AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texans who spent years unable to renew their driver’s licenses over unpaid, and for some – unaffordable, traffic tickets pleaded with lawmakers Tuesday to repeal a state program dating back to 1996.
The program called Failure to Pay and Appear allows judges to order a hold on a Texas driver renewing their license if they fail to appear in court or pay a misdemeanor traffic ticket.
OmniBase Service of Texas is the only company contracted to operate the system for the Department of Public Safety Driver License Division and the hundreds of participating counties. Drivers are required to pay a fee to OmniBase in addition to the traffic ticket to renew their license.
Fernando Martinez, a construction worker, told lawmakers a traffic ticket he received when he was 19 years old – which he said he was unable to afford at the time, led to a 17-year-long cycle of fines and fees to get his license back.
“I was not making any money when I started off my adult life and I ended up getting a suspended license for not paying my first ticket. I didn’t realize it became suspended. When I got pulled over it opened a whole can of worms. Taking away people’s license is taking their ability to provide for their family,” Martinez said.
“I work in construction. I can’t take materials and tools on the bus. I ended up getting pulled over on my way to work and was charged with driving with a suspended license. This put me in an endless cycle of fines and fees.”
There are currently four bills garnering bipartisan support that would repeal the state’s Failure to Appear and Pay program altogether, or significantly change how judges are allowed to use the database. Rep. Bernal (D-San Antonio) filed HB 4074 following a KXAN investigation into the state program.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative policy think-tank, Austin-based non-profit Texas Appleseed, and the Texas Fair Defense Project, which represents hundreds of drivers with holds on their licenses, have thrown their support behind bills that would repeal the program.
“Driver’s License suspensions based solely on unmet financial obligations only further exacerbate unemployment and recidivism, while doing little to nothing to protect public safety,” TPPF officials said in a March 2022 publication talking about the Failure to Pay and Appear program.
One of the bills will require judges to lift a driver’s license hold when a driver starts a payment plan or an alternative like community service. Meaning the driver would have to be allowed to renew their license if they are in the process of complying.
Right now, individual judges in Texas have the option to prevent a driver from renewing their driver’s license even after entering such a plan, until the fine is paid fully.
“These restrictions limit one’s ability to maintain gainful employment and thereby pay off court debt,” Kaden Norden with Prison Fellowship Ministries said. “This results in many Texans risking driving with an invalid license to maintain employment.”
The recent legislation has prompted a fierce response from multiple municipal and county judges asking lawmakers to keep the program in place.
“If you repeal the statute many of the traffic laws will not be enforceable. You will send a message to the violators that their actions have no consequences,” City of Tyler Municipal Court Judge Amy McCullough said.
Several judges, including those representing the Texas Municipal Courts Association and Justice of the Peace and Constable Association, say the program is the most important tool for small cities in getting alleged traffic violators to appear in court.
Though, non-profit Texas Appleseed testified data shows there is not a significant difference in the amount of revenue collected by courts that use the Failure to Appear and Pay program and those that don’t.
“We get people into court to resolve cases not necessarily pay in cases,” Texas Municipal Courts Association President-Elect Judge Brian Holman said.
The Senior Campaigns Strategist for Fines and Fees Justice Center testified Tuesday that data from the Office of Court Administration showed a low rate of cases in Texas being waived or reduced because of a driver’s inability to pay – one percent in a state with a 14 percent poverty rate.
“There are also habitual offender laws in Texas that if you have a certain number of citations in a short time frame your license will be suspended and that is a suspension based on dangerous driving not on the non-payment of fines and fees,” Fines and Fees Justice Center Senior Campaigns Strategist Mary Mergler said.
“Repealing the OmniBase program would not impact those suspensions for repeated violations, and it would not eliminate suspensions for say reckless driving or exceeding the speed limit by a certain amount.”
Mergler said in the past five years, 24 state legislators have passed legislation to end or significantly curve debt-based license restrictions and suspensions, including Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, Virginia, and most recently, New Mexico.
In Texas, Dallas, Harris County, and the City of Austin have opted not to use the program citing the financial “trap” and legal “risk” the program imposes on families.
“There is growing, and now widespread recognition among state policymakers that preventing someone from driving because they haven’t paid fines and fees is counterproductive, harms the economy and damages public safety,” Mergler said.