As we have seen, Texas’ Driver Responsibility Program has failed on virtually every front. It has made the public less safe, increased costs to the public by increasing the number of uninsured motorists, and severely distorted the Texas court system. It adds devastating financial strains to low-income Texans while burdening Texas’ middle class, and it has generated far less revenue than anticipated.
In testimony before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, one expert – Judge David Hodges – summed up the program like this: “These surcharges are not changing behavior, not being collected, and are creating a new class of criminals each day by adding to the 1.2 million unlicensed and uninsured drivers in the state.”[i]
Furthermore, many Texans consider the DRP a kind of backdoor double jeopardy.[ii] Levying an administrative penalty on top of a criminal one for the same offense violates the spirit of the constitutional protection against double jeopardy. So, in addition to being ineffective and unfair, the DRP represents a significant expansion of state power at the expense of individual liberty.
Of the seven states that enacted drivers’ license surcharge programs, two states (Maryland and Virginia) have now repealed them, and a third (Michigan) has eliminated some of the fees. In Virginia, over 100,000 citizens signed a petition demanding that the surcharges be abolished because of their disproportionate impact on certain individuals, and because of the lack of judicial discretion in levying the fines. [iii]
“There are a lot of people barely […] able to pay their bills, and they get into a situation where they get a fine and it becomes involuntary servitude to the state.” – Michael G. Lowe, Chairman of the Matthews County Republican Party, regarding Virginia’s now abolished driver license surcharge program.
The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition believes the DRP is a fundamentally flawed program. Attempts to improve collection rates and soften the program’s blow on Texans have been largely unsuccessful. Therefore, we recommend that the Legislature repeal the program in its entirety and create a fairer, more sustainable funding stream for Texas trauma hospitals.
However, if the Legislature chooses not to abolish the program, below are recommended changes that would help mitigate some of its biggest failures.
(1) Grant judges the discretion to reduce or waive DWI surcharges for probationers who voluntarily participate in treatment and monitoring programs. This would boost public safety by increasing participation in programs demonstrated to reduce recidivism, while lessening the financial burden on cash-strapped drivers. Furthermore, lowering surcharge amounts to manageable levels may increase collection rates.
(2) Make certain offenses non-jailable, at the discretion of the judge, including Driving While License Invalid (suspended license) and Failure to Maintain Financial Responsibility (no insurance). Because the DRP has vastly increased the number of Texans charged with these two misdemeanor offenses, granting judges discretion to waive jail sentences would reduce jail overcrowding and county costs associated with enforcing the DRP.
(3) Revise the Indigence Program. Because the current program only reduces surcharges for people earning less than 125% of Federal Poverty Guidelines (FPG), it has only minimally improved collection rates. We recommend revising the Indigence program to waive surcharges for people earning less than 125% of the FPG, and reduce surcharges for persons earning less than 300% of the FPG.
(4) Minimize the impact of license suspensions. Many of the adverse effects of the DRP (including the financial burden on low-income families, increased cost of accidents with uninsured motorists, and additional county costs) result from driver’s license suspensions. These impacts could be mitigated by either lengthening the time period before a license is suspended for unpaid surcharges from 105 to 180 days or by limiting the suspension period to one year.
[i] Hodges testimony in Senate Committee Interim Report, p. 22-23.
[ii] John Henry, “Texas drunken driving surcharges meet economic reality,” Fort Worth Star Telegram, December 6, 2010. Online at: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2010/12/06/v-print/104791/texas-drunken-driving-surcharges.html. See also Brandi Grissom, “Rep. Berman files bill to end DPS surcharges,” Texas Tribune, November 18, 2010. Online at: http://www.texastribune.org/texas-local-news/driver-responsibility-program/rep-berman-files-bill-to-end-dps-surcharges/
[iii] Tim Craig, “Va. Driver Fees Now Election Weapon,” Washington Post, July 17, 2007. Online at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/16/AR2007071601934.html. The petition is available at: http://www.petitiononline.com/va3202/petition.html