Has Texas Violation Surcharge Law Become A ‘Debtors’ Prison’?


Texas motorists charged with certain driving violations owe the state more than $1 billion in surcharges, reports the Dallas Morning News, and many of the 1.2 million people on the unpaid list are driving without valid licenses and at risk of arrest. The Texas Driver Responsibility Program was designed to assess large additional fines to discourage offenses such as drunken driving and generate money for trauma care and highway construction. But a critic said the program is a “debtors’ prison” for some Texans. An estimated one in nine arrest warrants in Austin, El Paso and other cities are being issued because of the surcharge program.

“It’s a complete failure,” said state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, who sponsored unsuccessful legislation to kill the program last year. Shapleigh was able to insert language into a related bill that would waive surcharges for indigent Texans, but it won’t be effective until the fall of 2011, and then only if it has no significant impact on the state budget. “What’s happening is that people can’t pay their fines, and then they lose their driver’s license. That means they can’t get to work,” he said. “It has a snowball effect that’s hurting a large number of citizens.” Gov. Rick Perry, who signed the surcharge legislation into law, remains a backer of the program despite its troubles.

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