Holiday Wish List

Holiday Wish List for Criminal Justice Reform:


As it is Christmas, I wanted to send a word of hope to my clients and the community.  Christmas is a time for generosity, second chances, and peace.  I am reflecting on how we make the system work for the community, making our communities safer, and ensuring that justice is done.  I think it is becoming a commonly held idea that our system needs reform and we need to back off the idea that we need to completely ruin someone to keep our community safe.  I think the Texas legislature, which is going into session in January, need to hear from those of us who want common sense reforms.


There are five reforms I wish for this season:


1.       Reform fines and fees to make them proportionate and allow a means to dispose of fines and fees if a Defendant is indigent:


It is not fair to make poor people decide between paying a fine or fee and paying a bill or the rent.  We need to have real means by which to reduce indigent people’s fines and fees through income evaluation and sliding scale payments.  We need to also be sensitive to realities that limit poor people’s abilities to do community service and we should not saddle people with hundreds of community service hours they cannot realistically do to “give them a chance”.  Chances need to be real, not ephemeral.


I also am a very staunch advocate of an abolition of the Drivers’ Responsibility Program (surcharge program).  I believe this does nothing but penalize unsophisticated, poor people and is a back door tax on the people in the state who can least afford it.  It makes us less safe by disqualifying people from insurance coverage and the regulation and licensing of them as drivers. 


2.       Decriminalize drugs and provide access to treatment and services to address addiction and mental health:


I think one thing Texas could do this legislative session to better the system for everyone would be to move every category of possession down one level of offense.  This means that a Class B possession of marijuana would become a fine only Class C offense, state jail felony less than a gram of cocaine would be a Class A misdemeanor, etc.  That is a very common sense decriminalization regime that would put in place lifesaving and cost saving measures right away.


Also, this legislative session, Texas could fund at a meaningful level addiction treatment and mental health treatment.  We have people waiting in line for months to get services, get an appointment with a doctor, etc.  We need to give people meaningful access to these services so they can better their lives and exit the system healthy and with a path forward.


3.       Provide meaningful opportunities for youth:


I honestly believe that most young people do not choose a criminal path because it is ideal and glamorous.  Maybe a minority do, but it becomes ideal through social and environmental conditioning, not because there’s just some “bad” kids.  We need to expand education and job opportunities for kids in our communities.  Rural and urban kids both need this.  I do think better and more trade schools will help, but it also needs to be meaningful opportunities to go to college for kids who could be high achieving academically.  Kids need to be given the tools they need stay in school. 


Setting expectations for kids to stay in school and pursue a productive path along with making those expectations real by providing the opportunities will go a long way to reducing the amount of kids who become involved with the system.  Knowing they are expected to follow a productive path and not be given the impression that s/he is a “throw away kid”, while giving them the resources,  makes that criminal path less attractive.


4.       Help formerly incarcerated to Re-Enter:


Recidivism is high.  Maybe one of the biggest predictors of incarceration is prior incarceration.  We need to prepare people on the inside for Re-Entry to the free world with training and education programs, mental health services, and counseling services to help them become better workers, parents, and citizens.


We also need to have community dialogue around the barriers we create to Re-Entry.  We need to have some common-sense reevaluation of privately erected barriers to housing and jobs.  Is it productive to ensure that someone incarcerated for simple possession cannot rent an apartment in many urban areas in Texas?  Is it productive to refuse to hire anyone with a felony conviction? I don’t believe that a prior felony should be a red-line barrier to these opportunities – people need to be evaluated based on the real risk THAT individual poses to the community and his or her skills and abilities.  We are preventing an entire, rather large class of people from reentering the community and therefore we are having more people dependent on the safety net, not able to model work and productive activity to their children, and not able to contribute to the economy and society. 


I think we also need to move to repeal laws that prevent people with certain convictions from getting aid to go to school. A felony conviction for drugs should not ban you from federal student aid for life – not when being a rapist doesn’t.


I am hopeful that the Texas legislature will not pass a bill prohibiting cities like Austin from banning questions about criminal history during the initial job application process.  This is common sense to allowing people to reenter. 


5.       Pass laws that allow people to expunge or seal their records:


Right now, you must have a very good outcome – a dismissal or an acquittal – to get an expunction in Texas.  You must have completed a deferred adjudication successfully to get your record sealed of that offense.


This saddles people with records of decades old convictions, even for minor stuff.  I do not think that most anybody should be judged on their convictions from twenty or thirty years ago.  People should get a second chance if they can prove through their actions that their run in with the system was a one time mistake. 


Some states, even some conservative states in the South, have much more liberal expunge/seal laws and allow people with certain kinds of convictions to expunge them after demonstrating reform and compliance with the law for a certain period after the conviction.  I do not see why Texas cannot do the same.  We are losing a wealth of talent when people with a minor conviction cannot ply their trade or contribute at a job because an employer won’t hire after looking at a background check.


Texas needs to invest in its people more and in the correcting of minor behaviors less.   Our people need opportunities, not mass incarceration.  We need to end debtors’ prisons and programs that hold people in a cycle of fines, fees, and warrants. 


We need to exercise some humility and compassion too.  After people pay their debts, we need to extend them a second chance and allow them to re-enter our greater society.  Anything else fails us as a community and them as individuals.


Merry Christmas from Stefanie Collins, Attorney at Law.  Be kind to each other this season. 


Deferred Disposition and Why that Ticket is Still Haunting You

“I thought I paid that”:  Differed Disposition and Why that Ticket Is Still Haunting You


                I handle lots of Class C misdemeanors.  The most common Class C misdemeanors are traffic tickets (moving violations): things like speeding, running a red light, etc. 

                A very common way of resolving a Class C is deferred disposition.  This is when the Defendant enters a plea of no contest but the finding of guilt is “deferred” for a period of time, often 90 or 180 days, and conditions are placed on the Defendant that must be completed by the time the deferral ends.

                The most common conditions are “no new tickets/convictions”, driver’s safety course, and payment of a special expense fee (and sometimes court costs).  This means that within the period of deferral the Defendant has to do the things asked of him/her. 

                I get a lot of calls from people who say “I thought I took care of this, but I got a letter/phone call, etc. Why?”  Most often it is because s/he entered a deferred disposition but did not abide by the conditions and complete the deferral. 

                How you can mess up a deferral:

·         “No new tickets/convictions”:  Ifyou get a new ticket or a new conviction, depending on the jurisdiction, the deferral will not be successfully completed.  Sometimes, you have to submit an affidavit swearing that you have not had any new convictions. 

·         “Special Expense Fee”:  You will always have to pay a fee (it is not technically a fine) for a deferral.  If you do not pay by the deadline, you will not successfully complete the deferral.

·         “Drivers Safety”:  If you have been told to complete a class, such as driver’s safety course, you have to do it during the deferral period AND submit proof of completion.  If you do not do it, you will not successfully complete the deferral.

If you have entered into a deferral and have not successfully completed it, typically you will be set for a “show cause” hearing in which you will be most likely (depending on the jurisdiction) be given a chance to explain why you did not complete the deferral and sometimes you will be given a short amount of time to complete and submit proof.   If you do not attend the show cause hearing, at that time, a finding of guilt will be entered and you will be convicted of the Class C. The notice for the show cause will be sent to the address the court has and usually will not be forwarded.   If you do attend the show cause and are not given more time, a conviction will be entered.  If you are given more time, and still don’t complete the deferral, a conviction will be entered.

If you get a conviction entered after you do not complete a deferral, typically a heavier fine will be assessed.  Some jurisdictions will max the fine assessed.  At that point, typically a warrant will issue as well and will not be withdrawn until you pay the fine.  If you are convicted of an offense that carries a license suspension or surcharge, or both, you will be assessed that as well.  If it is a moving violation, points will be added to your driver’s license.  The conviction will be placed on your driving record and will likely be reported to your insurance.

It is very important you understand the conditions placed on you when you enter into a deferral.  Ask questions and get it clarified by the court staff.  Calendar ALL deadlines and abide by them.  If something comes up and you cannot make a deadline, ask for an extension in writing.  It is easier to get an extension prior to the deadline than asking for time at the show cause – lots of courts are not very forgiving at the show cause.

If you are struggling with tickets that seem to keep popping up, give me a call today. 

Warrant Round Up is Here!

Some of you may have gotten “warrant round up” notices in the past several weeks. Texas’ Warrant Round Up started February 15, 2017 and it will last several weeks. 


Over three hundred agencies participate in Warrant Round Up.  Austin Municipal Court and many of the justice courts (JPs) in Travis County participate.  If you have a warrant that is not in one of these jurisdictions, you can still be arrested for your warrant during this time, but it will just be coincidental instead of part of the coordinated effort these other jurisdicitions are undertaking.


Warrant Round Up focuses mostly on Class C misdemeanor warrants.  Class C misdemeanors are the lowest level misdemeanors in Texas law and they are punishable by fine only, usually up to $500. 


However, there are some instances in which you can be taken to jail for a Class C misdemeanor.  I will deal with two here.   


I.                    Failure to Appear:  “Open” Tickets


If you receive a Class C ticket, and you fail to appear and it remains open, meaning no action has been taken since the issuance of the citation, in most jurisdictions a warrant will issue.  In some courts, you may also be charged with a subsequent Class C offense of Failure to Appear. You will have a warrant on that new Failure to Appear as well.  You can be taken to jail on these “open ticket” warrants.  What happens when you are arrested for these kinds of warrants depends on the jurisdiction.  For an Austin Municipal Court ticket, you may be given the option of pleading guilty at magistration at the jail and agreeing to pay the ticket, or you may be given a court date if you plead not guilty and told to appear in Austin Municipal Court. For Travis County tickets, you may be taken to the court of jurisdiction, which may happen the next business day depending on what time of day you get arrested.


If you have Class C tickets that are “open”, there are several options on how to dispose of those and get the warrants cleared.  Some are better than others.  Here are some of them:


1)      You can always plead no contest and agree to pay.  In Austin Municipal Court, you can go to the courthouse or satellite stations and do this without having to fear being arrested.  There are drawbacks to this option of which you should be aware.  Simply telling a court staffer you want to plead guilty and pay the ticket waives any chance you have at negotiating the fine down with a court prosecutor.  You will pay the full amount plus some extra court costs for letting it go to warrant.  Secondly, depending on the charge, there may be collateral consequences for pleading no contest.  Pleading no contest to driving while license invalid, no drivers license, or failure to maintain financial responsibility where you already have one conviction could trigger a license suspension and will cause surcharges on your license to be assessed. If you did not have an eligible driver’s license at the time you got a moving violation, and you pay it, this could trigger a DPS departmental suspension of your license because you are admitting by paying the ticket and pleading no contest that you were driving without a license. 


2)      You can post bond with the court and put your case back on the docket.  This will allow you to speak with the prosecutors at a court date and negotiate to pay less and potentially keep it off your record, avoiding any collateral consequences that could come with a conviction. This may be an expensive undertaking as bond in some courts can be double the fine.


3)      You can hire an attorney to designate on your cases and put them back on the docket.  Usually this is done by sending a letter to the court in which the attorney says s/he’s going to be responsible for the case.  Sometimes, the attorney has to post an attorney surety bond with the court.  Once this happens, the warrant will be rescinded, and the attorney will appear in court for you, speak with the prosecutor in that court, and get a deal worked out for you.  Many times this deal will allow you to keep a conviction for the Class C off your record and will be cheaper to resolve than just simply paying the ticket. I am available to do this work across the state of Texas.


II.                 Commitment Warrants – Satisfying the Judgment


If you receive a Class C ticket and there has been a judgment -- ie, you have pled no contest or been convicted at trial – you have to pay or otherwise satisfy that judgment. If you do not, a “commitment” will issue.  This is a kind of warrant.  At that point the ticket is no longer “open”.  It is in “commitment” status.  That means you cannot change your mind under most circumstances and change what you agreed to pay or even that you agreed to pay.  Its done; you simply have to fulfill your obligation as agreed.


If you’ve already pled on your citation and have agreed to pay, but you cannot, you can sometimes go back to the court and ask to be put on a payment plan for an amount you can pay per month.  Often times this agreement will be enough for the court to rescind the warrant.  In extreme circumstances, you can ask the court to find you indigent and allow you to do community service at a non profit, non religious, non political charitable organization.  If you are asking for a court to find you indigent, it is important to bring documentation to support your claim you are indigent.  Tax returns, pay stubs, or proof that you receive government assistance can help prove to the court that you are indigent. You can also get jail credit applied to these tickets if you have been to jail while these warrants were active – even if it is was not holding you or you were not arrested on these warrants specifically.  How much credit a day in jail will give you depends on the court.


It is easier by far to take care of warrants prior to hearing the knock on your door.  At that point, your only option will be to pay the ticket or go to jail for several hours or even a few days depending on the jurisdiction.  Don’t wait for that to happen. If you would like to speak with me regarding your Class C warrants, I am happy to do a free phone consultation to run down what your options are.