No license to drive: Why so many Ohioans are barred from driving
Thursday, September 28, 2023
By Mark Puente for The Marshall Project.
Broadcast version by Nadia Ramlagan for Ohio News Connection reporting for the Marshall Project-Public News Service Collaboration
Nizer Lukerson drives to provide. But around every street corner, he’s pursued by fear, hoping to make his next food delivery before he’s spotted by police.
Lukerson is one of hundreds of thousands of Ohio drivers whose license is suspended. The state wants his money to lift the suspension, but like so many others, he can’t pay if he doesn’t work.
The 23-year-old must pay about $1,000 to remove a number of suspensions issued in local courts for minor infractions like not using a turn signal, expired plates and driving without a license. He’s said he’s chipping away at the debt through payment plans.
“I have been suspended for a while because of the fines,” said Lukerson, a Cleveland resident. “I’m trying to pay it off. I have been having trouble for a while. I’m always going on a payment plan.”
He is just one of many drivers suspended for money-related issues. And the numbers aren’t slowing down.
A Marshall Project - Cleveland and WEWS News 5 investigation found that the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) issued nearly 200,000 new license suspensions in 2022 for debt-related reasons, such as not having proof of insurance, failing to pay court fines, or missing child support payments. The high cost has forced Lukerson and thousands of others statewide to go on payment plans and meet other requirements before they can apply for reinstatement.
The investigation also found:
Ohio issued 95,000 suspensions to drivers in Cuyahoga County between 2020 and 2022 for failing to show proof of insurance — the highest number in the state for that type of offense.
A quarter of debt-related suspensions came after drivers lost their licenses for failing to appear in court or pay a fine, the largest single group for suspensions.
Ohioans with suspensions owed nearly $332 million in reinstatement fees as of March.
The overall numbers are staggering.
Ohio had more than 3 million active license suspensions that were still outstanding as of September 2022, the last time the Ohio BMV compiled historical data.
The BMV said statewide suspensions could represent as many as 1.9 million drivers, but did not answer specific questions about how to interpret their data. The Marshall Project - Cleveland and WEWS News 5 could not independently confirm that figure because the outlets did not have access to the BMV source data.
What is known from the data The Marshall Project - Cleveland and WEWS obtained is that, as of 2022, 1.1 million active suspensions had been issued to nearly 600,000 drivers for failing to show proof of insurance, and more than 300,000 drivers had active suspensions for failing to appear in court for a misdemeanor offense, or for failing to pay a court fine, according to BMV data. One driver can also be suspended for multiple types of debt-related suspensions, wracking up even more fines.
The state issued suspensions at a rate of about 1 in every 50 Ohio residents 18 or older in 2022, according to a Marshall Project - Cleveland and WEWS News 5 analysis of state records. Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, leads the state with the new active debt-related suspensions and the highest debt-related suspension rate. Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, is second in total new active debt-related suspensions.
Ohio is one of 23 states that suspends licenses for failure to pay civil or criminal fees and fines, according to Free to Drive, a consortium of more than 100 groups that believe restrictions on licenses should be reserved for dangerous offenses.
States surrounding Ohio have eliminated debt-based suspensions in recent years, according to Joanna Weiss, the co-founder and co-executive director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a national center for advocacy, information and collaboration to end the unjust and harmful imposition and enforcement of fines and fees.
“Ohio is like an island in the region,” Weiss said. “Everyone else has moved away from it. Ohio is truly an outlier.”
The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland calls debt-related suspensions a “vicious cycle” because the fines and fees from minor traffic stops can easily spiral into thousands of dollars.
The debts hinder whether a person can go to work or even keep them from accessing medical care or necessities like groceries, said Legal Aid senior attorney Michael Russell.
“We’re punishing drivers by taking away their licenses, not based on dangerous driving, but based on a debt they can’t pay off,” Russell said.
Since 2017, two dozen states have changed laws to make it easier to restore drivers licenses stemming from debt-related suspensions. But Ohio is not one of them.
The head of the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles said the agency lacks authority to change rules like other states.
“We don’t have wiggle room,” said BMV Registrar Charlie Norman. “Ultimately, that’s a policy decision for [Ohio lawmakers] to make.”
“They’ve got to weigh the pros and cons of getting rid of the fees, of getting rid of the possible deterrence, and what that means for Ohio drivers” who are victims of getting hit by an uninsured driver, Norman said.
Weiss, of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, said the debt-suspensions are a way to use the justice system as a collection agency.
“It’s unbelievable how many people are impacted by these suspensions,” she said. “It’s invisible to people in power.”
In March, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed legislation that ended driver’s license suspensions for missed court hearings and overdue fines and fees for traffic and criminal cases. It also directed the Motor Vehicle Division to reinstate all outstanding driver’s license suspensions for these reasons.
Pennsylvania lawmakers proposed legislation in March to eliminate suspensions for unpaid fines and fees. The proposal is working its way through the state legislature.
A bipartisan movement is underway in the U.S. Senate to end such suspensions.
On July 24, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa joined Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware, a Democrat, and Roger Wicker of Mississippi, a Republican, in reintroducing the Driving for Opportunity Act. The proposal would award grants to states that end debt-based driver’s license suspensions.
“If the government wants people to pay fines, then the government shouldn’t prevent them from getting to work,” Grassley said in a statement. “Our bill resets the incentives to stop the circular problem of states suspending licenses for anyone who owes fines or fees.”
‘We Operate on Volume’
For two hours every Wednesday afternoon, a stream of drivers in Cleveland Heights Municipal Court wait in line for arraignments and trials for driving under suspension.
Drivers stand single file along a wall — like soldiers waiting for food in a mess hall — to discuss their cases with a prosecutor. They then take fewer than 10 steps into the courtroom to face judgment from Magistrate Kimberly Bolton.
“We operate on volume,” the chief bailiff told reporters in the hallway.
Each of the 10 drivers in court on this day were Black. All faced low-level charges, like driving with expired tags or driving with either a suspended license or not having a license. None faced charges for serious crimes like impaired or reckless driving.
A Cleveland Heights police officer cited Danielle Barnes in October for driving with expired license plates. Barnes told the magistrate she couldn’t renew her plates because her car didn’t pass the required emissions test. She was working on making the necessary repairs to the vehicle.
Chaunte Gray of Cleveland Heights, faced three charges: speeding, driving without a license and driving under suspension.
When the officer cited Gray in October, the ticket noted she didn’t need to appear in court and could pay the fines online or through the mail.
A court clerk realized the officer made a mistake and sent Gray a letter telling her to appear in court. The letter went to an old address, she said.
As a result, Gray said she didn’t learn about the missed court date until she tried renewing her license plates. A warrant prevented her from receiving new tags, she said.
Bolton acknowledged the officer incorrectly marked the ticket. Bolton fined Gray $1,000 and suspended all but $150.
“I was scared,” Gray said after court. “I felt like a criminal.”
Noel Lyons of Cleveland, arrived 20 minutes late for her hearing. The bailiff told Lyons she had to reschedule for another day because the bailiff already started an informational video that all drivers must watch before appearing in court.
The court also tacked on a $25 fee for Lyons to reschedule. She left exasperated.
“I have to keep coming back here,” Lyons said. “The system is ridiculous.”
Zip Code With High Suspension Rate
Cleveland’s 44104 ZIP code — with one of the lowest household incomes in the state — covers the city’s Kinsman neighborhood, where 95% of the residents are Black, according to the latest Census Bureau data.
The area is packed with subsidized housing complexes around Buckeye Road and Woodland Avenue; downtown’s shiny skyscrapers glisten on the horizon.
The ZIP code also has one of the highest rates of debt-related suspensions among drivers in Ohio, according to a study conducted by the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.
Katherine Hollingsworth, managing attorney for Legal Aid’s Economic Justice Group, called it a “rare occurrence” for a person to have only one suspension in this neighborhood.
It’s common for Legal Aid to see drivers with “three, five, six, nine suspensions,” she said.
“It’s really often a hurdle that folks are not going to be able to clear on their own, if at all,” she said.
“The reality is that many of our clients dealing with driver’s license suspension issues are dealing with other major issues in their lives, including meeting their basic needs.”
City Councilman Richard Starr represents the neighborhood. He said he didn’t know about the high rate of debt-related suspensions impacting his residents. The median income in the ZIP code is $18,500, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Residents have no choice, Starr said, but to get behind the wheel if they want to go to work to support their family. Thousands of Clevelanders must drive outside the city for work, often into heavily police-patrolled suburbs, he added.
He called on state and local leaders to find ways to make it easier for people to get out from under debt-related driving suspensions. He took issue with the state BMV and numerous courts collecting fees from Black residents.
“It tells the tale of the truth that we already see,” Starr said. “It’s a burden. It’s designed to hold you back. I was not aware of this problem. It’s shocking.”
Norman, the BMV registrar, said multiple suspensions per driver are not unique to any one ZIP code in Ohio.
“We receive an order from the court to suspend and that's statutorily what we have to do,” he said.
He stressed that drivers could enroll in a payment plan — for a $25 fee — to restore their licenses. All reinstatement requirements, except the unpaid fees, must be met before a license can be valid. The rules state that drivers must owe at least $150 in reinstatement fees, show proof of current insurance, and not be under suspensions or have any pending suspensions.
The state will cancel the plan if a driver doesn't make $25 payments every 30 days or becomes suspended while on the plan.
Increased Suspensions in Cleveland
Michelle Earley, the administrative and presiding judge of Cleveland Municipal Court, said suspensions have increased for a driver’s inability to pay reinstatement fees and for failing to carry insurance.
Earley and other agencies — such as the clerk’s of courts office, public defender, council members, Cuyahoga County Job and Family Services, the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland and the Bureau of Motor Vehicles — have been holding amnesty days in an attempt to connect drivers with court and state officials to get licenses restored.
More than 500 drivers attended events in recent weeks at two Cleveland locations.
Earley said she was not surprised by the high number of drivers with multiple suspensions living in one of Cleveland’s poorest areas. People in wealthier cities who have suspensions don’t face the same hurdles as those in low-income areas, she said.
Critics of Ohio laws point out a two-tiered system of inequalities. To a wealthy person, paying a $1,000 fine may mean fewer dinners at a 5-star restaurant. To a poor person, the same fine can mean taking driving risks in order to provide for themselves or family.
The system to get a license reinstated treats “people who have less resources the same as the people who do,” Earley said, adding: “So, I don’t think it should be consistent. It should be based on the individual in front of you.”
Earley called for increased awareness to tell the public about amnesty programs that help people to get their licenses reinstated either by doing community service or getting fees waived, if they are indigent.
Judges do not encourage people to drive without a license, but she said she understands people have to drive to work to take care of basic needs.
“The hurdles that are placed in certain communities are significant in terms of helping individuals get on track,” she said.
“We also see people have been put in very difficult places, and they have to make difficult decisions.”
Mark Puente wrote this article for The Marshall Project.
This collaboration is produced in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the George Gund Foundation.
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