Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Texas DPS chief says drivers owe state $1.1 billion in surcharges.

Texas drivers with fines pending may owe less under amnesty


By Mike Ward
Copyright 2010

Facing more than $1.1 billion in uncollected fines from errant Texas motorists who are driving illegally without licenses, state officials are poised to approve an amnesty program to try to get some of them legal again.

Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, told the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security on Wednesday that two changes expected to be approved soon will allow scofflaws to pay off their fines at big discounts.

Drivers who pay during an amnesty period starting in December could get off by paying 10 percent of their fine, up to $250, and drivers who can prove they are legally indigent can get a similar deal starting in April, officials said.

"There are $1.1 billion in surcharges that, at present, have not been paid," McCraw said. "If everyone paid under this plan, about $17 million would be collected."

At issue are more than 1.2 million Texas drivers in the Driver Responsibility Program, which the Legislature approved in 2004 as a way to toughen up enforcement of traffic laws and to curb drunken driving. It was passed into law as part of legislation concerning the controversial Trans-Texas Corridor project and has been the subject of complaints almost ever since.

Under the law, motorists who get caught driving drunk, without a license or without proper insurance can incur surcharges of up to $1,000 a year for up to three years, for a first offense, and $1,500 a year for three years for subsequent violations. If the surcharges are not paid, their licenses are suspended.

The Texas Public Safety Commission is expected to discuss and likely will approve the amnesty plans at an Oct. 22 meeting in Austin.

State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, a frequent critic of the program who tried unsuccessfully in 2009 to ease surcharges against economically disadvantaged drivers, said as many as one in nine drivers in El Paso owe unpaid surcharges — meaning they are driving without licenses.

Many drivers are forced to do so, he said, "because it's difficult to get to work if you can't drive." And if you can't work, you can't earn money to afford rent and other living expenses, he told the committee.

"When you have 10 percent of your work force in this program, that's a problem," Shapleigh said.

But Committee Chairman Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, said the "easiest way to stay out of it is to obey the law."

"The program doesn't work," Shapleigh responded. "The question is: How do we make it work?"

Witnesses told the committee Wednesday that instead of forcing drivers to comply with the state laws, it has triggered an increase in unlicensed drivers on Texas roads and forced prosecutors and judges to avoid convicting many drivers of driving while intoxicated, because it will trigger suspension of a driver's license.

McCraw said the state only has a 40 percent collection rate. Though 60 percent pay the surcharges, most of those are for smaller amounts related to traffic-ticket points and lesser offenses.

McCraw said other states are facing similar problems with similar license suspension programs, including New Jersey, which Texas used as a model for its law. New Jersey collects only 37 percent of the fines it levies, officials said.

Former Harris County Judge Mark Atkins told the committee that under state law, there are 22 ways to lose your driver's license in Texas in 101 sections of law.

"People are trying to find a way not to get a sentence for DWI and prosecutors and judges are using more pre-trial diversion programs," he told the committee.

Wednesday's hearing was the latest of three in recent months to explore the growing complaints and issues — from drivers, police, judges and prosecutors — concerning Texas' DWI enforcement laws.

Witnesses who testified at the earlier hearings have called for sweeping changes to streamline the laws, lowering or doing away with the surcharges, and enhancing diversion and treatment programs for first offenders. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo recently advocated consideration of a plan to create a lesser DWI offense to catch some drivers who are impaired behind the wheel but not legally drunk.

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