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

It's good persuasive political rhetoric to call it "debtor prison." However, it's totally misleading. Debt stemming from a criminal judgment is not the same as as debt owed to creditors. Historically, debtor prisons were used to jail people for unpaid private debt. America does not operate such "debtor prisons."

Anonymous

I have a son-in-law who has been paying $200 month on a few tickets he had received when he was a minor such as curfew & underage tobacco, as well as several traffic violations he had received prior to 2009. He will be done paying these fines later this year.
By the time he makes his final payment a few months from now, he will have paid the City of Fort Worth over $13,400.00.
He has had to pay warrant fees for tickets that were put on a payment plan and NO WARRANT was ever even issued. He has paid tickets with numerous fees added such as: window fees, time payment plan fees, conversion fees (fees to transfer the tickets he had from the city's old software program to the new one) and payment over-extension fees.
It's really sad that the majority of Americans have no clue - not even a thought - as to how unconstitutional the actions taken by their city, state and federal governments have become. Most people choose to remain uninformed about the laws and governmental policy until such a time comes when it [policy] has a direct affect on their own life or the life a loved one. Then and only then do they wish to be informed - because then there is a need to know.

Anonymous

My son was falsely arrested for a DUI about 2 years ago. He fought it and recently was sentenced by the judge. The DUI was plead down to "blocking a right of way" (he was dropping off a friend and the street he lived on was closed so he stopped in front of the street closed sign). He stood in front of the judge for 15 seconds who sentenced him to PROBATION for a non-moving violation traffic ticket. Plus made him pay $300 plus for court costs and the cost of probation. Then when he reported for probation the probation officer was questioning him to determine if he was going to be drug tested or needed counseling for violence. One of the questions was "If your in a bar and someone starts talking about how they had sex with your grandmother last night." what would you say? What kind of question is that? Your in a bar and your being bullied by another person. Society tells us to stand up to bullies, right. That is what is socially acceptable. This question tells us more about the person asking it than the person answering it. As they are the one who is has a tendency to be violent. Who is allowing this to happen and why isn't our Federal Government protecting us from such injustices.

When did a traffic violation become punishable with probation? If he was guilty there is no way this would be plead down to a traffic ticket.

What should we do?

Anonymous

Has anyone ever heard of being on probation without a conviction? Ancillory Bond Conditions? Why does the bonding company's in Texas have so much control of your destination while on bond? Isn't being bonded out suppose to be assurance that the person on bond will show up in court? This is way out of control. Who do you report this kind of shit to? SMH

Anonymous

Don't break the law and you have nothing to worry about . If you break the law take care of ur responsibility. Work more and longer to take care of ur tickets.Make arrangements and stick with them . Just cause you dont pay it dont mean it goes away . If you take care of it you dont have to live in fear of going to jail if u get pulled over or them coming to ur job or home .When you get a drivers license that means ur agreeing to the responsibilities of being able to drive a vehicle . Whether its speeding or taking care of ur sticker on the windshield .Keeping insurance it's all about maintaining your responsibility on being able to drive . If you cant find another way of transportation. Its not rocket science .There is no excuse for breaking the law .They are there to keep us safe .

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