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Debt-related driver's license suspensions have ‘snowball effect’ for low-income Ohioans

In Ohio, a driver's license can be suspended due to unpaid court-mandated fines.
Dan Gold
In Ohio, a driver's license can be suspended due to unpaid court-mandated fines.

Timberly Klintworth wasn’t a part of the accident that caused her driver's license suspension.

In 2016, her then-husband crashed into another vehicle. Because Klintworth had lent the car and had no insurance, she was sued for $6,000 dollars. She couldn’t pay it. So, her license was suspended.

And then from there, it kind of just spiraled,” Klintworth said. “I couldn't get my stuff together. I didn’t really know what was going on because I didn’t have a stable place to be.”

At the time, she was struggling with substance use disorder. She went to treatment and began to rebuild her life. She got back custody of her two kids, she found a job, she got her own place. But, because of her debt, she wasn’t able to drive.

That's hard … especially for somebody that's just getting sober or somebody that is trying again in life,” Klintworth said.

There are around three million driver’s license suspensions in the state of Ohio annually, according to a report from the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.

But the majority of these suspensions don’t come from bad or dangerous driving. They’re due to an inability to pay fines. In Ohio, outstanding court fees, failing to have car insurance or falling behind on child support can all lead to a driver's license suspension.

‘Caught in a cycle’

It’s an issue that disproportionately hurts low-income Ohioans, according to Zack Eckles, a policy advocate at the Ohio Poverty Law Center. He said the current license suspension system puts people between a rock and a hard place: They have to decide between following the law or getting a paycheck.

“People just get caught in a cycle where you can't drive to work to pay off your debt and can't pay off the debt because you can't drive to work,” Eckles said. “And it has a real snowball effect for low-income people, that moderate- and middle-income people just don't have to deal with.”

And, according to Eckles, its use as a tool to collect debt largely isn’t working.

Ohio has an annual outstanding balance of 920 million dollars in debt-related suspensions, according to the report by Legal Aid Society of Cleveland. It’s highest in the state’s urban areas, where there’s around 700 debt-related suspensions for every thousand people.

Anne Sweeney, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, said the impact extends beyond the individual. She said it burdens Ohio’s metropolitan communities with debt that could otherwise be invested in employment, education or other spending priorities.

“This is money that is being disinvested from communities as opposed to remaining in households that can spend money locally and help communities thrive,” Sweeney said.

Limited options

It makes a deep impact in rural areas, too, according to Sondra Bryson, an attorney with the Legal Aid of Southeast and Central Ohio.

“It becomes very difficult to get anywhere when you don't have a valid license in rural Ohio because there's very little or no public transportation,” Bryson said. “And it's often not just down the street that they have to go to work. It's an hour away or it takes a long time to get there.”

That’s true in Knox County, where Klintworth lives. Klintworth has had to rely on friends to drive her to work, to get her kids to school, to the grocery, to appointments. It has meant less quality time with her kids outside of the house, she said.

I want to be able to take them to fun places. They deserve to go to the zoo or to the water park,” Klintworth said. “And I haven't been able to give that to them because I am not able to do it myself.”

Klintworth has been working with Bryson since 2022 to work to get her license back. Bryson said debt-related license suspensions make up more than 40% of her cases in rural Ohio, and more often than not, they end in filing for bankruptcy, one of the only solutions for people in Klintworth’s position.

A road in Ripley, OH.
License suspensions are highest in the states urban areas, but their impact is felt deeply in small towns.

It allows for their debt to be forgiven, at a cost. It can damage credit score, which can make it harder to apply for housing in the future. Bryson said bankruptcy claims can be a powerful tool to help those stuck in debt. But, she said it’s a last resort, especially since it can only be done once every eight years.

“If you file bankruptcy on $2,000 to get your license back, but tomorrow you have some big catastrophic medical event that insurance isn't going to cover, then you're stuck for eight years,” Bryson said.

A potential fix

There may be a less costly solution on the horizon: The Ohio legislature is considering a bill to overhaul the suspension process. Under the bipartisan bill, pulling a license could no longer be a possible penalty for outstanding fines and fees, among other provisions, according to reporting by the Statehouse News Bureau’s Sarah Donaldson.

If it passes, Ohio would become the 22nd state to eliminate suspensions for a failure to pay, according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

“It would be one of the most comprehensive pieces of legislation on this issue to pass in the country,” Eckles said. “It would not eliminate the problem entirely, but would be a gigantic step.”

In the meantime though, Klintworth has filed for bankruptcy. With her debt now cleared, she’s working on passing her driving test after nearly five years without a license.

Kendall Crawford is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently worked as a reporter at Iowa Public Radio.