Mad as hell: The fight to repeal the $3,000 traffic ticket heats up in Texas

I recently wrote about the little-known Driver Responsibility laws, the odious rules that several states use to squeeze cash out of drivers who get traffic tickets. They're explained more fully in my original story on the subject, which you can read here. The gist is that once you pay, say, a speeding ticket, you've essentially pled guilty to it, and then states can legally come at you for all kinds of penalty fees over and above the original ticket. Fees can soar as high as $3,000, and if you don't pay them, you'll be arrested as a criminal if you drive. That's even if you live in a different state from where you got the ticket.

Although the law, which creates a class of debtors, exists in New Jersey, Michigan, and New York as well (Virginia gave up and repealed its law last year), the Texas rebellion has been particularly adamant. Although some 1.6 million Texas have been assessed with the fine, 1.1 million of them haven't paid it, many because they can't afford to, proving the laws don't work in getting bad drivers off the road. Some $900 million in fees haven't been collected. The people most likely not to pay the fines aren't hardened criminals or habitual drunk drivers, but simply people whose licenses were invalid at the time of their ticket.

This TV news story explains the complicated system, which has people paying fines repeatedly for three years running without recourse.

MySpace has become a hub for agitation against the law, and a pre-law student named Tamara Shippy launched a online petition against the scheme. Meanwhile, YouTube is piling up with the voices of Texans who are fed up with the law. This 23-year-old can't drive anymore because he was ticketed in a two-week gap when he was getting new insurance. And this protester who tried to get Texas to let him pay on an installment plan was flatly refused, because one doesn't exist. Instead, he has to pay his $1,000 in fees as a lump. He doesn't have that, but he does have a family to feed, so he's been driving with a suspended license -- and got arrested for it, racking up even more fees. "We're just normal people trying to take care of ourselves and live our lives," he complains.

People who aren't habitual problem drivers are being forced into criminal status simply because they can't afford to pay these extortionate fees. The opponents of the law aren't disputing that they got that last ticket (not usually, anyway). They're outraged that the fees mount so rapidly after the second ticket, making them virtually impossible to pay off and crippling the driver's ability to drive legally and, by extension, feed their families.

The Texas resistance, organized by average people, has been aggressive but respectful. Mary Moody, an Austin-based opponent of the law, joined the online campaign to get the law repealed and all paid fines refunded, and she posts home-made YouTube updates for other rebels. It's inspiring to watch a citizen find the time and the resolve get involved, and navigate the bureaucratic mire of politicians, hearings, and press conferences. On the videos, you'll hear a mewling baby in the background, so you know her fight can't be easy.

But it's seeing results. Spurred partly by Shippy and Moody's eloquent opposition, on April 18 the Texas Senate enacted S.B. No. 896. The revision to the Driver Responsibility Law wouldn't eliminate the extra fees; it provides for access to a judge who could potentially reduce a driver's fines. Although the sponsor of the bill, Eliot Shapleigh from El Paso (a Democrat), had pushed for the law's outright repeal, Republican opponents whittled it down to a compromise that, if anything, gives the law's supporters, who justify the measure by citing public safety, the ability to claim it's now constitutional in that it provides for a hearing. The current version contradicts, oh, the Magna Carta.

The new, streamlined version of the bill, now facing the Texas House, also says the state can't fine students and the indigent. In these times, though, the definition of who's poor and unable to pay will be broad indeed, and repeatedly filing papers and going to court to prove the fines are a crippling burden could be a crippling burden itself.

The battle to eliminate the rule completely and refund citizens their money will be very tough because states are grabbing funds anywhere they can these days. Texas is using the cash collected by the law to plug a budget gap in its trauma centers, a fact that the opposition is trying to use to its advantage. If trauma centers treat illegal aliens, they theorize, then it's unconstitutional to fund them with taxpayer money, and since trauma centers are used by everyone, they should be funded by fees paid by everyone, not just one segment of the population. So far, the arguments haven't worked, but the law also has yet to face its Waterloo in court. Should a federal judge determine the fines constitute double jeopardy (punishing a citizen twice for the same crime), that could be the end of them.

It's an advance for protesters (Michigan's effort to repeal the law died in committee), but they're not through fighting by a long shot.
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