AUSTIN (KXAN) – The letter that changed Monica Sanchez’s life came after her birthday in 2020 when she tried to renew her driver’s license.
Sanchez, 51, would not be able to get her license, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, until she paid off traffic tickets.
“To be honest with you, I had completely forgotten about those tickets. I literally do not remember some of them,” Sanchez said.
At the time, she also could not afford to pay them off.
The tickets were in different counties. One was a $342 speeding ticket she received in Guadalupe County.
When she did not pay it or appear in court to contest the ticket, the judge in that case added an additional $392 fine for not showing up to court, sent the debt to collections, and put a warrant out for her arrest.
The judge also sent an order to a third-party company called OmniBase Services of Texas saying until Sanchez paid the $734, plus court fees – the state should deny her license renewal.
“It was a really bad time in my life. I was going through a divorce,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t have the money.”
Since her license expired, Sanchez has been working at a gas station walking distance from her home, trying to slowly pay back the fines. She said it was one of the only places that would hire her without a valid driver’s license.
“I am making baby steps to get out of the situation,” Sanchez said. “Chances are there are people out there who can’t even afford to pay a dollar.”
“We are struggling to not only pay this ticket but also to have food on our table or to pay our rent or to go get medicine,” Sanchez said.
Drivers, DPS, and a third-party company
Sen. John T. Montford introduced a bill in 1995 that ordered Texas to create a statewide traffic warrant database and deny the renewal of a driver’s license for failure-to-pay traffic warrants.
At the time, the bill’s analysis estimated there were more than three million outstanding traffic warrants in the state of Texas and that it was causing “a significant loss of revenue to the municipality or county and the state.”
OmniBase – since 1996 – has tracked orders from courts to deny license renewals for the state’s Failure to Appear/Failure to Pay program.
OmniBase data, obtained via records request from DPS, show as of Oct. 2022 there were active orders from Texas municipal judges and justices of the peace to deny driver’s license renewals to more than 980,000 people.
These are all because they failed to appear in court or pay Class C misdemeanor fines, most of which stem from traffic-related tickets.
The numbers OmniBase reported differ from the numbers the state agency says are flagged under its program.
DPS officials say there are 445,000 Texans whose licenses have already expired and are not allowed to renew until they pay off their tickets and another 350,000 more Texans who will not be able to renew when their licenses eventually expire if they don’t pay or resolve the ticket beforehand.
The difference in the numbers, according to the DPS Driver’s License Division, has to do with various factors, including incomplete information reported by the courts that can’t be resolved, records that don’t match a Texas driver’s license record or ones that match the record of a deceased person.
In those cases, the order to block the renewal of a driver’s license would be rejected by DPS.
When OmniBase adds a name to its system, it also adds another fee to that person’s debt. The company then sends those orders to DPS, which runs the state’s driver’s license division. DPS, according to its latest contract, will pay OmniBase a maximum of $50 million by 2024 to maintain the statewide database.
Once flagged under the Failure to Appear/Failure to Pay program, drivers can face more expensive fines and even jail time if caught behind the wheel.
There is also no statute of limitations on how long the state can keep a hold on a driver’s license. According to OmniBase data collected from 2019 to October 2022, on average people spent a little more than four years with a failure to pay or failure to appear flag on their driver’s license.
The longest time someone spent on the list in that period was 26 years.
‘I was penniless’
Emily Culp hasn’t had a valid driver’s license in over a decade. On the orders of the judges, she, too, was not allowed to renew her license until she paid all her traffic tickets.
“I could not afford a lawyer at all at the time. I just got a divorce. I was penniless,” Culp said.
In 2021, she owed more than $5,000 in fines and fees.
Culp said sometimes she would still drive to work or to her child’s daycare even though her license was expired and couldn’t be renewed. When police pulled her over, she got more tickets — and was sometimes arrested for driving without a valid license.
“I never thought I would be someone in jail next to murderers for not paying a ticket,” Culp said.
It also added more ticket debt she needed to pay off before getting her license renewed.
‘Too poor to afford your Omni fees’
Under the Failure to Appear/Failure to Pay program, even when defendants come to court to address their tickets, judges have the choice to maintain the order to deny their driver’s license renewal until the entire debt is paid.
Local governments, including Harris County, the City of Austin, and Dallas, canceled their contracts with OmniBase as recently as 2020 citing the financial “trap” and legal “risk” the program imposes on families.
“I think it is effectively a way of criminalizing people for not having any money,” Rep. Diego Bernal, D- San Antonio, said.
Rep. Bernal has repeatedly filed bills to make it illegal for judges to jail Texans over traffic-related tickets. Those bills all failed.
“Using it as a weapon does not help anybody. Using it as an accelerant to almost guarantee they end up with greater fines, and possibly for a lot of them that cannot afford to pay — behind bars — that is not the reason you should have an element of government,” Rep. Bernal said.
Travis County Justice of the Peace Nicholas Chu said many judges follow what he considers to be best practices when it comes to OmniBase – that is, using it as a tool to get defendants to appear in court and dropping the hold once they do.
“Some courts have gotten into practices like, number one, not waiving Omni holds due to indigency (in other words, if you are too poor to afford your Omni fees),” Chu said.
“Forcing someone to resolve their case because I have their driver’s license and you can’t get it renewed until you plead guilty and resolve it, just isn’t fair and I don’t think it is constitutional,” Chu continued.
In a 2020 OmniBase quarterly report to DPS, Texas judges reported dismissing driver’s license holds due to inability to pay, or indigency, in less than 1% of cases. The same report stated 1% of driver’s license holds were lifted during that time because the person entered a payment plan with the court.
Chu said it is unclear if the data accurately reflects what is happening in Texas courts, or if data was input inconsistently or erroneously.
“Only seeing a hundred or so dismissed for indigency would not be consistent with the size of the indigency population,” Chu said. “That could indicate that courts are not using indigency or granting indigency as often as they should, which needs to be addressed. Number two, though, it could represent a problem with the data.”
Former Texas Fair Defense Attorney Karly Jo Dixon, who is now a public defender in Travis County, spent years defending low-income Texans who found themselves facing thousands of dollars of debt, and years in the OmniBase system, before getting their licenses back.
Dixon said while Texas laws recently passed in 2017 and 2019 allow payment plans, community services, or waivers for low-income Texans, courts do not always utilize these alternatives.
“They’ve not educated their clerks to tell people, ‘Oh, if you cannot afford to pay, there’s some paperwork you can fill out,’” Dixon said. “And so, folks are calling and saying ‘I have a ticket,’ and they are being told, ‘You can pay it in full or go to jail.’ That is still happening today. It is very common. And then at that point, people just give up. They do not know what to do.”
A new bill introduced in December would allow drivers to renew their license after 10 years of being expired through the state’s Failure to Appear/Failure to Pay program. Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, authored the bill. Right now, there is no statute of limitations on how long a driver can be flagged in the database.
The Texas Association of Municipal Judges, which has opposed other bills that would prevent municipal judges and justices of the peace from using jail time as a punishment for Class C misdemeanors, has already expressed opposition to the bill.
“If a scenario occurred where both Sen. Johnson’s bill and Rep. Bernal’s passed, then there would be no enforcement authority by a municipal judge or a justice of the peace,” City of Lewisville Municipal Judge and Texas Municipal Courts Association Legislative Chair Brian Holman said. “It would create pandemonium.”
“I don’t want a single mom with three or four kids to not be able to drive. That’s the last thing I want. That’s the last thing that our judges want, truly, and so getting them back on the road — legally — is what we want,” Holman said.
“I’m in communication with, and our association is in communication with, Senator Johnson’s office, and we look forward to collaborating with him in his office to reach some sort of combination that we can live with,” Holman said. “That will meet the desire, the appropriate desire of Sen. Johnson to protect those abuses, or protect those people from being abused.”
Data from the Fines and Fees Justice Center shows 30 states have laws that suspend, revoke, or will not allow people to renew their licenses for failure to pay fines and fees, including New Mexico, Louisiana and Florida.
‘Stuck in this situation’
For the first time in a long time, Culp has no outstanding fines hanging over her. She can finally get her driver’s license.
Culp and Sanchez both had help from Dixon, when she worked for the Texas Fair Defense Project, in fighting to reduce fees they owed and have some dismissed.
“There was, I believe, a $200 reinstatement fee and being the hero she is, she took care of it,” Culp said, talking about Dixon. “I feel lucky because I know there are so many people out there who don’t know about it and are stuck in this situation like I was.”
Digital Data Reporter Christopher Adams, Investigative Photographer Richie Bowes, Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Investigative Producer Dalton Huey and Digital Director Kate Winkle contributed to this report.