The Great Texas Warrant Roundup

debtors prisons

If the news media did their job, somebody would have asked Ted Cruz about this by now.Something like, “Senator, what is your position on the growing use of debtors prisons in your state and other states around the U.S.?”

On March 5th, Texas commenced what is known as the Great Texas Warrant Roundup, an annual statewide collaboration of courts and law enforcement agencies to squeeze payment of overdue fines and fees from Texans. The Texans targeted are overwhelmingly poor citizens who have outstanding warrants for unpaid traffic tickets, many of which were dubious, the product of aggressive policing to meet budget quotas. The carrot is an amnesty period that precedes the “roundup;” the stick is the threat of arrest and jail for those who can’t pay.

In Texas, a ticket for failing to signal a lane change—a favorite way to start the process of bleeding vulnerable citizens to cover city and county budget shortfalls— will cost about $66. That’s just the beginning, though.  Texas adds $103 in court costs, a public defender fee,  a fee to put you on a payment plan if you can’t pay,  and the always versatile “administrative fee.” Writes the ACLU: “For people who are too poor to pay their tickets, that $66 fine can grow to over $500.”

Once the victim can’t pay the collective fines,Texas will suspend renewal of the driver’s license, adding the License Renewal Suspension Fee, another $30.  Now it’s illegal to drive to the work, and without work, it will be impossible to support a family and pay bills. Faced with that dilemma, many citizens drive anyway, and get eventually get pulled over, leading to more tickets, fines, fees…and more debt.

The ACLU relates the case of Valerie Gonzales, a plaintiff represented by the Texas Fair Defense Project in a class action lawsuit against the City of Austin, as it describes how the Great Texas Warrant Roundup operates. Valerie is a 31-year-old mother of five children, all  with disabilities, living in poverty. After receiving two traffic tickets nine years ago, Valerie saw her fines expand into  thousands of dollars. She lost a job she desperately after she was  jailed without a court-appointed attorney to assist her, as the law requires. When other traffic ticket debtors like  Valerie are arrested in the coming warrant roundup, judges across Texas will demand  payment in exchange for avoiding a jail sentence. Judges will order them to turn over all the money they had on them they were arrested. If the poor don’t have enough money to hand over, judges just send them to jail.

This is, of course, Dickensian. Debtor prisons are cruel, and they also make no sense.

These shakedowns arising out of Kafkaesque legal Catch-22s were flagged in 2014 by journalist Radley Balko in this important piece of investigative journalism, describing the systemic injustices that caused Ferguson, Missouri to explode.  Of Balko’s piece I wrote,

Balko describes a toxic, horrific recipe for social dysfunction composed of poverty, ignorance, conflicts of interest, desperation, incompetent city planning, unethical police work, law enforcement quotas, white flight, distrust, public apathy, exploitation and more. Nothing makes sense, except the fact that the system doesn’t work, because no such system could… I know this: an honest and  responsible national government and news media would not pretend that the primary problem is racism.

This week, CBS broadcast a story called “How you could go to debtor’s prison in the U.S” highlighting many of the same issues Balko wrote about, but not just in Missouri:

“These practices are rampant across the country, most recently in Louisiana,” Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior counsel with the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, said. “Fees and fines emerged as a powerful funding mechanism when state legislatures balked at raising revenue.”An increasing number of states and localities look to close budget gaps through fees and fines accessed through the criminal justice system. The scenario has created a cottage industry of for-profit probation companies like JCS, which oversee payment plans and collect fines and fees on behalf of municipalities.

In 2010, the ACLU found “this troubling trend in five states, and since then an additional three to four states,” Choudhury said. “In 2015 alone, the ACLU and its affiliates filed lawsuits in Georgia, Mississippi, Washington and Michigan,” she said. “This is a problem that truly spans the country.”

This un-American system, operating in many states, hasn’t been mentioned in the presidential candidates debate, though. Fantasy football was. It isn’t just Ted Cruz who should have been asked about it, it’s every candidate, and President Obama too.


Pointer: Fred

Source: Grits for Breakfast

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11 thoughts on “The Great Texas Warrant Roundup

  1. In NJ they can and do throw you into jail if a fine goes unpaid, but only if you get caught on a traffic stop or other infraction, they don’t come looking for you for outstanding traffic fines. They DO come looking for you if you have not paid child support, and in fact it was big in the news when 20 out of 21 counties sent out every available sheriff’s officer and rounded every deadbeat dad on the rolls up that they could find, to sit in jail until payment was arranged. They will also suspend every license the state has issued to you for both that and for outstanding student loans. This is particularly problematic if without your professional license you can’t work and without your driver’s license you can’t drive to work. Do you have a different thought about this aggressive approach when child support is involved?

  2. So what is the solution here? If payment of traffic fines is not enforced then no one will pay them and there is no point handing them out in the first case. If the traffic laws aren’t enforced people will drive however they like – arguably no change there! – and it’s fair to say road accidents, injuries and deaths will go up. This will lead to the same problems of poor people not being able to go to work, being dead or crippled does reduce your employment prospects and ability to support your family.

    Clearly the cost on cost situation or gaol time escalates the problem for the poor but surely there has to be some way to require people to obey laws. The usual way to do this is to impose penalties that are severe enough to discourage offences.

    In Australia most traffic offences attract a severe fine and demerit points. You get a rolling twelve points over three years. Exceeding the speed limit by 15 Kph (9.3 mph) will score you three points – and almost $300 – for example. Collect 12 points and you will lose your licence for three months; or you can take a good behaviour deal where you have one point for twelve months; lose two and you get a six month suspension, no options. Gaol is reserved for habitual offenders like MULTIPLE cases of DUI whilst on a suspended licence for DUI. Perhaps that is one situation where they could actually get a bit more aggressive.

    In the case of hardship it is possible to pay fines off incrementally, with interest – usually fairly high interest I must say.

    Perhaps this is the answer you are looking for.

    We too have the problem of ‘results based policing’ which means you get the same number of brownie points for a traffic ticket as for taking down a pedophile!

  3. This post caused me to brainstorm a wonderfully insidious, statist scheme for increasing the public’s reliance on public (or non-individually owned) transportation, while disincentivizing private ownership of vehicles.

    Picture this: Empower the state to impound immediately any privately owned vehicle that does not meet any jot or tittle of a strict “inspection standard.” If a cop pulls you over because, say, a brake light is out, then say bye-bye to your car, right then and there, unless and until you pay to fix the brake light – plus towing and storage fees. If the faulty brake light is not detected until you take your car in to be inspected, then you either pay to have it fixed then and there, or else, again, you must say bye-bye to your car then and there.

    If you don’t come up with the money within 30 days to pay for all fixes for your impounded vehicle, then say bye-bye to your car forever. The state will seize your property, re-sell it as best salable for maximum revenue, and use the proceeds to pay for alternative, state-funded transportation that you will have to use from now on in lieu of the vehicle you used to own. That’s right: Once you forfeit a car to a state seizure, you will be prohibited thereafter to own another car. You will be “blacklisted.” For life. Get caught breaking that law, and you will rot in jail for life. Jails will be full of good drivers. HA!

    Oh, employers get to suffer the bite, too: they would be required to report the commuting distance for each of their employees, and be taxed at some rate per some formula using the distances and employees’ incomes. Revenue from that taxation could then also be chipped-in to the fund for alternative state transportation. Employees would be “strongly encouraged” to use the state’s furnished transportation.

    No exemptions for bicycle riders, rollerskaters, or pedestrians, either. Everybody pays.

    I probably should not go into more detail. My brainstorms can be pretty thorough.

    For a start, my idea would force people who can’t afford to drive safe cars to give them up. Unsafe cars would be taken off the road – temporarily, at least – or at the very least, taken out of the hands of private owners. The poorer the people became, the more likely they would become captive to the state’s alternative transportation system. A boom in use of mass transit, or its nearest approximation that is affordable to the state, would be reasonable to expect. Job opportunities for state-paid mass transit drivers would increase.

    One unintended consequence might be a fleet of state-owned vehicles that are seized property, and that are more unsafe than they were when they were privately owned. (Of course, state-owned vehicles would be exempt from any inspection standard.) So, a state-owned, seized minivan that formerly only one person owned and used for commuting (hmmm, that reminds me of someone I know…), using a parolee for a driver on a work release permit, could get into an accident because of a brake light that never got fixed. And, instead of just one guy being killed in the crash, multiple desperate, car-less wards of the state could get killed all at once.

    I forgot to mention that many of my brainstorms are subtly genocidal…

  4. My first year of college, the Atherton police used to come to the scofflaws dorm room and grab you for any tickets which had gone to warrant. The police wanted one of two things. YOU, or CASH. You either paid the bail or you found yourself at San Mateo county jail until you (or your parents), paid. One could ask for O.R. at the morning prelim, but by that time you were already familiar with orange jumpsuits, mush ladled onto toast, and the endearing qualities of individuals you may never have had the opportunity to know. On several occasions, dorm friends needed to take up an immediate collection for their buddies as most of us didn’t have enough cash on hand to pay. The key was coming up with the cash before the transfer to the county gaol. It was a racket. And yet…every 5 or 10 years I justly get another ticket. And I do pay the fine rather quickly.

  5. Part of the problem in Texas is the large number of illegals driving around without without driver’s licenses or insurance especially in the big city like Dallas. Their cars can be impounded if they’re caught. However, frequently they are junk cars so they don’t bother to get them out of impound lots. Texas also has santuary cities like Austin where the cops can’t turn them over to INS.

  6. As a “victim” and witness of such practices, I more than sympathize with those caught in the Great Texas Warrant Roundup. I have dwelt upon this issue for decades. My conclusion is that these situations are completely avoidable. What I perceive is a classic conflict between values – namely efficiency, equality, impartiality, law, and justice (what we deserve). Any law with any hopes of being applied equally and impartially must mandate a specific sanction. If it is to be impartial and have some semblance of justice, the specific sanction must be calibrated to the average citizen (a fine of $1,000,000 is unjust to the poor, and a fine of $1.00 is unjust to the wealthy). A reliance on impartiality and equality mandates a sanction that is at least annoying to those most able to suffer it, a hardship to the average citizen, and true devastation to those least able to suffer the sanction. Otherwise, there is no deterrent effect. Any movement away from standardized sanctions may bring us closer to justice (what people deserve), but will also take us further from equality, impartiality, and efficiency (which provides its own justice in a free market).

    I believe education is the only viable solution. I am poor. It took me a while, but I now know that illegal behavior is not in my best interest, nor is my illegal behavior in the best interest of any other person. While the liberal media may try to convince us otherwise, poor folk like me have no excuse for engaging in illegal behavior. First of all, there is a lot of illegal behavior in which we cannot even hope to engage. Securities fraud and insider trading is not something we even consider. Given that few of us poor folk have yachts, maritime laws are not even a consideration. Secondly, laws applied efficiently, equally, and impartially will always impact the poorer of us to a greater extent than they impact the wealthier of us (this is an incentive to not engage in the behaviors that perpetuates poverty). This is not unjust (we still get what we should know is a likely consequence of our behavior; and, if we know the likely consequence and engage in the behavior regardless, we deserve the consequence – it’s not difficult to avoid illegal behavior). We should be taught by our parents (and teachers, the media, and political leaders) that illegal behavior is almost always wrong and very rarely right. It should be emphasized that persons shot by “white police officers” (or anyone else), are very often engaged in illegal behavior. In contrast, a devotion to engaging in good (ethical) behavior will very rarely (if ever) be sanctioned by a fine, getting arrested, or a bullet from a police officer.

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