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Lost Your License in Ohio Due to Debt? A New State Bill Might Fix That

A Marshall Project - Cleveland and News 5 report helped spark a bipartisan bill to end spiraling financial strain on hundreds of thousands of drivers.

A Black woman with short, gray hair and a blue, patterned top poses for a portrait in front of her white car in a garage.
Theresa Smith, 65, of Shaker Heights, filed for bankruptcy to clear debt from a license suspension. She hopes a proposed Ohio law will end the spiraling effects of debt-related suspensions she’s witnessed.

Theresa Smith never knew she was driving with a suspended license until she tried renewing her vehicle registration in 2021.

The suspension came after a friend borrowed her car without permission and crashed, making her financially responsible. It also triggered two license suspensions for Smith and a state mandate to purchase high-risk insurance for a $3,300 annual premium.

It all proved too rich for the Shaker Heights retiree and her roughly $1,000 monthly Social Security benefit. Smith was forced into bankruptcy, the effects of which linger today.

“I was facing impossible choices,” said Smith, 65. “I either had to drive to work or lose my job. But even still, I am having a hard time financially. My credit is ruined.”

Relief appears on the way for Smith and more than a million Ohio drivers who can’t legally drive because of debt-related suspensions.

After a Marshall Project - Cleveland and WEWS News 5 investigation published in August, Ohio legislators and advocacy groups expanded a proposed law to help hundreds of thousands of additional drivers restore their licenses.

This article was published in partnership with News 5 Cleveland.

The proposal, which has broad support among both parties, is working its way through the Ohio Senate. It will help eliminate fines and fees that have triggered license suspensions for offenses such as failing to show proof of insurance or missing child support payments.

Sens. Louis Blessing, a Republican from Colerain Township, and Catherine Ingram, a Democrat from Cincinnati, introduced Senate Bill 37, after a Marshall Project - Cleveland and WEWS News 5 investigation found that Ohio had more than 3 million active license suspensions.

If passed, the proposal would eliminate the state’s ability to suspend, revoke, or refuse to renew a license if someone failed to pay a court fine or appear in court when the offense does not carry the possibility of jail or prison time.

Proponents said they expect only minor changes to the proposal before it goes back to the Judiciary Committee in January.

The bill is expected to receive the Senate’s full approval before the Ohio House considers the measure. If approved by the House, the final bill would go to Gov. Mike DeWine later in 2024.

One facet being examined is how to better target drivers with older suspensions.

Other components of the proposal would:

If Ohio makes the proposed changes, it will join more than 20 other states that have made it easier for drivers to avoid debt-related suspensions. Supporters say fewer suspensions will give drivers easier access to medical care and work, all without the fear of being pulled over by police and repeating the cycle of unpaid fines and multiple suspensions.

Anne Sweeney, managing attorney for community engagement at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, told the Senate committee in a Dec. 13 hearing that the license suspension crisis in Ohio is “truly staggering.”

“People cannot believe how many debt-related suspensions Ohio imposes annually,” Sweeney said. “[This proposal] goes a long way to addressing the debt-related suspension problem in Ohio, and would make Ohio a national leader among states passing similar reforms.”

Ingram, the Democratic co-sponsor, said suspending licenses for unpaid debts makes it worse for poorer Ohioans and disproportionately affects Black and Brown residents. She stressed that Senate Bill 37 does not give people a free pass to avoid responsibility for maintaining auto insurance or other requirements.

Critics of the proposal, she said, assume the suspensions primarily affect urban residents, but the suspensions touch people across Ohio.

“We have to see how we are harming people,” Ingram said. “There are a lot of Ohioans who are being negatively impacted by the suspensions.”

A White woman with glasses speaks at a podium.
A White man holds his chin while listening to someone off-camera.

Anne Sweeney, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, speaks to the Ohio Senate’s Judiciary Committee during a Dec. 13 hearing for Senate Bill 37. “[This proposal] goes a long way to addressing the debt-related suspension problem in Ohio and would make Ohio a national leader among states passing similar reforms,” Sweeney said.

Nathan Manning, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, listens to testimony during a Dec. 13 hearing for proposed changes to Ohio’s driver’s license suspension laws.

Republican Sen. Nathan Manning of North Ridgeville, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said debt-related suspensions have hurt the Ohio workforce because companies struggle to fill positions.

As a defense attorney and former city prosecutor, Manning said he has witnessed the struggles that drivers encounter with multiple suspensions, often spread across numerous courts.

He called the suspension system overly complicated but urged drivers to take personal responsibility for showing up to court dates and paying child support. Still, he said he supports eliminating license suspensions and would only prefer to use it in rare situations.

“It’s a real problem where people get in a horrible cycle, and it snowballs on them and unfortunately creates a situation where it is very difficult to get their driver’s license back,” Manning told The Marshall Project - Cleveland and News 5.

The news outlets’ investigation found that a quarter of debt-related suspensions came after drivers lost their licenses for failing to appear in court or pay a fine, making it the largest single group of suspensions.

Overall, the state issued suspensions at a rate of about one in every 50 Ohio residents above 18 years old in 2022, according to an analysis of state records.

Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, leads the state with new, active debt-related suspensions, and it has the highest overall debt-related suspension rate. Cuyahoga County, which covers Cleveland, is second in total new, active debt-related suspensions.

The amount of unpaid reinstatement fees jumped from $332 million in March to more than $338 million through November, according to BMV records. Nearly 282,000 Ohio drivers are on payment plans to pay the unpaid fees.

Hours after The Marshall Project - Cleveland and News 5 published their investigation in August, Garfield Heights Municipal Court Judge Deborah Nicastro called on state lawmakers to reform laws to help drivers get reinstated.

In an interview, she recalled one man appearing in her suburban Cleveland courtroom owing more than $10,000 in unpaid fees.

“Millions of dollars in BMV reinstatement fees are dragging people down,” Nicastro told the news outlets. “Reform is much needed and supported by Ohio judges.”

Nicastro said she has leeway to order community service instead of fines and fees, but that doesn’t do enough to help people in court. The fees and fines help pay for programs like public defenders, but the “poorest people” are the ones using public defenders, the judge said.

“Many people are not aware that reinstatement fees paid to the BMV are as huge as they are,” the judge said. “What started out as a really good idea has just developed over the years to be a disadvantage. It really needs to be revisited. The whole system needs to be overhauled.”

All across Ohio, drivers are caught in a tangle of suspensions and court fines, including some issued erroneously.

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In early August, Rodney Taylor got a call from his brother, asking for a ride home from a bar because he had too much to drink.

On the way, Maple Heights police stopped Taylor for “heavy window tint.” A dispatcher told officers that Taylor did not have a valid license. Police cited Taylor and towed his car.

A day after the traffic stop, Taylor, a Maple Heights resident, spent hours on the phone with the BMV. The agency quickly reinstated his license, but it did not offer an explanation about the erroneous suspension, Taylor said.

That baffled Taylor. He still had to pay hundreds of dollars for driving with a suspended license, towing fees and court costs. That infuriated him.

“They kept passing me around from phone to phone,” Taylor told The Marshall Project - Cleveland and News 5. “After two and a half hours, the lady admitted to me that it was a clerical error.”

During the Judiciary Committee hearing in Columbus, representatives from national and Ohio-based groups called on senators to change the laws. They say suspensions should be reserved for dangerous driving offenses.

The Cuyahoga County Public Defender’s Office represents hundreds of drivers each year for suspensions.

Assistant Cuyahoga County Public Defender John Martin said the proposal does not make the courts too lenient, but rather, it allows them to work smarter. He described debt suspensions as a “downward spiral” that prevents people from obtaining meaningful employment. The cases also clog the courts and waste resources on non-traffic offenses, he said.

“It simply does not make sense to suspend driver's licenses when those license suspensions are impeding, not facilitating, a return to responsible behavior,” Martin said.

One of the few voicing opposition is the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association. The group, made up of county prosecutors from across the state, contends a “suspension can be part of the totality of the circumstances that law enforcement uses to gauge whether a driver is engaged in other criminal activity,” said Executive Director Louis Tobin.

During his testimony, Monte Collins of East Cleveland told lawmakers he made a mistake in 2008 by driving without insurance as a high school student. As a result, he was forced for years to purchase expensive high-risk insurance.

A Black man and his grandmother pose for a portrait in their apartment.

East Cleveland resident Monte Collins, left, with his grandmother, Susie Wilkerson. Collins was forced to buy expensive high-risk coverage after being ticketed for failing to have auto insurance as a high school student.

Police have stopped Collins multiple times, he said, causing him to rack up several suspensions when his insurance lapsed. His fees totaled more than $5,000 over the years, but he worked with Towards Employment, a Cleveland nonprofit group, to pay off the fees and restore his license.

The proposal “will break the vicious cycle by restoring the right to drive for Ohioans and get them back to work,” Collins said.

Smith, the Shaker Heights woman who filed bankruptcy to clear her driving debts, said she hopes a new law will end the spiraling effects of debt-related suspensions she’s witnessed and lift the financial burden off the backs of those least able to pay.

“The way the law works now, people just give up and drive illegally because it's so hard and so expensive to resolve their suspension,” Smith said. “The law makes it so hard for people who want to be legal to solve their problem that they just give up.”

Mark Puente Twitter Email is a staff writer leading investigative reporting efforts for The Marshall Project - Cleveland. Puente, a former truck driver, has nearly 20 years in journalism and a proven track record in accountability reporting. He has worked for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, The Baltimore Sun, the Tampa Bay Times and the Los Angeles Times. Puente is a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.