Ohio bill would limit drivers license suspensions for non-driving offenses

Unanimously approved bipartisan Senate bill awaits first hearing in House

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

License suspensions as a form of punishment could become significantly less common in Ohio if a Senate-approved, bipartisan bill gets confirmed by the House before the end of the year.

Senate Bill 37 has gained broad support among criminal justice reform advocates throughout the state, but the effort’s attempt to further limit how often Ohioans face license suspensions has raised concern from the state’s leading prosecutors association and local officials tasked with collecting child support.

Under the bill, drivers license suspensions would be outright banned as an avenue of punishment for most drug abuse offenses, for the failure to pay court fines or fees and for truancy. In addition, S.B. 37 would give Ohioans in default on child support the chance to tell the courts that a suspended license would further hinder their ability to get up-to-date on their payments — further limiting how often the punishment could be handed down.

The bill was approved unanimously by the Ohio Senate in late May and now awaits its first committee hearing in the Ohio House.

Republican joint sponsor Sen. Louis Blessing, R-Colerain Twp., testified that each of these infractions have no bearing on an Ohioan’s ability to drive. He noted that taking away someone’s ability to drive in a car-dependent state such as Ohio can have harsh and unintended consequences.

“Imagine a person is convicted of something that has nothing to do with driving, for example drug possession, and has their driver’s license suspended,” Blessing said. “Just like that, their ability to drive to work, take their child to school, go to a medical appointment, or pick up groceries has been severely diminished, if not completely vanished.”

Blessing called the ultimatum an “impossible scenario” that makes Ohioans choose between complying with their license suspension or completing necessary, daily tasks.

But the prospect of limiting license suspensions for Ohioans behind on child support has raised the eyebrows of Montgomery County Job and Family Services officials, who testified before the Ohio Senate in December that they often receive child support payments directly after threatening a license suspension.

Sarah Fields, then-assistant director of the department, said the county put out 2,012 license suspension threats in the last six months of 2022 and received 428 payments, which yielded over $145,000 in child support overall. She warned about the impact if the threat is diluted.

“Please remember that child support is not a simple debt. It is a duty under the law — a duty to support your child — and therefore should not be treated like other accumulated debt,” Fields said. “There are true consequences for families and children when this duty is not met.”

Democrat joint sponsor Sen. Catherine Ingram, D-Cincinnati, testified that, while federal law bars states from completely doing away with license suspensions for folks behind on child support, the state could add safety measures to ensure that a license suspension doesn’t further hinder their ability to pay child support in the present and future.

“If the goal is to help a child financially, surely removing a parent’s access to employment is counter intuitive,” Ingram testified.

The bill saw pushback from the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, which represents the state’s county prosecutors.

Lou Tobin, executive director, said license suspensions have been an important part of Ohio’s law enforcement system. Under current law, Tobin testified, if a person has their license suspended due to drug possession but is then pulled over, police have the power to search their vehicle. He pointed to a recent drug trafficking arrest in northeast Ohio that stemmed from a license suspension.

However, county prosecutors are not a monolith. Ashtabula County Prosecutor Colleen Mary O’Toole told the Senate that license suspensions for non-driving related offenses “is not a viable deterrent or consequence for such violations, nor are they achieving their intended purpose.”

It’s not clear when the Ohio House will begin deliberating S.B. 37, as Ohio legislators are on summer recess and are not scheduled to return until after the election this November. If the House does decide to take it up, it will need to pass the bill before the end of the year in order for it to become law.

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Avery Kreemer can be reached at 614-981-1422, on X, via email, or you can drop him a comment/tip with the survey below.

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