To pay for trauma centers, state program sinks thousands of Texas drivers into deep debt

A driver license reclamation clinic held in Austin on June 22, 2018. Rachel Zein for The Texas Tribune

A driver license reclamation clinic held in Austin on June 22, 2018. Rachel Zein for The Texas Tribune

On a Friday afternoon in late June, Cassandra Pappas showed up at a municipal building in northeast Austin with hopes she would be able to reclaim a final piece of her life after six years of sobriety.

Pappas, 35, was there for an event called a Driver’s License Recovery Clinic that she had heard about through her Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. A new program run by the City of Austin and the legal advocacy group Texas Fair Defense Project, the clinic is aimed at helping people whose driver’s licenses have been suspended solely because they can’t pay traffic tickets.

“It’s rough because it’s a constant thing in my life that I still haven’t been able to really repair in so many years,” she said. “Everything else I’ve worked really hard at getting in order, and this has just been there, and there’s just no way I can afford this right now. Even though I want to.”

Pappas, who has three young children, has not had a valid license for at least eight years. In Travis County alone, she owed $1,300 in surcharges for tickets she’d received more than a decade ago for offenses like illegally turning right on a red light and driving without insurance. Even now, she is unsure which tickets resulted in the surcharges or when exactly her license was suspended. During that time, she has continued to drive to her job and take her children to school, always fearful that she might get pulled over.

“A lot of times if you have your kids with you they will give you a warning, or talk to you about it. But you never know if they are going to be like, sorry, and you are going to have to call someone to pick up your kids or if they are going to arrest you in front of them, that’s the terrifying thing,” she said. “I would never want my kids to see that. Knowing that can happen over some surcharges is kind of silly.”

In Texas, people with unpaid traffic tickets can lose their licenses through two separate state policies. The Driver Responsibility Program, which state lawmakers enacted in 2003, charges additional fees for certain offenses like speeding, driving without insurance and driving while intoxicated. If someone doesn’t pay or enter into a payment plan to take care of these surcharges within 30 days, the state automatically suspends their driver’s license. The state also stops people from renewing their licenses if they fail to appear in court to answer a citation or fail to pay the associated fines.

While the Department of Public Safety does not keep track of how many people cannot drive legally because of unpaid Driver Responsibility surcharges, a spokesman provided numbers showing that as of January 2018, there were approximately 1.4 million records of people ineligible to obtain their licenses under the program.

The program came about as legislators were searching for a way to fund the state’s emergency trauma care system, a vastly expensive enterprise that requires regional networks of hospitals with state of the art equipment and on-call physicians. The idea was to hold bad drivers responsible for the damage they caused, with the license suspensions having the added benefit of keeping them off the roads.

“People were dying in the rural areas,” said Leni Kirkman, a spokeswoman for the San Antonio-based University Health System. Now, said Kirkman, there is a network in place to provide quality care “whether you are injured in the city of San Antonio five minutes from a trauma center or in the city of Del Rio where you are three hours from a trauma center.”

Without state funding, smaller, more rural hospitals were reluctant to become designated trauma centers because they couldn’t afford it, Kirkman said, leaving swaths of the state without reliable care in what are often life or death situations.

The number of trauma centers in Texas has grown from 248 in 2006 to about 280 in 2018, meaning that about 75 percent of the state now has immediate access to a trauma care facility.

But the program that helped enable this growth has resulted in a deepening cycle of debt for those who cannot afford to pay. Non-public safety related offenses like driving without insurance or a valid license make up the vast majority of unpaid surcharge cases. According to Department of Public Safety data, driving while intoxicated and speeding violations — the kinds of offenses more likely to send people to trauma centers — comprise less than 12 percent of the unpaid surcharge cases.

There is now nearly universal agreement among state lawmakers, both Republican and Democrat, that the program is deeply flawed and unfairly penalizes the most vulnerable members of society.

“I hate the program,” said state Rep. James White, a Hillister Republican who carried a bill last session attempting to repeal it. “This is not me trying to be a social justice warrior … It’s just entrapped, ensnared, so many people that it shouldn’t.”

At a Senate hearing earlier this year, state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, said the program had created a “permanent underclass,” dividing “society by those who can pay the fines and those who can’t.”

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said at the same hearing that he believes most people who drive without a license do so out of necessity.

“It’s not like they want to be driving without a license, but they have to take their kids to school, they have to go to work,” he said. “They aren’t irresponsible people … they are often driving without a license because they couldn’t make a surcharge.”

White said he intends to work with his fellow lawmakers again when the Legislature returns in January “at best to get this thing stopped totally, or to try to reform it where it is not becoming just an added burden on those who can really least afford it.”

But attempts at eliminating the program, including White’s, have consistently failed. The biggest obstacle has been finding the money to replace the roughly $144 million the program brings to state coffers, about half of which goes to fund trauma care.

Hospital advocates like Kirkman say that if there is a need to look at the unintended consequences of the Driver Responsibility Program, they are open to reform. But that can’t happen, they say, without finding another way to pay for the state’s trauma center network.

“We know the number one reason someone ends up in a trauma center is a car crash, and so you can carry that through that there needs to be some level of responsibility for the damage caused by those who are driving drunk or totally irresponsibly and continuing a pattern of that,” Kirkman said. “If there is a need to shift to another mechanism because people don’t feel it is the right solution any more, we are happy to sit down and discuss it.”

A vicious cycle

If they aren’t swept up by the Driver Responsibility Program, people can also lose their licenses through simply failing to pay their tickets or show up for court hearings under a similar web of penalties often called the “Omni program” — after Omnibase Services, the Texas company the state contracts to operate it. Lawmakers approved penalties for failing to appear in court in 1999 and added penalties for failing to pay two years later.

Though this policy touches fewer people than the Driver Responsibility Program — about 300,000 Texans currently can’t renew their licenses because of failure to appear or pay — for legal advocates like Emily Gerrick, it can represent a more difficult challenge. Unlike the DRP, which does have some provisions to waive fees for people who can’t afford them, there is no way out of the holds placed on licenses because of the Omni program.

Gerrick, a lawyer with the Texas Fair Defense Project, said she worried that some efforts at repealing the DRP — like one attempted during the last legislative session, which eliminated the surcharges but raised fines for certain offenses — would just push more people into the Omni program.

“Even one of these programs is confusing to navigate, but having two of them is just impossible for people,” she said. “They keep driving in order to survive, then they keep getting more tickets, then they are going to get pulled over, they’ll get a driving with an invalid license ticket, no insurance ticket, an expired registration ticket — that’s three tickets.

“Even if they aren’t a bad driver, if you get caught in one of these programs you are going to get caught up in both, and it’s going to be impossible to dig yourself out.”

Unpaid traffic fines can result in more than just suspended driver’s licenses. In Texas, they can result in jail time for people with repeated driving without a license violations or if a judge issues a warrant after they don’t show up for a court date or pay their fees.

Monica Thomas, 44, has not had a driver’s license in more than a decade. During that time, she said she has spent a “countless number of days” in the Travis County Jail and two days in Bastrop County’s jail. She has also accumulated more than $3,000 in Driver Responsibility Program surcharges on top of another $2,000 in traffic fines, some for 20-year-old tickets.

She said she racked up the tickets — most for of them for speeding — during a period in her life when her bipolar disorder went unmedicated and left her with little ability to focus on day-to-day tasks.

After Thomas got treatment, she began to look at her options for paying down the tickets and regaining her license. She found she was trapped in a “vicious cycle.”

“I was making $10.50 an hour, how am I going to pay that? How am I going to pay that when it’s a struggle already to pay rent? And then if you have a car payment, you have a kid and they need food? You are already starting at a negative every month,” she said. “I had to make an executive decision to keep a roof over our head and to feed my kid because that was what was more important at the time.”

When Thomas came across a notice for a driver’s license recovery clinic the city held in April, she wasn’t sure what to expect. But she showed up because she needed help. She had recently become the primary caretaker for her 24-year-old son. Earlier this year, he returned from a tour of duty in Iraq with severe post traumatic stress disorder after surviving the collapse of a bombed building.

People wait at a driver license reclamation clinic in Austin on June 22, 2018. Rachel Zein for The Texas Tribune

“He has moments of delusions and he trusts no one but me, so it makes things difficult,” she said. “Now he has to go back and forth to the VA, and I need to get a job, I have things that I need to do, and in order for me to do these things I truly need to have a driver’s license.”

Both Cassandra Pappas and Thomas readily acknowledge they made choices that led to their unpaid traffic violations. But they expressed frustration at a system that gave them no way out once they made efforts to pay their debts and rebuild their lives.

“When I did finally try to take care of it, it was just too much money for me to spend on tickets,” Thomas said. “I know it was my fault that I got in trouble. But I don’t think you should make it that hard on anybody when they are trying to get themselves out of trouble.”

Since connecting with a Texas Fair Defense Project lawyer in April, Thomas believes she will be able to get her license back by the end of August. To her, it represents the chance at better job opportunities that will allow her to make sure her son gets the care he needs. It also means that for the first time in 10 years, she will finally be able to drive without the anxiety of facing jail time.

“I’m beyond excited that this is almost over,” she said. “I feel like I get a part of my life back that I’ve been missing for so long, you wouldn’t think a driver’s license does that, but being able freely go wherever I want to go without the fear of getting arrested if I get pulled over, it’s so wonderful.”

by Morgan Smith, The Texas Tribune