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There is no greater enemy of the Texas resident than the Driver Responsibility Program. Never heard of it? Few have, but millions of Texans have been hurt by this unconstitutional revenue-generarting program. Passed with almost no debate by the Legislature in the bad-budget year of 2003, the program was intended to make bad drivers pay for trauma care by levying steep civil surcharges on top of criminal penalties for DWI’s, multiple traffic violations and (most problematic) driving with an invalid license or no insurance. The Driver Responsibility Program was supposed to improve public safety. Instead, it has saddled countless drivers with onerous fines, introduced a new form of double jeopardy to the legal system, stripped more than a million drivers of their drivers’ licenses and—in a classic example of perverse incentives—decreased DWI convictions.
For most traffic violations (e.g., running a red light) drivers accrue “points,” and if you rack up six points in any three-year period, you’re levied a fine of at least $100 each year for three years. If you get convicted for DWI, no insurance, driving without a license or driving with an invalid license, you’ll receive an automatic surcharge on your fine of $100 to $2,000 each year for three years, depending on the offense. Or even more if you’ve already accumulated six points. That’s on top of court fees, criminal penalties and the administrative charges levied by Municipal Services Bureau, a for-profit company that runs the surcharge program for the Department of Public Safety. Each surcharge is treated as a different “account” by Municipal Services Bureau, and many people report never having received notice of their surcharges. Missing a single payment can lead to suspension of your driver’s license. You may not even know your license has been rendered invalid until you get pulled over and slapped with a ticket (cost: $500, plus court costs, plus $750 in surcharges, plus an automatic one- or two-year suspension of your license). A second offense means you’re probably going to jail.
The failure of the Driver Responsibility Program can be measured in many ways, but here’s just one: Of the $3.4 billion in surcharges that have been assessed over the last decade, only $1.4 billion has been collected—an abysmal collection rate of 40 percent. Another telling stat: Nearly 1.3 million Texas drivers now have invalid driver’s licenses due to the program’s spiraling penalties, making a simple trip to the store, or to work, either a hassle or a risk.
Many just can’t pay- especially in the shape our country is in now. “We shouldn’t be taking driver’s licenses from somebody because they don’t have money,” Edna Staudt, a conservative Republican justice of the peace in Williamson County, who is notoriously tough-on-crime, told a legislative committee in early August. “They’re not crooks; they’re not criminals; they’re not thieves; they’re not robbers or rapists; they’re just people that didn’t have money. ”
The program is deeply unpopular, and voices calling for its abolition are unusually diverse. Judges, prosecutors and jailers hate it. Hospitals, whose trauma centers are directly funded by the program, are happy to find other sources of revenue. Even Mothers Against Drunk Driving wouldn’t protest its repeal.
And yet, the corrupt Legislature shows almost no appetite for serious reform. At a hearing in August of 2015, Rep. Joe Pickett, the El Paso Democrat who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said, “There is no intention on my part to do away with the program.” Instead, he circulated draft legislation that would modestly reduce the fees while trying to bolster “compliance.” Why are lawmakers refusing to budge? Money.
Pickett was blunt, while spewing his refusal to abide by our constitutional rights, and in open session in front of two or more witnesses proclaimed, “We’re the government. We’re living off of these monies … We’re not going to give up the money.”
That statement alone is TREASON! He should have been arrested immediately!
Meet Devin Mitchell
The 28-year-old Cleburne mother fears leaving her house because she could end up in jail.
“I feel like a criminal, and I’m not a criminal,” she insists. “It’s so infuriating to me…. All I ever wanted to do was work and take care of my own,” she said. “But this keeps me from being a viable member of society.”
Devin’s crime? 10 years ago, she drove her deceased sister’s car, not knowing it wasn’t insured. The repercussions of that small transgression continue to plague her, more than 10 years later. “This has absolutely ruined my life,” she said.
Devin quickly paid the ticket. But, she knew nothing of the Texas Driver Responsibility Program. Devin didn’t know that she not only had to pay her ticket but also owed the state a $250 surcharge every year for the following three years.
“No one said a word to me about it,” she said. The first she knew of the problem was when her boss at Pizza Hut informed her that her driver’s license was suspended. She worked as a delivery driver, so the company monitored her driving status.
That forced Devin to switch to an inside job at the restaurant, giving up lots of tip money. She set about making monthly payments toward the surcharges.
But she still had to drive to work with a suspended license. So she soon received a ticket for that, which started a whole new round of surcharges!
“It’s not like I had a choice. I had to work. And I had to drive to get there,” she said. With a suspended license, she couldn’t keep insurance… Without insurance, she couldn’t get her car inspected…. Which led to MORE tickets and MORE surcharges.
Then came word of an amnesty program. “I got this letter and it was like heaven opening up,” she said.
But on her way to the Department of Public Safety to pay off her reduced fees, she was stopped for having an expired inspection sticker. “I tried to explain. I showed the officer the amnesty letter. He said, ‘It doesn’t matter.’” – Sounds like a wonderful officer just trying to “serve and protect”, huh? She got a new ticket — and a new surcharge that didn’t qualify for amnesty.
Devin eventually gave up and quit paying anything on the tickets or surcharges. Warrants were issued. She gave up on holding a job. She and her boyfriend and their 7-year-old son scrape by on his income.
“I have thrown thousands of dollars at this problem and it has yet to go away,” she said. “It has been absolutely devastating.”
Devin is far from alone. The state has suspended the licenses of 1.3 million Texans over failure to pay surcharges. Surcharges totaling $3.2 billion have been assessed, but only $1.2 billion has been paid. That uncollected $2 billion translates into financial and legal misery for many low-income Texas families. But state officials see only the $1.2 billion in easy money.
In late January, at the Senate Transportation Committee, State Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, likened the program to debtors’ prison. “Obviously, it doesn’t bother a rich person, someone who has the ability to pay,” Huffines said. “But we’re creating a permanent underclass.”
Judge Jean Spradling Hughes of Harris County Criminal Court also spoke out against the program. “I don’t know if I’ve seen a public law with such dire unintended consequences,” Hughes said
This program is still in place, by the way…