Saturday, December 27, 2008

On the limits of the justice system as tax collector

"Texas fails to collect $1 billion in fees and fines," a headline in yesterday's Fort Worth Star-Telegram read, and while unpaid college tuition makes up most of that sum, predictably Texas' "Driver Responsibility Fee" was the main criminal justice culprit:

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.


Anonymous said...

So Mr. Grits - your solution to this matter would be..........? in order to stop all this lawlesness.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Well, Plato, first off "lawlessness" is what results when you criminalize social policy - which cannot and does not work - and therefore have mass flaunting of the laws like one in four drivers uninsured, etc.. Lawlessness is what we've achieved with our CURRENT policies.

As for solutions, there are different non-carceral tactics for different problems, there's no one-size fits all fix. On the no-insurance question, e.g., in one of the linked items I wrote:

"My own preferred solution to the crisis of uninsured drivers is as simple as it is unlikely to pass in Texas anytime soon: Use the gas tax to implement pay at the pump insurance for minimum liability so that every driver becomes automatically covered via no-fault insurance on terms more closely regulated by the state. As an added bonus, since companies would all be paid the same for every driver, they would be forced to compete on quality of service instead of striated pricing schemes."

This is essentially similar to the new "by the mile" insurance policies that are just now being sold in Texas, except administered for everybody through the gas tax so you don't have a "free rider" problem. That'd solve the whole problem with uninsured motorists in one fell swoop and not require a minute of one police officer's time.

Other social problems may have different solutions, but there are few if any public policy dilemmas (at least ones that don't involve overt violence) which can ONLY be solved by cops, courts, and criminal punishments. It's just that's the only tool anybody ever tries to use.

Red Leatherman said...

My understanding of the Burden of proof being unnecessary in respect to paying toll fees came into my focus while trying to explain that the person (a close family member) the fine was assessed to, was and had been incarcerated 2 years prior to their alleged month of toll running and that the car connected to the toll running had been reported stolen some 2 years prior as well.

Anonymous said...

Texas has no income tax and the politics of getting that source of revenue is nil.

Consequently fines and fees that are so pervasive that they might as well be an income tax are currently a reality in Texas.

Next thing we see will be a debtor's prison. The legislature should put more; far more, effort into being smart on crime, the money saved would reduce the need for fines, fees and yes, even an income tax.

Anonymous said...

On out of ten Texans is about 2.3 million people. They should all show up at their county jail on the same day to turn themselves in.

Anonymous said...

Well Grits - yours appears to be as good a solution as any but you kinda lost me after the "non-carcreal" phrase. Keep it simple for we folks out here on the wind-swept plains.


Raymond E. Foster said...

In California, some cities, instead of issuing warrant turn fines, etc. over to a commercial collection agency. Also, many of the small "criminal fees," as an example, there is a way for the agency to collect a small amount for processing a DUI arrest, are not worth following up on. Often, the paper work, etc is more expensive than the compensation the agency is seeking.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Plato, short of buying dictionaries for all the Tech grads, I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do about the alleged stunted vocabulary growth on the South Plains! ;)

With respect, dumbing down these debates is part of how we got into this mess.

Don said...

Easy on TTU, Scott. We have: A quarterback that is equal to or better than the Colt. We have the guy who handed W. his first political office defeat. (But, alas, W. didn't quit.) We have Bob Knight, and his son, Pat. (A local radio station is trying to mount a "Draft Bob Knight for Governor of Texas" campaign, which I am totally up for.) Plus, I can figure out what non-carceral probably means. But my spell checker just underlined "carceral". Which brings me to: is that a really a word?

Don said...

Took your advice and looked it up. Yep, indeed it is a word. (I know you didn't give me the advice, but I had a feeling)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Don, I'm just ribbin'. Tech's a fine school and I'm sure many graduates (besides Plato) already own dictionaries. ;)

Even more fun than Bob Knight as Governor would be Bob Knight as Lieutenant Governor. The daily drama of the former West Point hoops coach running the Texas Senate would be worth the cost of admission.

I wonder how far he could throw one of those big, high-backed senatorial chairs?

Don Dickson said...

I don't typically visit here for laughs, but I gotta admit, the idea of 2.3 million Texans all surrendering themselves on traffic warrants at the same time, and the image of Bobby Knight throwing Senate chairs, have got me ROFLMAO. Thanks for the yuks, folks!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Don, it's only 10% of adults who have traffic warrants, so it'd only be about 1.4 million or so people if everyone turned themselves in at once. It'd still be a BIG hoot if even a tenth of them did so. There are only about 80,000 beds in Texas jails and they're all 80-90% full or more.

Anonymous said...

A happy New Year, Scott, to you and yours, and to all the folks reading this blog. Keep up the good work. I pray that 2009 is a better year for all of us and some sanity returns to the justice system.

Anonymous said...

What sort of activism do you all think would help stop this effective debtor's prison system.

In Galveston the police will use an outstanding traffic warrant as an excuse to beat up someone, slap a charge on them of "resisting arrest" and jail them a significant amount of time.

Anonymous said...

In fact, in Galveston an outstanding traffic warrant was used as the justification for arresting a woman for failure to use the side walk (in Galveston many streets have incomplete sidewalks - the street she was on only had about 40% of its sidewalk in place - the rest were missing)

Then the put her in jail, and she was held for 9 or 10 hours without being allowed to make a phone call.

They are very proud of the fact she had an outstanding traffic warrant - they interpret this as being a free pass to subject one to any perversity of the justice system they can come up with.

Anonymous said...

Sign the petition to repeal this! In addition to a multifaceted report, I have met with my state rep. and I am working on a bill to repeal this program as the new session convenes. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Years ago, I found a Farmers Branch ticket on my Honda CRX windshield in the Brookhaven Community College parking lot for not having current license plate tags. Like a typical irresponsible 19-year old, I ignored it. I received in the mail notices that I was to pay this ticket. I ignored them as well. A few weeks after that, I was driving my CRX in North Dallas and a Dallas police officer pulled me over. He said his car's computer informed him, after entering my license plate number while driving behind me, that there was an outstanding warrant on me in Farmers Branch because of an unpaid ticket. He arrested me, cuffed me, drove me to Farmers Branch. They booked me, took my mug shot, fingerprinted me. I paid the fine, they let me go.

This happened in 1993.

So whose fault was it?
A. My fault
B. "The man's" fault
C. George Bush's fault

The obvious answer is it was George Bush's fault.

So the act of a police officer arresting someone for not paying the money they owe to the state and its partners is nothing new. If you are grossly irresponsible, you lose your driving privileges and, eventually, you'll get arrested. Please tell me, again, why this is wrong?

I love the idea of adding another fee on gas for something the government is going to handle, auto insurance. Because these specialized fees and taxes always go to what they were intended to go to, and the government always does a bang-up job doing anything at all. That's why 100% of the gas tax goes to roads and road safety, like the automobile registration. Bwa ha ha ha! Man, that was funny, wasn't it? That's the beauty of toll roads. The money is going to NTTA, which builds roads and maintains them, not to some study on the Southeast Texas Bull Frog's mating habits via the general fund.

Another hilarious idea I read here is this notion that because we have no state income tax, we have more fees than states that do have state income taxes. Bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha! That was a good one. I guess the person who wrote that has no idea what it's like to live in California or New York. I do. They have high state income taxes and also high fees on everything they can think of. The reason, of course, is because those states are run by Democrats and Democrats will put a fee and tax on anything and everything.

I love the Democrats in Texas who have never lived under the policies they promote. Go live in California for a few years and see how successful the policies you are promoting are.

Anonymous said...

I realize that it is almost a month since this was posted, but the last comment was simply ridiculous.

The problem is not with the fact that you did not pay your fine, got arrested, paid it and then let go. The problem today is a revolving door, a catch 22, a never ending spiral for most people caught in the Texas Driver Responsibility Law. It used to be that if you got a ticket and failed to pay it and then got a warrant for your arrest, that was enough for most people to take care of business. Very few people want to have any dealings with any kind of court.

The TXDRL is nothing more than a money grab. It is recurring fines that if missed for a month or even late payment land you with a suspended license. If you then get pulled over you get a ticket for the offense, a driving under a suspended license, and no insurance even though you have paid it. You end up in heap o trouble. It is ridiculous.

I am not a lefty, I am a republican, but even I see that this TXDRL is bad law. So many in my party praise the current Texas Governor for his cost cutting and saving. Yet it has made it nearly impossible for many people to take care of day to day business. You end up working for the state in keeping your insurance, keeping up with your power company, keeping your car tags up to date, keeping the inspection up to date, and God forbid you actually get a ticket.

The issue has become over enforcement of traffic laws. We are turning people who have made a minor traffic violation into full blown criminals. It has to stop.

In speaking with one newly elected representative from West Texas about the TXDRL he stated that all the fees in Texas have doubled or tripled since Governor Good Hair. It makes even filing a lawsuit difficult or impossible for many people. We are putting our own system of justice against those for whom it was meant to serve and protect.

Go out and talk to some one other than those who think just like you.

Anonymous said...


Would you share your thoughts on the current Texas Senate Bill 896 authored by Shapleigh pending in the Transportation & Homeland Security Committee? Its intent is to repeal the Driver Responsibility Program.

Poor and Angry said...

Finally, a blog that is saying and EXPLAINING with sources the things that I've been preaching for years.

One of my personal opinions, although completely manufactured, is that someone up there is making a ton of money while the state is not able to use the "general fund" to make new ones that give some kind of sense and access to our growth regions. Toll roads have become all the rage, it seems, and (I'm sure) they have all the lobbying power in the world to convince lawmakers to bend to their hopes of making our local blues the "tax" collectors.

As for the TXDRL - I've been in this loop for a long time now, and it grips me. Admittedly, a lot of it is my own fault, but I've found it near impossible to stay on course. Out of a decade of being back in the state, I've only been driving legal for less than half. Defaulting on a payment agreemend with the program means that there is no reinstatement of the payment plan. The full amount must be remitted. I can only imagine someone convicted of DWI that is trying to do better falling off of one installment at the beginning and having to pay a full grand to get his license back. With slipshod public transportation, he'll be right back on the street driving to work, and get that DWSL. Vicious circle, indeed.