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from Crain’s Cleveland Business: Personal View: Debt-related driver’s license suspensions create impossible trap

Posted October 3, 2022
11:30 am

By Anne Sweeney

More than half of Ohioans face driver's license suspensions for reasons other than dangerous driving. Approximately 60% of all Ohio driver's license suspensions are based on a person's failure to pay money owed to a court, to the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, or to a private third party. Such "debt-related driver's license suspensions" trap people with limited means in an impossible cycle: They cannot afford the required payments, so they need to work to earn money; but they don't have a valid driver's license, so they cannot get to work.

This catch-22 disproportionately harms people with low incomes. People in Ohio ZIP codes with the highest poverty rates faced nearly 40 times as many debt-related suspensions as those in the areas with the least poverty, as reported by Legal Aid in a recent study of BMV data for 2016-20, "Road to Nowhere: Debt-Related Driver's License Suspensions in Ohio."

Additionally, the Ohio BMV assesses substantially more fees in ZIP codes with higher poverty rates compared with low poverty rates, and the same residents owe more and pay more. Residents of Ohio's poorest ZIP codes pay over 20 times more in debt-related suspension costs ($39.3 million) compared with residents of Ohio's wealthiest ZIP codes ($1.7 million).

The debt-related suspension scheme also disproportionately harms people of color. Areas with the highest percentage of people of color experience over 100 times as many suspensions as the areas with the fewest people of color (6.9 million vs. less than 51,000). Such areas also are assessed more, owe more and pay more than people in predominantly white areas of Ohio. The ZIP codes with the highest percentage of people of color paid over $60 million, while predominantly white ZIP codes paid less than $600,000.

To be sure, Ohio can and should regulate driving. Requirements to have a driver's license and carry financial responsibility insurance are good public policy. But taking away a person's ability to earn money because they can't pay a fine or fee is counterproductive and disparately impacts Ohio communities.

Many other states have recognized the problems inherent in debt-related driver's license suspensions. Michigan allows suspensions based on a driver's failure to pay fines or fees only for offenses that are public safety-related. Maryland limits suspensions to a driver's failure to pay fines and fees in criminal cases. New York no longer suspends a person's driver's license for failure to pay traffic fines. The Fines and Fees Justice Center and the Free to Drive Campaign document and support such changes. In Ohio, Neighborhood Connections, a Cleveland-based nonprofit, recently started focusing on this issue as part of its work to ignite the power of everyday people by connecting, investing and seeking justice.

Ohio should learn from other jurisdictions tackling this issue, and from residents impacted by the debt-related suspension scheme, in order to more effectively and equitably support Ohioans' ability to get to work.

Sweeney is the managing attorney of the Community Engagement Practice at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.

Original article published in Crain's Cleveland Business: Debt-related driver's license suspensions create impossible trap

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