Public-safety and criminal-justice agencies assessed $884.7 million in fees but failed to collect $292.7 million in 2006-07. Of that, $290 million was left uncollected by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
In 2003, a state law went into affect allowing the state to assign points and apply surcharges on drivers convicted of moving violations classified as Class C misdemeanors. Under its driver responsibility program, drivers are fined annual surcharges once they get a certain number of points during a three-year period. The surcharges range from $100 (driving without a license) all the way up to $2,000 (DWI).
In 2006-07, the DPS did not collect $268 million in fees and surcharges related to its driver responsibility program. Ninety-nine cents of every dollar collected is supposed to go to the Trauma Center and the Texas General Revenue Funds, and the remaining 1 percent goes to DPS to administer the driver responsibility program.
Regular readers know that these so-called "Driver Responsibility" fees - what a truly Orwellian name! - are so high that 70% of those on whom the fines are assessed cannot pay. The result has been a legal and bureaucratic nightmare of Capital "B" Boondoggle proportions: More than 10% of adult Texans now have outstanding arrest warrants, largely as a result of unpaid fees and fines on traffic offenses.
The Lege has come to wrongly see fees added to tickets and court costs as painless cash cows. (That's also true of hospitals providing trauma care, who ironically are the most powerful lobby against reforming this wretched statute.) But since 2003, with the addition of the Driver Responsibility fee, Texas reached a tipping point where returns on that strategy began to diminish because it would cost more to collect all the fees than they generate.
When more than one in ten adult Texans are wanted by the police, mostly for fines they can't afford to pay and other penny ante BS, to me that's a sign the whole overcriminalization trend has truly reached a point of absurdity. With the economy in a downturn, negative consequences from this approach will likely only get worse in the near future.
Relatedly, the Collin County Observer brings the astonishing news that more than one third of outstanding arrest warrants in that county are for failure to pay tolls - I kid you not! Writes Bill Baumbach:
While Collin County residents go about their daily lives, most are unaware of a new crime spree that is sweeping our county. Thousands of offenses against the peace have created a new class of criminal fugitive from justice.
Warrants are piling up, they come in faster than the constables and police can hope to keep up with them. Periodic warrant roundups can only scratch the surface of the mass of arrests needed to keep up with the papers that flow in daily to our constables office.
As of yesterday, there were 12,377 of these arrest warrants waiting to be served in Collin County.
About a third of the thirty thousand plus outstanding arrest warrants in Collin County are for this one crime - "Failure to pay tolls". It has become the leading reason to be wanted by the police in Collin County.
That's right, "Failure to pay tolls". No fooling.
Baumbach clears up my own confusion about this, since I'd understood that tolls were civil fines, not crimnal violations:
I remember when the NTTA first proposed the automated toll booths. We were told that since the fines were civil in nature, an "administrative fine", there need be no typical "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" burden that the US and Texas constitutions provide for all criminal defendants.
But now as the warrants pile up, we learn that while the fine may be civil, failure to pay it is a criminal offense.
Now there's a slippery slope for you. Are cops, courts and arrest warrants really the only way to go about traffic enforcement or insuring drivers, or might engineering solutions and civil regulatory structures perform these tasks just as well?
Licensed peace officers are some of the most expensive employees on every local government's payroll. Does it really make sense to use them as bill collectors for the toll booth operators?
I recall being surprised to learn this summer that 22% of arrests by Austin police officers are for Class C misdemeanors - one wonders if this police-as-bill-collector function explains why that number's so high? Since one in four Texans has no insurance and is therefore subject to "Driver Responsibility" fees if they're ticketed (which is how you get more than one in ten with outstanding arrest warrants), conceivably revenue generation could become a full time job for every cop in the state.
The justice system has a difficult enough time solving crimes and preserving public safety without also imposing on it the role of tax collector.