AUSTIN (KXAN) – The Texas program that allows judges to block driver license renewals over unpaid traffic tickets will face possible changes, and even repeal, this legislative session.

It comes after a KXAN investigation revealed more than 980,000 current court orders to block drivers from getting their license renewed, as of October 2022. Those were sent to the Texas Department of Public Safety vendor OmniBase.

Already, more than 445,000 Texans can’t get their license renewed or replaced if they are flagged under the state’s Failure to Appear and Pay program, according to DPS data.

The system, critics say, leaves some of the state’s poorest drivers in debt, without a license for years, and at risk for more charges — and even jail time — if they get on the road.

“I think a cynical person can say this just looks like a way for them to make money,” Bernal said. “This is not a street crime. [These are] traffic tickets. [These are] parking tickets.”

Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, has filed a bill to repeal the program. Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, has also filed legislation to require judges to lift the hold on someone’s license if they enter a payment plan or agree to do community service.

Right now, judges have the power to keep the hold even as defendants work to pay the tickets and court fees. OmniBase also adds a fee to the debt owed when judges submit an order to its system.

“What I am trying to do is make sure if someone is already complying with the program — they are not finished, but they are trying to make payments — they can get their license back,” Sen. Johnson said.

“How else are they going to make payments if they can’t drive to work?” he continued.

Judge Brian Holman with the Texas Municipal Court Association says he fears the legislation will threaten the tools courts have to bring in traffic violators.

“I’m sure there are some circumstances where someone is doing the things they can do and the judge doesn’t remove that hold until they completely comply with that judgment,” Holman said.

“But the intent of Senate Bill 270 is to place a 10-year cap on the ability of a judge to use the OmniBase system,” Holman said. “I think all that’s going to do is encourage people not to come to court, not to try to resolve their outstanding judgments.”

Monica Sanchez found out just before her birthday she wouldn’t be able to renew her license over past unpaid parking tickets.

The mom of two was out of a job and going through a divorce at the time. She was unable to pay off all the fees she was facing.

Sanchez has been paying off her tickets slowly while working at a gas station. One of the few places, she said, that would hire her without a valid driver license.

“I feel like I am climbing a hill,” Sanchez said.

			Since her license expired, Sanchez has been working at a gas station walking distance from her home, trying to slowly pay back the fines. (KXAN Photo/Kelly Wiley)

Since her license expired, Sanchez has worked at a gas station walking distance from her home, trying to slowly pay back the fines. (KXAN Photo/Kelly Wiley)

Karly Jo Dixon, a former attorney with Texas Fair Defense Project, has represented hundreds of people who are facing not being able to renew their license until they pay back tickets.

Dixon says the ticket debt often snowballs for poor drivers who can’t afford to clear the hold off their record.  

“They get caught in this cycle. So, the first ticket, you know, might have been for speeding or for a headlight being out, you know, something that seems small, but when they couldn’t take care of it, then their driver’s license is suspended. And then they get a ticket for driving without a driver’s license,” Dixon said.

“Things start to snowball, and to where sometimes we’re talking about thousands of dollars, sometimes to multiple courts or jurisdiction […],” Dixon continued. “And folks don’t know how to untangle that.”