MAHONING COUNTY Drivers without licenses, insurance keep flouting law
Records show that most drivers with suspended licenses circulate through municipal court like clothes in a washer stuck in the spin cycle.
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- The question isn't as deep as "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" but why do uninsured drivers with suspended licenses draw attention to themselves?
They play their music too loud, run red lights, speed and fail to signal turns.
Sometimes they crash. Sometimes they drive stolen cars.
"It's their nature; they do what they do," said city police Capt. Kenneth Centorame. "I don't think they go out of their way to get stopped. Some are just bad drivers."
Municipal Judge Elizabeth A. Kobly sees it differently.
"They don't care," she said. "Driving under suspension is the most common offense I've seen since I've been here."
No. 1: She called it the No. 1 crime in the city.
The judge said defendants in her court get valid licenses, which require insurance, or go to jail. "It's truly just that simple."
City police -- on all sides of town -- and Mahoning County deputy sheriffs who patrol the East Side, make dozens of arrests for driving under suspension each week. DUS is generally accompanied by another acronym, FRA, which means the license was suspended because the driver has not complied with the state's financial responsibility act by obtaining insurance.
It's the law: It is illegal in Ohio to drive any vehicle without insurance or other financial responsibility coverage. Last year, 2,121 Mahoning County drivers stopped by police had no insurance and still don't, said Julie Stebbins, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
Judge Kobly said she allows people time, sometimes three to four months, to pay reinstatement fees to get valid licenses.
She said people often dig themselves into a hole by failing to get insurance and end up with multiple charges in various jurisdictions, which makes it more difficult to pay the fees that accumulate.
Unlike Pennsylvania, folks at the Ohio BMV don't require proof of insurance when drivers' licenses and license plates are issued. They require only signing a form stating that you have insurance, Stebbins said.
Throughout Ohio, roughly 12 percent of drivers have no insurance, Stebbins said.
Centorame estimates that one out of every four drivers stopped by police in the city have no insurance.
Judges comment: Judges Kobly and Robert A. Douglas Jr. agreed with the estimate, suggesting it could be even higher. The court's third judge, Robert P. Milich, was not available.
Judge Douglas said the DUS-FRA charge is a tough, complex issue. The topic, he said, comes up at every judges' association meeting, and the consensus is that no one is satisfied with the BMV, which creates problems with stringent fees.
Judge Douglas, too, said defendants dig themselves into a hole when they let the reinstatement fees build up to the point where they may owe $1,000 and can't pay. Jail time, he said, doesn't help if the person is genuinely trying to pay what he owes.
The judge said he'd like to see a diversion-type program similar to one used in Cincinnati that helps people negotiate "the maze" of BMV requirements. He called the current setup an administrative nightmare.
Economic problem: Centorame believes economics plays a part in the lack of valid licenses. Police reports list no employment for many of those charged with DUS-FRA in the city.
A spokeswoman for the Ohio Insurance Institute said the cost of liability insurance, especially for drivers under age 25, can range from $100 to $175 per month.
Stebbins said the first time an uninsured driver has his license suspended, it generally happens in one of two ways. Either he gets stopped by police for some traffic violation and fails to show proof of insurance, or he was selected at random by the BMV and failed to return an insurance questionnaire.
Roughly 6,000 questionnaires are sent out each week to verify insurance, Stebbins said. Last year, 10,491 Ohioans randomly selected for verification by the BMV had no insurance, and of those, 264 lived in Mahoning County.
A study committee appointed by the governor to research the verification program is expected to make recommendations to the General Assembly in September. The creation of a link between insurance companies and the BMV is being considered.
Getting away: If uninsured drivers are never stopped by police or aren't sent a BMV questionnaire, they've effectively slipped through the cracks, Stebbins acknowledged.
After a license is suspended, each time the driver gets stopped again by police, the arrest report will show the charge as DUS-FRA.
The law states that drivers who violate the suspension will have their cars immobilized and the plates confiscated for 30 days on the first offense and 60 days for the second.
For third and subsequent offenses, the vehicle will be forfeited and sold and the person not permitted to register any motor vehicle in Ohio for five years.
Judge Kobly said police and prosecutors haven't been pursuing the car-forfeiture program, but she tells defendants in her court that their vehicles are subject to forfeiture. "I'll carry my end of it; the other people better get on board," she said.
Clerk of court computer records show that most of the drivers with suspended licenses circulate through municipal court like clothes in a washer stuck in the spin cycle.
For example: Take 22-year-old Lebron Bunkley Jr. of East Ravenwood Avenue. Police heard loud music on Pasadena Avenue last week, and then Bunkley's car came into view.
Aside from a loud-music citation, his fourth in three years, the officers charged Bunkley with DUS-FRA, his fourth in eight months.
Here's what happened so far when Bunkley appeared in court to answer his DUS-FRA charges:
UMarch 20 -- Judge Douglas gave Bunkley 90 days in jail, suspended it all, fined him $250, suspended $150 and placed him on one year's probation. (Oct. 2, 2000, arrest).
UMarch 20 -- Judge Kobly gave Bunkley 180 days in jail, suspended 175, fined him $100, placed him on one year's probation and told him to maintain a valid license and insurance. (Oct. 6, 2000, arrest).
UMarch 30 -- Judge Milich accepted Bunkley's no contest plea, ordered a presentence investigation and set sentencing for May 18. Bunkley failed to appear, and the judge issued a warrant. The judge reset sentencing to June 25, and Bunkley again failed to appear. The judge reset sentencing to Aug. 27. (March 29 arrest).
U July 3 -- Magistrate Anthony Sertick accepted Bunkley's innocent plea at arraignment and set a pretrial hearing for Sept. 11.
Judge Douglas said jail time becomes necessary for defendants such as Bunkley, who, in effect, thumb their noses at the system. He said he'll have Bunkley in for a probation violation hearing.
Judge Kobly said she also considers conviction on a jailable offense a probation violation. The probation can then be modified, extended or revoked.
Another example: Barbara E. Kosap, 38, of Caledonia Avenue, meanwhile, is another example. She was first charged in the city in late 1998. The charge was resolved with a fine in July 1999.
She was arrested last Monday at home after failing to appear in Judge Douglas' court June 25 to answer her second charge of driving without a valid license, which has been pending since her arrest in October 2000. She pleaded innocent at arraignment and Magistrate Anthony Sertick set trial for July 20.
While that case dragged on, she was arrested again May 14 on a charge of driving with a suspended license and went to court May 21.
Judge Milich placed her on one year's nonreporting probation, gave her 90 days in jail, suspended 83 days and gave her credit for seven days she'd spent in jail, unable to post $1,000 bond.
Judge Milich had scheduled a show-cause hearing for June 21, by which time she was supposed to pay $100 fines and cost.
She hasn't paid the fines, and the judge's court did not pull the case file in preparation for her coming to court for the show-cause hearing, the clerk's office said.