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After the Bar

Public Service

Drivers License Restoration Project Helps Many Access Justice and Take Back Their Lives

Brandi Leigh Wicclair

Drivers License Restoration Project Helps Many Access Justice and Take Back Their Lives

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In North Carolina, 15 percent of all adult drivers have their licenses suspended due to unpaid debts from criminal proceedings or traffic tickets. Poverty, rather than the willful refusal to pay a court fee or appear in court, is a root cause of most suspended drivers’ licenses. Based on available statewide data, African American drivers’ suspension rates are four times higher than White, non-Hispanic drivers. Because of catastrophic racial disparities in driver’s license suspension, families of color face more severe consequences.

A revoked or suspended license perpetuates employment insecurity, leading to housing and food insecurity and other devastating outcomes that impact drivers and their families. And, the driver is not the only one harmed. Others lose out, too:

  • Children who can’t get rides from their parents have fewer after-school opportunities.
  • Retailers lose revenue when families earn less because of a lack of transportation.
  • People who can’t drive often lose their job, are underemployed, and can’t pay what they owe the court. They require more public benefits, placing an added burden on state resources.

Many people with a suspended license continue to drive out of desperation, risking further arrest, prosecution, and mounting debt. In 2018, in response to this problem, the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission, through its North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center, created the Driver’s License Restoration Project to assist clients with court debt remittance and license restoration.

We then found out about American Bar Endowment (ABE) Opportunity Grant Program. We applied, and in February 2020, we learned that we had received a grant. With those funds, we expanded the NC Fair Chance Website to a larger service area to help more North Carolinians get their drivers’ licenses back.

I want to share James Anderson’s story (his name has been changed to protect client confidentiality) about the impact of services he received from us.

James Anderson’s Story

In 2001, James Anderson was a 33-year-old, married father of two with a job sterilizing operating room instruments at Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro when his driver’s license was suspended for unpaid court fines and fees related to speeding tickets. “It was about five or six miles to work, and I had to feed my family at the time, and I couldn’t pay for my tickets then,” Anderson said.

Having to rely on rides to get to work in the days before ridesharing services existed, Anderson lost his hospital job because of absenteeism.

I wound up getting a divorce from my first wife, and I just couldn’t get it together because I couldn’t find a job, a steady job. I’d work here for a little bit, and then I’d lose a job because of transportation. I couldn’t take my kids anywhere. It was just hard for me to do anything.

After the pressure to work led him to drive on a suspended license, Anderson eventually owed the court thousands of dollars.

Fortunately, Anderson’s daughter (just 12 when he lost his license) encouraged him to attend a driver’s license restoration clinic hosted by our organization in his home county of Guilford. By the time he sought our help, his license had been suspended for 19 years.

With help from a pro bono attorney he met at the event, he has had his license reinstated and most of his court debt forgiven. “The program really helped me and wiped out all of them,” Anderson said. Being able to drive is vital to James because of his family. He is now remarried, and he and his wife have seven kids and five grandkids between them. He can now help with driving, giving his family more opportunities. To learn more about this program, visit When Debt Takes the Wheel (

Get Involved

We have learned that Opportunity Grants are made possible because of ABE insureds who participate in ABE-sponsored insurance programs and donate their dividends. We are grateful to those lawyers for their support. If you practice in North Carolina, we invite you to visit the North Carolina Pro Bono Resource Center to learn about volunteer opportunities. Many states now have programs designed to help those with fines and fees or returning to the community from prison restore driving and voting rights or obtain pardons and expungements. In many cases, the programs rely on pro bono attorneys to serve clients. Your state’s access to justice commission is a place to start to learn more about these programs and opportunities.