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Group sues over Texas Driver Responsibility Program, says it traps poor in cycle of debt

December 5, 2018

A national civil rights organization on Wednesday sued Governor Greg Abbott and four top officials at the Texas Department of Public Safety, arguing that the state’s Driver Responsibility Program (DRP) traps many of Texas’ most vulnerable people in a cycle of debt and hardship.

“This unfair license suspension scheme particularly targets Texas’ most impoverished residents, who are often unaware additional charges are owed under the DRP,” says Phil Telfeyan, lead attorney in the case and executive director of Equal Justice Under Law, the organization behind the lawsuit. “Individuals who cannot pay will often lose their job and their home — becoming homeless — for a minor ticket that wealthier drivers simply pay and forget.”

The 66-page suit is filed against Abbott, DPS Director Steven McCraw, as well as DPS Chairman Steven Mach; Skylor Hearn, DPS’ deputy director of Administration and Services; and Amanda Arriaga, division director of the driver license division. The suit argues the Driver Responsibility Program violates the rights of the its plaintiffs to due process, unfairly impacts the state’s poorest residents, and violates their rights to equal protection under the law.

It is brought on behalf of four plaintiffs, ranging from a 75-year-old San Antonio resident, two U.S. Navy veterans and a another man who became homeless after he was unable to find adequate work without a license.

The lawsuit is the latest assault on the Driver Responsibility Program, which critics have likened to a modern-day “debtors prison” and which has come under intense scrutiny since it was implemented in 2003, in a bid by state lawmakers to make Texas roads safer. The program was supposed to increase funding for uncompensated trauma care across the state through annual fees — on top of court fines and other criminal penalties — for road infractions, such as speeding, drunk driving or operating a vehicle without a valid license.

The state, however, routinely fails to notify drivers about the program or the fees they owe, and routinely traps the state’s poorest drivers in a worsening cycle of debt, license suspensions, and criminal charges, the lawsuit claims.

Despite bipartisan disapproval of the program, lawmakers failed to repeal the program during Texas’ 2017 legislative session.

St. John Barned-Smith covers public safety and major breaking news for the Houston Chronicle. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Send tips to st.john.smith@chron.com.

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