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More reasons not to put people in jail

We shouldn’t put people in jail for owing fines.

In January, state Rep. James White, R-Hillister, filed House Bill 1125, which would ban Texas judges from jailing people for an offense that is punishable only by a fine. State Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, soon signed on as a joint author. On Thursday, White also filed House Bill 3729, which would require courts to ask whether a defendant can afford to pay a fine and offer alternatives to payment.

Bernal said representing a district with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds made him realize how a simple traffic ticket could dramatically affect someone’s life. HB 1125 would “level the playing field” and “give people some dignity,” he said.

Thousands of Texans are at risk of being arrested at any given moment for not paying fines related to traffic offenses or other city ordinance violations, according to a recently released report by Texas Appleseed and the Texas Fair Defense Project. Those who can’t afford to pay often find themselves hit with additional fines or other restrictions such as being blocked from renewing their driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations.

More than 200,000 Texans can’t renew their licenses and approximately 400,000 have holds on vehicle registrations due to unpaid fines, according to the report. In 2015, almost 3 million warrants were issued in cases where the punishment was originally just a fine.

“What happens is that the current system is counterproductive, and it drives people further into debt because they’re accumulating more tickets for driving illegally and on top of those tickets are all of the costs and fees that start snowballing as well,” said Mary Mergler, criminal justice project director with Texas Appleseed. “So it drives people further into debt … and impedes people’s abilities to make a living.”

Courts generally don’t offer alternatives to jailing or ask about a defendant’s ability to pay, the study found. In 2015, judges rarely used community service to resolve “fine-only” cases – just 1.3 percent of the time. In fewer than 1 percent of cases, they waived fines or reduced payments owed because the defendant couldn’t afford to pay, according to the study.

Many drivers feel a sense of helplessness related to paying off their mounting fines, said Emily Gerrick, a staff attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project.

“It’s very easy for people to accumulate thousands of dollars in ticket debt even if they’re not bad drivers, just because they have to get their kids to school, they have to go to the doctor,” she said. “There’s no choice but to drive, so they’re going to keep getting these tickets and then eventually, what ends up happening is they get their warrant, they go to jail.”

That kind of disruption puts families, jobs and housing at risk, studies and individual accounts have shown.

“They’re usually very distressed,” Gerrick said, describing clients behind bars. “I’ve had them not know where their kids were when I saw them.”

Mergler added that the situation undermines, rather than improves, public safety.

“People with outstanding warrants who are afraid of being arrested on those warrants are inclined to avoid contact with law enforcement, whether that’s to report a crime or even to ask for help when they themselves are a victim of crime,” she said.

I agree with this, and I agree that we should not jail people for having unpaid fines. I’m sure there are some exceptional circumstances under which jailing is the best option, but it should be the exception and not the rule. Otherwise, people should always be given alternative means of complying – payment plans, community service, some other means that people smarter than I am can come up with – and should not have additional violations and fines piled on top of their existing ones if they are in the process of paying them off. It’s not justice, and it’s not right. I support these bills and I hope to see them become laws.

(By the way, that same argument at the end of this story, about how this situation undermines public safety, is basically the same argument made by police chiefs and sheriffs against so-called “sanctuary cities”. Just wanted to point that out.)

Speeding tickets and vehicle registration

I confess, I’m puzzled by this.

Municipal Court Presiding Judge Barbara Hartle has a proposal on Wednesday’s City Council agenda to sign an agreement with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles that would have the state refuse to issue vehicle registrations to people who have outstanding traffic fines.

As proposed by Hartle, by investing about $20,000 a year into compiling lists of scofflaws and coordinating with the state, the city could reap a windfall of $432,000 a year in higher collections.

Two years ago, a similar proposal involving red-light camera runners was rebuffed by the county. City officials had proposed registration holds on red-light runners caught on camera. It required the buy-in of the county tax assessor-collector, who issues license plates and stickers. Leo Vasquez, then the tax collector, agreed to the deal and made the pitch to Commissioners Court. Because the county gets a cut of the fee when it issues a registration and would, essentially, be forfeiting revenue for cracking down on city scofflaws, Commissioners Court rejected the deal.

This time, the tax collector who would be in charge of placing the holds sits on the council, and he does not like Hartle’s plan. District E Councilman Mike Sullivan was elected tax assessor-collector this month and will leave the council in January when he is sworn in at the county.

“In my mind, it’s nothing more than an attempt to have the county collect fees and fines that the city should collect on their own,” Sullivan said. “It looks like the mayor wants to push this over to the county as another layer of enforcement to collect money for the city.”

Sullivan said he opposes the arrangement as he intends to fulfill campaign promises to shorten the lines at the tax office windows. In addition, he said he is worried that holds could mistakenly be placed on people who do not owe fines.

I understood the county not wanting to help with enforcing the collection of red light camera fines. This I have a harder time with. There’s no policy dispute about the legitimacy of the fines being imposed as there was with red light cameras. I appreciate Sullivan’s concerns about possibly ensnaring someone who doesn’t owe a fine, but surely this is a less intrusive approach than involving a collection agency or filing a lawsuit, which would be the options left to the city. This would also be by far the least expensive way to collect outstanding fines, which makes it the most efficient use of taxpayer money. I don’t get the reluctance to get involved. I note that the last time this issue came up, the ultimate decision rested with Commissioners Court, who overruled then-Tax Assessor Leo Vasquez on red light camera fine enforcement. Tax Assessor-Elect Sullivan’s disapproval may therefore not be the final word on this.

UPDATE: Today’s story, from after Council approved the plan on a 14-1 vote, adds some more detail and shows a possible path forward.

Council’s action essentially means scofflaws will not be able to renew their registrations on the DMV website. Instead, they will have to go to the window at the tax office, where tax assessor Don Sumners said he will continue to issue registrations even if the state prints the word “scofflaw” on their renewal forms.

“I don’t think they (the city) could pay us enough for the services it would cause.We don’t have enough people as it is,” Sumners said.


Sullivan said he also believes the city should not offload its collections operations onto county government. He left the door open to a deal after he is sworn in as tax assessor in January, though, if City Attorney David Feldman is the city’s broker.

“He’s apolitical,” Sullivan said. “This administration is nothing but political and has not been honest and direct and transparent with me as a council member. However, Mr. Feldman has always been fair with me in all of my dealings.”

So there you have it.

On tickets and plea bargains

Interesting story about the municipal courts, but I’m a bit puzzled by the numbers cited.

About 22,000 traffic tickets were dismissed in a single month in Houston this summer – nearly half the number issued during that span, according to state data.

The substantial number of dismissals, which costs the city millions in lost revenue, is a result of an overburdened court system reliant on plea bargaining, according to police union officials and attorneys.

Traffic tickets are rarely dismissed because of problems caused by Houston police officers who write up the infractions, said Houston Police Officers’ Union president Ray Hunt. Instead, cases are dismissed by prosecutors who offer deals to violators, Hunt noted.

“The courts do not have the manpower, or the prosecutors, or the jurors to handle the dockets over there,” Hunt said. “The prosecutors are forced to make deals with the citizens, and dismiss some of the tickets and only charge them for others. If anybody questions the dismissals, it’s not an issue of the officers writing bad tickets or officers not showing up. It’s the prosecutors dismissing them because they have to dismiss them.”


Tickets filed in Houston municipal courts have declined from more than 1 million in 2006 to 735,841 in 2011. Budget cuts at the Houston Police Department have resulted in reduced overtime for traffic enforcement, contributing to the decline in tickets.

I wrote about the decline of non-parking citations issued by the city of Houston back in March. You can see all the raw data here. The numbers that I see there do not match what’s in that story. One possible reason for that is that the Office of Court Administration reports are for the period of September 1 to August 31, whereas the Chron story makes it sound like they’re talking calendar year. Also, the OCA report breaks down citations into different categories, while the Chron story does not specify what kind of tickets it’s talking about. While the Chron compares 2006 to 2011, I noted that the number of non-parking citations written between 2006 and 2010 was roughly the same each year, but from 2010 to 2011 there was a big drop. The story makes it sound like there was a steady decline, but that’s not what the numbers I looked at say. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, the city reported more revenue earned from citations in 2011 than it did in 2010, by a fairly significant amount – $57 million in 2006, $73 million in 2011. There’s some good discussion of this at that earlier post.

As far as the emphasis on plea bargains goes, I’m not sure why this is news. The justice system in general couldn’t operate if most cases weren’t pleaded out before ever going to trial. As HPOU’s Hunt notes, this is an efficient way for the municipal courts to operate, and neither of the defense attorneys quoted in the story – Randall Kallinen and Paul Kubosh, no shrinking violets when it comes to criticizing the city – had anything particularly negative to say about the system. I’m curious where the Chron got their numbers, but beyond that I don’t see anything remarkable here. Grits has more.

Maybe we need more tickets

Grits reads a story about the decline of traffic tickets in Dallas and does some figuring.

What’s remarkable is not just this year’s drop but the overall 39% decline since ’06-’07. Wondering if the same trend is occurring statewide, Grits pulled the total number of new, non-parking traffic cases filed in municipal courts in recent years from the Office of Court Administration’s annual reports. I was surprised to find that FY 2011 numbers reported represented a remarkable drop of more than 600,000 traffic tickets per year, more than 10%, compared to FY 2008:

Total new non-parking traffic cases filed statewide in Texas municipal courts:

2006: 5,711,966
2007: 5,581,607
2008: 5,749,780
2009: 5,684,813
2010: 5,521,029
2011: 5,148,510

Some police departments – notably Austin’s – view traffic stops as their primary anti-crime strategy, particularly in so-called “hotspots,” so I was surprised to notice that trend. It has budget implications, certainly, but more importantly, what is causing it? Are police deployment patterns changing, and if so, how and why? Perhaps the price of gas and a depressed economy are just making people drive less, which could make the trend meaningless if the economy picks back up. Perhaps Dallas’ remarkable drop explains a disproportionate share of the total. OTOH, perhaps other cities, like Big D, are scaling back traffic enforcement in tight budget times because of limited resources. Or maybe there’s something bigger going on, just as we’ve witnessed a steady drop in index crime rates over the last two decades.

Why are Texas cops writing fewer traffic tickets? What do you think is going on?

Seeing that got me to wondering about Houston, since we’re so focused on revenue these days. I went to the report table of contents and looked at the Municipal Courts summary by city for fiscal years 2004 through 2011. This is what I found.

Year Cases filed Revenue Per case ========================================== 2011 724,009 73,018,272 100.85 2010 926,110 81,460,943 87.96 2009 910,788 80,922,590 88.85 2008 909,555 82,958,342 91.20 2007 925,926 78,967,588 85.28 2006 893,563 57,302,268 64.13 2005 866,520 48,531,695 56.01 2004 785,795 48,870,197 62.19

“Cases filed” are the non-parking traffic cases, same as what Grits checked for the state as a whole. “Revenue” is for all cases, including parking and non-traffic, and “Per Case” is revenue per non-parking case, which is technically misleading since it doesn’t break revenue down by source, but it’s the best I can do. As you can see, fewer non-parking cases were filed in Houston last year than in any previous year going back to at least FY2004. As with Grits, I have no idea why that may be. (No, I’m pretty sure that the cessation of red light camera tickets has nothing to do with this. For one, those tickets were generally not adjudicated in the municipal courts, and for two the city didn’t have them for the first three fiscal years on this chart.) Clearly, some amount of revenue that could have been collected if FY2011 had been more typical was not collected. If you trust the “per case” metric, by my calculation the city could have collected about $20 million more had the 2011 case load been like the 2010 case load. That’s probably a reach – among other things, I don’t know what caused the jump in revenue from 2006 to 2007, or the jump in revenue per case from 2010 to 2011 – but I think it’s fair to say that there was some money left on the table. Let me throw this out to you guys. Any thoughts about this?

Walle files bills to address school ticketing

A couple of weeks ago I noted a Texas Appleseed report that discussed an increase in “Class C misdemeanor ticketing and arrest of students for low-level, non-violent behavior that historically has been handled at the school level”, which it believes is a contributing factor in our state’s high dropout rate, and which called for “Chapter 37 of the Education Code be amended to eliminate Disruption of Class and Disruption of Transportation as penal code offenses for which students can be ticketed, and to clarify that arrest of students be a last resort reserved for behavioral incidents involving weapons and threatening safety”. Now State Rep. Armando Walle has filed a series of bills to address these concerns.

HB 350 would allow juveniles charged with Class C misdemeanors (the mildest category of misdemeanors) to fulfill their sentences through community service or tutoring hours, instead of paying a fine, which can run between $60 and $500. HB 408 creates minimum standards for the training of juvenile case managers, who help students navigate the courts. HB 409 places juvenile case managers under the supervision of a judge.

“Disciplinary problems are a red flag that tell us a child is at risk of dropping out of school,” Walle said in a statement. “Since many of these young people end up in our municipal and [justice of the peace] courts, it’s important for our courts to offer consequences, like community service and tutoring hours, that appropriately address the discipline problems while helping these students to stay in school.”

He’s also filed HB 348, which would require specialized training for school district peace officers, school resource officers, and school security personnel employed by a school district; and HB 349, which would require that school districts keep track of tickets and arrests of students. I think all of them are appropriate and I support their passage. You can see Rep. Walle’s full statement about these bills here.

HPD sends “Pay your red light camera ticket or else” letter

With predictable results.

Houston police have notified 79,000 motorists that they cannot renew their vehicle registrations until they pay red light camera fines and penalties, even though Harris County officials repeatedly have said they will not prevent people from registering their vehicles because of the outstanding citations.

Police Chief Charles McClelland denied critics’ charges the Houston Police Department’s collection campaign relies on scare tactics, but he acknowledged HPD has no legal agreement to block registration of Harris County residents who owe red-light camera fines. He said that some of the red light violations were committed by residents in adjacent counties that are enforcing the registration holds.


At a news conference at HPD headquarters Thursday a sample warning letter distributed to reporters featured a warning across the top in large lettering.

“The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles has placed a Hold on the registration renewal of this vehicle,“ the notice states. “Registration of this vehicle cannot be renewed until this past due fine is paid.’

That warning is true in counties where the Commissioners Court has agreed to block registrations or for those who attempt to renew their registration online through the state, but McClelland said it was not incumbent on HPD to inform motorists they still could register their vehicles in Harris County. He noted that tickets have been issued to vehicle owners in Fort Bend, Brazoria, and Montgomery counties.

Apparently, there’s some fine print on the back that says your local county tax assessor “may” refuse to register the vehicle. So it’s misleading and likely to fool people who don’t know that Harris County isn’t cooperating with Houston on this, but not a flat out lie. Not their finest moment, but at least there’s that. As you might imagine, camera opponents don’t much care for this.

City Councilman Mike Sullivan, an outspoken opponent of the cameras, said he found it “troubling” HPD sent out letters “stating a fact that is untrue.” He also questioned the document for having the appearance of being from HPD when it originated in Scotsdale, the home of ATS, the city contractor that installed the cameras at 70 intersections and administers the program.

“There is such a strong effort to collect a fine, that seems to be the primary message and focus of this notice,” Sullivan said. “It’s saying, ‘We’re going to tell you whatever we have to tell you to intimidate you to mail your fine in.’ They’re making their own rules and the public doesn’t know any better.”

With all due respect to CM Sullivan, the police lie to people all the time. It’s a widely accepted tactic for interrogations, with broad latitude being granted to detectives by the Supreme Court. I appreciate the concern – I certainly find a lot of this to be troubling – but if this bothers you, there’s a lot more where that came from.

And again, if the complaint is about the money, I reiterate my issues with that argument. I sympathize with the concerns about deception, but beyond that I find it difficult to feel sorry for the people who got these letters, especially since I know that if they ignore them, nothing will happen to them.

Those uncollected surcharges

Here’s an update on the Texas Driver Responsibility Program, which was created in 2003 as a way to raise revenue by adding hefty extra fees to certain moving violations.

“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.”


But the program never worked as planned. More than 60 percent of the surcharges – $1.05 billion – has not been paid. Of the 1.9 million Texas drivers who have been told to pay, about 1.2 million have not, nearly two-thirds of those in the Driver Responsibility Program. If drivers don’t pay, their licenses are automatically suspended 30 days after their initial conviction.

The state has collected more than $672 million, but none of it has gone to highways. And just a fraction has gone to trauma centers, said Shapleigh, who noted that the original push for the program came during the state’s budget crunch in 2003, when lawmakers were scrambling for new revenue sources. The money is sitting in the state Treasury. The law that created the program required that collections pass a certain threshold before money is allocated.

Drunken-driving offenses carry the biggest surcharges – $1,000 a year for three years on the first conviction and $2,000 a year when the driver’s blood-alcohol level is twice the legal limit. Driving with an invalid license or without insurance draws a $250-a-year surcharge for three years.

Critics of the program said many of those affected by the surcharges are first-time offenders, students, single parents and low-income residents faced with the choice of either complying with the law or paying for necessities such as food, rent, car repairs and medical bills.

The financial penalties are so high that they are counterproductive and provide an incentive for people not to pay, the critics contend. And the surcharges come as a surprise; there’s been little effort by the state to inform the public that the program exists. Police typically don’t mention them upon issuing a ticket, and drivers are notified, often months later, in a letter from the state.

Hard to imagine a program more efficiently designed to fail than this one. Note that none of what’s written here is really new – we’ve known since at least 2007 that all this has done is create more fugitives and scofflaws. As of that time, the unpaid amount was $620 million, so you can’t even say that the rate of growth has slowed. It’s instructive to compare the Driver Responsibility Program, which was billed from the beginning as a revenue enhancement for the state – note State Sen. Steve Ogden’s lamentation in that last link about how those who haven’t paid the fines are costing the rest of us more in taxes – to red light camera fines, which are both much smaller in amount and constitute the entire sanction, while DRP charges are add-ons to an original citation. I’ll say again, I wonder why the Michael Kuboshes of the world haven’t raised a fuss about them. You can draw your own conclusions, I guess. Grits has more.


Lots of people out there have outstanding warrants.

Nearly 2 million warrants worth more than $340 million are outstanding in the Houston area, and in most cases they’re not for hard-core criminals.

They’re for average residents who haven’t settled minor traffic and ordinance citations.


Houston alone has more than 1.2 million outstanding class C misdemeanor warrants. On average, most people have one to three active warrants. Many alleged offenders have multiple warrants because they receive a warrant for each violation on the citation, plus they get an additional warrant for failure to appear in court.

The warrants cover violations from motorists who run red lights to business owners who don’t have burglar alarm permits to residents who don’t properly handle yard waste.

Court officials estimate the warrants are worth about $300 million, which would be pumped into the city’s general fund when collected. A lot of that money, however, is not actually owed to the city until a person is found guilty.

City Councilwoman Sue Lovell said city officials are more concerned about closed cases that still have unpaid fines. She said the municipal court needs to be more aggressive about collecting fines on those cases.

It’s nice to imagine we could have $300 million more revenue available in the city’s budget, but that figure is largely an illusion. It costs money to collect those fines, especially if they get turned over to a collection agency, which will skim a percentage of what they take in off the top. Some people will put up a fight in court over what they’re owed, which costs money, and some of them will win partial or complete victories. Some people simply won’t pay up and will wind up serving jail time instead, which needless to say is costly. Some people who are willing to pay simply can’t afford it; they may wind up making a settlement, paying on a plan, or serving time instead. A better question to ask is how much could the city reasonably expect to collect when it does its next sweep. Speaking of which:

About 80 percent of Houston’s warrants are traffic-related, said Gwen Goins, spokeswoman for Houston Municipal Courts Administration. Yet, some of the city’s worst offenders are those with building code violations related to property or businesses they own. The top nine offenders each have 99 or more warrants. All but two live in the Houston area, and despite having addresses listed in court documents, none have been arrested.

Houston police officials say they target the worst offenders first when they conduct annual warrant sweeps, and they’re usually more interested in catching those involved in other illegal activity, said Assistant Chief Vicki King.

“We really want to get criminals off the street,” King said. “People who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay are not forgotten. If they get caught, they will go to jail.”

Everyone says we don’t have enough cops on the street. What do you want the cops we do have to be doing – fighting crime, or rounding up people with unpaid tickets? Annual sweeps of the biggest scofflaws make sense, but beyond a certain point it’s a waste of police resources.

There are other ways to try to get people to pay.

When people don’t show in court after 30 days, courts are required by law to flag the defendant’s name in the Texas Department of Safety database. It prevents people from renewing their driver’s license or getting a driver’s license if they don’t have one. The tool often motivates people to take care of their tickets.

Many courts send notices reminding people of their warrants. It’s a less effective alternative but sometimes triggers responses.


Annual amnesty programs and warrant sweeps continue to help clear cases, and new technology is being used to better manage cases and to catch scofflaws. Houston municipal courts, for example, are looking at flagging a defendant’s vehicle registration through the state transportation department’s database, said presiding Judge Berta Mejia.

And last year, Houston police purchased automated license plate readers that read up to 60 vehicle license plates per minute, enabling patrol officers to pull over those with warrants. In addition, police now have the ability to run credit card payments so people can settle outstanding warrants on the spot.

Cops with credit card readers seems like a strange thing at first, but it makes sense. Any time you can get someone to settle up without having to send a cop or constable to their house, or arrest them, is a win. The idea of flagging vehicle registrations came up last year in the context of unpaid red light camera fines, which naturally meant there was a certain amount of fear and loathing involved as well. I think as long as there are reasonable safeguards in place that it’s a decent idea. Again, it’s all about minimizing the cost of the collection. How else would you propose to do it?