Texas' Annual Roundup of the Working Poor

Tomorrow, March 5, marks the beginning of the annual Great Texas Warrant Roundup. It sounds like quite a lot of fun, another cowboy extravaganza from a state famous for its stock shows and rodeos.

But what it is, in practice, is a shakedown of Texas’s working poor.

The Great Texas Warrant Roundup is an annual statewide collaboration of courts and law enforcement agencies. Their goal is to collect payment of overdue fines and fees from Texans who have outstanding warrants for unpaid traffic tickets and to arrest and jail those who can’t pay. What little press is dedicated to the Roundup focuses on praising cities for the so-called “amnesty” period that precedes it.

The state’s unreasonable traffic ticket scheme and the devastation it can wreak on low-income Texans receive considerably less attention.

Depending on the jurisdiction, a ticket for failing to signal a lane change — the trooper’s justification for Sandra Bland’s tragic traffic stop — will cost you around $66. But the state tacks on $103 in court costs and a host of fees, some bordering on Kafkaesque. Texas will charge you a public defender fee, even though courts refuse to appoint a public defender for traffic ticket cases. If your fine is already too expensive to afford, Texas charges a fee to put you on a payment plan. You’ll even pay an “administrative fee” for the privilege of handing money over to the court. For people who are too poor to pay their traffic fines, a $66 fine can balloon to over $500 because of these court costs and fees, as well as late fines and warrant fees when towns try to arrest the poor (at times illegally) to collect money they simply do not have.

When people like Valerie are arrested in the coming warrant roundup, judges across Texas will follow their usual plan of demanding a payment in exchange for liberty. 

If you can’t afford to keep up with these fees, the state will suspend renewal of your driver’s license (add another $30 for the License Renewal Suspension Fee), and you’ll be unable to register your car, making it illegal for you to drive to the job you need to take care of your kids and pay off your spiraling debt. An expired registration means you’re certain to be pulled over and put back at square one, with new tickets, new fines, new fees, and no hope.

Case in point: Valerie Gonzales, one of the original plaintiffs represented by the Texas Fair Defense Project in a class action lawsuit against the City of Austin. Valerie is a 31-year-old mother of five children with disabilities. She and her family live in poverty. After receiving two traffic tickets nine years ago, not only had Valerie’s tickets multiplied and her fines ballooned into the thousands of dollars, she lost a job after she was unconstitutionally jailed without the benefit of a court-appointed attorney.

When people like Valerie are arrested in the coming warrant roundup, judges across Texas will follow their usual plan of demanding a payment in exchange for liberty. Without asking questions about financial circumstances, judges literally order people to turn over all the money they happen to be holding when they are arrested. “Give me what’s in your pockets” is not a phrase that should be uttered in a courtroom. What’s worse, when the working poor don’t have enough money to hand over, judges send them to jail without a fair hearing or a second thought.

Jailing people for debt is both unjust and profoundly counterproductive. Not only does it deprive people of their liberty and separate them from their children and families, it also renders them incapable of paying off their fines and costs the taxpayer (by conservative estimates) $51 per person per day of incarceration. It’s in everyone’s best interests to keep Texans with their families and out of jail.

There are sensible alternatives. Courts can consider ability to pay before assessing unmanageable fines or waive debts for people who have made a genuine effort to pay what they can. So why don’t they?

This is what makes the roundup so nefarious. Courts are hoping that the threat of jail will frighten people into turning over whatever they can scrape together in exchange for protection from arrest. Rather than praising amnesty, we should address the systemic injustices that keep low-income Texans in perpetual debt to the state.

Add a comment (24)
Read the Terms of Use

Anonymous

I am one of those Texans who cant afford to pay but have repeatedly attempted to set up payment arrangements to satisfy my responsibilities to the courts with no success. Funny thing is the moment i called to request information on my tickets (that are now warrants) is the moment i started being tracked. The Police State is here and I am sure to a few this goes without saying. This practice has to ultimately be unconstitutional when closely examined. The entire system is rigged from the so called defense attorneys (paid or not) to the judges and prosecutors who deceptively hold and force people in the jails until a plea is entered most often to go against that persons best self interests and more importantly their rights. I implore the readers of this article and concerned citizens to wake up and take action. The laws that currently exist are blatant acts of oppression meant to destroy those who cant defend themselves regardless of race and only serve to erode our liberties. Greed in my experience isn't something that fixes ,solves or checks itself. We need to make changes in our understanding that in this country, hell especially in Texas driving should no longer be labeled a privilege it is right of the citizens of this country to use the roadways and not be harassed by law enforcement or be used to generate revenue for state and local municipalities.

Anonymous

It really makes you wonder. Constantly being harassed and living life in fear of another man taking what you work so hard for. Sounds like terror to me. It's not fair nor is it just. It's the work of satan and if your a part of it your going to hell.

Anonymous

Good thing you have time to surf the web.

Anonymous

I fully concur. The issuance of traffic tickets these days is not the original intention for which they once were. It is merely another revenue source for a city. They ( cities) better start planning a head or hiring a lobbyist to stop self-driving cars; as this will dry up their revenue source. I guess they will just add another fee to something.

Someone that ob...

Traffic tickets ARE still for the original intent; to encourage people to follow the laws in place and to punish (financially) those that refuse to do so. It has received bad publicity because there are so many people breaking the laws, of all sorts, that it becomes more apparent that people are being ticketed. If people stop speeding, start using their turn signals, park in designated parking spaces, and stop following too closely (which, ironically, self-driving cars will do) then I would have to agree, the cities' revenue sources, based on traffic violations, would dry up... but that also means that they would require less police to enforce them... which in turn means that they would require less of said revenues. Moral of the story: STOP BREAKING THE LAW and you will not have to pay fines!

Anonymous

For some reason, especially the southern states, seem to have a problem with sadistic practices.

It's ironic that the so-called Bible Belt overwhelming supports the death penalty, is more likely to torture and thrives on sadism - everything contrary to the Christian faith.

Virginia is not too far from Texas and even it's highest court ruled that some exculpatory evidence, including police reports, can't be used in court. Virginia also seizes money and assets without a guilty verdict or even a trial, then forces their victims to prove the property stolen by police belongs to them. Virginia also operates a blacklisting system similar to the Cold War era, East German Stasi, that destroys innocent citizens for legally exercising their First Amendment rights.

Maybe social psychologists could try to diagnose what makes these states so sadistic in their justice systems. Why do they thrive on inflicting pain on others.

Anonymous

The reason this exists in the Southern States, is because the 13th Amendment had one exception to slavery which is crime. The Southern slave system was based on Elizabethan Poor Law (British Common Law) where being poor, regardless of condition, disability, age etc. is still a crime under Parish Law where Parish Priests were slave traders, ran poorhouses (prisons) and were sheriff's, courts and judges. The government just took over that area which is now the Criminal Justice System. Southern states still use the Common Law system (for profit), being poor is the crime of Vagrancy and nothing has changed and is actually very Christian as they despise poor people and always have. ..Explain this blacklisting system as it seems I have fallen prey to this.

Sharon Presley

I *am* a social psychologist. The reasons behind the sadism of Texas and other southern states doesn't have a simple answer. But part of the picture is that puritan mores took hold more strongly in the South. Puritan and punitive upbringing can in turn lead to the authoritarian personality syndrome, which is characterized by (among other traits) punitiveness toward those who are perceived as different or weaker. It's a kind of scapegoating. Freud, who wasn't always wrong, might have also called it displacement of hostility. In simpler terms, punitive and/or puritan upbringing (or other events of similar nature) make people mean and they take it out on others who are weaker than they are.

Anonymous

The ACLU of Virginia wrote an article a few years ago pointing out that Virginia and other southern states in the early 1900's operated a "Eugenics Program" that viewed human beings essentially as breeds of dogs -some superior and some inferior - essentially dehumanizing minorities and unpopular groups so they could justify sadistic and cruel treatment of these 2nd Class citizens.

The most shocking part was that apparently the Nazi Party in World War Two adopted many of those cruel and sadistic practices from the American southern states - we taught it to them.

Anonymous

You think this torture and sadism is contrary to the Christian faith? You Christians worship the murder and torture of a man who was killed because he resisted the heavy-handed ruling of a dictator. The sadistic justice systems that you decry is what led to Jesus ending up on the cross and to people worshiping that symbol of murder and torture of the poor.

Pages

Sign Up for Breaking News