For many people, the ticket would have been a minor inconvenience requiring them to pay fines, fees and court costs amounting to around $190. But for Morris, who was supporting herself and her son on about $1,800 a month, coming up with $190 was more than an inconvenience. It was impossible.
As a result, the unpaid ticket cascaded into a three-year ordeal that included the suspension of her license and then two driving-under-suspension charges, hundreds of dollars more in court debts and a night in jail.
Today, cleveland.com tells Morris' story as part of Cleveland Connects: Justice for All, a series examining Ohio's practice of suspending driver's licenses to compel defendants to pay court debts, punish them for unpaid insurance or other non-safety-related issues.
Cleveland Connects is a partnership between cleveland.com, WVIZ/PBS ideastream and 90.3 WCPN and is sponsored by PNC Bank. The partners and PNC will host an April 3 panel discussion about the adverse impact of fines and fees on poor defendants. The discussion is scheduled for 6 to 7 p.m. on April 3 at the ideastream studios in downtown Cleveland.
The penalty has devastating effects on low-income drivers. It can entrap them in the justice system for months or years and drive them deeper into poverty. Advocates for criminal justice reform say this is yet another aspect of the criminal justice that disproportionately negatively impacts indigent defendants and needs to be changed.
"At a certain point … more judges have to look at forgiving these fines and fees," said Mike Brickner, senior policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. "If we are leaving that individual less likely to make it in the world and more likely to end up back in the criminal justice system, then we as taxpayers have lost and we have also lost a whole lot for that individual and their family."
Without a license, they can't drive to work to earn money to pay off the court debts that led to their suspended licenses. For many jobs, a valid license is a requirement. They also can't pick up children from school or drive to medical appointments -- situations that exacerbate the already stressful lives of people living in poverty.
And they must pay additional fees to the Ohio Bureau of Motor vehicles, on top of the court debts, to have their licenses reinstated.
People who miss a court appearance or a payment also risk being arrested and having to post bail to secure release from jail, as courts often put out arrest orders and block people from renewing their licenses in tandem with suspensions.
Faced with these tough circumstances, many people with suspended licenses continue driving and ignore their tickets. A 2013 report by the American Association of Motor Vehicles estimates about 75 percent of people with suspended licenses keep driving.
When suspended drivers are pulled over and ticketed for driving under suspension, the cycle begins again: More court costs. More fees. More stress.
Morris, 34, is all too familiar with this cycle.
Had she appeared in court on her South Euclid traffic ticket and showed a valid license, a judge likely would have dismissed the charge. But Morris didn't know what the court would do, and she didn't have the money to pay off her ticket, so she missed her first court appearance.
South Euclid gave Morris one more chance to show up, but when she skipped her second court appointment, the court suspended her license and put out a warrant for her arrest.
Indigent defendants often have little trust in the criminal justice system, experts say. Fearing the consequences of their financial instability and potential jail time, they skip out on court appearances.
"I think the critical issue is that fear that I don't have the money, so that compels me not to show up and it becomes a self-compounding and perpetuating situation," said Ronnie Dunn, a professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University, who has studied racial disparities in traffic ticketing practices.
In February 2015, Morris was stopped by Cleveland police for failing to use her turn signal. The officer also charged her with four other offenses, including driving under suspension. Facing fines for each of her five charges plus court costs — a penalty Morris again knew she couldn't afford — she missed her court dates, and the court put out a warrant for her arrest.
Over a year later, in June 2016, she was pulled over in Orange, where an officer issued a ticket accusing her of driving a car with expired plates and driving under suspension.
She told cleveland.com that she knew she shouldn't have been driving, but felt it was worth the risk to take her son to dinner for his 14th birthday.
Morris hasn't worked since giving birth in July to another son. But her financial prospects are improving. Her boyfriend of two years, the father of her second son, started a truck-driving job making about $40,000 a year. And she has a job opportunity as a phlebotomist, but the job would require a valid license so she could drive to nursing homes all over Cuyahoga County.
With the extra money and a job contingent upon her obtaining a lawful license, Morris decided to clean up her court obligations.
She turned herself in to Cleveland on Feb. 21. The court had put out a warrant for her arrest and set a $1,000 bail for skipping out on the 2015 traffic ticket. She avoided jail time by posting $100, 10 percent of the $1,000 bail, plus $44 in additional fees.
Two days later, she turned herself in to South Euclid. The court cancelled the license suspension and warrant, and told her to come back to court on March 7.
After she left South Euclid on Feb. 23, she went to Orange. The Bedford Municipal Court, which handles cases in Orange, had put a warrant out for her arrest and set bail at $1,500 after she missed her second court date.
Morris couldn't afford the $1,500, so the Orange police took her to the Beachwood jail, where she spent the night waiting to see a judge.
"It was the hardest night of my life. The first night away from the baby. Ridiculous. All for a license," she said. "I can see murderers and rapists. People who do stuff like that. That's the life they deserve. But just an everyday stay-at-home mom? I didn't deserve to spend the night in jail just because I couldn't afford to give them money."
The next morning, a Bedford judge arraigned her via video, allowed her to post $150 — 10 percent of the $1,500 — and told her to return to court on Feb. 28.
Bedford amended its policy last year to allow some defendants to be let out on a 10 percent bond. Morris would have qualified for release on the $150 had the warrant been issued after the new policy took effect, according to Bedford Court Administrator Tom Day.
Morris showed up to Bedford on Feb. 28 and again on March 28, and was told her to come back with a valid license on May 2. To do so, she had to visit the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and pay $85 in fees associated with the warrant blocks and suspension: $25 for the license suspension in South Euclid and $15 for the warrant block, $30 for two warrant blocks in Cleveland, and $15 for the warrant block in Bedford.
When her court dates in South Euclid and Cleveland came, Morris was there, valid license in hand. South Euclid dismissed her case, and charged her nothing.
Cleveland dropped four of Morris' charges and amended her driving-under-suspension charge to another zero-point violation. She is due back in court on April 5, and could potentially owe $221 in additional court costs, fines and fees.
If she shows up to her Cleveland court date and to Bedford on May 2, Morris' years-long traffic ticket trap will finally be over — if she can afford to pay the court costs, fees and fines she'll likely owe.
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