The Fast and the Flat Broke: Texas’ Extortion of the Poor
December 5, 2018
On Tuesday, Equal Justice Under Law filed a lawsuit against Governor Greg Abbot and Texas’ Department of Public Safety for their Driver Responsibility Program. For the past 15 years, this program has threatened the well being of over a million of Texans, deepening a cycle of poverty that’s become almost impossible to escape.
The Driver Responsibility Program (DRP) was enacted in 2003 in an effort to promote safer driving in Texas. When a person is ticketed for a driving infraction, ranging from failure to signal to driving under the influence, the driver is charged a fine under the DRP. This fine is an addition to the state fines for the original infraction. Adding insult to injury, if the driver is unable to pay the surcharge, their license is revoked until their debt is solved.
For the 4.4 million Texans living below the poverty line, surcharges on top of fines are an excruciating burden.
However, many drivers are never notified they owe this additional fee, which carries a high interest rate, and they continue to drive around on a suspended license—an additional $500 penalty in the state of Texas. As of January 2018, over 1.4 million Texans had suspended licenses for failure to pay DRP surcharges.
Losing a driver’s license is an extraordinary punishment that has disastrous effects on virtually every aspect of a person’s life. In a state like Texas that lacks the infrastructure for reliable public transportation, the inability to drive prevents daily life to continue. Without the ability to drive, people can’t find and maintain employment, pursue education, keep medical appointments, or care for loved ones.
For those with disposable income, prompt payment is no problem. But, for the 4.4 million Texans living below the poverty line, surcharges on top of fines are an excruciating burden.
As of January 2018, over 1.4 million Texans had suspended licenses for failure to pay DRP surcharges.
There are four named plaintiffs in this case representing thousands of bereft Texans. They are a 75-year-old resident of San Antonio who spends hours on public transport every day to provide in-home care to patients younger than she is in order to afford her surcharge fines; two U.S. Navy Veterans, one of whom became disabled in the line of duty; and a man experiencing homelessness solely because he cannot find adequate work without a license.
Although the Texas Department of Public Safety has a policy of dismissing charges for individuals who cannot afford to pay, this is rarely put into practice. Instead, individuals receive a letter telling them to pay the whole fine upfront, or pay monthly installments at a price set by the state. Whether or not individuals can pay the installments at the price the state sets does not seem to have crossed lawmakers’ minds.
Although the Texas Department of Public Safety has a policy of dismissing charges for individuals who cannot afford to pay, this is rarely put into practice.
The DRP is a multi-million dollar extortion effort by the state of Texas, so the opaque nature of the surcharges and how to pay them back is purposeful. This program is so convoluted that there are only handful of lawyers in the state who understand this policy, how it affects their clients, and the process for refinancing payments.
In the end, the DRP will only end up working against itself. Texans who cannot afford to pay surcharges will be even less likely to do so once their main mode of transportation to and from work is revoked. Instead of incentivizing safer driving, Texas has only created a system that coerces extra money from the families that need it most, keeping the poor in a permanent underclass.
Get more updates on our case in Texas by following #DefeatDRP on Twitter, and check out our other great driver’s license suspension work going on across the country.