WRAL Investigates

DA: Expired tags shouldn't be criminal offense

Posted March 3, 2010 5:30 p.m. EST
Updated March 3, 2010 6:53 p.m. EST

— 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.

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.