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.

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Anonymous

Texas sounds a lot like Ferguson. At least we're moving toward community service in lieu of fines.

Anonymous

Texas is absolutely nothing like Ferguson. Texas has been providing community service and installment payments as an alternative form of discharging judgments since 1971. Ferguson implemented such laws in 2015.

Anonymous

I worked for a court in Texas for 4 years. It was near Dallas in a huge city. What I can tell you is that city appeared to target hispanic persons (and I am white). More people came through that could not understand English with a minimum of $1,000 in fines- No drivers license, No insurance ($306 at the time fine), various infractions of inspection, registration violations. I felt very sorry because they would just pay. Many other races of course did too. At the time I felt you follow the law and you won't have a problem, but I heard from the worst officer who admitted seeking persons out to issue tickets too. After my first year we got a "bonus" for the amount of tickets processed that was equivalent to a percentage of our salaries. That is why you have so many tickets being issued at least in that town. The people want the kick back in November. They did seem to target hispanics because I always had to ask for help with a translator. The point is they took care of their responsibilities. I can't tell you how many young people who had speeding tickets who just wouldn't pay. Then they would come to the court yelling and screaming like we issued it. Everyone has a job and we were just the final step. It was very awful how we were treated when those people made the choices to speed for example. I know the rules in Texas were once tough but in the last 8 years it has really softened.

Anonymous

For what it's worth, Texas is one of those states where it's extremely easy to get out of a traffic ticket. If you go to court to challenge it, the issuing officer must be present, or you will be dismissed without charges or costs within about 15 minutes. I have first hand experience with this.

Gregory R. Susoreny

A large part of the message is "Don't do the crime, if you can't do the time." More: don't be stupid; be civilized, stupidity has consequences, and ignorance is going to hurt big time--especially if you're poor. Just a few--I have more. Finally, "if you want to be antisocial, do it someplace else."

JP Larson

Yes, Gregory, because everyone is capable of driving perfectly 100% of the time. I'm sure you have never exceeded the speed limit, had a headlight burn out, changed lanes without signaling, or done a "California stop" at a stop sign.

*shaking head*

Anonymous

How about just stop breaking the law?

Anonymous

Everyone breaks the law at some point. You, your grandma, your Sunday school teacher have all broken a law. The point is the punishment is way too harsh for minor infractions, especially if you are poor.

Anonymous

The author seems to forget that these are criminal law matters. Criminal law violations result in punishment. Most people who go to jail for Class C misdemeanors, end up going as a last resort. The courts that follows the law have already given them the opportunity to do community service or an installment payment plan. Second, the fact that the author is criticizing a warrant amnesty plan from Texas that has been celebrated as models in other states, such as Maryland and Missouri , is quite telling. The facts are simple. These round up programs result in FEWER people actually going to jail. Rather than calling for an end to such a program, you should want to see it expanded. Third, the argument that jailing these people impact their ability to make money or be with their families is specious. If that were the controlling criteria for our criminal justice system, no one would be incarcerated. The one thing this article gets right is that state court costs are too high. Unfortunately, the author conflates this problem with demanding that all people, regardless of their socioeconomic status, comply with the laws that are most important to safety and quality of life. The ACLU should be committed to ensuring that all people are provided a level playing field and not making arguments that advocate inverse discrimination. Most people comply with the law. Most people expect all people to comply with the law. Most people do not believe that either the rich or the poor should be above or below the law.

Anonymous

There's a term for the jail that poor people go to when they cannot pay fines...it's called debtor's prison, and it is currently against the law in the United Kingdom to put people away for being to poor to pay. Time for the US to get out of the 18th century when prisons like this still existed in Europe.

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