Driving under suspension is top criminal charge heard by Cleveland Municipal Court

CLEVELAND - Thousands of people drive illegally in Cleveland each year, and the auto industry said the problem affects all motorists.

"Not only is this a safety issue for all motorists to be concerned about," said Brian Newbacher, a spokesman for AAA. "But if you hit someone who's an uninsured motorist or an uninsured motorist hits you, ultimately it's going to come out of your pocket one way or another."

Driving under suspension ranks as the top criminal charge heard by the Cleveland Municipal Court and ranks as 10 percent of the criminal docket.

 "It's huge," said Ronald Adrine, Cleveland Municipal Court Administrative and Presiding Judge. "A significant portion of our total criminal case load is made up of people who either don't have a license or never had a license or have had their license suspended."

According to the court, 13,488 people got caught driving in Cleveland without a proper license in 2011. That number inched up in 2012 to 13,774. In the first five months of 2013, 6,021 people drove illegally.

A majority of Judge Adrine's daily docket is made up of people who get caught driving illegally and oftentimes it's not their first offense.

"I've had as much as 20-plus convictions for drivers driving under suspension that have assessed against a single individual," he said.

Adrine said it's not uncommon for people to walk into his courtroom with more than 10 prior driving under suspension convictions.

"There's really no excuses, but when you have to go to work, go to school and take care of the kids, them telling you not to drive is not an option," said Sandtasha Hope, a 25-year-old Cleveland resident who went before Judge Adrine on Wednesday for violating her fourth unlicensed probation.

Hope said she hasn't had the money to pay for car insurance in the past, so her license has been yanked. Judge Adrine said the same problem plagues a majority of unlicensed defendants.

"In many instances, it revolves down to money," he said. "They can't afford the insurance that's required, but they feel like they have to go to work."

AAA reports that about one in five fatal crashes involves an unlicensed or invalidly-licensed driver. But to help curb the problem, the court hosts a Traffic Intervention Program (TIP) to help unlawful drivers restore their driving privileges.

"It is a balancing act trying to figure out not only what is in the best interest of the community but also of the individual," said Judge Adrine.

Driving under suspension is a first-degree misdemeanor with fines up to $1,000 plus court costs and up to 180 days in jail.

Hope arrived in court Wednesday with car insurance and a valid driver's license.  However, Judge Adrine still sentenced her to 500 hours of community service plus probation. She's confident that this time around she'll stay out of trouble.

"This is going to be my last time here," she said. "I'm not coming back for insurance problems."

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