Drivers in Ohio can lose their license for actions that have nothing to do with driving.
Failing to pay child support. Dropping out of high school. Getting caught smoking as a juvenile. Skipping a court date or failing to pay fines on misdemeanor charges.
And if drivers are among the 5,400 randomly selected each week to get a letter in the mail asking for proof of insurance, they better respond to it or their license will be suspended.
These are just a few of the 32 types of driver’s license suspensions in Ohio, which also takes away licenses for a variety of driving-related offenses, including driving without insurance, operating a vehicle under the influence or getting too many traffic tickets.
The driver license suspension laws were enacted over the years to make roads safer, punish people for infractions, push them to pay child support or court obligations and to fund court and state operations.
But they have a downside, according to a growing number of lawmakers who are seeking to change Ohio’s strict license suspension and reinstatement fee laws. With so many people unable to drive and facing fees and fines they have no means to pay, there is a ripple effect on single mothers trying to collect child support, businesses needing employees with transportation and the economy in general, which operates best with a full workforce.
“It defies logic that you would take away their means of getting to work so they can earn money to pay their child support or their court fines,” said Rep. Jim Butler, R-Oakwood.
1.1 million suspensions
Last year, 1.1 million Ohioans had their driver’s license suspended for one or more reasons — nearly 12 percent of those old enough to drive in the state. More than 466,000 were in the nine-county Dayton region, according to the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
Even after serving jail time and paying all fines and penalties for the offense that led to the suspension, many people still do not get their license back. Restoration of full driving privileges requires payment of a reinstatement fee that can balloon into the hundreds or thousands of dollars for the multiple suspensions a person can accumulate under Ohio law.
“I don’t know if the public realizes how big of a costly hole that people get into,” said Sen. Bob Hackett, R-London. “The only way to get them out of the hole is to keep their job and not lose their transportation.”
The average suspensions per driver last year was 2.96, according to the BMV. All but three types of suspensions come with a reinstatement fee, ranging from $40 to $650.
“It strikes me that there is something inherently wrong with a system that allows reinstatement fees to pile up,” said retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer, who now is executive director of the Ohio Judicial Conference.
“There should be one (fee) and it should not be beyond the reach of a minimum wage person,” Pfeifer said. “Traffic violations are funding all kinds of court functions that should be funded by the General Assembly.”
The largest number of license suspensions in 2016 — 1.25 million — was for failure to provide proof of vehicle insurance. The second largest number — 484,072 — was for people charged with misdemeanors who failed to appear in court or to pay fines. Ranking third were OVI suspensions, which totaled 328,493, according to the BMV data.
The reinstatement fee brought in nearly $22 million last year to the Department of Public Safety, deputy registrars and other state offices, according to BMV spokeswoman Lindsey Bohrer.
Currently people who owe nothing but reinstatement fees can get limited driving privileges by setting up a payment plan of at least $50 a month for up to five years, said Mark Owens, Dayton Municipal Court Clerk.
But he said that still may not be affordable for some people, especially if they owe thousands of dollars. And unlike court fines and fees, which can sometimes be worked off through community service, the license reinstatement fee must be paid before full driving privileges are restored, Owens said.
Some people choose to drive anyway, get caught and wind up with another license suspension with more fines and fees.
“It’s just kind of a vicious circle,” said Heather Layne, team leader at Dayton Municipal Traffic Court. “It’s a snowball effect. It just builds up and builds up.”
‘A lot of them can’t get jobs’
Randall Smith says 90 percent of the calls he gets are for license suspension issues.
“The whole thing is discriminatory against low-income people,” said Smith, who directs the legal clinic serving low-income clients at the Miami Valley Community Action Partnership. “A lot of them can’t get jobs because the jobs are either beyond the bus route or require a valid drivers license. Some of them haven’t had a license in 10 or 15 years.”
For some people, said Smith, the only way to eliminate their reinstatement fee debt is to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Gary Freeman, 53, of Riverside, hasn’t had a driver’s license since the mid-1990s. He lost it when he was caught driving without insurance, then he was caught repeatedly driving without a license, had two or three driving under the influence cases and some other traffic offenses.
Freeman said his legal troubles have been over for more than 15 years and he’s paid all his fines and penalties. But he makes just $10 an hour painting houses and can’t afford the nearly $3,000 he said it would cost to reinstate his license.
One boss picks him up and drives him to work; he relies on friends and family to go to medical appointments or the store. But Freeman said he wants to work more hours and he would if he could drive.
“Me not having a driver’s license, that really puts a hurting on me,” Freeman said. “Sometimes there’s other people that’s got work for me, but they’re not going to pick me up. You can’t blame them there.”
At least three bills related to license suspensions are pending in the Ohio legislature.
Butler and State Rep. Emilia Sykes, D-Akron, introduced HB 260, which would automatically allow limited driving privileges to necessary places for people whose driver’s licenses are suspended for issues unrelated to driving or using a vehicle for criminal purposes.
The people would still have to pay court obligations and license reinstatement fees to get full privileges, but would be able to drive to work, school, court, medical facilities, take children to child care and go other places allowed by the court. Butler’s bill would be retroactive and could lead to some people remaining permanently on a srestricted driving license, he said.
“Our criminal justice system needs to stop using a total license suspension as an arbitrary punishment,” Butler said in his sponsor testimony on the bill in September. “Our system should only fully suspend or revoke a person’s driver’s license if they are truly a danger behind the wheel, or if they are using vehicles for criminal purposes.”
He plans to amend the bill to make sure that people whose licenses are suspended outside of court by the BMV for non-payment of child support can also be allowed to have temporary driving privileges.
“I think its reasonable to try to work with people and not be so punitive,” said House Minority Leader Fred Strahorn, D-Dayton, who said he likes the premise of Butler’s bill.
Ohio Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, is the only Republican co-sponsor of SB 160, which would permit judges to impose community service in lieu of paying reinstatement fees.
“There’s this permanent underclass that we’ve created,” Huffman said. “If you’re $4,000 or $5,000 down and that’s what it takes to get your driver’s license, you just don’t do it.”
The bill was introduced by Sen. Sandra Williams, D-Cleveland, after she heard concerns from multiple judges in the Cleveland area about the large number of driving-under-suspension cases in their courts, said Kayla Lewis, Williams’ legislative aide.
“If you don’t have the means to pay for that, the fees add up and it’s a continuous cycle of driving under suspension and driving illegally,” Lewis said.
Butler said if the bill passes in the Senate he’d be willing to sponsor it in the House. He also wants to get rid of the provision in state law requiring that people who drop out of high school automatically lose their license.
“Many people who drop out of high school are unfortunately doing it because they are growing up early and have to go to work,” Butler said. “They lose the ability to support their family.”
A third bill, also bipartisan and pending in the house, is HB 336. It establishes a six month driver license reinstatement fee debt reduction and amnesty program, according to Rep. John Barnes, Jr., D-Cleveland, who is co-sponsoring the bill.
“We want people to function in society based on the rule of law,”Barnes said. “But if you charge someone $500 (to reinstate their license), to some people that might as well be $5 million.”
Other stories by Lynn Hulsey