Annisa Kotara cannot remember the last time she drove a vehicle without an overwhelming fear of getting caught.
The 45-year-old Cuero resident has had her driver’s license suspended for years because of unpaid fines and fees for traffic violations.
She used to drive illegally to get to work, the grocery store and her children’s schools but has depended on bumming rides from friends and family since January. The risk of getting another ticket is just too much, she said.
“It was a domino effect and I live in a small town, so every time one of the cops would see me, they would pull me over and give me a ticket, but most of the time they would take me to jail,” she said. “Once you get in, it is so hard to get out because you get in so over your head ... I get one paid off and then I remember that there is this other one in another court. They are so hard to keep track of.”
Kotara’s story is not unique. Texas is among 44 states and the District of Columbia that suspend, revoke or do not allow a person to renew their driver’s licenses because of unpaid court debt, resulting in more than 11 million debt-related suspensions nationwide, according to the Free to Drive campaign.
This is a practice that criminal justice reform advocates are trying to eradicate.
Texas embraced reform during the last legislative session, when lawmakers repealed the Drivers Responsibility Program. That state- administered program allowed the Texas Department of Public Safety to add surcharges to traffic tickets and suspend licenses if drivers did not pay or enter into a payment plan within a specific time frame before the repeal went into effect Sept. 1.
But people are still unable to drive in Texas because of unpaid court debt and failure to appear. Reform proposed to the locally administered Failure to Appear/Failure to Pay Program was unsuccessful during the last legislative session. The program, commonly referred to as the OmniBase program, prohibits drivers from renewing their licenses until they resolve county or city court debt.
Marc Levin, vice president of criminal justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, said reform to the OmniBase program received heavy pushback from OmniBase Services of Texas, which receives two-thirds of the $30 fee added to every violation reported to the program.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation is among five organizations in Texas leading reform efforts for debt-related driver’s licenses suspensions or holds.
“The success of DRP repeal, in terms of how much support there was in both chambers and across parties, suggests that if we could just overcome the vendor opposition then we really could make some changes to the OmniBase program next session,” Levin said.
Whether fines and fees owed are local or state is a distinction without a difference to the individual, said Lisa Foster, a co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center.
“They still can’t drive legally; they lose their jobs; they can’t take care of themselves or their families, and that hurts individuals, families and their communities and penalizes people for their poverty,” she said.
Three of Kotara’s offenses for driving with an invalid licenses were referred to the program by the city of Victoria as recently as February, city records show. She owes the municipal court a total of $600 in fines for the violations and about $440 in tacked-on fees, including $30 that is assessed per violation reported to the OmniBase program.
She has also had four tickets, two for driving with an invalid license and two for no liability insurance, subsequent offenses, referred to the program by DeWitt County Justice of the Peace Precinct 1. The fines and fees for those tickets add up to almost $3,000.
Her licenses cannot be renewed until she pays off her offenses or completes community service or jail time in exchange, which can take months or years. She has started to give up hope on her ability to dig herself out of the debt that she has accumulated, she said.
Lately, she worries about losing her job as an at-home caretaker to someone who can legally get behind the wheel.
“I can’t take her (my patient) to doctor’s appointments, so how long is it going to be before they find somebody who can?” she said. “It is overwhelming, it is depressing and humiliating.”
The Texas Legislature enacted the Failure to Appear program in 1995, and in 1996, OmniBase was selected as its sole administrator.
There are currently 732 cities and 243 counties, including many of those in the Crossroads, that are enrolled in the program, according to OmniBase and the Department of Public Safety.
The City of Victoria Municipal Court enrolled in 2009, though no one who worked for the court when the decision was made is still employed, said Tiffany Totah, the court administrator.
A case can be reported for failure to appear or pay, and once it is reported, Omnibase tells the Department of Public Safety to flag a license to prevent renewal until the reporting court notifies the administrator that the offender has resolved their debt.
About 68% of cases reported to the program between 1995 and 2017 were cleared, according to the contracted vendor.
Unlike the repealed Drivers Responsibility Program, the OmniBase program cannot directly lift license renewal holds for people who cannot afford to pay.
Program critics say placing a hold on licenses for court debt disproportionately impacts impoverished communities and traps people in a cycle of tickets and fines and fees that become increasingly difficult to pay because not having a license leads to employment instability and makes other parts of life difficult, like a parent trying to get their children to school.
License suspensions or holds for court debt also waste precious public safety, government money and court time, said Foster, who served on the California Supreme Court and was the Department of Justice’s Director of the Office for Access to Justice prior to leading the Fines and Fees Justice Center.
“Particularly, with respect to police officer’s time, the amount of time that officers spend enforcing suspensions is time that they don’t spend on serious crime, and communities need to think about that,” she said. “What do they want their police officers to do?”
Solutions in place
The idea behind using driver’s licenses as leverage to collect unpaid fines still has a kernel of truth, Foster said.
“The theory, ironically, was the recognition that a license is really important and it is essential to people’s daily lives, so people that lost their license would try to figure out any way possible to pay to get their license back,” she said. “We know that the premise is true, but people’s ability to pay is far less than legislators, state and local, totally comprehend.”
Texas policy also already requires judges at sentencing to inquire about a person’s ability to pay in cases were the punishment is fine only and reduce the fines and fees owed to the amount the person can afford to pay, convert those to community service or jail time credit, put the person on a reasonable payment plan or any combination of those options.
“If that was actually being done and being done properly, there should not be a problem because then people will be able to afford the fines and fees owed,” Foster said. “For people who are willfully thumbing their noses at the court, there are other options. You can convert these to civil judgments … and then Texas has all kinds of methods at disposal for civil judgments.”
Victoria Municipal Judge Vanessa Heinold said one of her priorities is to get driver’s licenses reinstated and warrants recalled, which is why she started holding open court dockets in September 2017.
When she started at the court in 2016, she said she immediately recognized a need for individuals to have flexibility.
“I saw that we need to really reevaluate how we are treating these folks that have Class C tickets, so that is how we came up with this open docket,” she said. “It was largely very popular immediately. I mean, we had a tremendous number of folks coming to court to try to get on top of this.”
Heinold recently greeted a packed room for open docket and offered people who missed payments or court dates options to reinstate payment plans or complete community service, gave jail-time credit and deducted $50 from each fine for every person simply for showing up.
The Texas Legislature has expanded community service options to include attending unpaid job training, a class for a high school equivalency exam and volunteering at an educational institution.
The judge has held open dockets on the fourth Monday afternoon of each month and started holding evening open dockets in July. She will soon hold Saturday open court dockets to accommodate those who work during the weekdays, she said.
“There are other ways that we can benefit our community than simply saying you have to pay this and there is no other option,” she said.
Despite open dockets, the court has reported more than 23,000 people to the OmniBase program since 2014, Totah said. About 17,400 cases reported were cleared during the same time period, including cases that may have been referred prior to 2014.
Once a person’s violation is reported to the program, they will have a hold on their license until they pay off all their court debt, even if they go to open docket to get back on track and start paying or turning in community service hours.
“Our court continues the hold until things are paid,” Heinold said. “OmniBase traditionally has been, basically, another tool to get people into court.”
Heinold found people were not showing up to court in fear of being arrested for an outstanding warrant related to other tickets, so she made sure those who attend open dockets will not get arrested.
Like many local courts, Victoria’s city court requires people to request a continuance or new court date in writing a week before a jury trial or two days before a bench trial for the judge’s review.
Failure to appear can result in a warrant issued for an arrest, which can be recalled during open docket, though the case can still be referred to OmniBase.
Other solutions to failure to appear can be implemented effectively, Levin said.
“What we found is that things like text reminders are really effective,” he said. “It is relatively few people that blow court off, but rather things come up in terms of being sick or their child needs to be taken care of. What I would also like to see courts do is make it easy to schedule their appearances online instead of having to file continuance paperwork.
“I think courts need to be more accessible.”
Note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct time of the City of Victoria Municipal Court's upcoming open dockets.