When 57-year-old George West was released from prison a decade ago, he found steady work salvaging scrap metal as a day laborer — but problems arose when his job required him to drive: Because he owed outstanding surcharges on old traffic tickets to the Department of Public Safety, he could not obtain a license.
While trying to pay off the tickets while maintaining his day job, however, West incurred more tickets: A Santa Fe police officer pulled him over for allegedly having a broken taillight, then wrote him tickets for expired registration, driving without a valid license and having no insurance (and also having an open container of alcohol). Today, West — who lives out of his truck, can no longer work full-time because of severe rheumatoid arthritis, and receives Social Security disability to make ends meet — owes nearly $1,500. It's a sum he cannot pay and, as a result, he fears he may be thrown in jail.
West is one of four plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against the City of Santa Fe for operating what the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas describes as a modern-day debtors prison: Every year, dozens of poor people in Santa Fe end up thrown in jail because of failure to pay mounting fines for otherwise harmless traffic violations. On the same day the organization announced the lawsuit, it also released an alarming report that found that nearly all of Texas's municipal courts operate similarly to Santa Fe's, in that poor people who cannot afford to pay traffic tickets are stripped of various basic constitutional rights and safeguards that are intended to prevent criminalizing poverty.
“George West is a prime example of how these tickets can derail someone's life,” said ACLU staff attorney Trisha Trigilio. “While Santa Fe's municipal courts had some pretty egregious practices, this is definitely a statewide problem, and in every single municipal court we have looked at, we see constitutional violations when we get records back. Across the state, people are being systematically jailed in violation of the constitution just for failure to pay their fines.”
Santa Fe Court Administrator Lisa Snider declined comment on the lawsuit, saying the city had not yet been served.
According to the ACLU report, of the 766 Texas municipal courts that disposed at least 100 Class C misdemeanor cases (which include traffic violations), the median rate at which courts adjusted people's fines and fees because the person was living in poverty was a big fat zero percent of cases. The Texas Constitution allows judges to lower or waive fines because a person is living in poverty, or replace financial punishment with community service — but only 0.2 percent of cases on average received such consideration.
In addition, Trigilio said the ACLU did not encounter a single court that appointed lawyers for people before they were thrown in jail. In many other courts, including Santa Fe's, police arrested residents on warrants for their failure to pay and put them in jail without even providing a hearing before a judge, where they might otherwise have a chance to explain they couldn't pay because they're poor. Without a chance for those arrested to explain their inability to pay from the get-go and before jail, Trigilio said tickets and fees will only continue to pile up, like a snowball effect.
“In addition to getting the fines and fees in court,” Trigilio said, “you also get surcharges through DPS on top of those tickets. And then the tickets themselves can keep you from getting a valid license or getting your car registered — and you get even more tickets for that. It's like having a target on your car at that point.”
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In May, the Houston Press covered the problem of jailing poor people for failing to pay traffic tickets or minor Class C offenses specifically in Houston: Recent research and data suggested that, of nearly 169,000 people convicted of Class C misdemeanors in municipal court, judges lowered fines for only six poor defendants, and community service was offered in lieu of fines in less than 2 percent of cases. The ACLU's most recent figures suggest that 21.2 percent of all people who are faced with these Class C fines in Houston are living in poverty. Of those sent to jail for failure to pay over a period of four months (more than 500 people), 30 percent were listed as homeless or not having an address — and 25 percent of the offenses they were jailed for were actually related to homelessness, such as loitering on a sidewalk. Twenty-eight percent of cases were scenarios like West's, in which the person jailed could not afford to pay traffic-related tickets — including having broken headlights or expired plates and for failing to notify DPS of an address change.
One Houstonian interviewed by the ACLU, who was so poor at the time he was ticketed that he was pawning off DVDs in order to feed his son, said, “I tried to pay [the surcharges]. For five years I tried to pay them. But even after I made payments, the system kept tacking on more for years. I didn't see a way out. Times were so tough that I had to drop out of school. Every day was a struggle to decide between putting food on the table or paying down my surcharges. If I paid down my surcharges, we didn't eat.”
The ACLU's recommendations include putting an end to the Department of Public Safety's Driver Responsibility Program, which is responsible for those surcharges and license suspensions for failure to pay; eliminating practices that strip people who don't pay traffic tickets of due process; using alternative sentencing like community service much more widely; and eliminating a municipal judge's ability to put someone in jail for failure to pay something as minor as a traffic ticket.
“A traffic ticket should sting,” Trigilio said. “It should be enough for a person who gets a ticket to think, man, I shouldn't have been speeding. It should make all of us think twice before committing one of these offenses again. But it shouldn't derail our lives.”