On Sunday, more than 800 new Texas laws passed during the 2019 legislative session will go into effect, statutes ranging from changes in the state’s capital murder laws to freeing children across the state to operate lemonade stands.
One measure signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in June is being praised by defense attorneys, judges and prosecutors alike because it eliminates the much-maligned Driver Responsibility Program. Many say the 16-year-old program inadvertently created a new class of criminals simply because they could not afford to pay mandated surcharges.
As of Sept. 1, about 1 million people who were unable to keep or renew their driver’s licenses will see relief. About 635,000 will immediately be able to have their licenses reinstated, and another 350,000 will be eligible after paying a $100 reinstatement fee, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The program has been on the chopping block for years, but attempts to shut it down failed until this past session. It had survived past attempts to kill it because money from fines helps fund the state’s emergency trauma care system. The new law offers alternative funding sources for trauma care by raising fines for other offenses.
The Driver Responsibility Program was roundly criticized for adding annual fees ranging from $100 to $1,000, depending on the offense, to the cost of already pricey traffic tickets. Drivers had their licenses suspended if they did not pay or agree to a payment plan. For many, the surcharges grew to figures that forced them to decide between paying rent, buying food, paying child-support or keeping their driver’s licenses.
Those who fell behind lost their licenses. Many thought they had no alternative to driving illegally because they had to go to work or take their kids to school, placing them further at risk for being arrested for driving with a suspended license.
McLennan County First Assistant District Attorney Nelson Barnes, a hard-nosed, veteran prosecutor, is one of many who said shuttering the program was long overdue.
“I think the surcharges had a great idea for funding trauma centers, but the bottom line was there was no alternative for people who just don’t have money,” Barnes said. “As hard as you want to be, you just can’t squeeze blood out of a stone. And so, bottom line was, I think it overwhelmed itself in that we created a cycle of people who just couldn’t ever get out of it.
“There wasn’t a sliding scale and there wasn’t an alternative to say, ‘If you don’t have money, you have time, so fine, let’s come work this off. We can put you to work on a road crew. You can pick up trash.’ That wasn’t an option, and so we didn’t give people alternatives that took into account financials. On the whole, it just created criminals because they didn’t have money.”
In recognition of that occurrence, McLennan County District Attorney Barry Johnson met with police agencies soon after he took office nine months ago to change how driving with invalid license cases traditionally had been handled. Instead of taking people to jail for having an invalid license, most agencies are handling those cases now as Class C misdemeanors, or fines-only offenses.
Waco defense attorney David Bass, a former federal and state prosecutor, has a client who gets up a 4 a.m. to go to his $10-an-hour restaurant job. He drives there illegally because he lost his license years ago to the surcharges, Bass said.
“He chose to pay his child-support and take care of his family’s rent, pay for food and utilities rather that to pay to get his license back,” Bass said. “He lost his license because he didn’t have the money to pay traffic tickets. The second time, you get a driving while license invalid, a Class B misdemeanor, and you go to jail and they impound your car. You have to pay to get your car back and pay a bail bondsman to get out of jail before you lose your job. It happened to him three or more times. He had no other criminal offenses. He didn’t stick up a store, he didn’t beat up his wife, he didn’t steal from a shop owner. He was a poor man and didn’t have money to operate legally in the system we created around him.”
Bass said the surcharge program was “intolerable” and placed a “lopsided burden” on the financially disadvantaged. He praised lawmakers for finally eliminating the program, calling it a “legal Etch A Sketch. You turn it upside down and it disappears.”
“It was onerous,” Bass said. “Between 650,000 and 1.3 million Texans had their license suspended. That means that every time you drive, you have a 1-in-10 chance of passing someone with a suspended license, and that is simply because of finances. They simply didn’t have the money required to stay legal.”
Bass said the Legislature is to be commended for its action, which will save the county money by reducing the number of people jailed and the cost of appointing attorneys to represent indigent defendants.
“They were slow to the party, but when they finally got here, it is a nice ray of sunshine,” Bass said.