A program designed to raise money for highway projects and trauma care by assessing steep surcharges for drunk driving and other traffic violations is clogging Texas courts and causing the dismissal rate for DWI cases to skyrocket, former state district judge David Hodges told the Texas Public Safety Commission on April 26, 2010.
The Texas Driver Responsibility Program, implemented in 2004, has had a “devastating” impact on the state’s court system, said Hodges, who is now a liaison for the Texas Center for the Judiciary, which trains and supports judges. Jurists statewide are reporting a two-year waiting list for pending DWI cases as more defendants invoke their right to trial.
In addition to an increase in dismissals, charges in other cases are being reduced – to reckless driving, for example – in order to ease the enormous backlog.
Under the Texas Driver Responsibility Program, those convicted of a first DWI offense are hit with a surcharge of $1,000 a year for the first three years. The cost soars to $2,000 a year when a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) measures twice the legal limit of .08.
Drivers are assessed points for other violations – two points for a moving violation, three points for a moving violation that results in an accident, and two points for a child safety seat violation. Drivers who accumulate six points or more within three years are penalized $100 for the first six points and $25 for each additional point. There are also $250 surcharges for failing to have insurance or driving with an invalid license.
Critics of the program argue that many of the people ordered to pay surcharges are students, single parents and first-time offenders. Further, members of low-income families hit with the heavy surcharges often must choose between complying with the law or paying for necessities such as food, rent or medical bills.
Currently about 1.2 million Texas drivers have failed to pay surcharges assessed under the program, totaling over $1.1 billion. Most have lost their licenses as a result.
“There is credible research to show that this program has actually created a new class of criminals that we’re having to deal with,” said Hodges. “Our criminal justice system is supposed to be about making our streets safer, but there is no evidence that this program is making our streets safer.”
Further, the law never worked as the legislature intended; no money from the surcharges has gone to fund highway projects, and trauma centers have received only a small amount of the revenue that was anticipated under the program.
The Texas Department of Public Safety made policy changes in March 2010 designed to ease the burden on low-income violators by reducing the amount of the surcharges.
Trauma center officials resisted the changes, since they receive revenue from the program.
“Loss of this funding would shift more of the cost burden from those drivers whose offenses are frequently associated with serious injuries, as well as those driving without insurance, to paying patients and the taxpayers,” said Rick Antonisse, director of the North Central Texas Trauma Regional Advisory Council.
As a result of extensive criticism, however, the Public Safety Commission approved changes to the Texas Driver Responsibility Program on October 21, 2010, enacting new amnesty and indigence rules. The changes will allow violators to take advantage of an amnesty program that lets them pay only 10% of the assessed surcharges, up to a maximum of $250, to have their licenses reinstated. People who can prove they are indigent (i.e., who have income at or below 125 percent of the poverty level) can participate in a program with similar provisions. Also, an incentive program that provides for reduced surcharges is being considered for violators with incomes above 125 percent but below 300 percent of the poverty level.
The new rules will be “phased in over several months,” with the amnesty program being implemented by early 2011.
Sources: Dallas Morning News, http://gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com, Texas Dept. of Public Safety press release
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