Driven by Debt
How Driver’s License Suspensions for Unpaid Fines And Fees Hurt Texas Families
Julie’s license troubles started in 2011, when she got a ticket for letting her car insurance lapse. Despite being a single mother with tight finances, Julie got insurance and saved up to pay off the ticket in 2013. But in 2017, she was pulled over again. Julie was shocked when the officer told her that her license was not valid and had in fact been suspended for four years. Ironically, her paying the ticket in 2013 had triggered additional surcharges for which Julie never received notice, and led to a suspension when she failed to pay them. The officer then gave Julie a ticket for driving with a suspended license, which she later learned triggered more fines, surcharges and yet another suspension.
Julie spent years trying to get her license back, but in the meantime, she had to keep driving to keep her job and care for her children. This led to more tickets and more suspensions. Every time she saved up to pay a ticket, she’d be surprised by yet another suspension. She also accumulated warrants for missed payments on her tickets. She was afraid to even try to renew her license, because she could be arrested on these warrants at the Department of Public Safety’s driver’s license office.
Eventually, Julie met with a pro bono attorney from the Texas Fair Defense Project who was able to help her reinstate her license. Unfortunately, most people don’t have access to the legal assistance that Julie received. And her story is far from unique. Approximately 1.7 million Texansare currently unable to obtain a valid license as a direct result of not paying fines, fees or surcharges. As with Julie, the suspensions often start with a minor traffic offense. After losing their licenses due to inability to pay the original fines and fees for that ticket, people face a difficult choice. Most Texans must drive in order to provide for themselves and their families. But by doing so, they risk receiving more tickets, compounding their debts and driving them deeper into poverty. Yet, if they stop driving, they may lose their jobs, access to medical care, their ability to care for their children and any hope of ever paying off the fines, fees and surcharges.
Most license suspensions do not result from dangerous driving but from failing to pay fines, fees and surcharges. Like Julie, the vast majority of people caught in this cycle desperately want to resolve what they owe and to drive legally. However, Texas law currently puts up virtually insurmountable financial and procedural barriers to legal driving for people like Julie. The state’s illogical suspension programs harm all Texans, not just those barred from getting a valid license. The programs harm public safety by diverting law enforcement resources away from more serious crime. People with warrants for license-related offenses also frequently avoid contact with the police for fear of arrest, further harming public safety. The programs also negatively affect the Texas economy by causing people to lose jobs or preventing people from obtaining employment, forcing many to rely on public benefits. And they clog up our courts and the Department of Public Safety phone lines and offices with people who want a valid license, but cannot navigate the myriad suspension programs and complicated reinstatement process.
This report discusses these suspension programs in detail, as well as the problems they cause, and proposes solutions to get Texans back on the road legally. First, the report provides an overview of the programs that cause financial-based license suspensions and holds. The following section discusses the human and fiscal costs of those suspension programs. After that, that report provides a detailed analysis of the problems created by the OmniBase Program in particular, which puts holds on driver’s licenses when a person is unable to pay a fine or fee. Finally, this report contains state and local policy recommendations. For the benefit of all Texans, these reforms should be enacted immediately.
The majority of license suspensions in Texas are not due to unsafe driving behaviors such as driving while intoxicated, but are instead due to financial barriers. About seven in ten license holds and suspensionsin Texas are a direct result of the driver failing to pay fines, fees, and surcharges, most of which stem from minor traffic offenses. These types of suspensions are not intended to keep our roads safe. Instead, the courts and the Department of Public Safety (“the Department”) use license suspensions as a tool to enforce court orders and collect revenue.
There are two statewide programs that directly lead to an invalid driver’s license for nonpayment of fines, fees and surcharges: the Driver Responsibility Program (DRP) and the OmniBase Program. The official name for the OmniBase Program is the Failure to Appear/Pay Program, but it is most commonly referred to as “OmniBase” or just “Omni” after the private vendor, OmniBase Services of Texas, that administers the program for the Department.
Through the DRP, after someone is convicted of particular driving-related offenses, the Department charges those people surcharges.These surcharges are on top of any and all fines, fees, and court costs charged by the court in the underlying offense. If a person fails to pay the surcharges, regardless of the reason, the Department suspends their driver’s license.
The OmniBase Program allows a court to place a hold on an individual’s license when they fail to appear in court or fail to pay a fine or cost in any criminal case. The OmniBase Program does not require a conviction or hearing before the court places the hold. After a hold is placed, the person is unable to renew their license until the fine or cost is paid in full.
Both the OmniBase Program and the DRP have similarly devastating impacts on people who are unable to pay the fines, costs and surcharges that they owe. The programs frequently punish and entrap people who have not paid fines, costs and surcharges simply because they don’t have enough money. Most Texans lack reasonable access to public transportation, and for them, driving is the only way that they can get to work, take their children to school and childcare, and accomplish other necessary daily tasks like grocery shopping and medical appointments. When their licenses are suspended and they lack the money to pay the necessary fines and costs to reinstate them, they are forced to choose between continuing to drive on an invalid license and thereby risking additional fines and jail time, or losing their employment and ability to support their families and themselves.
The Department also has the power to suspend licenses through a third mechanism called Departmental Suspensions, which compounds the problems created by the DRP and OmniBase programs. The Department extends a license suspension based on evidence that a person has been driving on an invalid license. For example, if a person enters a guilty plea for driving without insurance and the Department determines that the ticket was issued during a suspension period, the Department usually suspends the license for an additional one to two years. As in Julie’s case, this almost always comes as a surprise to the person taking care of the old ticket. Departmental Suspensions prolong punishment for driving on an invalid license, further trapping people in a cycle of poverty when they cannot pay fines and surcharges.
The OmniBase Program and DRP have led to approximately 2.3 million license suspensions and holdsas a direct result of failing to pay fines and surcharges, leading to approximately 1.7 million individuals with currently suspended licenses on account of these programs. This includes:
- 1.5 million individuals with licenses suspended due to unpaid DRP surcharges;
- 320,000 individuals with expired licenses they cannot renew because of OmniBase holds; and
- 489,000 individuals with OmniBase holds on active licenses that will not be eligble for renewal when they expire.
Departmental suspensions for Driving While License Invalid or Failure to Maintain Financial Responsibility (i.e., not having insurance), which often result from having a license suspended for not paying fines and fees, have led to an additional 250,000 suspensions.
Overall, the majority of driver’s license suspensions and holds -- about four in five –- stem from financial reasons, with the remaining ones resulting from dangerous driving, convictions for certain offenses, or other reasons.
The Driver Responsibility Program (DRP) was established by the Texas Legislature in 2003, when the Legislature was facing one of the largest budget shortfalls in state history. The DRP helped to address that shortfall by raising money for the state budget and for much-needed trauma hospital funding. Under the DRP, the Department assesses surcharges against drivers under the following circumstances:
- A driver receives six or more “points” on their license. Each normal traffic citation counts as two points and any citation involving a collision counts as three points. Surcharges are assessed at $100 for the first six points received within three years and $25 for each additional point. That total amount is assessed every year for three years.
- A driver is convicted of driving without insurance, driving without a license or driving with an invalid license, leading to surcharges ranging from $100 to $250 assessed every year for three years.
- A driver is convicted of driving while intoxicated. Surcharges for this offense range from $1,000 a year to $2,000 a year for three years.
DRP surcharges are assessed in addition to the fines and court costs ordered by the court for the underlying offense. DRP surcharges are owed to the Department; the fines and costs are owed to the court. Paying off one’s fines and costs in full does nothing to affect one’s surcharges. If a driver does not pay surcharges on time, their license is automatically suspended until the surcharges have been paid, which is often a matter of years.
Many people are unaware that they have incurred surcharges and believe they have resolved what they owe after paying the criminal fines and court costs. They are later surprised to learn that their licenses were suspended as a result of unpaid surcharges arising from the same offense. People frequently do not know their driver’s license is suspended until they get pulled over for a traffic violation and the officer runs their license number.
The fact that the Department assesses surcharges over the course of three years can also be confusing; many people think that after paying the surcharges the first year they are resolved. As of January 2018, nearly 1.5 million peoplehave license suspensions due to unpaid DRP surcharges.
People with DRP suspensions often must continue to drive in order to provide for themselves and their families, given the lack of access to public transportation in most of Texas. If they continue driving, they often receive more citations for driving without a valid license or without insurance, which in turn, leads to more surcharges. As a result of this vicious cycle, about 85 percentof DRP suspensions are due to unpaid surcharges for driving without a valid license or without insurance — not DWI or moving violations.
In 2011, the Legislature established an Indigency Program for the DRP, which allows people to apply to the Department for waiver of their surcharges. The Department defines "indigent" as earning less than 125 percent of federal poverty guidelines, which was $32,187 for a family of four in 2018. Today, if the Department accepts a person's proof that they are indigent, surcharges are waived. There is also an Incentive Program that can reduce, rather than waive, surcharges for people who can demonstrate that they make between 125 percent and 300 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.
Unfortunately, most people who are eligible for the Indigency or Incentive Programs do not know that the programs exist and do not apply. Only 49,000 people successfully completed Indigency waiver applications in 2016, and only about 5,100 people were granted surcharge reductions through the Incentive Program. In a state with a poverty rate around 15 percent, one would expect more than 200,000 people with suspended licenses due to the DRP to be eligible for Indigency waivers, yet only a fourth of that number were granted.
In addition to a lack of knowledge about the waiver and reduction programs, another barrier is that the application is difficult for many people to complete and the required documentation can be difficult to provide. For example, some people find it impossible to prove that they are unemployed or have no income, so cannot successfully prove to the Department that they qualify. Furthermore, people whose wages are garnished for child support or other reasons often fail to qualify for relief because the application only considers gross income. Finally, when the Department rejects an application, it does not always provide a sufficient explanation for a person to properly re-apply even if they’re eligible.
The DRP is widely accepted as a failure, even by the original authors of the bill that brought the program into existence. The program punishes people over and over again for the offense of being poor. In 2010, a former Texas representative who was the lead author of the bill that brought the DRP into existence admitted that “we definitely made a mistake . . . . I think it’s past time to either revise or repeal the program.” However, despite many attempts, repealing the DRP has proven difficult, in large part because trauma hospitals have become dependent on the revenue from surcharges that is appropriated towards trauma care. The Texas legislature will again have the opportunity to end this failing and damaging program during the 86th legislative session.
Under the OmniBase Program (also known as the Failure to Appear/Pay Program), courts may contract with the Department to put a hold on a person’s driver's license when they miss a court date or fail to pay fines and court costs. The OmniBase hold prevents people from renewing their licenses until their fines and costs are paid in full. Additionally, people are charged a cost of $30 per hold that must be paid before a hold is lifted.
Called OmniBase after the private company that contracts with the Department to track the holds, court must opt into the OmniBase Program and enter a contract with the Department to participate. Participation is widespread across the state. According to the OmniBase website, 732 out of 961 Texas cities and 243 out of 254 Texas counties participate. Though courts of all levels can use the OmniBase Program, it’s used most often by justice and municipal courts, which handle the lowest level criminal offenses, such as citations for traffic offenses and violations of city ordinances, and the vast majority of criminal cases involving fines.
As of January 2018, there were approximately 320,000 people with licenses that had already expired and were ineligible for renewal due to Omnibase holds. Another 489,000 people had OmniBase holds on their licenses and will be ineligible for renewal when their licenses expire in the future.
Some courts consider the OmniBase Program a tool to convince people to take care of their fines and costs. Some people may not realize that they have outstanding citations until they attempt to renew their license, so an OmniBase hold provides notice of this information so they can resolve the citation. As long as they have the resources to immediately pay what they owe, they will be able to move on with their lives. But for people struggling to make ends meet, the OmniBase Program can be disastrous.
Unlike the DRP, the OmniBase Program does not have an Indigency Program or an Incentive Program. In fact, current lawdoes not permit courts to waive fines and fees for the underlying offense unless they first make a finding that the person is indigent and cannot perform community service without undue hardship. Instead of waiving what is owed, the court may also order a payment plan to pay in installments, or community service to work off what is owed at a rate of $12.50 per hour. But most courts currently require people to complete all payments or all community service hours—resolving the entire amount owed—before notifying the Department to lift the holds. And if a person received the ticket in a place where they no longer reside or were just traveling through, they often have no way to travel back to the jurisdiction to appear before a judge and ask for community service, meaning they have no way to resolve the underlying offense whatsoever.
Because it is so easy to accumulate fines and costs, many low-income Texans are put on court-ordered payment plans and community service plans that last for many months or even years. This means that even defendants who are in compliance with court orders and are making good faith efforts to make payment plan installments or complete community service hours must wait months or years to get their licenses back. Ironically, the inability to obtain a license while on a payment plan or community service plan makes it much harder to come up with the money for payments or travel to a community service site.
Administering the OmniBase Program is complicated and can be confusing for court clerks and defendants alike. Holds are not issued per person, but per case, meaning a single person can have multiple OmniBase holds from a single court. To add to the confusion, many people have holds from multiple courts without realizing it, oftentimes from different jurisdictions all located within the same county. Obtaining information online about a person’s existing holds is impossible if you do not know their driver’s license number and the information available is not always accurate. People often finally pay off all their citations in one court only to later find out that they still have holds they were unaware of in other local justice courts or municipal courts. Court clerks can also have difficulty determining which holds are active when somebody has multiple holds spanning many years, and it is not uncommon for clerks to forget to lift holds after a person pays off multiple citations. Because of the difficulty determining which courts have holds on a license, and the difficulty of obtaining and complying with an alternative sentence from each court, many indigent people eventually give up on the idea of ever obtaining a valid driver’s license.
The Department of Public Safety also has the power to suspend a driver's license through a Departmental Suspension, which can prolong a suspension period for a person trying to regain their driver's license. Many drivers caught in the DRP or the OmniBase Program end up receiving Departmental Suspensions as well. Pursuant to state law, if the Department determines that a person drove while their license was invalid or while they didn't have insurance, the Department must issue another suspension, on top of any other suspensions or holds. These additional suspensions last one to two years, depending on the length of the original suspension. As of April 2018, there were approximately 250,000 people with active Departmental Suspensions resulting from convictions for driving with an invalid license or without insurance.
In order to determine whether somebody was driving during a suspension period, the Department relies on records of convictions that indicate the person was driving. For example, the Department considers convictions for driving with an invalid license as grounds for a Departmental Suspension, and also infers that a person was driving if he or she is convicted of an offense like speeding, failing to signal, or failing to dim headlights during a time when their license was invalid.
Because Departmental Suspensions begin upon conviction of an offense, not the date of the offense or citation, they can be implemented well after the conduct they are intended to punish. This means that if somebody goes to court to arrange a payment plan for a ten-year-old citation that they previously failed to address and that was issued while their license was invalid, they will immediately receive a new Departmental Suspension based on the evidence that they were driving ten years ago on an invalid license, despite the fact that so much time has passed since the initial conduct.
In effect, Departmental Suspensions are fundamentally at odds with the OmniBase Program. The OmniBase Program is meant to compel people to come to court to pay citations. But when they do so, they may be hit with new Departmental Suspensions as a result. This punishes people for trying to take responsibility for their fines and makes it impossible for people to get back on their feet.
Finally, reinstatement fees are another serious hurdle for drivers who have had holds or suspensions and who are attempting to get their licenses back. Even after taking care of all fines, fees, and surcharges, and after serving any Departmental Suspension periods, most people are still barred from obtaining a license until they pay mandatory reinstatement fees charged by the Department.
People who have been caught up in the DRP and the OmniBase Program typically owe between $100 and $325 in various reinstatement fees. Unlike the OmniBase fee, the Department reinstatement fees cannot be waived or reduced for indigency or for any other reason. If an individual cannot pay them, they cannot get their license back.
The programs described above trap low-income Texans in a cycle of poverty and incarceration. The cycle often starts with a citation for a moving violation like changing lanes without a signal or speeding, or even a broken headlight that a driver cannot afford to fix. If the driver cannot afford to pay the fines and courts costs associated with the citation, an OmniBase hold is placed on the license and the person will not be able to renew it.
In order to support themselves and their families, not to mention pay the fines and court costs to get their driver’s license back, most Texans have to drive to work. But by doing so on a suspended license, they risk being pulled over and receiving more citations. Under a separate program known as the Scofflaw program, counties may deny vehicle registration renewal to people who have not paid fines and fees, meaning many people simultaneously lose their ability to register their vehicles due to unpaid fines and fees. So law enforcement may stop them for an expired registration sticker even if they have not committed a moving violation. At this point, they will likely receive several traffic citations per stop, including citations for driving without a valid license, driving without insurance (which is difficult to obtain with an invalid license) and driving with expired vehicle registration. It is easy to accumulate dozens of citations and thousands of dollars of ticket debt as a result.
If somebody is caught driving without a valid license or without insurance, or if they receive three or more traffic citations within three years, that person will also face hefty surcharges under the DRP. When people fail to pay surcharges, their licenses are automatically suspended. Continuing to drive on a suspended license risks not only more citations, but more hefty surcharges under the DRP. In addition, a conviction for any traffic citation received during a suspension period will trigger another Departmental Suspension for one to two years.
When people contact the Department to seek guidance for restoring their driver’s licenses, they often encounter what can seem like a black hole. Given the call wait times, it is often impossible to speak to someone over the phone at the Department about what is leading to an invalid license. Information available online is difficult to find and can be inaccurate. Not being able to speak to anyone on the phone or find enough information online leads people who are struggling with licenses to visit the Department in person. The Department service centers are completely overwhelmed and understaffed, with people reporting wait times of up to 8 hours just to renew a license. The people flooding the Department because of the DRP and OmniBase holds undoubtedly contribute significantly to these wait times.
Finally, even if somebody is able to successfully navigate the DRP Indigency Program, pay or work off all of their fines and costs without accumulating more citations and wait out any Departmental Suspension triggered by paying off those fines and costs, that person will still need to pay all applicable reinstatement fees, which often total hundreds of dollars. In sum, once a low-income person loses their license under one of these programs, the prospect of ever driving legally again can seem hopeless.
Impact on Employment
Driver's license-related consequences for not paying fines and fees hinder Texans' ability to remain employed and support their families.
A shortage of adequate public transportation makes driving a necessity for survival in much of Texas. Currently, more than 90 percent of employed workers commute to work in a car, either alone or in a carpool, according to census data. Only 1.4 percent use public transportation to commute to work. Most low-income Texans do not live within a reasonable public transit commute distance from local employers. Even densely populated urban areas in Texas generally lack an adequate public transportation infrastructure. In major cities like Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and El Paso, fewer than one-third of jobs are accessible within a 90-minute public transportation ride. In rural areas, public transportation is even less available.
Relatedly, much of the job growth in urban areas is in the suburbs rather than the city center. So even if public transportation exists within the city center, it is difficult for people who cannot legally drive to access job opportunities in the suburbs.
Even if someone can avoid commuting to work by car, just the fact that a person does not have a valid driver's license makes finding and keeping employment and housing more difficult. One study of drivers with suspended licenses found that 42 percent lost their jobs when their license was suspended. Forty-five percent of these people could not find another job, and the overwhelming majority of those who did find another job (88 percent) had to take a pay cut. The impact was even greater on drivers with household incomes below $30,000. Sixty-four percent of these drivers lost their jobs when their license was suspended and 51 percent could not find another job.
Not only are valid driver’s licenses necessary for many job applications, a valid driver’s license is viewed as a sign of stability and trustworthiness. Without one, an applicant for a job or an apartment may lose out to the applicant with a valid license. Many employers ask applicants to provide a valid driver’s license with their applications, even for jobs where driving is not required. This is especially common in fields such as construction, health care, manufacturing or office jobs—jobs that often pay above minimum wage and have the potential to help families escape poverty. Landlords also commonly ask applicants for driver’s licenses.
On top of the negative financial impact to individuals and their families, the loss of employment and income caused by driver’s license suspensions has a broader economic impact. When people cannot drive to work, employers are forced to hire and train new employees. When people stop being able to support themselves financially and provide for their families, people may file claims for unemployment benefits and other government assistance, passing the costs on to taxpayers. Loss of income can also lead to more uninsured drivers on the road, pushing more economic burden on people who are insured.
Rather than empowering people to be self-sufficient, suspensions stemming from poverty hinder employment and the financial stability of Texas families. Texas must establish a clear path forward for people who want a valid driver’s license, who want to comply with court orders, and who want to work, but are currently prevented from doing so through the OmniBase Program or DRP.
Unsurprisingly, many people with suspended licenses choose to keep driving even without a valid license, given that driving is a necessity to maintain employment in most cities and counties across Texas. Beyond employment, most Texans also have to drive to buy groceries, visit the doctor, or drop their children at daycare, among other necessary routine tasks.
In addition to the piling on of tickets, surcharges and fees, people who continue to drive after losing their licenses are often arrested and jailed as a result. Jail stays can have devastating consequences on individuals and families and compound the negative economic consequences suffered by families when a breadwinner has a suspended license. Even short jail stays can lead to people being fired from their jobs or being evicted from their housing. When jailed, people may have no way of knowing where their children are or who is taking care of them; they also may be threatened with removal of their children because they are in jail. Existing medical conditions and mental health issues may be exacerbated when they do not have access to their typical medications and medical care. Furthermore, having an arrest record and/or criminal conviction on their records makes finding sustainable housing and employment in the future dramatically more difficult.
There are two ways that license suspensions can lead to jail time: one, being charged with the Class B misdemeanor of Driving While License Invalid, and two, being committed to “sit out” fines in jail on a Class C misdemeanor.
A. Driving While License Invalid Charges
Under Texas law, a first-time Driving While License Invalid (DWLI) offense in isolation is a Class C misdemeanor, meaning a person will usually receive a ticket rather than being booked into jail. A second or subsequent DWLI, or any DWLI (even a first offense) combined with not having insurance or with a previously suspended license due to a Driving While Intoxicated (DWI), bumps DWLI up to a Class B misdemeanor. A Class B misdemeanor carries a penalty of up to a $2,000 fine and 180 days in jail. Regardless of whether your license is invalid for not paying a traffic ticket or for driving after a suspension due to a DWI conviction, a repeat DWLI is a jailable offense.
Repeat DWLI often occurs when people have been previously charged with DWLI and do not have the financial resources to get their license back, yet must continue to drive out of necessity. Vicki Ashley, the Travis County Attorney’s Office criminal trial division director, explained the huge number of DWLI charges in Travis County: “The people that we’re seeing over and over again in large measure have gotten themselves into such a deep financial burden that they don’t see a way out. They cycle through with DWLI arrests or citations or charges, a couple times a year. Every single time it adds surcharges.”
When drivers are charged with a Class B DWLI, they are most often arrested and booked into jail. Texas law does allow for police departments and other law enforcement agencies to implement cite-and-release policies for certain misdemeanors including DWLI (meaning a person could get a ticket ordering them to appear in court on a certain date and avoid jail booking), but most departments have not done so. Furthermore, when a driver is booked into jail, their vehicle is typically impounded meaning they will have to pay the towing company to have their vehicle returned to them. A typical towing fee is $200 and the cost rises the longer the vehicle is stored.
If a person is arrested for a Class B DWLI, either after the original traffic stop or upon missing court, they will usually have the opportunity to pay a bond to be released quickly. Bond amounts for Class B misdemeanors vary by county, but can range from $400 to $1,000 or more, and most people who cannot afford to pay their fines, fees and surcharges to get their license back also cannot afford a cash bond. In many Texas counties, most people wait in jail on a DWLI charge until they enter a plea deal, often pleading guilty in exchange for time served and their immediate release, or until they go to trial. Furthermore, a conviction for DWLI also usually includes jail time as part of the sentence. Statewide, there were 11,700 convictions for Class B DWLI in 2017. In 75 percent of the cases resulting in conviction, the defendant was sentenced to jail.
Thousands of people are booked into jail each year on charges related to their driver’s license being invalid or expired. Examining jail booking records in 9 large counties reveals that at least 6,000 people were booked into jail in those 9 counties on DWLI chargeswithout a more serious offense over the course of a single year. Another 1700 people were booked in on other driver’s license-related charges, such as having an expired driver’s license, in those counties in the same year.
B. Commitment for Nonpayment of Fines and Costs
A first offense for DWLI is a Class C misdemeanor intended to be punished by fine alone, but jail time may result nonetheless. When people fail to pay fines for Class C misdemeanors, the court often issues a capias warrant for their arrest. These can be executed anywhere, even a person’s home or place of work, but are most often executed during another traffic stop. Because many people with capias warrants for unpaid fines have also lost the ability to register their vehicles, they may be stopped and arrested for their expired registration without any moving violation. Moreover, with the widespread use of Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs), police can quickly scan thousands of license plates to identify drivers with outstanding warrants for unpaid fines and pull them over even if they have not committed a moving violation.
Once arrested, Texans can be held in jail to “lay out” their fines and costs at a rate set by state law of at least $100 of jail credit per day. Because it is so easy to accumulate thousands of dollars in traffic citations, many people who are committed to jail are held for days or even weeks due to unpaid fines and costs. Under Texas law, people cannot be committed to jail for failure to pay fines or costs unless the judge holds a hearing and determines that the person either (1) is able to pay the amount but has chosen not to pay; or (2) is unable to pay, has been given the opportunity to complete community service and could have performed it without undue hardship but has chosen not to do the community service. These hearings are often perfunctory and incomplete, if they happen at all, and as a result, many low-income people end up in jail illegally solely due to their inability to pay. In some Texas jurisdictions, officers take people directly to jail to lay out their fines and they never see a judge, let alone have a hearing.
Even if people are not committed to weeks in jail, they may be held in jail for up to 48 hours by law just waiting to see a judge before being released. They usually receive $100 of jail credit per day in jail while they wait, but for some, that may not even make a dent in the amount they owe. Additionally, if a person has multiple citations, they can accumulate hundreds of dollars in warrant fees of $50 per warrant every time they are arrested and released, continuously driving up their debt and bouncing them in and out of jail.
C. Enforcement of Financial-Related License Suspensions Wastes Law Enforcement Resources and Makes Texas Communities Less Safe
The authors of this report and their partners have interviewed hundreds of people who have lost their licenses under the programs described here. All of those people have had one thing in common: they desperately want to obtain their driver’s licenses and get back on the road legally so that they can get the rest of their lives on track. By creating insurmountable barriers for low-income people who want to regain their driver’s licenses, the programs described here trap people in poverty and make us all less safe.
Instead of using law enforcement resources to address more serious crimes, or to focus on dangerous driving, law enforcement officers are forced to spend time addressing unpaid fines and fees. Research has demonstrated that the more law enforcement resources dedicated to collecting fines and fees, the lower the clearance rate for violent crimes and property crimes. In particular, arresting and booking a person into jail takes time. One Ohio study estimated a suspended license case required seven hours of an officer’s time, when accounting for the stop, the vehicle impoundment, the jail booking and time in court. This is seven hours the officer is unavailable for other duties, including 911 responses and criminal investigations.
Another way that license suspensions further damage public safety is through unnecessary jail stays for low-risk Texans whose most serious offense is driving without a valid license. Research shows that detaining non-dangerous people in jail, even just for a few days, is strongly correlated with higher rates of new criminal activity. This effect persists even years after the detention. The higher likelihood of criminal activity following pretrial detention is most likely due to the extremely destabilizing effect jail has on most people’s lives, especially when those people are already struggling to get by. Even with short jail stays, people may lose their jobs, their housing, their children and family support, not to mention the deleterious effects on their physical and mental health. Finding other ways to hold people accountable besides jail, such as driver safety classes, license restoration clinics, community service and probation, will conserve law enforcement resources and jail beds for dangerous people who threaten public safety, while allowing people whose most serious offense is not paying fines or fees and then driving with an invalid license to avoid detention and to financially support themselves and their families.
Unnecessary jail time also costs county taxpayer dollars. County sheriffs must feed and house people, provide them medical care and prescription drugs, and employ the jail staff available to oversee the jail population, which costs an average rate of $60 per day -- and much higher in some counties. The license-related jail stays in the 10 counties that this report analyzed accounted for 12,721 jail bed days – a cost of more than $750,000, based on the average jail bed day cost of $60.
Moreover, district attorneys and criminal courts must allocate time and resources to the prosecution and adjudication of charges that are most often a result of poverty. Notably, some district attorneys have instituted policies to reduce the number of DWLI charges that they prosecute, realizing the resources wasted on DWLI prosecution. For example, Tarrant County’s District Attorney prosecutes relatively few Class B DWLI, having instructed law enforcement to charge DWLI as a Class C offense in most instances (merely writing a ticket that should not be punishable by jail) in order to conserve prosecution resources for more serious crimes. Other counties, like Travis County, are establishing ways to divert these offenses or refile as Class C misdemeanors as well. Ultimately, people charged with driver’s license-related offenses need instructions for obtaining a valid license more than anything else, and most cases should be deferred, allowing for charges to be dismissed if the person obtains a valid license. However, in order for that policy to work, the laws must be changed so that it is possible for lay people to navigate the license-recovery process by themselves.
While advocates and legislators have acknowledged the harms associated with the DRP over the past few years, little attention has been paid to the OmniBase program. For that reason, this section dives deeper into that program specifically in order to paint a better picture of who is impacted by it -- primarily low-income people and disproportionately people of color, many of whom have not been able to reinstate their license for many years.
The fact that the program disproportionately punishes low-income Texans is evidenced by the huge number of holds that are placed on licenses for offenses that are associated with poverty. Driving without insurance, displaying expired license plates, driving with an invalid license and no driver’s license all often result from a lack of financial resources and are poverty-related, while moving violations like speeding are committed by drivers of all income levels. More than one in fourOmniBase holds from 2013 through 2017 resulted from these poverty-related offenses. Ultimately, one needs money to obtain car insurance or to pay their vehicle registration fee. For example, it costs more than $200 to initially register a vehicle in Travis County and $78 per year after that. It costs on average $1300 annually (depending on your county of residence) to insure a vehicle in Texas, and it is even more expensive to get insurance if you do not have a driver’s license. A person also needs money to obtain a driver’s license and money to keep one, including resolving any legal financial obligations like fines, court costs or surcharges. Consequently, people without money are most often convicted of these offenses.
A. Long-term Holds Demonstrate People Lack a Path to Reinstating Their Licenses
Further evidence that the OmniBase Program punishes people for their poverty are the tens of thousands of people who have years-long or even decades-long holds on their licenses. The Program’s purpose is to compel payment before or at the time people renew their license. Almost anyone who has the money to pay the underlying fines or costs will do so when their license expires to avoid risking further fines. However, for those without the money to do so, their license becomes invalid when it expires and may remain invalid for many years.
The average length of time that expired licenses with OmniBase holds have been invalid is five years and seven months. The chart below shows how long licenses with OmniBase holds have been expired. (Active licenses with OmniBase holds are not included in this data.) Among these expired licenses, more than 50,000 licenses have been expired for over a decade and not had the hold removed, representing 10 percent of all expired licenses with OmniBase holds. Another 188,000 (or 39 percent of expired licenses with OmniBase holds) have been expired between five and ten years.
Someone who has endured an invalid license and all of its attendant consequences –- including the threat of more tickets and arrests, and the difficulty of finding employment and housing -- almost certainly has no path to reinstating their license, or at least no path that they are able to navigate themselves. They do not have the money to hire an attorney to help them and do not have the money to pay the fines, costs and reinstatement fees required to get their license back. Relatedly, the court almost certainly will not be able to collect any money from them at this point given their lack of financial resources.
B. The OmniBase Program is Not Necessary to Enforce Court Judgments
Notably, the OmniBase Program is not viewed by all courts as a necessary tool to enforce court judgments. This is evidenced by the great variation in the degree to which courts rely on the program. Across the municipal courts in larger cities from which the authors of this report collected data, some issued tens of thousands of holds annually while others have voluntarily opted out of the program entirely or rarely issue holds at all.
Comparing the Dallas and Fort Worth Municipal Courts is particularly telling. The Dallas Municipal Court relies heavily upon OmniBase for enforcement while the Fort Worth Municipal Court reported that it has not used OmniBase at all over the past three years. Yet there is virtually no difference in the revenue per case disposed between the two courts in the most recent year. The Fort Worth Municipal Court collects $116 per case and the Dallas Municipal Court collects $113 per case.
C. Case Study: Dallas OmniBase Holds are Concentrated in Low-income Zip Codes
Conversations with people who have OmniBase holds about the impact of the program on their lives offer ample anecdotal evidence about the disproportionate impact this program is having on low-income Texans. And the fact that this program punishes the poor is supported by the data as well.
The Dallas Municipal Court issues the most holds of large municipal courts from which we were able to obtain complete data. In 2017, they placed more than 75,000 holds on driver’s licenses. The Court had about 160,000 new cases added to their docket that year, meaning their ratio of holds to new cases was almost 1:2.
The map below shows a distribution of the OmniBase holds issued to people whose residential zip code is within Dallas County. The zip codes are also color-coded to show the median income within that zip code according to census data.
The map shows that OmniBase holds are concentrated in lower-income zip codes, many of which are in South Dallas. The highest income zip codes generally have very few holds. A correlation analysis revealed a significant negative relationship between holds and median income; as zip code income increased, the number of holds decreased.
The map does reveal a couple of anomalies, with two relatively high income zip codes near downtown Dallas that also have a comparatively high number of holds. One potential explanation is that these zip codes include several shelters and agencies that serve the Dallas homeless population, so have traditionally been areas of the city where many individuals experiencing homelessness reside. These individuals may be cited by law enforcement for city ordinances designed to govern their conduct, like no camping, no sitting or lying on sidewalks, no walking in roadways, or no soliciting, and have no money to pay the associated fines, leading to an OmniBase hold.
OmniBase holds for such offenses are not uncommon. For example, there were 3,500 OmniBase holds statewide related to not paying fines for walking on a roadway when a sidewalk was provided and another 1,500 OmniBase holds for unpaid tickets written for standing in a roadway to solicit contributions or employment. These are tickets most often written to individuals experiencing homelessness, meaning Omnibase is likely entrapping some of the most vulnerable individuals.
D. Racial Disparities Demonstrate Injustice in OmniBase Holds
Black and Hispanic drivers are much more likely to be impacted by OmniBase holds than White drivers. Black individuals make up about 11 percent of licensed drivers in Texas. Yet, they are dramatically overrepresented among people with expired licenses that cannot be renewed due to OmniBase holds, representing 28.6 percent of these drivers. Significance tests of these proportions found that the differences for race groups are statistically significant, and not due to chance.
One factor contributing to the disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic drivers is undoubtedly the racial wealth gap in Texas. The median household income for a White family in Texas is $59,891, while the median household income for a Black family in Texas is $42,582. More than 17 percent of Black families in Texas live in poverty compared to 11 percent of White families. So, on average, a Black driver will be less likely to be able to pay fines and costs in full than a White driver.
Other factors may also be contributing to the overrepresentation of people of color in the OmniBase Program, including the fact that Department of Public Safety officers cite Black and Hispanic drivers at a disproportionate rate. Examining stops by Department of Public Safety troopers, for example, shows higher rates of citations per stop for Black and Hispanic drivers compared to White drivers. Approximately one citation is written for every two stops for Black and Hispanic drivers versus one citation for every three stops of White drivers. While this fact alone is not a large enough difference to account for the greater rate at which Blacks and Hispanics experience OmniBase holds relative to Whites, it could contribute to the disparity. Ultimately, if a driver is more likely to receive a ticket when they are stopped, and less likely to have the money to pay that ticket, they are more likely to fail to pay and have an OmniBase hold that prevents them from renewing their license.
Data from Dallas Municipal Court discussed in the previous section shows the racial breakdown of all holds placed in 2017, with stark overrepresentation of Black drivers in that jurisdiction. While Black individuals make up only about 25 percent of the Dallas population, almost 60 percent of OmniBase holds impacted Black individuals. Such a dramatic racial disparity indicates that the City of Dallas must take steps to identify the drivers of this disparity, be it different rates of traffic stops or citations, differences in income level and ability to pay fines or other factors, and then take steps toward eliminating this racial disparity. Other cities should examine their own data and undertake a similar inquiry.
Texans need a way out of the ongoing cycle of invalid driver’s licenses, tickets, mounting court debt, jail time and lost employment. Creating a navigable path to reinstatement of driver’s licenses for low-income Texans will not only help individual families gain financial stability, but will generate wealth for the Texas economy. Moving forward, driver’s license suspensions should be limited to those dangerous drivers who put others at risk when they are on the road, not drivers who haven’t paid fines, costs and surcharges.
The legislature should eliminate the OmniBase Program as well as the DRP. Eliminating license suspensions for nonpayment would free up resources to dedicate to public safety and public health. If the legislature is unwilling to eliminate the OmniBase Program, it should modify the program to ensure people are not trapped in the program due to poverty and provide people a clear path to driver’s license restoration. Furthermore, no person should be jailed for driver’s license-related offenses, particularly when the invalid license was due to nonpayment of fines or costs.
The following recommendations would create a system that is fair to all Texans while protecting public safety and more wisely using taxpayer dollars. Along with the state legislature, district attorneys, courts and city councils can all help create such a system.
Abolish or Reform the Omnibase Program
Abolishing the OmniBase Program and lifting all existing holds would be the simplest and most certain solution to address the problems associated with it.
However, if the OmniBase Program continues to exist, modifications must be made so that OmniBase holds are not put on licenses when people lack the ability to pay their fines and costs.
1. Limit holds to failure to appear and end holds for failure to pay.
Of the two types of OmniBase holds—one for failure to appear and one for failure to pay, failure to pay causes greater problems. Holds for failure to pay are generally placed on the licenses of people who have appeared in court, which indicates they were attempting to comply with court orders. More often than not they are unable to pay what was ordered. If a person is willfully refusing to pay an amount, the law offers tools for collecting the amount owed other than a license hold.
2. Lift holds as soon as a person comes into compliance.
Most courts currently require defendants to complete all payment plan installments or all community service, resolving the entire amount owed, before the holds on their licenses are lifted. Many defendants owe thousands of dollars in fines and costs, meaning it will take many months or even years to pay or work off their balances. This means that even defendants who are in compliance with court orders and are making good faith efforts to make payment plan installments or complete community service hours will wait months or years to get their licenses (which in turn makes it harder for them to comply with those court orders). Courts should instead lift holds as soon as a defendant comes to court and makes a good faith effort to take care of their citations. People waiting for a pretrial setting or to complete payment plans or community service plans should be able to obtain licenses during that period. If a defendant misses a court date again or fails to comply with a court order, the court could issue a new hold on the license to ensure the defendant comes back to court.
3. Hold hearings before issuing holds.
Before defendants are deprived of their ability to obtain a driver’s license, the court should be required to order a hearing, providing the defendant an opportunity to be heard and explain why their fines or costs have not yet been paid. If the nonpayment was due to inability to pay or the failure to complete community service was on account of undue hardship, the court should not suspend the driver’s license, but instead modify the sentencing order so that the defendant can resolve the amount that they owe.
4. Implement an indigency program similar to DRP.
The DRP has an indigency program that allows people who live at or below 125 percent of federal poverty guidelines to clear their surcharges and obtain valid driver’s licenses. The OmniBase Program should have a similar program, through which defendants can submit a form or affidavit documenting their income. If their income falls below a certain level, they should not be eligible for a license hold under OmniBase Program and any existing hold should be lifted.
5. Structure program so that only one hold is issued per person in each jurisdiction.
Currently, defendants can have multiple holds in each jurisdiction, and each hold also comes with a $30 fee that must be paid before the hold is lifted. Because it is so easy for defendants to accumulate tickets once they lose their licenses, they often end up owing hundreds of dollars in Omni costs. Furthermore, due to the large number of holds, many clerks make mistakes and fail to lift some of the holds once a person has taken care of their tickets. Holds should be applied per person instead of per case, so that each person has only one hold in each jurisdiction. This will simplify the process and decrease the likelihood of administrative errors.
6. Lift holds automatically after a license has been expired for two years.
Under current law, holds are not lifted until the fines or costs owed are completely resolved, meaning there are people with expired licenses that they have not been able to renew for many years. Presumably, most people who do have the ability to pay will pay in order to get their license back once it has been expired and they realize they risk additional tickets if they continue driving on an expired license. It is overwhelmingly those who lack the ability to pay who have suspensions that are many years old. By limiting the amount of time that a license can be denied renewal, the law would be making a reasonable attempt to differentiate between those who can pay and those who cannot – and lifting the holds for the latter without requiring them to jump through unnecessary hoops.
Repeal the Driver Responsibility Program and Fund Trauma Care without Relying on Revenue Generated by the Criminal Justice System
Despite repeal efforts over the past few legislative sessions, the DRP has been difficult to abandon due to state trauma hospitals’ dependence on DRP revenue. Money raised from the DRP is funneled into two funds: 50.5 percent to the General Revenue Fund and 49.5 percent to the Designated Trauma Facility and Emergency Medical Services Account. Though Trauma hospitals rely on the DRP, it is not a stable source of funding. Only about half of the surcharges assessed are ever paid despite the steep penalties, usually because the people with the most surcharges are too poor to pay them. The amount collected each year is unpredictable, and the total revenue from the DRP has often decreased from year to year, despite the overall growth of the state.
In 2017, H.B. 2068 (Phillips, L.) became the first DRP repeal bill to make it out of the House of Representatives before dying in the Senate. However, H.B. 2068 would have replaced the funding for trauma care by creating increased criminal fines – specifically, an additional $3,000 fine for driving while intoxicated, an additional $750 fee for driving without insurance, and an increase in the state traffic fine of $20. Unfortunately, while the bill would have helped many Texans with their DRP suspensions, many of those people would have simply ended up with OmniBase holds instead as a result of the new fines. In some ways, this would have put them in a worse position since the OmniBase Program does not have an indigency or incentive program like the DRP.
Instead of relying on fines or surcharges, trauma hospitals should have a stable source of funding that does not depend on squeezing money from low-income Texans who are already struggling with fines and fees. Therefore, the Texas Legislature should repeal the DRP and designate an appropriate amount of funding for trauma care from the general revenue.
End Departmental Suspensions
Departmental Suspensions are counterproductive and end up punishing people for coming to court to take care of old citations. The Texas Legislature should amend the code so that the Department may only administratively suspend a driver’s license in cases where a person was convicted of driving while intoxicated at the time their license was invalid.
Require Waiver of Reinstatement Fees
Most people who enter the DRP or the OmniBase Program end up owing $200 in reinstatement fees in addition to all other fines, fees and surcharges. These reinstatement fees cannot be waived for indigency and must be paid in full before a person can obtain a license. This means that reinstatement fees can be a final yet insurmountable barrier to reinstating one’s license even after resolving fines, fees and surcharges. The Texas Legislature should require reinstatement fees to be waived upon a showing of inability to pay to either a court or the Department to eliminate this barrier.
Reduce Driving While License Invalid Charges to Class C Misdemeanors
The majority of all license suspensions are not based on convictions for dangerous offenses like driving while intoxicated but are instead due to the driver’s inability to pay a fine, fee or DRP surcharge. People who must continue to drive risk being charged with Driving While License Invalid (DWLI). While the first DWLI offense is a Class C misdemeanor, any subsequent offense can be charged as a Class B misdemeanor and carries up to six months in jail –- regardless of the reason for the original suspension.
The Texas Legislature should reduce Class B DWLIs to Class C misdemeanors except in cases where the original suspension was related to driving while intoxicated. Not only would this be more proportionate, it would save taxpayer dollars by diverting individuals from county jails and by eliminating the need to appoint an attorney in most cases. It would also improve public safety by keeping law enforcement officers on the street to focus on more serious crime.
Develop Court Procedures Designed to Avoid OmniBase Holds and DRP Surcharges for People Whose Nonpayment is Due to Poverty.
Many of the legislative recommendations suggested are already within a judge’s discretion to implement in their own court. Municipal court judges, along with justice court judges, should establish court policies that will prevent people from having invalid driver’s licenses due to poverty. For example, judges should hold a show cause hearing to determine the cause for nonpayment before issuing an OmniBase hold. And judges should establish a policy that they will lift a hold as soon as a person voluntarily comes to court to take care of an outstanding fine, as opposed to waiting for them to be done with a payment plan or community service. Courts can also lift holds that have been in existence for a very lengthy period, where the likelihood of collecting any money is already extraordinarily low.
Municipal and justice court judges, in conjunction with their city councils and county commissioners courts, should also reconsider their city’s or county’s participation in the OmniBase Program and opt out entirely, choosing not to renew their contract with the Department. While that contract is in place, city councils and court commissioners should monitor the compliance of municipal courts, justice courts and other county courts with the U.S. Constitution and state law, to ensure that their constituents’ rights are protected and to avoid a lawsuit similar to ones filed across the country challenging programs similar to OmniBase.
Implement Cite and Release Policies to Avoid Jail Time for DWLI and Related Offenses.
City councils and county commissioners courts should direct their local law enforcement agencies to develop cite-and-release policies. Texas law provides that for certain Class B misdemeanors, including DWLI, an officer may write a citation ordering a person to appear in court on a certain date, rather than arresting them and booking them in jail. This avoids many of the harms to individuals associated with a jail stay, as well as avoiding significant expenditure of taxpayer dollars. Cite and release is underutilized across Texas, though several departments are working to develop new policies or expand existing ones. If law enforcement agencies used cite and release more frequently, it would protect more Texans from the harms of pretrial detention.
Grant Personal Bonds Quickly for DWLI.
County court judges should issue standing orders that anyone who is booked into jail for DWLI or other driver’s license related offenses, and no more serious offense, is entitled to immediate and automatic release on a personal bond, without any monetary payment required. Again, this would protect Texans accused of DWLI from the harms of pretrial detention.
Develop Diversion Programs for DWLI.
District attorneys serve a vital role in ensuring public safety, and their limited resources could be better allocated by not prosecuting DWLI cases. They can instruct their local law enforcement to charge all DWLI as a Class C misdemeanor or could themselves reduce the charges for those Class B misdemeanors that are filed with their office to Class C misdemeanors. District attorneys can also divert DWLI cases that are filed, by deferring prosecution and allowing the person to work with a local clinic or legal services agency to restore their license, dropping the charges entirely if the person obtained a valid license within a certain period.
Develop Local Programs to Assist People with License Restoration.
City councils and county commissioners should work with their municipal and justice courts, respectively, to establish license restoration programs through which people who are struggling with holds for unpaid fines and fees can receive guidance and legal assistance in reinstating their license. The Austin Municipal Court has successfully held four such license restoration clinics so far in conjunction with the Texas Fair Defense Project and the William Wayne Justice Center at the University of Texas School of Law and the demand for the clinics has been overwhelming. They have led to hundreds of people with licenses suspended due to unpaid fines and surcharges receiving legal assistance to reinstate their license.
Texas Appleseed is a public interest justice center. Our nonprofit works to change unjust laws and policies that prevent Texans from realizing their full potential. We anchor a dynamic network of pro bono partners and collaborators to develop and advocate for innovative and practical solutions to complex issues. Texas Appleseed also conducts data-driven research that uncovers inequity in laws and policies and identifies solutions for lasting, concrete change. The many issues on which we work are united by the goal of greater justice. When justice is beyond reach, Texas Appleseed provides the ladder.
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Contact: Mary Mergler, firstname.lastname@example.org, (512) 473-2800 x106
Texas Fair Defense Project
The Texas Fair Defense Project’s mission is to fight for a criminal justice system that respects the rights of low-income Texans. We envision a new system of justice that is fair, compassionate, and respectful. Through impact litigation, legislative advocacy, and education, we are working to end counterproductive, costly, and unconstitutional practices like jail time for traffic tickets and our broken money-bail system.
For more information, visit www.fairdefense.org
Contact: Emily Gerrick, email@example.com, (512) 879-1189
Special Thanks to Annie E. Casey Foundation
This report is a product of our work with the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Southern Partnership to Reduce Debt, which is developing strategies to lessen the impact of criminal and civil judicial fines and fees, as well as medical fees, high-cost consumer products and student loan debt, on communities of color.
We thank the Casey Foundation for its support but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions presented here are those of the author(s) alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation.