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.
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!