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Another Law to Fix Driver Responsibility Surcharges: Prove You’re Indigent, and Judge Can Waive Surcharges

Around three weeks from now (on September 1, 2011), a new law will be effective here in Texas that will impact a lot of folk who have been convicted of a moving traffic violation here in the Lone Star State. Right now, everyone who gets a traffic ticket must pay a Driver Responsibility surcharge – and these can be very expensive.  And by that, we mean VERY EXPENSIVE.

Back in April 2010, we discussed DWI Surcharges. From that post:

Right now, Texas drivers convicted of DWI (driving while intoxicated) as well as a couple of other violations (driving without a driver’s license, or one that’s invalid; as well as driving without insurance) must pay automatic surcharges every year, for three years from the date of conviction.

And it isn’t cheap: for a DWI conviction, the surcharge is $1,000 a year for three years for a first conviction; $1,500 a year for the second; and $2,000 a year for any conviction with a blood-alcohol content of 0.16 or greater. That’s big money, right?

People Aren’t Paying the Surcharges

It’s not news to those involved in DWI work that people aren’t paying these surcharges. However, everyone may not know that state-wide, over $1 billion hasn’t been paid. One billion dollars in unpaid surcharges – no wonder they’re having some hearings down in Austin.

New Law Will Exempt Those Who Can Prove They Are Indigent: Tex. Transpo. Code Section 708.150

Seems that the Texas Legislature has reviewed its past work on the Drivers’ Responsibility Surcharge and has heard criticism and outcry about this draconean surcharge business.  Result?  A New Law.

It’s Section 708.150 of the Texas Transportation Code, and it provides that if someone can prove in court (through specific documentation as provided in the new statute) that they are indigent, then the Judge can waive their surcharge.

There is controversy right now about how the new law is to be read. Does it only apply to future traffic tickets, or does it go back in time, allowing folk burdened with these expensive surcharges to seek judicial relief?

Of course it will be argued that the new law must apply to those who are already unduly burdened with the expensive surcharges (easier word, fines).  However, no one will know for sure until judges actually start making rulings on the New Law and prosecutors start appealling those decisions so that higher courts (and eventually the Court of Criminal Appeals) can decide where the line in the sand of time is drawn to  help people who cannot afford to pay thousands of dollars every year for Driver Responsibility.

Who can qualify?

Here is the full text of the new law itself, which outlines how to qualify for “indigent status” under the new law:

Sec. 708.158. INDIGENT STATUS AND REDUCTION OF SURCHARGES. (a) The department shall waive all surcharges assessed under this chapter for a person who is indigent. For the purposes of this section, a person is considered to be indigent if the person provides the evidence described by Subsection (b) to the court.

(b) A person must provide information to the court in which the person is convicted of the offense that is the basis for the surcharge to establish that the person is indigent. The following documentation may be used as proof:

(1) a copy of the person’s most recent federal income tax return that shows that the person’s income or the person’s household income does not exceed 125 percent of the applicable income level established by the federal poverty guidelines;

(2) a copy of the person’s most recent statement of wages that shows that the person’s income or the person’s household income does not exceed 125 percent of the applicable income level established by the federal poverty guidelines; or

(3) documentation from a federal agency, state agency, or school district that indicates that the person or, if the person is a dependent as defined by Section 152, Internal Revenue Code of 1986, the taxpayer claiming the person as a dependent, receives assistance from:

(A) the food stamp program or the financial assistance program established under Chapter 31, Human Resources Code;

(B) the federal special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children authorized by 42 U.S.C. Section 1786;

(C) the medical assistance program under Chapter 32, Human Resources Code;

(D) the child health plan program under Chapter 62, Health and Safety Code; or

(E) the national free or reduced-price lunch program established under 42 U.S.C. Section 1751 et seq.

Added by Acts 2009, 81st Leg., R.S., Ch. 1146, Sec. 15.04, eff. September 1, 2011.

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