Are the Days Numbered for Driver’s License Suspensions for Nonpayment?

Recently, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) published a model policy titled Resolution in Support of Limiting Driver’s License Suspensions to Violations that Involve Dangerous Driving. While the name of the resolution says plenty, here is the official summary taken from the resolution:

A person whose driver’s license is suspended will often find it more difficult to earn a living and therefore pay the debt they owe to the government. The number of individuals with a suspended license also places a burden on the limited resources of law enforcement. This resolution encourages state policymakers to revise laws to limit driver’s license suspensions imposed for violations against the government to conduct that involves offenders with dangerous driving such as drunk driving or multiple moving violations.

If this reasoning garners enough support, it could lead to the elimination of some programs in Texas that are widely used. First of all, the Driving Responsibility Program (DRP) would be squarely targeted. The DRP began in 2003 as a system to increase public safety and to fund trauma care that, until that time, was uncompensated. Many of us in the court system know the DRP as “points and surcharges” that layer additional fees due to DPS on top of fines and costs already paid as part of a criminal judgment. Those that don’t pay surcharges (and many, if not most, do not pay—the most generous estimates show that roughly half are paid, with other reports showing a much smaller portion being paid) face a driver’s license suspension. Issues with notification and a lack of information regarding amnesty provisions lead to many drivers operating their cars without a valid driver’s license either intentionally or inadvertently. This, in turn, can lead to more criminal charges, fees, costs, possible arrest and, yes, even more surcharges. Critics of the system feel that it can place people in a hole that is nearly impossible to crawl out of. Other than trauma center funding, the DRP does not seem to enjoy broad support. Efforts to repeal the DRP (most recently HB 2068 in 2017) have failed.

While the ALEC resolution  reflects a national viewpoint, similar thought is growing in Texas. On May 11 of this year, there was a convening of stakeholders regarding driver’s license suspension and recovery policies. While listening to the varying viewpoints, it became clear that many want to do away with not only the DRP, but also the Failure to Appear/Failure to Pay program better known as OmniBase. The reasoning is similar to what is posted in the ALEC summary above—OmniBase causes driver’s license suspensions for behavior that may have nothing to do with dangerous driving. While that may be true, OmniBase provides a great option for many courts in Texas both large and small.

Prior to programs such as OmniBase and the Scofflaw programs, courts did not have what we often refer to as “passive enforcement” mechanisms to enforce judgments. OmniBase allow courts to flag driver’s licenses of those defendants who have not appeared or paid for a couple of months. This flag does NOT suspend the license. In fact, it may do nothing for six years. If the defendant does not appear or satisfy the judgment, then when his or her license naturally expires, they will be unable to renew the license until they appear in court or satisfy their judgment, and pay a $30 Omni fee. For small courts—especially those that may operate without a police department or jail—this program can work well. It provides an option other than arrest and/or jail to enforce compliance. Additionally, under recent changes in 2017, defendants have many more ways to avoid the Omni fee, including a prohibition of the fee for any defendant found to be indigent.

What are your thoughts? Should driver’s license suspensions be used to enforce judgments in programs like Texas’ OmniBase? Should the DRP be repealed? Please share your thoughts and let me know if your court uses OmniBase.

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