After a jury found Kevin Hatfield guilty in 1994 of causing a fatal drunken-driving crash, he was sentenced to prison for up to 10 years and ordered never to drive again.
Hatfield, now 51, served slightly more than six years in prison. But court records show he has been driving at least since 2003, when he was cited for driving without a license. Ten traffic stops later, Hatfield is facing a charge that could send him back to prison.
Under a rarely used section of Ohio law, the Curtice, Ohio, man was indicted by a Lucas County grand jury for driving under a specified lifetime suspension, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison. His case is set for trial July 8 in Lucas County Common Pleas Court.
Records show that Hatfield was stopped by Oregon Police Feb. 6 while driving on Navarre Avenue. City Prosecutor Melissa Purpura turned the matter over to the Lucas County Prosecutor’s Office.
“I think people finally got fed up,” said Patricia Wardrop, the assistant Lucas County prosecutor assigned to the case. “His attorney argues that he’s been charged many times with misdemeanors, why charge him with a felony now?”
She answered the question simply: “Because we can, and because he will not stop driving.”
Attorney Larry DiLabbio, who represents Hatfield and represented him at his 1994 trial, concedes that his client has been driving, but, he said, it’s not entirely clear he knew his driving privileges had been suspended for life.
“What I’m looking at is the fact that he was stopped so many times and never at any time did they tell him he had a lifetime suspension,” Mr. DiLabbio said. “Though you assume he knew from sentencing, the other side of that coin is when you’re sitting there hearing you’re getting sentenced to 3 to 10 years in prison, that’s the most important thing you’re hearing as opposed to lifetime driver’s license suspension.”
Hatfield was convicted of aggravated vehicular homicide with the specification that he was driving under the influence for the May 15, 1993, death of Sharon Nagy, 32, of Toledo. Ms. Nagy was crossing Lagrange Street just after 11 p.m. when she was struck by Hatfield’s speeding pickup truck.
Court records show that shortly after he was released from prison in 2001, Hatfield filed a motion with the court to modify his license suspension — as Ohio law allows under some circumstances. But that request was denied by then-Common Pleas Judge James Jensen. Family members of Ms. Nagy as well as prosecutors had opposed the motion.
“Lifelong suspension of driving privileges in cases such as this would be rendered meaningless if every defendant could receive restoration of privileges by merely petitioning” the court, prosecutors wrote in a memorandum.
Mr. DiLabbio said in 2009, Hatfield sent a letter to Judge Jensen asking for his help to get his license back. There is no record that the judge responded. Hatfield said in the letter that he was trying to keep his father’s roofing business going to provide for his family and keep workers employed.
To get driving privileges restored, Ohioans with lifetime suspensions must show, among other things, that for the past five years, they had no moving violations or violations of a suspension order. Hatfield has a stack of them, and several occurred after 2007, when the law went into effect that made driving under a lifetime suspension a felony.
It’s a charge that’s rarely seen, although it has been used at least one other time in Lucas County.
In 2010, William E. Kutz II of Toledo was indicted on the felony after being pulled over on a drunken-driving charge. He had lost his driver’s license for life in 1992 after causing a drunken-driving crash that killed a young woman.
Kutz ultimately pleaded guilty to attempted driving under a specified lifetime suspension and was sentenced to 17 months in prison.
Tim Fisher, administrator of the suspension and licensing section of the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, said that at any given time 8 percent to 10 percent of the motoring public in Ohio — between 800,000 and 900,000 people — have some kind of suspension against their driver’s license.
The BMV cannot identify how many Ohioans have lifetime suspensions, he said, although the agency is working on adding a category in its database so that number eventually will be available.
He said anyone with a lifetime suspension cannot get a new driver’s license and should not be behind the wheel ever. That does not stop everyone, though.
“If they have keys and they make that choice, it’s very unfortunate,” Mr. Fisher said.
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