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Crime & Justice

Advocates Hope Texas Turns A Corner With Its Driver's License Suspension Program

MoPac South.jpg
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Rush hour traffic going south on MoPac in December 2018.

Driver's license suspensions related to court debt can stem from criminal or misdemeanor charges for anything — from driving while intoxicated to assault to unpaid traffic tickets to truancy, even. If defendants fail to appear in court or fail to pay a fine or court-related fee, they're unable to renew their license when it expires or their license is suspended outright.

Advocates say poor people in car-dependent Texas who get a ticket for driving without valid insurance or a valid license also often drive illegally and get ticketed again, thus putting themselves further in debt.

The Department of Public Safety uses a contractor called OmniBase Systems to maintain those suspensions, but in recent years advocates have pushed the state to abandon OmniBase.

The program is akin to Texas' Driver Responsibility Program, which charged drivers for not paying fines — only allowing reinstatement upon payment of all their debt. Opponents argued that program trapped low-income Texans in poverty. Lawmakers repealed that program last legislative session.

Phil Telfeyan of the criminal justice nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law says that repeal was a good start and repealing the OmniBase suspension program is the next logical step. He argues suspensions tied to court debt can ultimately keep people from working and that other states have moved away from this debt-collection model.

"States are more and more realizing the best way to collect debt is to keep people working ... and at the minimum it should not be impeding their ability to work," he said. "The license is really connected to working — especially in a state like Texas ... where almost everyone is driving to work."

Still, Telfeyan admits a repeal or reform of the OmniBase program would put Texas cities and counties in a tough spot because they would miss out on revenue associated with the fines and fees, and state law won't allow them to just waive off those fees.

Chris Harris of the criminal justice advocacy group Texas Appleseed said lawmakers could make up for gaps in revenue by allowing defendants to enter into payment plans, instead of requiring people to settle up all their debt before being allowed to get their license renewed.

"[Right now] ... folks have to address each and every ticket that they might have, which could include fully paying off all the fines and fees they might owe, or completing all of their community service, which in some cases could take years, before they're able to access their driver's license," he said. "So this would have an enormous impact across the state."

A KUT analysis of DPS suspensions found 212,578 Texans' licenses were suspended in 2019. While nearly 35,000 of those suspensions were related to intoxicated driving, nearly 72,000 stemmed from driving without a license.

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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