Driver Responsibility Program

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Texas Driver Responsibility News: A Report from the Committee Hearing April 14th

Report compiled by Eric Nimmer of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, who was in attendance.

As you may know, this past Monday the Texas House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety met to hear testimony in regard to Texas’ Driver Responsibility Program (DRP).  The hearing – attended by judges, attorneys, hospital representatives, and community members affected by the program – marked the official first step taken by the legislature on the DRP in advance of the 2015 legislative session.

Williamson County Justice of the Peace, Honorable Edna Staudt, spoke to the disastrous nature of the DRP.  She argued that it was designed not to punish drivers but solely to generate revenue, asserting that the DRP is “making a class of criminals for money.”  She then spoke of an instance where she had to sign an arrest warrant simply because a single mother of three had to choose between paying her rent or another surcharge.

At the end of her testimony, Judge Staudt resoundingly held that the “ends don’t justify the means” and claimed that, as it stands, there is no due process or oversight within the Department of Public Safety (DPS).  In fact, DPS gets to set the rates of the surcharges, enforce the program, and decide who qualifies for each rate – completely independent of the courts or the legislature.

In accord with Judge Staudt, Judge David Hodges and defense attorney Shawn Vick stood before the committee to ask for the program’s abolishment.  Judge Hodges, much to the delight of the Committee, focused on finding alternate sources for trauma center funding.  Mr. Vick, a former prosecutor, emphasized the fact that “there isn’t much of a public transportation alternative for most of these people,” basically leaving those impacted by the DRP to continue to drive, even without a license.  He also shed light on the fact because of the program, “half of all the misdemeanors brought forth in Williamson County are license suspensions or related to a suspension.”

The last opponent of the program to go before the committee, TCJC Policy Consultant Scott Henson, whose testimony can be viewed in its entirety here, spoke to the program being “downright Orwellian” in regard to it “forcing people to be more irresponsible.”  Mr. Henson went on to say that in his literal decade of following the progression of this program, “not one person against the DRP is against the funding of the hospitals.”  This salient point was well received by the Committee as they heard his proposed alternatives.

Representative Kenneth Sheets of Dallas asked Mr. Henson if the program would be better served if it were corrected to reflect more of its original intent. Mr. Henson retorted by demonstrating that the original intent of the program itself was to generate funding for the trauma centers and for a transportation project that was terminated before it even began.  He stated, “This was all about revenue generation for programs that aren’t even getting the money.”

After hearing all of the testimony, the Committee seemed somewhat open to the notion of abolishment but were far more comfortable with ideas on reforming the program.  Committee Chairman Representative Joe Pickett said, “I believe that a bill to abolish will be filed but I would rather see more tracks with recommendations.”

To watch the full hearing, click here; select “Homeland Security & Public Safety” on 4/14/14 for the broadcast.  Skip ahead to the 2:18:25 mark for the section of the hearing on the DRP.

http://www.house.state.tx.us/video-audio/committee-broadcasts/

And remember – we need to keep up the pressure to abolish the DRP, while also identifying reliable and fair sources of funding for trauma hospitals.  Continue to spread the word about this [or “our DRP”] website, encourage people to tell their own stories [http://texasdriverresponsibilityprogram.com/tell-story/] about being impacted by the DRP, and get people to sign the petition to abolish this failed program!

[http://texasdriverresponsibilityprogram.com/join-us/]

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DRP Update: quotes and pictures from the legislative committee meeting April 14th

The Texas Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee met on Monday, April 14th to discuss, among other things, the Texas Driver Responsibility Program. At issue is address an interim charge to assess the success of the program and discuss what might be next for the DRP.

After a strong call for public attendance via Facebook groups, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition brought advocates and a group of citizens to bear witness to their own stories of hardship. Some memorable quotes from the day include:

Judge Edna Staudt

“You are making a class of criminals of good citizens on account of money.”
“I have to sign warrants for people who chose to pay their rent instead of some surcharge.”
“I challenge you to get the money from somewhere else instead of this program.”
“The ends don’t justify the means. Don’t let the agencies set their own rates.”
“Taking away someone’s ability to move freely is taking away their liberty.”

Rep. Sheets

“I agree that the program is bad as it stands now.”
“We need to get back to the original intent of this program if we are going to keep it.”

Julia Klein, rep for Texas EMS

“These dollars also go towards disaster response. i understand that it’s expensive but if you break the law then you broke the law and there are consequences.”
Judge David Hodges,

“The surcharges are creating separate standerds per county that are getting harder and harder to enforce.”

“As an alternative maybe one could take money from the actual fines or court fees that judges aren’t assigning because they don’t like the surcharge program.”

Rep. Pickett

“I believe that a bill to abolish will be filed but I would like to see more than just one track with more recommendations.”

Shawn Vick, defense attorney

“There isn’t a public transportation option for most of these people so driver’s license suspensions are disastrous.”
“Half of all misdemeanors in williamson county involve license suspensions now.”

Scott Henson

“The DRP is a train-wreck and has been a train-wreck since the beginning.”
“The program hasn’t done one thing that it was intended to do in a decade.”
“The name itself is downright Orwellian – it forces people to drive irresponsibly.”
“In a decade I haven’t found one person against the program that doesn’t want the hospitals to get funded in some way.”

Maureen Miligan, CEO, Teaching Hospitals of Texas

“We can offer vendors more money to collect outstanding fees, maybe 4% of whatever they collect.”

In a previous article we explored the first tier of the two-tier system that the Department of Public Safety (DPS) uses to gauge how much one has to pay in surcharges. Now we will delve into the second level – conviction based surcharges. Unlike the point system, with conviction based surcharges the amount one has to pay is predetermined based on the type of conviction.

Since these specified offenses come with an automatic surcharge, they do not count as points on one’s driving record. Although there isn’t a corresponding point value, these offenses come at a greater cost to those convicted.

Type of Conviction

Surcharge Amount

1st Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) OffenseTexas or out-of state conviction for DWI, Intoxication Assault or Manslaughter

$1,000

Subsequent DWI OffenseTexas or out-of state conviction for DWI, Intoxication Assault or Manslaughter

$1,500

DWI with Blood Alcohol Concentration of 0.16 or MoreTexas or out-of state conviction

$2,000

No Insurance

$250

Driving While License Invalid (DWLI)Driver license is canceled, suspended, denied or revoked

$250

No Driver LicenseNo driver license or commercial driver license, an expired license or endorsement violation(s)

$100

Conviction Based surcharges are reported by the court to DPS directly. Therefore, there are often delays between the date of conviction and the date on which the conviction is actually posted to a driver’s driving record.

 [i] Texas Department of Public Safety, “Driver Responsibility Program”
Austin, TX: 2014, Texas Department of Public Safety
https://www.txsurchargeonline.com/(S(e5j02ox0j5f1oypj324viwc3))/default.aspx

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The Driver Responsibility Program (DRP) was established by the Texas Legislature in 2003. The program was designed and adopted in hopes of deterring irresponsible driving behaviors while providing revenue for the state. The DRP authorizes the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to collect surcharges – in addition to court-ordered fines and/or fees – from individuals that are convicted of traffic violations.

These surcharges are collected for three years after conviction and do not replace other suspension, revocation, disqualification or cancellation actions that result from the same convictions. In fact, these surcharges are separate from all fees, fines, and other punitive actions issued by the court entirely. However, if these surcharges are not paid in full by a given date the driver’s license is automatically suspended.

Surcharges are calculated in two ways:

  1. The Point System, and/ or
  2. Conviction Based.

The Point System:

When a conviction reaches a driver’s driving record points are assigned and remain for three years from the date of conviction. These points serve as a way to measure one’s frequency of infraction. The more points one accrues the heftier the surcharge.

–       Two points are issued for a Texas or out-of-state traffic conviction.

–       Three points are issued for a Texas or out-of-state traffic conviction that resulted in an accident.

Individuals who have six or more points on their driving record are assessed a surcharge every year they maintain six or more points. The amounts are as follows:

–       $100 for the first six points on a driving record.

–       $25 for each additional point surpassing six.

Points are not assessed for individuals who take defensive driving.

Conviction Based:

Certain offenses come with an automatic surcharge and thus do not count as points on one’s driving record. Although there isn’t a corresponding point value, these offenses come at a greater cost to those convicted. Conviction Based surcharges are reported by the court to DPS directly. Therefore, there are often delays between the date of conviction and the date on which the conviction is actually posted to a driver’s driving record.

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1 TexasDepartment of Public Safety, “Driver Responsibility Program”

Austin, TX: 2014, Texas Department of Public Safety

http://www.txdps.state.tx.us/DriverLicense/drp.htm

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10 things to know about the Texas’ Driver Responsibility Program (DRP)

  1. The DRP was passed in 2003 to create state revenue and to make Texas roads safer.
  2. The original authoring legislators no longer support this program.
  3. On top of fines, fees, and other penalties, the DRP requires annual surcharges for three years for certain offenses.
  4. If a driver fails to pay said surcharges, his or her license is automatically suspended.
  5. Surcharges are cumulative, thus a driver will pay multiple times for the same infraction.
  6. Of the $2.85 billion in levied surcharges, DPS has only collected $1.14 billion (< %40).
  7. The DRP has left 1.3 million drivers without a license – a requirement to get auto insurance.
  8. Since the DRP’s passage, the percentage of traffic fatalities involving alcohol has increased by 7.3%.
  9. Bringing cases against misdemeanors for DRP license suspensions costs local courts millions in administrative costs.
  10. It can be stopped with your help! Please join us in our efforts to repeal this program.

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[i] Craig, Adair. Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, “The Driver Responsibility Program: A Texas-Sized Failure.” Accessed March 5, 2014. http://www.texascjc.org/sites/default/files/uploads/Driver Responsibility Program.pdf.

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The two-tier system used to determine the appropriate surcharge for someone convicted of a traffic violation is unlike any other in the Department of Public Safety (DPS) repertoire. With that being said, we hope to help shed a little light on the process – starting with the default tier used to assess surcharges; the point system.

Points are a way of tracking how many recent infractions a driver has on his or her driving record. They are given two and three at a time depending on the severity of the offense. When a conviction is added to one’s driving record, points are assigned and remain for three years from the date of conviction. The more points one accrues the heftier the surcharge.

  1. Two points are issued for a Texas or out-of-state traffic conviction.
  2. Three points are issued for a Texas or out-of-state traffic conviction that resulted in an accident.

Individuals who have six or more points on their driving record are assessed a surcharge every year they maintain six or more points. The amounts are as follows:

  • $100 for the first six points on a driving record.
  • $25 for each additional point surpassing six.

Points are not assessed for individuals who take defensive driving.

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[i] Texas Department of Public Safety, “Driver Responsibility Program”
Austin, TX: 2014, Texas Department of Public Safety
https://www.txsurchargeonline.com/(S(e5j02ox0j5f1oypj324viwc3))/default.aspx

The DRP has generated far less revenue than originally anticipated.[i]  Whether due to confusion over being fined for a criminal offense already adjudicated by a court of law, or due to an inability to afford the surcharges, the majority of Texas drivers subjected to DRP surcharges never pay them.  As of August 31, 2012, of the $2.85 billion in total surcharges assessed by DPS since the program’s inception, only $1.14 billion – less than 40% – had been collected.[ii]

This low collection rate has persisted despite the enactment of two programs that have sought to boost collections, specifically by reducing surcharges for drivers with suspended licenses due to overdue surcharges.  Started in 2011, the Indigence program offers reduced surcharges to drivers earning less than 125% of the Federal Poverty Guideline ($29,000 per year for a household of four in 2012).  The Amnesty program was a one-time program in 2011 offering drivers with past-due surcharge debt the ability to reinstate their licenses in exchange for paying similarly reduced amounts.

As the following charts indicate, the two programs have had minimal impact on surcharge collection rates.  The Amnesty program increased collections from 39.6% to 41.4%.[iii]  The Indigence program increased the Department of Public Safety’s overall collection rate for DRP surcharges from 38.8% to 39.1% in FY 2012[AYC1] .[iv]

Screen shot 2014-03-07 at 9.44.57 AMScreen shot 2014-03-07 at 9.45.21 AM

 



[i] According to the Fiscal Note for CSHB 3203 (78R), the Legislative Budget Board determined that the DRP would raise approximately $1.3 billion in all-funds revenues during its first five years.  According to data from the Comptroller’s office, however, the program raised only $448 million between fiscal years 2004 and 2008. Fiscal note available online at: http://www.legis.state.tx.us/tlodocs/78R/fiscalnotes/pdf/HB03203H.pdf#navpanes=0

[ii] Texas Department of Public Safety, email to State Rep. Sylvester Turner. Data available upon request.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.


 [AYC1]Kim: please add lines linking slices to amounts.

For years, judges, prosecutors, and other criminal justice practitioners have expressed concern over the degree to which DRP surcharges are distorting Texas’ court system.  From declining DWI conviction rates to surging DWLI offenses to exploding caseload backlogs, the DRP’s impact on Texas courts are yet another example of the unintended consequences of this ill-conceived program.

As discussed, unpaid surcharges have forced hundreds of thousands of drivers onto Texas roads with suspended licenses – leading to increasing numbers of DWLI convictions.  In the past three years alone, the DRP has resulted in an additional 403,517 DWLI convictions,[i] creating a new class of “criminals” and clogging court dockets.[ii]  According to Shannon Edmonds of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, in some Texas counties, one in five misdemeanor cases involves drivers with suspended licenses.[iii]

Furthermore, since the DRP levies automatic surcharges upon conviction of certain traffic offenses, Texas drivers are doing more and more to avoid convictions and the surcharges that accompany them.  This is particularly so in the case of DWI offenses, for which surcharges are especially punitive, often totaling more than $5,000.  Increasing numbers of drivers accused of DWIs are now declining plea deals and choosing to go to trial in hopes of acquittal and avoiding crushing surcharges.  The result is skyrocketing DWI caseloads for Texas courts.  According to testimony provided to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee in a 2010 hearing on impaired driving in Texas, DWI caseloads have increased by 25,000 cases since the DRP began.[iv]  At the current statewide case disposition rates, it would take 16 years to dispose of the backlog.[v]

“These surcharges have dealt a severe blow to Texas’ already strained court system. From a criminal justice perspective, and particularly as it relates to DWI cases, I can see no benefit to this program.” – Judge David Hodges, Judicial Program Manager, Texas Association of Counties

While the DRP generates revenue for the state and trauma hospitals, it imposes a significant financial burden on counties.  In addition to the increased number of DWI cases going to trial, the hundreds of thousands of additional misdemeanor charges (particularly DWLI and FMFR) resulting from driver license suspensions cost counties millions of dollars in court administration costs.  According to the Texas Association of Counties, counties only recover about 30% of what their courts spend to process criminal cases.[vi]  The rest of those costs falls on local taxpayers.  El Paso County, for example, spends $24.2 million annually in criminal court costs, yet it only retains $7.4 million in fines and fees – or 31%.[vii]

The DRP also increases counties’ jail costs.  Because most drivers continue to drive despite defaulting on their surcharges, many of those drivers wind up in county jails due to accumulated, unpaid traffic tickets and/or for driving with a suspended license.[viii]  (Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Atwater v. Lago Vista, a Texas police officer can legally arrest a driver on the suspended license charge alone,[ix] but more frequently drivers end up in jail when arrest warrants are issued for accumulated, unpaid citations.)  Incarcerating such individuals puts more pressure on often-already crowded local jails, and, at a cost of $59 per bed per day, creates an additional financial burden on counties.[x]

As mentioned in Failure #1, stakeholders also attribute declining DWI conviction rates to the DRP.  In addition to more DWI cases being dismissed in order to avoid onerous surcharges, more cases are being tried under lesser charges such as reckless driving and public intoxication to reduce the backlogs.[xi]  Declining DWI convictions means missing out on opportunities to reduce DWI recidivism through court-mandated monitoring and treatment programs.



[i] Texas Department of Public Safety, email to State Rep. Sylvester Turner. Data available upon request.

[ii] Terrence Stutz, “Texas’ steep surcharges for driving violations clog courts, increase DWI dismissals, ex-judge tells panel,” The Dallas Morning News, April 27, 2010.  Online at: http://www.dallasnews.com/news/politics/texas-legislature/headlines/20100427-Texas-steep-surcharges-for-driving-8326.ece

[iii] Brandi Grissom, “Many Texans lose licenses in driver points program,” El Paso Times, August 19, 2007.

[iv] Hodges testimony in Senate Committee Interim Report, p. 22-23.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] David Hodges (Judicial Program Manager, Texas Association of Counties) in interview with Craig Adair, December 6, 2012.

[vii] Veronica Escobar (El Paso County Judge), letter to the Texas Judicial Council, February 23, 2012.

[viii] Grissom, “Many Texans lose licenses in driver points program.”

[ix] Atwater v. Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318 (2001) 195 F.3d 242, affirmed.

[x] Brandon Wood (Assistant Director, Texas Commission on Jail Standards), in presentation at American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section, Roundtable on Pretrial Detention in Texas, held in Austin, Texas, March 30, 2012.

[xi] “Texas DWI fines aren’t working,” San Antonio Express News, November 14, 2010.  Online at: http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/article/Texas-DWI-fines-aren-t-working-813190.php

Driver Responsibility Program Failure #3: Financial Hardship for Texans

While annual surcharges may be a mere nuisance for well-heeled Texans, they can be a devastating blow to low-income drivers and families.  The economic impact of license surcharge programs has been studied in detail in states with laws similar to Texas, and they have been found to severely undermine low-income drivers’ financial security.

A 2006 survey from the New Jersey Motor Vehicles Affordability and Fairness Task Force examined the surcharge’s impact on drivers with licenses suspended due to their own Driver Responsibility Program, which levies the same license surcharges as the Texas DRP. According to that survey, among persons with suspended licenses whose annual income was under $30,000:

  • 64% were unable to maintain their employment following a license suspension;
  • 51% of persons who lost their job following a license suspension were unable to find new employment;
  • 65% were unable to pay increased insurance costs; and
  • 90% were unable to pay other costs as a result of surcharges and/or suspended driving privileges.

“Here’s a terrible program that used punitive fines to plug holes in the budget. Our founders never intended for debtor’s prisons to substitute for a tax system.” – Former State Senator Elliot Shapleigh (D-El Paso)

In addition, of those men and women who were able to find a new job following a license suspension-related dismissal, 88% reported a reduction in income.  The report also found that surcharges impact not just the penalized drivers, but their families and the local labor force as well.[i]

Undoubtedly, of the 1.3 million Texas drivers who have lost their licenses due to defaulted DRP surcharge debt, a significant number make less than $30,000 per year.[ii]  Thus, in addition to increasing the number of uninsured drivers, the Driver Responsibility Program surcharges may be a major cause of job loss and financial hardship in Texas.


[i] “Motor Vehicles Affordability and Fairness Task Force Final Report,” Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center (Rutgers University) and New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission, February 2006. Online at: http://www.state.nj.us/mvc/pdf/About/AFTF_final_02.pdf.

[ii] According to data from the Texas Dept. of Public Safety, as of August 31, 2011, 83% of the surcharges levied in Texas had been assessed for three violations: FMFR, No License, and DWLI.  According to the New Jersey study cited, a disproportionate share of individuals whose licenses are suspended for these three offenses make less than $28,000 per year.