A Barberton man owes $2,770 to the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles and an even larger amount to Ohio courts.

With this $6,500 debt, Donald Starling figured he might not ever get his driver’s license back.

Starling, though, learned this week that he might be able to get the amount he owes the BMV reduced, thanks to a six-month amnesty program that starts Thursday. That’s welcome news for the 57-year-old who isn’t currently working and has applied for disability benefits because of a work-related injury.

“Man, it would be a relief,” said Starling, who hasn’t had a driver’s license since 2006 and has a long list of driving-under-suspension violations. “No more looking over my shoulder. No more looking in the rearview mirror. When you ain’t got your license, you will get pulled over.”

Starling is among 410,000 people across Ohio who could benefit from the amnesty program that allows people who owe driver’s license reinstatement fees to apply to get this debt reduced by at least half or erased. The amnesty pertains to BMV fees and not court costs, which also must be paid before driving privileges are restored.

Barberton Judge David Fish said for many people like Starling, help with the BMV fees will make the possibility of getting their licenses back more realistic.

“If they owe $2,000, that may be a million dollars to a lot of people,” said Fish, who told Starling about the amnesty program when he was in court this week for another driving-under-suspension violation. “We are trying to give them a hand up.”

Spreading the word

Fish and Barberton Judge Todd McKenney plan to do all they can to get the word out about the amnesty program, even offering a special clinic in court Feb. 9.

“If you owe the BMV, you should apply,” McKenney said.

Summit County residents who need assistance also can attend one of the monthly clinics for Volunteers Assisting Licensed Individual Drivers (VALID), an effort started two years ago to help people get their licenses back. The program is a joint effort of the University of Akron’s Legal Clinic, the Akron Bar Association’s Access to Justice Committee and several other local agencies and has assisted about 1,200 people.

VALID is currently only offered in Summit County, though efforts are underway to expand it to other Northeast Ohio counties and elsewhere in the state.

Organizers are expecting — and hoping for — an uptick in interest at the upcoming VALID clinics because of the amnesty program.

The amnesty program, created by a bill passed by the Ohio legislature, has a few exclusions, including not applying to people with commercial driver’s license suspensions.

Those who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP benefits can receive a complete waiver of their BMV fees, while others can get a reduction. Applicants should find out within 10 days whether they qualify, said Lindsey Bohrer, a BMV spokeswoman.

Big problem

The list of reasons people can lose their licenses is so long that one Ohio judge — Parma Judge Ken Spanagel — even wrote a song about it.

Some offenses — including habitual absence from school, failure to pay child support and trafficking tobacco products— have nothing to do with driving.

Fish and McKenney say at least half the cases on their dockets are for driving under suspension and they sometimes have an entire day or court session with nothing but people charged with this offense.

“It’s crazy trying to navigate how to get out from under this,” Fish said.

The Barberton judges have become such experts on license challenges that they even offer help with this issue to people who appear before them for unrelated reasons.

McKenney told Nikki Caldwell, who is in the Barberton drug court program, about the amnesty program this week after learning she had a suspended license.

Caldwell, 47, lost her license in 2006 after she allowed a family member without a license to drive her car and he got into an accident. She owes $470 to the BMV and has no outstanding court costs. Because she receives food stamps, she may be eligible for a full BMV waiver.

“She should be able to get a waiver of her fees, get insurance and retest,” McKenney said, referring to a remedial driving test required for people who have been without a license for an extended period. “This is the best-case scenario.”

Caldwell said she hasn’t driven since losing her license and has been taking the bus, which is at times difficult because she’s had two strokes. She said being able to drive again would be helpful for both her and her daughter, who are living together in Stow. Both lost their licenses and plan to apply for amnesty.

If Caldwell gets her license back, she said she would be able to more easily look for a job, attend court-required meetings and take care of her grandchildren.

“This is a really good opportunity,” said Caldwell, who got teary as she talked.

Starling’s situation, though, is a bit more complicated. Besides applying for amnesty for his BMV fines, Starling also must address the debts he owes to several courts. He owes the most to the Barberton court and can set up a payment plan of $50 a month for these fees.

Starling plans to attend the next VALID clinic to find out what steps he must take and in what order. He admits that all of this is a bit daunting and confusing.

“I really don’t understand the whole thing,” he said. “I’m going to go with it — and see what happens.”

Asked whether the amnesty period will help the overall problem, McKenney said time will tell.

“At its heart, part of the problem is financial,” he said. “It’s expensive to drive. If you don’t get insurance, the penalties are great. People get trapped in a cycle and it’s hard to break out.”

McKenney said for those now in this cycle, the amnesty program offers them something they likely haven’t had for a long time: hope.

Starling said it has for him.

“This is going to motivate me,” he said, smiling. “I’m going to get my license back!”

 

Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, swarsmith@thebeaconjournal.com and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.