Lawmakers say driving suspensions overused, fines too high

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COLUMBUS — Ohio lawmakers have accused the state of using driver's license suspensions as an arbitrary punishment for offenses unrelated to driving while burying people under a pile of fees and fines.

The state Legislature is considering multiple bills that could reinstate limited privileges for some suspended drivers and help people avoid steep license reinstatement fees.

The Bureau of Motor Vehicles says 1.1 million people had their licenses suspended last year — or almost 12 percent of the state's driving-age population. Reasons for licenses suspensions include skipping a court date, failing to pay child support and dropping out of high school.

"It defies logic that you would take away their means of getting to work so they can earn money to pay their child support or their court fines," state Rep. Jim Butler, a Republican, told The Dayton Daily News.

Butler and state Rep. Emilia Sykes, a Democrat, have introduced a bill that would allow motorists suspended for non-driving violations to drive to work, school and appointments such as doctor's visits.

"Our system should only fully suspend or revoke a person's driver's license if they are truly a danger behind the wheel, or if they are using vehicles for criminal purposes," Butler said.

Randall Smith, who directs the legal clinic serving low-income clients at the Miami Valley Community Action Partnership, says 90 percent of the calls he gets are for issues concerning license suspensions.

"The whole thing is discriminatory against low-income people," he said. "A lot of them can't get jobs because the jobs are either beyond the bus route or require a valid driver's license. Some of them haven't had a license in 10 or 15 years."

Many people face suspensions for more than one violation, making them subject to multiple reinstatement fees.

"It strikes me that there is something inherently wrong with a system that allows reinstatement fees to pile up," said retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer, executive director of the Ohio Judicial Conference.

Democratic state Sen. Sandra Williams has introduced a bill that would allow judges to assign community service in lieu of reinstatement fees.

Republican Sen. Matt Huffman, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the fees are simply unaffordable for many people.

"There's this permanent underclass that we've created," Huffman said. "If you're $4,000 or $5,000 down, and that's what it takes to get your driver's license, you just don't do it."

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