Here’s the problem. For many people, their license is suspended as the result of a DWI or for not having insurance. Then after they’re convicted of that offense, in addition to the fines and court costs, the State imposes a “driver responsibility fee.” This Orwellian named program requires payments of $200 to $1,000 a year for three years in order to reinstate the defendant’s driver’s license. If you don’t pay the fees, your license is suspended. This creates a Catch-22 that Grits for Breakfast has covered in more depth than I could possibly give here.This is a dilemma faced by every misdemeanor prosecutor in the state, and most are not handling the situation nearly as thoughtfully as this writer. I find particularly commendable the use of prosecutorial discretion to compel the driver to become licensed and legal instead of viewing his job as simply doling out punishment to wrongdoers, even those whose actions are "blatantly criminal and in my estimation very blameworthy." The Assistant clearly recognizes that the practical aspects outweigh moralizing platitudes, and it makes sense where possible to provide drivers a path back to legality instead of merely piling on punishments, which are financially impossible for lots of folks.
So you see how this plays out- Joe Citizen gets pulled over and doesn’t have insurance because he doesn’t think he can afford it. Joe pays his fine and court costs on the ticket, but then can’t pay the driver responsibility fees, so his license stays suspended. On top of that, he still doesn’t buy insurance. So a few months later, Joe gets pulled over again, and this time arrested for Class B DWLS. He sits across my desk after announcing that he wants to plead guilty and … What?
Any conviction is going to: 1) Have more fine and court costs, 2) either place him on probation with a $35 a month fee OR send him to county jail for a while and risk losing his job, 3) impose another driver responsibility surcharge he can’t pay, and 4) push him further away financially from being able to get a valid license and insurance. At the same time, Joe’s conduct is blatantly criminal and in my estimation very blameworthy. Joe knows he’s not allowed to drive, and chose to anyway. By driving without a license and insurance, he’s essentially shifted ALL the risk of driving a motor vehicle to other people. It doesn’t matter how poorly he drives, someone else is going to pay for it. On a personally infuriating note, the cost of my car insurance coverage for uninsured motorists is HIGHER here in Texas that it was on the urban east coast.
So here’s what I usually work out. Joe pleads not guilty, and has the case set for trial in a month or two. I tell Joe that if he can bring me proof that he’s gotten his license re-instated, then I’ll dismiss the case. The goal of the law is to make sure that people who drive have a license, so I figure if we can accomplish that goal, then there’s no need to proceed with the criminal case. This way, Joe can use the money he would have otherwise paid in fines and court costs on this case to pay off his surcharges and buy insurance. This, theoretically, should also help my too-high insurance rates.
Generally you won't find prosecutors having much good to say about the Driver Responsibility program, a view with which I find myself in happy agreement. Williamson County DA John Bradley has called the program "taxation masquerading as a public safety initiative." In February, Nolan County Attorney Lisa Peterson posted on the prosecutors' association message board that:
Thanks to the suspended license and no insurance law, our DWLI filings are over the top...again. As each conviction carries yet another surcharge, I'm trying to find some alternatives. We don't have mass transit in this rural county, and several arrests have been of people who work the graveyard shift trying to get to work at the cement plant or wall board plants. Reason for stop has been "saw Johnnie, knew he had no DL, so pulled over" - no bad driving.What then, indeed! On Monday the Public Safety Commission will consider indigency rules for the Driver Responsibility Program, but that won't fix the dilemma these prosecutors are describing. For that purpose, there needs to be a broader Amnesty program that lets drivers get out from under their fees by giving them a path to become licensed and legal.
My crystal ball is broken - but - are we heading to a time when MOST drivers will be unlicensed? What then?
See related, recent Grits posts:
- Leaving money on the table: The argument for Amnesty in the Driver Responsibility Program
- Public hearing set for April 26 on Driver Responsibility rules
- Driver surcharge boosting Texas joblessness
- Grits comments submitted on Driver Responsibility rules
- Unexplored costs from DPS surcharge harm safety, the economy
- Bill author says 'overly punitive' Driver responsibility surcharge a 'mistake'
- Indigency rules for Driver Responsibility surcharge published in Texas Register
- New Driver Responsibility rules unveiled today at DPS