WRAL Investigates

DA: Expired tags shouldn't be criminal offense

Posted March 3, 2010

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— Vehicle owners in North Carolina are required to renew their registrations each year, but the law is routinely flouted, and Wake County's top prosecutor says having an expired tag should not be a criminal offense.

About 8.3 million vehicles were registered in the state last year, but 935,878 – one out of every nine – weren't registered on time, even with the 15-day grace period the state Division of Motor Vehicles provides.

Vehicle registration sticker, license plate sticker Most charges for expired registration dismissed

Failure to renew a registration could cost drivers a $25 fine if they're pulled over with an expired sticker on their license plate. WRAL Investigates found, however, that such fines are rarely collected.

District courts statewide dismissed 174,110 of the 212,737 misdemeanor cases involving registration violations, according to statistics from the state Administrative Office of Courts. That means the state didn't collect more than $4.3 million in fines, as well as court costs.

Frequent offenders and those with longstanding violations often face fines, and arrest warrants can be issued for vehicle owners who don't show up in court to prove compliance. But judges usually weren't interested in pursuing the cases once drivers bring their registrations up to date.

"Is the fine a punishment, or is it a reward to have it waived because you finally got in compliance and came down and stood in line?" said Stephen Jones, who was pleased he wasn't fined in Wake County traffic court recently because he had gotten his papers in order.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said expired registrations, driver's licenses and inspections shouldn't even be handled in criminal court. The cases only tie up district attorneys, clerks and magistrates, he said.

"It just further clogs up the system over things I don't believe the public thinks are criminal," Willoughby said. "I feel like our job is to try to promote public safety, not be a collection agency."

Wake County Magistrate Dexter Williams said the cases could be pushed to an administrative setting, similar to how parking tickets are handled. Then, minus a criminal charge, tardy drivers could be required to pay a late fee, he said.

"We want them to come into compliance," Williams said.

Willoughby said he believes clearing minor offenses out of the system will speed up criminal courts statewide and relieve otherwise law-abiding citizens of the threat of a criminal charge.

"I think it would better serve the court system, and I think it would better serve the people," he said, adding that he hopes state lawmakers will consider the idea during the upcoming legislative session.


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  • sunneyone Mar 5, 2010

    anonemoose, okay, thank you. I misunderstood what the article said then. But it still saves money if it's not having to go to court at all.

  • sunneyone Mar 5, 2010

    Oh. My bad.

  • RPD07 Mar 4, 2010

    Uh, that would be Virginia that they are illegal...

  • sunneyone Mar 4, 2010

    I thought radar detectors were illegal in NC.

  • RPD07 Mar 4, 2010


    I don't care one bit if court costs are $1 or $1,000. I don't see a penny of it. I don't care if registration or license violations are infractions or misdemeanors. It will NOT change how I do my job. My job is to catch criminals. If that means I use speeding, tail lights, head lights, registration, stop sign, red light, tag light, failure to signal lane change, etc to get in to a car then that is what I use. Criminals travel in vehicles so the more vehicles I stop and the more people I can check, the better chance I have at getting a drunk, a wanted person, a drug dealer, a burglar, a robber or even someone who is about to commit a crime.

    Now, while my primary goal is to catch the "real" bad guys and prevent crime, I am also supposed to be making roads safe for the general public.

    A good day is one that I have no warrants to serve, no 911 calls to answer and I see no cars to pull over

  • anonemoose Mar 4, 2010

    Suunyone, the Judge isn't dismissing them, the DA is.

  • sunneyone Mar 4, 2010

    Vaulter, we wouldn't be in the hole. Didn't you read that judges routinely DROP the chargers if the "offender" comes to court with proof that their registration is up-to-date? He's actually trying to SAVE money by not having this junk go through the criminal system. It'll save time (time is money), paperwork (paper and ink are money) and clear up the court for REAL crimes.

  • genie2u Mar 4, 2010

    RPD is right, revenue has to come from somewhere

  • sunneyone Mar 4, 2010

    But then what would cops use as PC for their fishing expeditions???? /sarcasm

    Why can't they just add on a late fee in the computer system if your registration isn't paid by the due date like they do with property taxes?

  • Bendal1 Mar 4, 2010


    I'm not concerned at all about the red light cameras. They all have warning signs before the intersections and the cameras are well marked. Plus, since I know they have helped reduce collisions, I support their use as well.