Posted September 10, 20219:25 am
Thanks to Legal Aid’s successful advocacy on a recent case, Ohio drivers facing non-compliance and security suspensions after an accident will have a clearer understanding of their legal rights. Our recent work led the BMV to re-write its notices informing drivers about these suspensions, which were – according to our complaint – confusing to the point of being indecipherable.
The BMV mails suspension notices to drivers who do not have car insurance and allegedly damaged another vehicle in an accident.
“We filed a case with the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas on behalf of our client Mr. Pryor, whose license was suspended in 2019,” says Legal Aid attorney Mike Russell. “We argued that the BMV’s notice to Mr. Pryor about his suspensions was so complicated and poorly written that it was impossible for him to understand he had rights to challenge the decision by requesting a hearing.”
Specifically, the old notices failed to clearly convey two required points: 1) Mr. Pryor had a right to request a hearing for both suspensions, and 2) Mr. Pryor could present evidence at the hearing that might prevent the BMV from suspending his driver’s license.
With help from an expert in forensic linguistics, Legal Aid argued it was impossible for a layperson unfamiliar with legal jargon to understand how and when to pursue a hearing to challenge a security suspension. Hearings give drivers the chance to prove an accident was not their fault, potentially avoiding loss of their license for a period that could last as long as two years.
During the process of litigation, Legal Aid attorneys, the linguistics expert, and Mr. Pryor worked together to submit revised versions of the suspension notices to the BMV for its consideration. The BMV accepted nearly all of the proposed changes and began issuing the new notices with simplified language this fall. Separate notices are now being mailed about the two types of suspensions drivers face (to reduce confusion. Both notices more clearly inform drivers of their rights and the steps they can take to set up a hearing and prevent a suspension.
Under both the United States and Ohio constitutions, the BMV cannot suspend a driver’s license without “due process of law.” And, “at its most basic, due process requires both adequate notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard,” says Mike. “Adequate notices must be complete, informative, and stated in plain language, especially when intended for recipients who may not have the resources to hire counsel or navigate complicated bureaucracies to correct an error.”
The result of this case has implications beyond BMV notices; indeed, it could be applied to any number of legal notices sent to individuals about their rights and responsibilities under the law.
“Mr. Pryor gets much of the credit for this positive outcome, which will impact more than 10,000 people a year in the state of Ohio,” says Michael Russell. “He could have settled for an agreement that addressed his suspension months ago. Instead, he wanted to pursue the larger issue make change that would affect others. He delayed his remedy in order give Legal Aid more time to work with the BMV and improve the process at the systemic level.
This case should compel the state to be more thoughtful about how it communicates with the public, so the public can understand their rights and how to exercise them.”
This article was published in Legal Aid's "Poetic Justice" newsletter, Volume 18 Issue 3 in December 2021. See full issue at this link: “Poetic Justice” Volume 18 Issue 3 – Legal Aid Society of Cleveland (lasclev.org).