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Lawsuit Claims Texas' Driver License-Suspension Program Is Unconstitutional

Miguel Gutierrez Jr. /KUT
An Austin Police officer on a motorcycle on I-35 near downtown Austin on May 10, 2016.

A Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit is suing the Texas Department of Public Safety over its automatic driver license-suspension program. The suit alleges the state's Driver Responsibility Program has unconstitutionally suspended 1.4 million Texans' licenses for failure to pay fines.

The program automatically suspends a person's license if fines for traffic citations like driving without a valid license or insurance aren't paid on time, then imposes a surcharge on top of that fine.

The nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law filed the suit in a San Antonio federal court on behalf of four drivers with suspended licenses. The suit argues the law is unconstitutional because it adds yearly surcharges on top of the already levied traffic fines, leaving people unable to pay the state to reinstate their licenses.

"What Texas is doing is punishing people for being poor," said Phil Telfeyan, executive director of Equal Justice Under Law. "If you can't afford to pay surcharges, you lose your license. That's effectively criminalizing poverty."

When asked for a comment on this story, a DPS spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.  

Those who don't – or can't – pay face yearly charges of at least $100 that recur over a three-year period after an offense. Equal Justice argues many people are forced to continue driving with an invalid license, leading to arrests and further legal bills.

Established in 2003, the program was meant to cajole offenders into paying fines, with the additional revenue going toward funding trauma centers in rural stretches of the state.

According to DPS, the majority license suspensions resulting from the Driver Responsibility Program stem from citations for driving without insurance. Driving without a license, driving with an invalid license, speeding and driving with an expired license round out the top five citations that led to suspensions.

While the program offers surcharge waivers for drivers with incomes below 125 percent of the Federal Poverty Level, which is around $31,000 a year for a family of four, Telfeyan says the state doesn't make it easy for those seeking relief.

The state, he says, doesn't effectively promote the waiver program and Equal Justice's clients attempting to navigate the process couldn’t get a hold of representatives from DPS to resolve their issues. It should be noted, DPS contracts out its collection for surcharges to Municipal Services Bureau.

DPS does offer 50 percent discounts off surcharges for those earning above 125 percent of the FPL but under 300 percent (between $31,000 and $75,000 for a family of four).

"For someone who's struggling to make ends meet, paying the original fine is difficult enough," Telfeyan said. "Getting money together to pay those surcharges in addition to the fine ... that can be an impossible task burden for a lot of people in Texas."

State lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have tried unsuccessfully to repeal the program over the last few legislative sessions.

Telfeyan said Equal Justice is prepared to fight the law in court, but hopes lawmakers will repeal the program during the legislative session that starts in 2019.

"Frankly, that would make us happy," he said. "It would save the state time and litigation. It would save our clients time of having to take this case all the way to trial and get a law that is widely agreed to be counterproductive off the books."

So far, two bills have been filed in the Senate to repeal the program outright, one from state Sen. Borris Miles (D-Houston) and one from state Sen. Bob Hall (R-Edgewood).

Read the lawsuit below:

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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