Unlicensed Drivers are clogging the Travis County court docket

An increasing number of Texans are being caught driving with invalid or suspended driver’s licenses. So many, in fact, that they are clogging the state’s misdemeanor court system, officials say. Some say it’s the result of a three-year-old state law.

Prosecutors from Travis, Hays and Williamson counties say they have seen the number of such cases, which were already rising because of population growth, take a steep jump in the past couple of years. In Williamson County, where the number of cases has grown to more than one-third of all misdemeanors, court officials created a docket specifically for them this month.

The increase doesn’t appear to be limited to Central Texas. Shannon Edmonds, staff counsel for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said prosecutors from all over the state are complaining about the sharp rise in cases.

“It affects urban and rural counties both,” Edmonds said. “It’s a problem for the people in the trenches.”

The rising caseload comes three years after the Legislature approved the Driver Responsibility Program, which levies the surcharges against drivers who commit certain traffic offenses, such as habitual speeding, driving without liability insurance and driving while intoxicated.

The surcharges, which must be paid annually for three years, range from $100 to $2,000. The DPS sends letters to notify people of the surcharges. Drivers who don’t pay have their licenses revoked or suspended.

Revenue generated by the program pays for Texas trauma centers and emergency service providers.

State Rep. Dianne Delisi, R-Temple, who sponsored the Driver Responsibility Program, said the additional penalties are meant to encourage people to drive responsibly and follow laws, such as the one requiring all drivers to have insurance. Her goal, she said, was to reduce accidents.

“There’s a lot of carnage on our roads today that could be avoided if people obeyed the law,” she said. “I’m hoping this law is self-correcting.” But critics say the law has left roads less safe because more people are driving with invalid licenses.

Some drivers, like Scott, don’t realize that they have unpaid surcharges because they didn’t receive notice of the license suspension or don’t know how to pay the fee. “In my opinion, this system has flooded our highways with people driving without driver’s licenses and without having liability insurance,” said Judge Tim Wright, who presides over Williamson County Court-at-Law No. 2. “If they can’t afford to pay the surcharge, they can’t have a driver’s license, and you can’t get liability insurance without a driver’s license.”

The Williamson County attorney’s office and the county court-at-law judges created the new docket, which meets twice a month, when they realized that as many as half the people crowded into courtrooms for first appearances were there because of license offenses, Williamson County Attorney Jana Duty said.

The first two, held this month, each had more than 80 cases.

In Williamson County last year, there were 598 cases of people driving with invalid or suspended licenses. From January through April of this year, there were 754.

Duty attributes the larger caseload to an ever-increasing number of offenses that can result in a suspended license and the drivers who can’t afford to pay the surcharges and keep their vehicles insured. “It’s this huge snowball,” Duty said. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

Statewide statistics were not available because the state does not require counties to specifically identify cases of driving with an invalid or suspended license when reporting information about caseloads. Instead, they are filed under criminal misdemeanor traffic offenses. On Monday, DPS officials could not provide statistics on the number of licenses suspended statewide.

Some counties break the offense down into “driving while license invalid” and “driving while license suspended.” The penalty is the same for both charges: For a first offense, it is is a maximum of 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine, but on the second or subsequent offenses, the penalty increases to a maximum of one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.

Officials in Travis and Hays counties also say they have seen a large increase in cases. Between Sept. 1, 2003, and Aug. 31, 2004, Travis County had about 2,550 cases. The total rose to about 3,565 the next year and to about 4,662 the year after that.

Not every invalid or suspended license is linked to the Driver Responsibility Program, but unpaid surcharges lead to a lot of them, said Dan Hamre, an assistant county attorney in Travis County.

“Anytime they come up with more ways to have somebody have their license suspended, you’re going to run into more opportunities to file DWLS cases on people,” he said.

Hays County also saw larger-than-usual jumps. From Sept. 1, 2003, to Aug. 31, 2004, the county handled 180 such cases. There were 377 the following year and 567 the year after that.

Wes Mau, chief assistant district attorney in Hays County, said the increase outpaces the counties’ growth. And it could be tied to the Driver Responsibility Program, he said.

State Rep. Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown, said the onslaught of invalid driver’s license cases is a statewide issue that should be addressed by the Legislature.

Gattis voted for the bill that included the program, but he said it might have had some unintended consequences, especially when the cost of jail stays and courtroom resources are added up.

“The concern that I have is that it’s a good intentions deal,” Gattis said. “Even though it may have good intentions, the reporting may be costing us more than what we’re gaining.”

A solution to the courtroom congestion isn’t clear. Some officials say the surcharges should be repealed, and others say the violations should be Class C misdemeanors, like other traffic violations, and handled through municipal courts.

Currently, driving with an invalid or suspended license is a Class B misdemeanor for a first offense and a Class A misdemeanor for a second offense.

Scott, who was allowed to keep his job as a chauffeur after he cleared up the surcharge, said communication is the key.

The DPS administers the Driver Responsibility Program. It sends multiple letters telling drivers about the surcharges and another letter when a license is suspended, department spokesman Tom Vinger said.

The letters are sent to the addresses on driver’s licenses, so it is important for people to keep theirs updated, he said.

Click here for the full story as reported by the Austin American Statesman

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