Income, Debt Contribute To Rising Number Of Driver's License Suspensions, Say Advocates
A Cleveland investigation last year found driver's license suspensions disproportionately affect Ohio’s poorest communities.
Bureau of Motor Vehicles data collected by WYSO show the number of driver's license suspensions is on the rise in Montgomery County. Many are for non-driving related offenses.
And, some advocates and lawmakers say the suspension process can leave low-income people without legal transportation to the jobs they need to pay off what can sometimes amount to hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in fines and license reinstatement fees.
After his beloved wife of 47 years Edwina died a few years ago, Clifton Montgomery says he drank heavily to quiet his grief.
“The passing of my wife changed me so much," he says. "The alcohol was me camouflaging, trying to find peace and I couldn’t find peace.”
Soon, Montgomery says, his drinking became an everyday thing. He felt he wasn’t thinking straight. But, the Dayton 68 year old says, it didn’t stop him from getting behind the wheel of his car.
“I was going all across town, up and down Main Street, I was totally drunk. Don’t ask me how I got home because I don’t know,” he shakes his head. "When my wife left, everything went blank. Nothing else mattered."
Montgomery, who friends and family call Sonny, recently popped in to visit his daughter in Northwest Dayton.
“This is my oldest child," he says. "She cares about me a whole lot.”
The two settle in for a visit in the living room.
Montgomery recalls that as his wife's terminal illness progressed, so did his depression, drinking and driving. Eventually, it landed him in trouble with the law.
One night, Dayton police stopped him and arrested him for driving under the influence. His license was suspended. But Montgomery kept driving -- without a valid license or insurance.
After another incident, he ended up back in court, where a judge offered Montgomery a choice: enter an alcohol treatment program or spend a full year locked up behind bars.
Montgomery’s daughter Danielle Adams says it was the push her father needed to finally seek help.
“That was really awesome that she did that because it changed his life. He actually had someone who didn’t give up on him. To me, he’s rebuilding himself to the person we all know he can be -- without alcohol -- and getting his license back was a milestone.”
And, "for two years he was getting counseling and attention, with no convictions after that," says Montgomery's attorney Randall Smith.
But, as Montgomery worked on turning his life around, his court fines, penalties and license-reinstatement fees quickly spiraled upwards into a few thousand dollars that the retired longtime Goodwill janitor couldn’t afford to pay.
A counselor referred him to Smith’s Community Action Partnership Legal Clinic, which petitioned the court to recognize Montgomery’s sustained alcohol rehabilitation, and his low, fixed income.
Eventually, in exchange for jail time already served, community service hours and other alternative penalties, a judge waived Montgomery’s outstanding fees so he could reinstate his driver's license.
Smith notes his legal clinic typically declines DUI-related suspension cases unless significant time has passed and a client has demonstrated sincere efforts at addressing their circumstances.
He says he’d to see more Miami Valley judges take offenders' income into account in license suspension cases.
"Everybody needs to be punished for violating the law. One hundred percent, we're 100 percent behind that," he says. "But certainly a fine for low-income or no-income person is a lot different than a fine for somebody that's driving a Jaguar. And so why would that fine be the same for both?"
The collaborative Cleveland investigation last year by cleveland.com, WVIZ/PBS ideastream and 90.3 WCPN found license suspensions disproportionately affect Ohio’s poorest communities.
For many low income people, Smith says, even a small initial fine can trap them in the court system without driving privileges for years, even for nondriving offenses, including failing to maintain insurance or pay traffic tickets.
Some of the crimes are more trivial, Smith says.
"Pedestrian jaywalking, stoplight noise, different stupid things that you think, 'why would this impact somebody's license, but it does and it affects their livelihood."
Oakwood state representative Jim Butler wants to change that.
He recently sponsored legislation mandating people who lose their license for a non-driving offense must be given a limited driver's license, including people who fall behind on their child support payments.
"I think we need to change our mindset about using the ability to get to work as a punishment," says the Republican lawmaker.
The goal of the legislation, he says, is to ensure that people not deemed a safety risk can continue to legally travel to school or work so they can pay what they owe.
"To make sure that we're not having people lose their license indefinitely," he says. "But at the same time, the ability to do community service in lieu of paying the amount, also, I think is important."
Sarah Fields, who oversees the Montgomery County Child Support Enforcement Agency, is familiar with, "the argument that we're keeping people from working."
"Obviously, we hear that all the time," Fields says.
She cautions against legislation that would limit the state’s existing rules for child support-related license suspensions.
The current system, she says, is highly effective at recovering overdue payments.
She notes the process used in child support-related driver's license suspension cases takes months. It starts with written warnings. People who don’t comply with the warning letters and meet other strict, state-mandated criteria then become eligible for suspension.
Often, Fields says, just the threat of a license suspension spurs even the most delinquent parents or other caregivers to pay up.
"Driving is a privilege. For us, enforcement is about finding what remedy is going to work to to convince somebody that compliance is easier than non-compliance," Fields says. "Money is always our first obligation. You know, we have court orders and we reinforce those court orders. We're not going to apologize for that aspect [of the program]."
And, for eligible people who can’t afford their payments, Fields says the county offers job-search assistance and other programs. Participation often comes with restoration of limited driving privileges.
Last year, completed Montgomery County child support-related suspensions brought in three-quarters of a million dollars, agency records show.
Still, some policy groups say non-driving license suspensions are too costly for local governments and courts, and they’re ineffective. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators estimates roughly 75 percent of suspended drivers continue to drive.
Numbers from the Ohio Department of Public Safety show there were more than 200,000 unresolved license suspensions in Montgomery County in 2016, the most recent data.
Clifton Montgomery says he's relieved to have his license reinstated.
At his daughter’s house in Northwest Dayton, a large picture frame hangs in a prime spot on the living room wall. Inside is a football jersey belonging to Montgomery’s grandson, a recent pick in the NFL draft and the family’s pride and joy.
Montgomery says he’s come a long way over the past few years. He’s still in grief counseling and for the first time since his wife died in 2015, he says he feels hopeful about the future.
“I can’t drink. I won’t drink. I’m on a mission. When I put that [beer] can down, everything started happening. I got my license. I’m feeling better. My body is feeling better. If I start drinking, I’ll lose all that. I can’t do that," he says.
Montgomery says he’s committed to maintaining his sobriety and his driving privileges. There’s too much to live for, such as spending time with family and watching his grandson play football.
"What made me change? I can't lose my family. My family is more important to me than that bottle."