Group sues over Texas Driver Responsibility Program, says fines trap poor in cycle of debt
After being arrested for drunken driving in 2017, Nathan Alexander, 35, paid court fees and attended residential alcohol treatment. Then he learned he would have to pay thousands of dollars in additional surcharges because of the Texas’ Driver Responsibility Program, which charges fees to drivers who commit certain driving-related infractions.
On Wednesday, attorneys from the Austin Community Law Center along with Equal Justice Under Law, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focused on income bias, sued Texas officials over the DRP, alleging it has trapped Alexander and tens of thousands of vulnerable Texans in a modern day debtor’s prison.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, described the DRP as a “mean and cruel” system, adding he looked forward to reading and supporting the lawsuit.
“Sometimes it takes a lawsuit for the state to do the right thing,” he said. “Maybe this is one of those times.”
The program’s fees, which are assessed annually for three years, can range as high as $2,000 a year. That was far more than Alexander could handle, since he was working as a dishwasher while he got back on his feet. Prior to his conviction, he had held down a $70,000-a-year job in construction.
Now, a year after his arrest, the fees have prevented him from obtaining a drivers license and have kept him mired in homelessness and blocked his to return to his old profession, despite two job offers.
The suit was brought in San Antonio federal court against Gov. Greg Abbott and four top officials at the Texas Department of Public Safety. It seeks a judgment to prevent DPS from issuing or processing driver’s license suspensions for unpaid surcharges under the DRP and the reinstatement of licenses previously suspended for failure to pay DRP surcharges.
Equal Justice Under Law Executive Director Phil Telfeyan said Texas’ most impoverished residents particularly are harmed by the system because they often are unaware that they owe additional charges under the DRP.
“Individuals who cannot pay will often lose their job and their home — becoming homeless — for a minor ticket that wealthier drivers simply pay and forget,” he said, in a news release.
The class action lawsuit argues the DRP violates Texans’ due process rights, unfairly impacts the state’s poorest residents, and violates their rights to equal protection under the law. It names Abbott, DPS Director Steven McCraw, as well as DPS Chairman Steven Mach; Skylor Hearn, DPS’ deputy director of Administration and Services; and Amanda Arriaga, division director of the driver license division. Abbott’s office declined to comment. Officials with DPS did not respond to a request for comment.
Equal Justice Under Law brought the suit on behalf of four plaintiffs: a 75-year-old San Antonio woman, two U.S. Navy veterans and Alexander.
Driver Responsibility Program Lawsuit by Houston Chronicle on Scribd
In sworn declarations filed with the lawsuit, Alexander and the three other plaintiffs described the hardships caused by the program. Alexander, the homeless plaintiff, had to turn down two jobs that could have paid him $70,000 to $80,000, because the high fees he has yet to finish paying prevent him from being able to drive.
“I am trying to maintain my sobriety, take responsibility of my life, and move forward as a positive member of society,” Alexander wrote. “However, the impossible surcharges I have under the DRP make this nearly impossible to do, and I am afraid I will be stuck in poverty indefinitely.”
Graciela Rodriguez, the 75-year-old woman from San Antonio, was pulled over for driving without insurance in 2010. She eventually was able to pay off the $400 ticket and $100 to have her license reinstated. When she went to renew her license three years ago, however, she learned that she owed DRP fees. Trying to pay off her charges proved a Sisyphean task, she wrote, describing an opaque process with little information about how much she owed or how she could pay it back. Now, she spends five hours a day on buses traveling to and from work, and once had to be rushed to the hospital because she was overheated.
Where she once saw her grandkids several times a week, she rarely sees them now.
“I do not believe I will ever be able to pay off my surcharges and get my license back,” she wrote.
The 66-page lawsuit is the latest challenge to the DRP, which has come under intense scrutiny since it was implemented in 2003 in a bid by state lawmakers to make Texas roads safer and to make dangerous drivers pay for the harm they cause. The proceeds were supposed to help pay for the state’s emergency trauma care system, while license suspensions were supposed to help keep dangerous drivers off the roads.
Instead, the program has led to an increase of drivers without valid licenses or without insurance traveling on Texas roadways. According to the suit, more than 1.4 million Texans have had their licenses suspended for failure to pay DRP surcharges, many for administrative violations that have nothing to do with traffic safety, such as driving while a license is expired or invalid.
The suit also argues that because revenues from the program fund state programs, the DRP “creates an incentive for defendants to keep indebted individuals unaware of procedural protections, including relief programs and surcharge reductions, even if those individuals are living in poverty and eligible for such programs as required by state law.”
And while state law requires DPS waive surcharges for impoverished individuals, it has failed to do that, according to the suit, which argued “defendants make no meaningful attempt to comply” with those requirements.
Criminal justice reform advocates also note that because many of those who run afoul of the DRP are unable to pay assessed surcharges, the program has generated less than half of the revenue anticipated since its inception. The suit also argues that even if plaintiffs try to find a way to pay off their fines in small monthly installment payments, the DRP surcharge suspension still operates “as a total ban on all driving in all places at all times” until motorists pay off their fines.
The suit is the latest from Equal Justice Under Law to hit Texas over how its criminal justice system disproportionately harms the poor. The group was one of several that sued Harris County in a landmark civil rights case, in which a federal judge ruled the county’s bail practices discriminated against poor people in violation of the constitution.
That case is likely to be settled after the November midterms election, in which a slew Democrats ousted Republican judges opposing the case.
While state lawmakers from both political parties agree the DRP is flawed, they failed to repeal it during the last legislative session because they have yet to find a way to replace the tens of millions of dollars the program brings to the state each year for trauma care and to the state’s general fund.
State Rep. James White, R-Hillister, another DRP critic, said he believed the Legislature would address problems with the program in the next legislative session.
“I don’t think this needs to be solved in court,” he said. “I think it needs to be solved in the house and senate.”
Civil rights advocates cheered the suit.
“Keeping your license should not be dependent on your income,” said, Natalia Cornelio, Director of the Texas Civil Rights Project’s, Criminal Justice Reform Project. “Governments should work with people, rather than try to get paid by punishing people and taking away their livelihood.”
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