Texas lawmakers are considering eliminating a program that requires those charged with offenses including driving while intoxicated and failure to have insurance to pay state surcharges.
Nearly 60 percent of those with the surcharges – about 1.2 million drivers – are unwilling or unable to pay and owe the state more than $1.1 billion.
The surcharges are part of the Texas Driver Responsibility Program. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee recently called for the program to be eliminated, calling the increasing number of drivers who are unlicensed and uninsured because of it “unacceptable.” Drivers who refuse to pay lose their licenses.
The Texas Department of Public Safety, under orders from the Legislature, began offering an amnesty program in January that allows delinquent drivers to settle up and get their licenses back by paying 10 percent of the amount they owed.
The Texas Driver Responsibility Program was approved by the Legislature in 2003 to raise money for highways and trauma care, but no money from the program has ever gone to highways because of a lack of payments, and trauma centers have received only a fraction of what was intended.
DWI offenses carry the biggest surcharges – $1,000 a year for three years on the first conviction and $2,000 a year if the blood alcohol content is twice the legal limit. No car insurance and an invalid license draw a $250-a-year surcharge for three years. Surcharges must be paid in addition to regular fines assessed for those violations.
“These surcharges are not changing behavior, not being collected and are creating a new class of criminals each day by adding to the 1.2 million unlicensed and uninsured drivers in the state,” the Senate committee said in a report to the Legislature.
Two other states that tried similar surcharge programs abandoned them because of the huge number of drivers who would not pay.
The panel says conviction rates in Texas have decreased and dismissal rates have increased every year since the program was launched. DWI cases are now regularly prosecuted in courts as reckless driving, obstruction of highway and public intoxication, as defendants try to avoid the surcharges resulting from a DWI conviction.
This has led to a significant jump in caseloads in the courts.
“At the current statewide trial capacity, it would take 16 years to dispose of these cases, if they all demand a trial,” the committee noted in its report.
Legislation to eliminate the program has been authored in the Senate by John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the criminal justice committee, and in the House by Leo Berman, R-Tyler.
In the meantime, the amnesty program will run through April 7, offering 713,444 drivers who are delinquent in their surcharges a chance to settle up by paying 10 percent of the amount owed on all surcharges – up to a maximum of $250.
Some of those who have paid surcharges or aren’t included in the amnesty period are angry.
Ken Adams, a 50-year-old machinist from Lewisville, tells The Dallas Morning News that he regrets his two drunken-driving convictions, but he also regrets paying the thousands of dollars in state surcharges on top of his regular fines and penalties.
Adams pleaded guilty to DWI in 2008 and 2009, was assessed stiff fines and his driver’s license was suspended. He has already paid his $3,000 surcharge on his first offense, and his second DWI – for which he owes $4,500 – did not fall within the amnesty period.
“I made some mistakes and I paid with fines and some jail time. But this surcharge punishes you twice for the same offense. It’s wrong and I don’t care what anyone else says,” he said.
Tela Mange, a spokeswoman for the DPS, said the agency has received a small number of complaints from drivers whose surcharges came after 2008 and from those who have been paying their surcharges on time. She said the majority of those in default were from the period of 2004 through 2008, and also pointed out that there are no provisions in the law for refunds.
A second program reducing surcharges for low-income drivers is scheduled to be implemented in the spring, after the amnesty period ends.