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Texas System For Putting Holds On Driver's Licenses Creates 'Cycle Of Poverty,' Nonprofit Says

Gabriel C. Pérez

A national nonprofit says Texas’ system for putting holds on driver licenses is unconstitutional and is threatening to take the state to court as lawmakers decide the program's future this legislative session.

In a letter sent last week to Attorney General Ken Paxton, Washington, D.C.-based Equal Justice Under Law threatened legal action over Texas’ so-called Omnibase program. Courts use the program to put a hold on licenses of drivers who haven’t paid court costs or appeared in court for traffic-related offenses.

Offenders can't get their licenses back until they pay their fines and a reinstatement fee of up to $200. The nonprofit says, more often than not, the system doesn't actually recoup those costs – and many of the resulting suspensions are imposed on drivers who can't pay the costs.

"What we’ve seen with dozens of people across the state of Texas is that the Omnibase program is not successful in getting people actually to pay court debt," said Phil Telfeyan, the executive director of Equal Justice Under Law. "The vast majority of people who it’s affecting actually are too poor to pay court debt. So it’s only creating a cycle of poverty."

While the state does have an option to waive or reduce fees for those who can prove they can't pay, Telfeyan says it's mired in "impenetrable bureaucracy." Texas law doesn't allow people to pay fines at a DMV when they renew their licenses, for example.

In other states, he says, a driver could show they can't pay a fine by proving their income, then sign an affidavit to get their fees reduced or waived. Texas uses a hotline-based system that, Telfeyan says, makes it "impossible" to get waivers.

Equal Justice is also suing the state over another license-suspension program, the Driver Responsibility Program. That case is pending in federal court in San Antonio. The Omnibase and the Driver Responsibility programs are responsible for a total of 2.3 million current license suspensions or holds, according to a recent analysis by Texas Fair Defense Project and Texas Appleseed. More than 800,000 Texans have licenses on hold – or will have their licenses put on hold when they try to renew them, the report says.

Telfeyan says he's hopeful the Texas Legislature will amend the law to clean up the license hold and suspension process, but, as with the Driver Responsibility program, he says Equal Justice is prepared to go to court if the state doesn't come up with a solution.

Two identical bills in the Legislature are reexamining license holds and a handful of bills would reform or repeal the Driver Responsibility Program.

The Department of Public Safety, which issues licenses, is undergoing a regular review by the Texas Legislature. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have suggested taking license-issuing capability out of the hands of DPS, as it's primarily a law-enforcement agency, and giving that power to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

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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