Legal Battles

Activists Sue Texas Leaders Over Controversial Driver Responsibility Program

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott Gage Skidmore
A national civil rights nonprofit sued Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and four Texas Department of Public Safety officials Wednesday in an effort to kill a controversial Texas program that the group says has caused the suspension of 1.4 million Texans' driver's licenses.

Texas' Driver Responsibility Program imposes surcharges on those drivers who do things like driving without a licence or driving under the influence. The surcharges, which are imposed on top of the standard fines, range from $250 per year for three years for driving with an invalid license to $2,000 per year for three years for a DWI in which the driver is caught with a blood alcohol level of 0.16 — twice the legal limit — or higher. Drivers who accumulate too many points on their licenses for moving violations or moving violations resulting in a crash are also subject to surcharges.

“Individuals who cannot pay will often lose their job and their home – becoming homeless — for a minor ticket that wealthier drivers simply pay and forget.” — Phil Telfeyan

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According to Phil Telfeyan, the lead attorney in the case and executive director of Equal Justice Under Law, the group behind the lawsuit, the surcharges are a poverty trap. Drivers get behind on their payments and lose their licenses, causing a cascade of negative consequences like job loss and homelessness.

“This unfair license suspension scheme particularly targets Texas’ most impoverished residents, who are often unaware additional charges are owed under the DRP,” Telfeyan says. “Individuals who cannot pay will often lose their job and their home — becoming homeless — for a minor ticket that wealthier drivers simply pay and forget.”

Four plaintiffs are named in the case: A 75-year-old San Antonio resident who spends hours on public transportation each day to get to her home healthcare job so she can pay her surcharges; two Navy veterans, one who became disabled in the line of duty; and a man who became homeless because, he says, he's been unable to find a job without a driver's license.

Telfeyan argues in the suit that the program violates his clients' due process rights, unfairly targets poor Texans for punishment and violates the constitution's Equal Protection Clause, leading to their being deprived of a vital credential.

"In Texas, a driver’s license is indispensable to mobility and economic stability, and an individual’s ability to drive
is their lifeline to finding and maintaining employment, taking children to school, making doctor’s appointments, attending addiction treatment, and carrying out necessary daily activities," the suit says. "Defendants take advantage of the indispensable nature of a driver’s licenses by using it as a coercive tool to generate revenue, creating insurmountable hurdles for the state’s poorest people through a complex and debilitating license suspension scheme."

Ahead of the 2019 session of the Texas Legislature, two state senators, Houston Democrat Borris Miles and Edgewood Republican Bob Hall, have filed bills that would end the surcharge program entirely.
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young