should have driving privileges.

Millis’ bill – expected to get a vote on the House floor next week – appears to go the opposite direction.

“This puts driving safety in North Carolina in reverse, if you’ll pardon the pun,” said Rep. Susan Fisher, an Asheville Democrat. “I would much rather see the committee look at ways to get driver’s ed to people instead of punishing people who don’t have it.”

Opponents also raised concerns that the court system and county jails will have to spend more to enforce a tougher unlicensed driving law. The legislature’s nonpartisan research staff estimates each conviction could cost the state up to $361 in court costs, public defender services and probation.

The report doesn’t estimate a statewide cost because conviction data wasn’t available. It also doesn’t project the costs of jailing offenders.

“I believe this bill is going to be several million dollars, and I don’t think there’s any way around that,” said Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat. “This is a really expensive bill, and the benefits we’re going to get out of it don’t match up.”

Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican, dismissed Glazier’s concerns. “It sounds like he’s promoting people going against the rule of law,” Torbett said. “For the betterment of all citizens, we need to be promoting people to following the law.”

Driving without a license

Current penalties: All drivers – regardless of whether they’re eligible for a license – face a Class 3 misdemeanor charge, which carries a maximum fine of $200. Judges can only impose additional penalties if the driver is facing a fifth conviction within a single year.

Proposed penalty for drivers eligible for a license: No change

Proposed penalty for drivers – such as immigrants here illegally – who aren’t eligible for a license: A $400 fine on the second and each subsequent offense, plus the possibility of a 20- to 60-day jail term for the third or subsequent offense. On the third or subsequent offense, the driver’s vehicle could be seized.