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Rep. Joe Pickett's proposed changes to Driver Responsibility Program taking shape

By Marty Schladen, El Paso Times, Texas
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 10--AUSTIN -- A House committee is likely to propose a series of reforms to a controversial driver-surcharge program when the Legislature convenes in January.

Rep. Joe Pickett, chairman of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, on Friday said he doesn't plan to scrap the program as some opponents want. Instead, the El Paso Democrat wants to advance reforms to the Driver Responsibility Program that would insure more drivers and keep some caught in the program from being overwhelmed by mounting debt.

"I think we can collect more money, be tough on crime, but also be more realistic," Pickett said.

The Driver Responsibility Program was started in 2003 as a way to impose civil fines on drivers who accumulate six or more points for moving violations, or who are convicted of drunken driving, driving without a license or driving while that license is invalid. Drivers also face surcharges if they don't have proof of insurance when they're pulled over -- even if they produce it later.

The charges range from $300 over three years for a single offense of driving without a license to $6,000 over three years for driving with a blood-alcohol content of 0.16 or more.

Many critics say the program just isn't working.

Since its inception, the Driver Responsibility Program collected only $1.14 billion of the $2.85 billion of the charges it levied, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition reported last year. More than 1 million drivers who hadn't paid the charges have had their licenses suspended, leading in many cases to further offenses, further charges and additional suspensions, the coalition said.

Texas Department of Public Safety data show that El Pasoans face surcharges under the program in disproportionate numbers compared to the rest of Texas.

"Literally, it gets into the tens of thousands of dollars for some people, and they just can't handle that," Pickett said.

Some opponents of the program argue that it amounts to unconstitutional double jeopardy because it imposes surcharges on people after they've already paid court-imposed fines. Others say the program has increased the number of uninsured drivers on Texas roads.

Some judges are among the most vociferous opponents of the program. They say it's clogged their courts with proceedings resulting from unpaid surcharges.

But supporters are reluctant to scrap the program -- in part because it helps fund trauma care in Texas.

Pickett is trying to tread a middle ground. For example, instead of charging drivers $750 for not having insurance, he wants to waive at least part of that charge if they get insurance.

"If I were driving the streets, I'd rather know the person next to me is insured," Pickett said.

He also is considering some technical adjustments to improve compliance.

Under current rules, violators face surcharges stretched out over three years. Pickett wants to allow them to pay the full amount up front, if they choose to.

He also wants to consolidate court and Driver Responsibility Program communications in the same piece of mail to avoid confusion. Many drivers receive a notice of surcharges and throw it away, thinking they've already paid their fines, Pickett said.

For an explanation of the charges, go to www.txdps.state.tx.us/DriverLicense/drp.htm.

Marty Schladen may be reached at 512-479-6606. Twitter: @martyschladen.

___

(c)2014 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas)

Visit the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas) at www.elpasotimes.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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