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.

Walk-In Docket Success in Texas

Many courts in Texas enhance the administration of justice in their jurisdictions through the use of walk-in dockets. Walk-in dockets refer to the practice of courts designating specific times for defendants to show up to see a judge or appropriate court personnel regarding charges against them. While defendants are still given a scheduled court date on their citation or summons, an available walk-in docket “makes the court more defendant friendly,” according to Janis Fletcher, Court Clerk for the City of Sherman. At these walk-in dockets, defendants may be able to see a judge to enter a plea, request a payment plan, inform the court of difficulty with satisfying the judgment, or for an indigency determination. Allowing defendants an option where they have some measure of control as to how and when they resolve their cases can lead to increased confidence in the judiciary and, as Janis Fletcher says, “more cases being closed.”

I polled representatives of a dozen Texas municipal courts who were willing to share information about their walk-in dockets and the success they have seen in their cities.

Scheduling

All of the courts that have implemented walk-in dockets tailor them according to the needs of the community as well as the demands and constraints of court staff. The city of Woodway has found that a weekly walk-in docket on Wednesday mornings is sufficient, according to Court Administrator Malia Elkins. Other municipal courts, such as those in Amarillo and Luling, offer times every day when defendants may walk in to see the judge. According to Court Administrator Kim Pekofske, Lancaster Municipal Court offers monthly walk-in dockets with some additional Saturday dockets during warrant round-up.

Getting the Word Out

The most well-intentioned court’s walk-in docket will prove useless if the public is unaware of its existence. Courts use many different tactics to ensure that court users know about the availability of the docket and what can be handled there. In Woodway, citizens are made aware through multiple means including notices on citations, website, collection agency letters, information sheets, and receipts. In Lancaster many of the same methods are used and they also post notice in the court lobby during open court dockets, give notice at the clerk’s window, and through the marshal’s office. In Sherman, defendants are told of the walk-in dockets anytime they contact the court in any manner. In small towns such as Wilson, Idalou, and Petersburg, staff tells defendants when they call and inquire and can also rely partially on word of mouth, as Judge and Prosecutor Jan Blacklock Matthews says “everybody knows everybody and everything.” Once walk-in dockets are established and in practice for a number of years, they can become an institution. According to Court Administrator Victoria Medley, “Amarillo Municipal Court has had the current walk-in schedule for 14 years. It is also posted on-line and attached to all court correspondence emails/mail.” In Midland, the practice has been in place for even longer. According to Presiding Judge Sharon Hatten, “having open walk in sessions is not something new for the City of Midland Municipal Court.   The daily open session times have been the same for 30 years.  In these sessions, defendants have the opportunity to appear before a judge to discuss their rights and options for cases pending in the Municipal Court.”

Results after Implementation

Courts that can remember a time before offering walk-in dockets have witnessed impressive results. Seguin has offered walk-in dockets for the last ten years. Prior to that, defendants were only allowed to see a judge if they were on a docket. According to Court Administrator Landra Solansky, “defendants seem to like the fact that they are allowed to appear any Tuesday before their scheduled appearance date.” Court Coordinator Cara Everts of Midland says “by making our court more accessible to defendants, we have experienced higher rates of compliance.  More people come in, get their citations resolved, and get to experience a justice system in which they are treated fairly and respectfully.” Handling cases at a walk-in dockets can also ease the burden of other dockets crowded with cases. In Addison, their “formal first appearance dockets are much smaller, and the case gets resolved much quicker.  People seem to be much happier once someone has listened to them and explained options, according to Court Administrator Paula Dale.

Implementing in Your Court

Establishing an effective process takes time and careful planning. Courts should consider the needs of the community and the availability of staff. The greatest challenge in setting up a walk-in docket is generally time—staff time, judge time, docket wait time. Courts may only have a judge available on certain days that will limit when a docket may be offered. Also, walk-in dockets could lead to large numbers of defendants showing up for multiple reasons, slowing the pace down as necessary paperwork is printed and prepared. Courts should prepare some pilot walk-in dockets and adjust accordingly.

After initial challenges are overcome, courts should begin to see meaningful benefits from this service. Judge Bonnie Townsend said it well: “My thought on the walk-in docket is that it equals access to justice, and if we as public servants want the public’s trust and confidence, then we must earn it.”

What is the greatest benefit to your city and/or the public in offering walk-in dockets?

I think the greatest benefit from a walk-in docket is accessibility to justice. Our citizens and folks from out of town appreciate that the judge is available on a regular basis and do not have to wait two weeks or a month to be seen. We are moving cases along more quickly than those that do not see people on a daily basis. –Bonnie Townsend, Presiding Judge, City of Luling

Many people can take care of their business with the court on their own time.  Shorter wait times. Faster resolutions. Continued case activity. –Sharon Jennings, Municipal Court Administrator, City of Corsicana

The public is allowed to appear in Court when it is convenient for them. –Landra Solansky, Court Administrator, City of Seguin

Accessibility to Judges and the court system. –Victoria Medley, Court Administrator, City of Amarillo

The biggest advantage is giving the defendant more options to resolve their cases and easy access to the court. –Kim Pekofske, Court Administrator, City of Lancaster

If the matter can be resolved without a hearing then the person does not have to return thus saving their time away from work etc. – Paula Dale, Court Administrator, Town of Addison

Procedural Justice in a Video Nutshell

This week, in Austin, about 20 municipal court leaders were able to spend a couple of days with Emily LaGratta of the Center for Court Innovation to discuss how Procedural Justice can lead to the more successful administration of justice in Texas municipal courts. Emily did a wonderful job leading an interesting, energizing, and useful discussion. It was a wonderful time to hear about the great things happening in Texas municipal courts, to reflect on our challenges, and  to generate specific ideas for improvement. One of the resources shared with us is this video that quickly and clearly answers the question: What is Procedural Justice? We were encouraged to watch and think about how our courts provide understanding, neutrality, respect, and voice to our court users–and also to consider what can get in the way of us providing those things in our courts. I encourage you to do the same.

Procedural Justice (or Procedural Fairness) has been mentioned several times on this blog and multiple times over the last several years in TMCEC programs. For more related information, read about the four elements of procedural fairness, the importance of fair procedures vs. fair outcomes, and appearing to do justice.