Millions of people in Texas simply don’t show up to court or otherwise take care of their tickets. Reasons vary from forgetfulness to fear to outright defiance. Regardless of the reason, it creates a massive caseload of “old” tickets.
Literally millions of unpaid/skipped-out-on-court tickets are outstanding in Texas. The sheer volume is so vast many courts will not bother issuing arrest warrants because the statewide system to notify law enforcement of warrants would be overwhelmed. Traffic warrants are typically enforced locally, although exceptions exist. Also, arresting people who are not local to the issuing court is futile because the arrestee may be hundreds of miles from the issuing court. Local jails don’t want to take up their already overcrowded cells with some other city’s traffic cases. In short, it is impractical to issue warrants for traffic tickets.
There is another way to handle this problem, and it’s called OMNI, a database of outstanding tickets maintained with a clever means of forcing people to take care of their tickets.
OMNI “holds” are placed on a person’s driver license by the court where the ticket is pending. Two reasons justify a hold: 1) failure to pay fines owed; and 2) failure to appear for court. A hold prevents the person from renewing his/her license until the hold is resolved, which may be done by paying the ticket, posting a bond, or otherwise satisfying the issuing court. Therefore, when people attempt to renew their driver licenses, they are faced with their past.
Many people wind up paying not only fines for the ticket they got, but additional fines for the offense of failure to appear for court, as well as “collection” fees and a $30 fee to release the OMNI hold itself. It is common for people to have more than one charge and pay $1,000+ to pay off everything so they can renew their licenses.
OMNI is a potent tool to resolve the problem of millions of outstanding tickets. Dealing with it yourself, however, can be fraught with danger.
Simply paying what the court is demanding will result in convictions for every charge against you. Convictions could result in even more problems down the road, even costing you your license itself.
The Surcharge Screw
Most people have an innate concept of justice. It typically includes an understanding which goes something like this: You made a mistake which is against our criminal laws, you get caught, and you have to pay a price of some sort.
It should not be surprising you would face a fine for violating a traffic law, such as maintaining financial responsibility, i.e. insurance coverage. A fine for such a charge can easily be $350-$400. Pretty stiff fine, right? More than one such charge is a lot more. Okay, so you pay the fine and learn from your mistake. You don’t want to do that again, so you bite the bullet and do the responsible thing and buy insurance, although you can barely afford to pay. At least you paid your debt to society and can move on with your life, right? Wrong.
You get a letter from something you’ve never heard of called Municipal Service Corporation, saying you owe $750, payable over 3 years. Why? You were convicted of not carrying insurance on your car. Wait a minute. You paid your fine already, didn’t you? Doesn’t that mean it’s behind you?
What’s this “surcharge”? Answer: Basically, it’s an additional fine, but it isn’t called a fine because a fine is a criminal punishment subject to the limits of the Constitution of the United States and our own state’s constitution.
Technically, since your driver’s license is a privilege, not a right, as my previous blog post pointed out, the Legislature has full reign to tack on whatever conditions it pleases, even if it means extorting money from people who have already paid their debt to society in good faith.
Worse still, failure to promptly pay the surcharges results in having your driver license suspended. Guess what happens then. Not only are you still required to pay the surcharges, you get stuck with a “reinstatement fee”. Paying your surcharges, but not your reinstatement fee means your license is still suspended.
Driving while your license is invalid is a big no-no. You may be arrested for a first offense or ticketed. Beware, though, of the consequences of simply paying the fine. Remember how paying your fine screws you more than the amount you pay? Paying the fine results in a conviction. The consequences of conviction further spiral out of control.
Upon conviction of driving while license invalid, your license automatically will be 1) re-suspended for the same amount of time your license was already suspended; 2) you will incur another reinstatement fee; AND 3) you get the extra burden of yet another surcharge of another $750 over 3 years. Of course, failure to pay the surcharge results in further suspension. The cycle is insidious and traps many people in a hole so deep they may never be able to come up with enough money to regain their license.
Sometimes, the letters notifying people of the surcharges don’t even reach the people, so they get to learn of the suspension when a cop informs them during a traffic stop months or years after the suspension began.
The moral of the story is to address your tickets in a timely manner WITH an attorney familiar with the traffic laws. If you try to do it yourself, you could save some money on the front end. However, as has been described in this blog entry, you may wind up paying thousands more dollars and much more time trying to fix a problem you “handled” yourself.