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.
[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