Thursday, April 22, 2010

The "intractable problem" for prosecutors created by the Driver Responsibility surcharge

Over at DA Confidential, "The Assistant" (a Texas assistant county attorney who blogs anonymously) has a post describing the "intractable problem" of driving-with-license-suspended cases and the Driver Responsibility surcharge, offering an especially enlightened prosecutorial approach.
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.

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.
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.

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.

My crystal ball is broken - but - are we heading to a time when MOST drivers will be unlicensed? What then?
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.

See related, recent Grits posts:

14 comments:

Attorney said...

Kudos to the approach taken by DA Confidential! Until the legislature realizes what a colossal mess the DRP is and REPEALS it, I hope more prosecutors are inclined to exercise this type of common sense discretion.

Anonymous said...

Recently delt with a defendant who works two jobs to support three kids. She had her share of "issues" several years ago, but - with the exception of her DL - has been "good" for the last five years. DPS offered to reinstate her DL for $1500 down and $400 / month. What waitress can do that, pay rent, feed kids...?

doran said...

Why not forge ahead to a time when any person can drive, legally, without a license? Require insurance, yes, but why a license? The primary purpose of the license is to raise revenue; it is simply a tax. Look upon the scoff laws as tax protestors. What is important is that drivers be competent and insured. Require driver education courses in schools, and as a pre-req to getting insurance. People who drive without licenses may or be more accident prone that those who have licenses, but I doubt it.

Robert Langham said...

As long as the border is open and the feds and state are OK with millions of illegal aliens driving uninsured and without license, why not cut the residents loose as well?
At the very least we need a one-time unrevocable DL for citizens. In Texas, any normal person MUST drive to have any kind of life.

gih said...

I may agree with the Attorney's concept. it must be inclined by many prosecutors.

Anonymous said...

Any legislator who voted for this ill-concieved program should be ashamed. Thank God Krusee is gone. This is his legacy. Were I him, I would be too embarassed to leave my house.

jimbino said...

It may come as news to many, but carrying insurance is financially irresponsible behavior, scientifically speaking. It also contributes to accidents, since insured folks do not bear the full costs of their behavior, just as medical insurance increases hypochondriac visits to the doctor.

An insurance mandate also violates the rights of Mennonites and the Amish.

Whole states, like Wisconsin and New Hampshire DO NOT make a driver's license contingent on a showing of "financial responsibility."

Just engage what's left of your mind in this thought experiment: Of two countries, A requires car insurance of all and B requires insurance of nobody. All else being equal, which of the two countries will show greater wealth and fewer traffic accidents?

In the meantime, the stupid State of Texas should, in lieu of a trial, just spend $50 to buy 1000 miles of MileMeter insurance for the uninsured driver and suspend his prosecution contingent upon his continuing to be insured.

MileMeter is only available in Texas, and it allows a financially stressed driver to get to that job for only 5 cents per mile, instead of the outlandish hundreds of dollars per year that the uninformed pay to Allstate, Progressive and Geico.

Even better would be for Texas give the uninsured driver the option of moving to WI or NH where he can "live free or die." Not only that, he can then drive in Texas with no insurance and not be subjected to the moronic and oxymoronic "driver responsibility" fee, because it cannot be imposed on residents of another state.

Pirate Rothbard said...

"An insurance mandate also violates the rights of Mennonites and the Amish."

Interesting, I didn't know Amish could drive, so I don't see how this affects them. Not that I am an expert, I know there are lots of different groups with different rules.

Pirate Rothbard said...

The problem is that there are two different issues here:

1. People who drive without insurance are acting like ASSHOLES and don't care whether they get into an accident and don't have to pay for it. So I am kind of happy to see them get in trouble. This is the lower 25% of society.

2. Just because society is filled with assholes doen't mean the government is going to do a good job of rounding them up. We can't afford to build enough jails for all of them. The long term solution has to be to privatize the roads, but that's not politically realistic right now.

Poor people want to mooch off the rest of us, we've got Obamacare, public schools and so much other bullshit so this is just a small part of that. We have to deal with it for now, they don't want to have insurance and they want us to pay when they have an accident.

In the meantime, DR surcharge can be revoked, that's fine, but the devil is in the details. Are they going to slip in a raise property/sales taxes after that? Better a tax on assholes than the rest of us.

jimbino said...

Pirate Rothbard is the kind of guy who would promote compulsory sex insurance to protect us from all those assholes who have unprotected sex, not to mention all those how inflict serious costs on us by actually breeding.

He also apparently doesn't know about the famous traffic accidents deemed to have been caused by Amish, including Amish drivers.

Pirate Rothbard said...

"Pirate Rothbard is the kind of guy who would promote compulsory sex insurance to protect us from all those assholes who have unprotected sex"

Yawn. Learn to read, Bino. I'm against anything compulsory, period.

But these people are acting like trash, that's just a fact.

Pirate Rothbard said...

" all those how inflict serious costs on us by actually breeding"

There is nothing wrong with poor people breeding, that's how the economy grows. In a capitalist society, we are better off with more low income workers.

The problem is we don't have a pure capitalist society, we have a government which redistributes large sums to the poor.

We also waste a lot of money providing security to them with the criminal justice system. Allow poor people to breed, get rid of the government and we'll all be better off.

Anonymous said...

Jimbino:

Were really are not stupid here in Texas, other than the fact we allow members of our state legislature to take money from the insurance lobby in return for the state imposing mandatory liability insurance laws on Texas drivers.

Milemeter, pay by the mile or whatever you want to call it probably has merit but probably would never pass as it might cause revenue declines for insurance companies. Maybe it wouldn't but one thing is for certain, it won't happen unless elected officials are getting something in return. And that something would have to trump what they get from the insurance lobby.

Anonymous said...

I have 0ver 5 thousand dollars in back surcharges , I am not scum nor have i ever been a felon. Typical white male with some intelligence. No higher education. I have lived in fear ever since this surcharge law was created. I have been driving without a license for over 6 years now. Been Pulled over 20 times and Ticketed every time. this all started from no insurance ticket. I was one of those guys who always had a month to month policy and only paid insurance half of the time. I just could not afford 140 bucks a month for insurance on a used broken down car. I guess i was in some high risk category. I was making about 8 bucks an hour building computers for dell computers in round rock TX. So it began and so did the failure , after being harassed by the police weekly and could no longer afford to pay my rent and i lost my job and went though the court to pay off all fines. See i could not afford the 2 surcharges i had already gotten.
any way its years later and i still drive with out a license or anything for that matter. I pay all my money to the court system. anyway , i have another junk car and on unemployment and paying most of it back to the system to avoid jail. I never had anything over a class c mister-meaner. I had the class b reduced twice with more money promised to the courts. I can see how this surcharge can CREATE Criminals from hardships ! and you think we need to privatize the roads, how are the people who build this world going to get to work? These Texan Closed minded police state ways of thinking need to stop. I'm still trying , Im going to Austin a hour drive just to look for work in a completely illegal car. I'm running out of money and about to loose another great lifestyle and home , will have to move back in with my mother at age 29. And proceed to fight from becoming a person to fear.