The Center for Community Solutions has written about the ways in which our current transportation policy choices affect health outcomes and Medicaid spending, including how access to transportation increases economic mobility and alleviates poverty. However, it’s important to highlight how a driver’s license is a near necessity for employment in Ohio, with the Ohio Department of Transportation stating “the existing transit network is not equipped to support nearly half of…work trips.” Twenty -seven counties having no public transportation whatsoever. Despite this fact, roughly 13 percent of all driver’s licenses in the state of Ohio are currently under suspension. This 13 percent represents 1.1 million Ohioans, enough to fill Ohio Stadium more than 10 times. Each of these people have, on average, 2.96 suspensions. The result is around 3.2 million total suspensions, a 60 percent increase over the past 12 years. While there are more than 40 different places in Ohio law outlining how a license can be suspended, more than half of these suspensions are due to two reasons: failure to provide proof of car insurance and failure to appear in court or pay court fines. Noticeably, both of these are more likely to affect low-income Ohioans. Why are low-income Ohioans more likely to have a suspended driver’s license? Find out here Click To Tweet
…the existing transit network is not equipped to support nearly half of…work trips.
In 2017, Cleveland.com ran an article on how low-income people are disproportionately affected by driver’s license suspensions. The story showed that areas with more poor people have a significantly higher rate of driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay traffic tickets or failure to appear in court. Defining poor as “at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level,” the article showed that in ZIP codes where more than 50 percent of residents are below this threshold, there are an average of 99 such suspensions per 1,000 residents. In ZIP codes where fewer than 50 percent of residents are poor, the average is 28 such suspensions per 1,000 residents. The report also noted that this discrepancy was even larger in urban areas with a greater police presence. These suspensions can trap people in a cycle of increasing debt and force them to return to court many times over the course of several years, all without ever recovering their driver’s license.
Areas with more poor people have a significantly higher rate of driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay traffic tickets or failure to appear in court.
This cycle of debt and court dates goes something like this: A person gets a ticket for speeding, for having a headlight out, or for any other of a number of minor traffic infractions. For a wealthier person, this would be a minor inconvenience. However, a person living paycheck to paycheck may be unable to pay the ticket. Since many low-wage jobs do not allow employees to take time off work, these individuals could also miss their court dates during which they would have the chance to explain their inability to pay. At this point, an individual’s license is suspended and then, in addition to the cost of the ticket, that person also owes a reinstatement fee. However, in order to pay off these fines and fees, they need to continue to go to work. To continue going to work, they often need to drive. If they get pulled over again for any reason, they will be ticketed for driving on a suspended license. This will tack on additional fines and another reinstatement fee, which, again, they cannot pay unless they go to work. Now, the cycle starts all over again.
64 percent of low-income residents were unable to keep their jobs after their licenses were suspended.
This cycle can be hard to avoid. A study commissioned by the state of New Jersey in 2006 found that 42 percent of people whose driving privileges were suspended lost their jobs as a result. When broken down by income, 64 percent of low-income residents were unable to keep their jobs after their licenses were suspended. For high-income residents, this rate was just 17 percent. Additionally, a California study found that people of color were significantly more likely to be pulled over than white drivers. For instance, in certain parts of California, Latino drivers are 4.3 times more likely than non-Latino drivers to be pulled over and have the only cited offense be “driving without a license,” meaning these drivers were significantly more likely to be pulled over without having violated any traffic laws. Thus, even if suspensions are enforced in a racially neutral manner, people of color are more likely to get pulled over, and they are thus more likely to get ticketed for driving without a license. This, again, increases the fines and fees they owe and sends these individuals deeper into the cycle described in the previous paragraph.
It is worth noting that everything that has been said thus far about suspensions for failure to pay court fines is equally true for suspensions due to lack of insurance. Since a suspension due to lack of insurance also requires a reinstatement fee that grows with each subsequent citation, it can be very difficult for someone with a low income to pay for both insurance and a reinstatement fee. Since these individuals often need to continue to work to afford both of these, they are stuck in the same situation as someone who owes money for a traffic ticket. In Ohio, a person can have their license suspended for lack of insurance without ever violating any traffic laws or getting into an accident. Every week, the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles randomly selects 5,400 registered vehicles to provide proof of insurance. Failure to do so will result in a driver’s license suspension.
Since a suspension due to lack of insurance also requires a reinstatement fee that grows with each subsequent citation, it can be very difficult for someone with a low income to pay for both insurance and a reinstatement fee.
A payment plan is available to Ohioans who cannot afford to pay their entire reinstatement fee at once. In order to apply, a person must owe at least $150. They also must pay at least $50 every 30 days. The 30-day counter restarts after each payment, regardless of how soon after the previous payment was made. Fifty dollars must be submitted with the application. If rejected, this money goes towards the person’s reinstatement fee. If their applications are accepted, it is unclear if this $50 counts as a payment under the terms of the plan. Many people are not made aware of this option. Additionally, earlier in 2018, the state passed HB 336. This bill, which will be enacted on January 31, 2019, establishes a reinstatement fee amnesty initiative that will run through July 31, 2019. Under this initiative, those who have committed eligible offenses (offenses not involving alcohol, a drug of abuse, a combination therein, or a deadly weapon), who have completed all court-ordered sanctions other than paying off their reinstatement fees, and who have let at least 18 months elapse since their suspension was supposed to be over, may apply to have their fees reduced. People can also apply to have reinstatement fees waived entirely if they have completed all court-ordered sanctions other than paying off their reinstatement fees and can also prove their indigence through enrollment in SNAP benefits. To apply, eligible applicants must complete BMV form 2829, the BMV Reinstatement Fee Amnesty Application, on or after Jan. 31, 2019. Applicants may obtain the form at their local deputy registrar, online at www.bmv.ohio.gov or through mail by calling 614-752-7500.
In Ohio, a person can have their license suspended for lack of insurance without ever violating any traffic laws or getting into an accident.
Ohio is far from the only state that has a problem with license suspensions and it has sparked multiple lawsuits. In North Carolina, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing on behalf of two people whose licenses have been suspended for failing to pay tickets. The claim is that the practice effectively criminalizes poverty. Similar lawsuits have been filed in Alabama and Tennessee. In Tennessee, a federal judge recently ruled against suspensions for failing to pay court fees and fines and ordered that all licenses suspended for this reason be reinstated. The state of Tennessee is currently appealing the decision.
More to Consider
Many counties throughout the state allocate PRC funds that may be utilized to pay a myriad of these fines and fees, such as license plate fees, four months of car insurance, license reinstatement fees and license fines. PRC funds are available for families through TANF allocations and are utilized to assist families who may experience a crisis like those cited throughout this blog post. Currently the TANF program has an excess of funds totaling more than half a billion dollars. If the state were to create uniformity in how counties can administer these funds, they could be used to alleviate this particular crisis and protect both poor families and other Ohio drivers.
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