Drivers owe $815M in unpaid state fines

October 12, 2008 10:04:33 PM PDT
Nearly one million Texas motorists owe a combined $815 million for violations such as a driving while intoxicated and failure to have insurance, and the state wants them to start paying up. The Texas Department of Public Safety has given a private collection agency the green light to contact convicted drivers who haven't paid owed state surcharge penalties, which are slapped on top of criminal fines generally paid to counties.

Some owe $2,000 or more in penalties assessed under the Texas Driver Responsibility Program, which lawmakers created in 2004 to help discourage certain offenses. The amount owed to the state works out to an average of $840 a driver.

But only about a third of $1.2 billion in billed surcharges have been paid, and some lawmakers wonder if the program needs a second look, The Dallas Morning News reported Saturday.

"In a perfect world, this program made sense, making people pay extra fines for breaking the law," Republican state Rep. Joe Driver said. "But when you have some who are struggling just to keep up with basic living expenses, you have to consider extenuating circumstances."

DWI offenses carry the biggest surcharges -- $1,000 a year for three years on the first conviction, and $2,000 a year when a driver's blood alcohol content was twice the legal limit. No car insurance or an invalid license draws a $250 annual surcharge for three years.

In 2006, the Legislature ordered a partial amnesty and incentive program to encourage more drivers to make their payments. The goal is to offer reduced fines for those who maintain a clean record and make payments on time, but the program is still awaiting implementation.

Drivers initially receive mail notices and then within 30 days will get a "courtesy" call to seek payment or set up a payment plan. The collection agency is Municipal Services Bureau, which collects delinquent court fines, fees and debts for a variety of governmental entities nationwide.

Rebekah Hibbs, administrator of the DPS program, some of those contacted indicated they weren't aware that they owed surcharges to the state.

"We're trying to ensure that these individuals are made aware of the requirements so they can be in compliance," she said.

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