Texas facing lawsuit over program that forces poor people to pay fees they can’t afford for traffic violations
According to the Houston Chronicle, a common practice following drunk driving arrests and convictions in Texas is the implementation of various surcharges and fees due to the Texas Driver Responsibility program. This program can charge Texas drivers up to thousands of dollars for certain driving-related violations, and on Wednesday, attorneys from the Austin Community Law Center and Equal Justice Under Law sued the State of Texas, alleging that the program has trapped thousands of Texans in a modern day debtor’s prison. Texas State Senator John D. Whitmire told the Houston Chronicle, “Sometimes it takes a lawsuit for the state to do the right thing… Maybe this is one of those times.”
The lawsuit names 35-year-old Nathan Alexander as a principal plaintiff, and alleges that the program’s annual fees of $2,000 were much more than Alexander could handle on the salary of a dishwasher. Over a year after his arrest, Alexander still has not obtained a driver’s license, he is homeless and has not been able to get a job as a construction worker, which is the profession he worked in prior to his conviction.
Equal Justice Under Law director Phil Telfeyan released a statement explaining, “Individuals who cannot pay will often lose their job and their home — becoming homeless — for a minor ticket that wealthier drivers simply pay and forget.” The lawsuit is arguing that the DRP (Driver Responsibility Program) violates the due process rights of Texans, unfairly affects the state’s poorest residents, and violates their rights to equal protection under the law.
In sworn statements, Alexander and the other three plaintiffs allege that the program has caused undue hardships. Alexander writes, “I am trying to maintain my sobriety, take responsibility of my life, and move forward as a positive member of society… However, the impossible surcharges I have under the DRP make this nearly impossible to do, and I am afraid I will be stuck in poverty indefinitely.”
Graciela Rodriguez, a 75-year-old woman from San Antonio who is also named in the lawsuit as a principal plaintiff, was eventually able to pay the $400 ticket and the $100 to reinstate her license, but when she went to renew her license she found a new series of hurdles which she says included unclear instructions. Rodriguez wrote in her sworn statement, “I do not believe I will ever be able to pay off my surcharges and get my license back.”
Equal Justice Under Law has seen success in Texas before. Their suit alleging the Harris County’s bail system unfairly affected poor people in direct violation of the Constitution saw a victory, a major win for the civil rights of poor and Black people all over the country.
In a rare example of bipartisanship, both political parties agree that the DRP is flawed, but they have been unable to come to an agreement as to how to fix it. As it currently stands, even though the program brings the State of Texas tens of millions of dollars for trauma care and other state funds, many people who are placed on the program do not and cannot pay, and even though the Department of Public Safety is supposed to waive surcharges for poor people, it does not do that. As a result, the program has only been able to generate less than half of the expected revenue.
As Natalia Cornelio, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project’s Criminal Justice Reform Project tells the Houston Chronicle, “Keeping your license should not be dependent on your income… Governments should work with people, rather than try to get paid by punishing people and taking away their livelihood.”