Thursday, January 11, 2007

Even prosecutors want penalty reduced for driving with suspended license

Here's a prime example of a penalty so disproportionate even some prosecutors think it's too high: A Class B misdemeanor for driving with a suspended license on the first offense, plus a stiff "surcharge" that many drivers can't pay. Since the law was changed in 2003, these petty cases have been filling up the county jails at a remarkable rate. See the recent discussion on their user forum about the topic. A Potter County prosecutor replied to the initial poster,
We're stuffed to the gills with 'em. Our jail is threatening to refuse any non-warrant book-ins, and our friend the DWLI is a substantial contributor to the overcrowding that's driving the threat.

At the same time, the offense is largely part of a cycle driven by the crime tax ... er, surcharge. Given the figures I've heard Shannon pass along, we can safely presume it's not going away. Given that facet of the problem, and the fact that all license-related offenses seem to be viewed as fertile ground for surcharges, would we simply be shifting the trial burden down a judicial level? Do you posters and lurkers think that JPs will rise up in righteous indignation over such a proposed cramdown onto their dockets?
The public defender blogger at The Wretched of the Earth has been all over this topic, and the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyer recently covered it. On the user forum, more prosecutors agreed that a B misdemeanor is overkill, but their lobbyist Shannon Edmonds quickly took the wind out of their sails:
Some legislators have been sympathetic to changing the Driver Responsibility Program until they learn that the program is putting $3 million per week into the state coffers. That's real money, even around the Capitol!

Like you, Joel, I hear lots of people discussing the option of making DWLI a Class C, but so far no one has taken it to the next step and filed a bill. Until that happens, it's all just idle chatter.
Well, somebody needs to file such a bill. If there was ever a time when the Lege might take such a dramatic step, maybe it's when they're faced with supposedly record surpluses. (Whoops, so much for the surplus.)

There's no question $3 million per week IS a lot of money, but it comes with a potentially bigger price: A huge unfunded mandate on counties to arrest and incarcerate these low-level non-violent offenders, essentially making them debt collectors for the state. Not only must counties pay the costs of incarceration for those who can't make bail (and if they can't pay their surcharge, why would you think they could make bail?), but since B misdemeanors carry the risk of jail time the county must also provide indigent defendants with free legal counsel. As one influential state legislator and former prosecutor told the Statesman last year,

State Rep. Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown, said the onslaught of invalid driver's license cases is a statewide issue that should be addressed by the Legislature.

Gattis voted for the bill that included the program, but he said it might have had some unintended consequences, especially when the cost of jail stays and courtroom resources are added up.

"The concern that I have is that it's a good intentions deal," Gattis said. "Even though it may have good intentions, the reporting may be costing us more than what we're gaining."

A solution to the courtroom congestion isn't clear. Some officials say the surcharges should be repealed, and others say the violations should be Class C misdemeanors, like other traffic violations, and handled through municipal courts.

Currently, driving with an invalid or suspended license is a Class B misdemeanor for a first offense and a Class A misdemeanor for a second offense.

Clearly ratcheting down the penalties on the first and second offense is the only logical conclusion. The law right now is actually making the problem of unlicensed drivers worse. See below examples of how the 2003 changes to this law actually increased the number of people driving with suspended licenses instead of reducing the problem since the law was enacted:


123txpublicdefender123 said...

I agree that a law change is in order. In the meantime, here's an idea for all those prosecutors out there who are rightly concerned about the downside of enforcing this law--stop filing the cases. There is a little something called prosecutorial discretion.

Anonymous said...

Actually, 123, many prosecutors ARE exercising that discretion -- but it's only a matter of time before they get critcized by the folks in Austin who wonder where all "their" money went.

When the driver responsibility program was being created in 2003, attendees at a late-night senate committee hearing on the bill witnessed a rare sight: representatives of prosecutors, criminal defense lawyers, judges, and DPS ALL spoke out about parts of the proposal that concerned them.

Can you guess how many of those comments ended up in changes to the bill? Can you? Huh?

Exactly right. Zero. Zip. Nada.

Welcome to the wonderful world of the Capitol, where money talks, and losers walk (because they lost their license due to oppressive surcharges). ;-)

MonkeyTricks said...

I'm so glad that the state decided to make a law that charges people for something they have already paid for. Knowing that they are making money off of nothing is a true inspiration to every capitalist out there.

This law stinks. I had a DWI and I was punished in the courts, making me cough up $2000 after all was said and done. I still have my arguments about it, but in truth I needed a kick in the pants.

But now I have DPS saying that they want some money too. $1000 a year for three years or they take away my license. It's almost highway robbery. Why should I give these people, that had nothing to do in my case, any money at all? Hmmm pay them unfounded money or ride a bike everywhere in Texas... *because Texas is praised for its wonderful mass transit system*

There is nothing helpful about this Responsibilty Law at all. My responsibilty was taken care of in the court of law. Making me pay for my crime twice is absurd.

And the fact that people won't touch it because it puts in $3million a week angers me to no end. I'm so glad the states greed is greater than the cries of the people.

Truly this law has no merit and serves no purpose at all. In their miserable attempt to make people more responsible, they failed to realize one thing. People are already taking responsibilty in court.

Perhaps one day we'll find someone with enough courage to make things right, and propose a Bill to end this needless taxing..err surcharging of peoples money.

NZalud said...

My name is Tamara Shippy, and I came across your story while doing
research regarding the surcharge program. I have contacted a News investigator with my own story (much like your own), and he is currently researching the matter. Through my research I have discovered that MANY people have been affected by the unconstitutional program. I would like to talk with you more regarding the issue. Thank you very much and I look forward to hearing from you!

Tamara Shippy

NZalud said...

Tell EVERYONE that you know ( and don't know for that matter)!!

~Many thanks!!!
Tamara Shippy