texas

Austin Municipal Court: The Difference Between "Commitments" and "Warrants"

Austin Municipal Court:  The Difference Between “Commitment” and “Warrant”

 

I get many, many calls about fixing tickets entered into the “Failure to Appear” database, formally called the OMNI database, because these tickets will inevitably jeopardize a person’s ability to drive legally in Texas.  Tickets entered into the database will not suspend your driving privileges, but it will keep you from renewing your license if you have one or prevent you from getting a regular license if you have not yet tested and been licensed. 

 

I will talk about Austin Municipal Court here, but the advice is generally applicable to all Class C tickets in the OMNI database. 

 

If you have tickets in OMNI from Austin Municipal Court, you should search for your ticket at www.austintexas.gov/department/municipal-court.  Look at what it says next to the ticket.  If it says “commitment”, it means you have already entered a plea on the ticket of “no contest”, been convicted, and have agreed to pay it. 

 

The problem with this is that in most cases, it is very difficult to re-negotiate an outcome on the case.  You are in most instances stuck with what you agreed upon and you are going to have to pay it before it gets taken out of OMNI.  If the conviction came with surcharges or a driver’s license suspension, you are probably stuck with it. 

 

A lawyer can do very little on these tickets except perhaps file a writ (that is extraordinary and you should not count on it being done or it being successful). Hiring a lawyer may really be a waste of resources.  What you should do is go down to the “walk in” or mitigation docket from 8 am to 11 am or 1pm to 3 pm at Austin Municipal Court and speak to the judge about a manageable payment plan. 

 

Other courts outside of City of Austin may not call these “commitments” but the outcome is the same – if you agreed to pay, you got convicted, and it’s a done deal.  To get them out of OMNI you have to pay.  Sometimes in small jurisdictions, where the procedures are not as tight, the judge may directly renegotiate with you but this is just a random occurrence that you should not count on. 

 

If your tickets say “warrant” next to them, there is more hope.  A “warrant” means that you never entered a plea and you can still avoid a conviction.  Do not go running down to the court and agree to pay.  Either hire an attorney to take over, or go down to court and ask to speak with the prosecutor.  You may not be allowed to do this without posting bond due to missing your first court date, but a judge may allow you to see a prosecutor.  It’s just going to depend on who is on the bench.  I have also seen judges offer deferred disposition at the walk -in docket.  However, in Austin, the ticket will need to be disposed of AND paid, if anything is owed, before it is taken out of OMNI.

 

So, to sum up, there are two ways things can end up in OMNI – either you agreed to pay and didn’t, which limits what you can do to get it out of OMNI, or you just never showed up and you have never entered a plea.  The second is much better and helps you avoid a multitude of collateral consequences.

The Texas Legislature Should Abolish the Drivers Responsibility Program

Drivers Responsibility Program:  Time for the Legislature to Abolish It

 

I would like to take a moment to ask everyone reading this to make a call to their Texas House representative to ask s/he to support House Bill 67, which would abolish the Drivers Responsibility Program, also known as the surcharge program. 

 

This bill has had devastating consequences to poor and lower income Texans. 

 

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition has found that the surcharge program has had the following consequences on Texans:

 

·         There are 1.3 million Texans driving on a suspended license because of surcharges.  These Texans have a harder time insuring their vehicles and when they get in accidents the other driver is left with no possibility of recovery for the damages. 

·         More than 50% of the Texans with suspended licenses have lost jobs or been denied jobs because of their suspended licenses, which hurts our state’s tax base and hurts their families.

·         Texas counties are left paying for enforcement of Driving While License Invalid cases – in some counties 1 in 5 misdemeanor cases are DWLI.  This costs all of us.

 

This is just some of the reasons why this program needs to be abolished.  It is a regressive tax on the poorest Texans.  It is a consequence assumed when unsophisticated Texans just “pay” a ticket for Failure to Maintain Financial Responsibility or DWLI instead of asking for a deferral.  It is a second penalty when people have already paid the fine allowed under the law.  It is fundamentally unfair and unjust.

 

Lets put some pressure on the Texas Legislature to abolish this essentially regressive tax on the people who can least afford it – one that brings with it a whole set of economic consequences. 

License Suspensions for Drug Convictions

Driver’s License Suspension for Drug Convictions

Texas Transportation Code Section 521 governs Texas driver’s licenses. It is available online on several different sites for everyone to read. It governs suspensions as well as regulates how and when licenses are issued.

The Texas Legislature has amended Section 521 to include a suspension of a Texas driver’s license for all drug convictions. This can include all manufacturing and delivering convictions, all possession convictions including marijuana convictions, and possession of drug paraphernalia convictions. If you receive a conviction for any drug charge, your driver’s license is going to be suspended by DPS for 180 days (6 months).

If you do not have a license, your privileges are still going to be suspended and you will be denied issuance of a license for 180 days.

You are usually eligible for an occupational license duing this time to continue to drive for work and other necessary tasks.

If you receive a drug conviction in another state, and it is reported to Texas DPS, you will receive a 180 suspension. It does not matter that it was not a Texas conviction.

You will only be suspended if you are convicted of the drug charge. If your case is dismissed, if the charge is amended to a non drug charge, or if you receive deferred adjudication you will not be suspended.

If you are convicted of an “attempted” drug charge, such as a Class A misdemeanor attempted negotiated down from a felony possession charge, you may or may not be suspended. If it is reported by the Clerk under the statute that governs attempted drug charges, you will be suspended. If it is reported under the statute that governs general attempted crimes, which is under the Penal Code instead of the Health and Safety Code, you may not receive a suspension. Your laywer does not control how it is reported and this cannot be negotiated with the prosecution. You will need to check with DPS in a few weeks or a month to discover if you have received a suspension.

In order to get your license back after the 180 days have run, you will be required to get take a Texas certified 15 hour drug offender education class. You can take that class as early as the conviction is entered, but the 180 days will still have to run before you can get your license back. Even after the 180 days has run, if you have not taken the class, you will not be allowed to reinstate your license until you do.

Travis County Counseling and Education Services (https://www.traviscountytx.gov/counseling-education) offers one of these classes. You will need a referral form, which you can get online or from your lawyer in court. You do not need the assessment unless told otherwise. You can simply sign up for the 15 hour class. It will cost $80. If you cannot afford it, you can ask your lawyer to ask the judge to waive the counseling and education services fee with an order. You will need to take this order and the referral form with you to enroll in the class. The judge may inquire as to your income before s/he signs the order to determine if you are entitled to it. This order will only be accepted bythe county. It will not be accepted by a private entity licensed to administer the classes. An online class may be acceptable as long as it is certified.

You will have to pay a reinstatement fee of $100 to get the license back. That can be paid during or after the 180 days, but you will not be eligible to drive until it is. If you get an occupational, you will have to pay the reinstatement to get the occupational processed and issued by DPS.

You will not get a surcharge assessed for a drug conviction.

I often encounter clients who do not want to or feel they cannot take the 15 hour class in exchange for a dismissal of a marijuana or other misdemeanor drug charge. I think it is far better to take the class in exchange for a dismissal, which keeps your criminal history clear, than having to take it afterward to get your license back. You have to take the class either way, and doing it prior to the conviction may help keep the conviction off your record. If your lawyer asks you to do the class, the best thing to do is listen to your lawyer and take the class.

Surcharge Waiver Program

Surcharges and the Indigency/Incentive Program

You may be struggling with surcharges on your license assessed by the Department of Public Safety under the Driver Responsibility Program. If you cannot pay these surcharges, you should consider applying for the Indigency or Incentive programs under which surcharges can be waived.

The Indigency Program is a program created by the Texas Legislature that allows surcharges to be reduced to as low as zero based on a person’s income. It is available for people who earn up to 125% of the federal poverty standard as defined annually by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Your family size and number of dependents will be taken into consideration when determining if you meet the standards.

The Incentive Program is also a program based on income. It is available for people who earn more than 125% of the federal poverty standard and up to 300% of the federal poverty standard. Under this program your surcharges will be reduced. You will be obligated to pay the lower balance in six months and during this time you will be put in forebearance and your surcharge suspension will be lifted.

To apply for these programs, you should go to the following website:https://www.txsurchargeonline.com/indigence.aspx. You can print out the applicaton. You should fill it out and sign it and have it notorized by a Notary Public. You will have to provide proof of the income you are claiming you have, such as an income tax return, pay stubs, or a social security award letter. If you do not provide proof of income, your application will not be processed and the surcharge suspensions will not be lifted.

You should make sure your address is current with Municipal Services Bureau, the private company who administers collections of surcharges, before or concurrent to filling out your surcharge waiver programs. Otherwise, mail asking for additional information or even letting you know that you have been approved for the program will be sent to the wrong address. You can fax a change of address to MSB at 1-800-232-6409. If you are not receiving your surcharge notices in the mail, that is a good sign your address with MSB is not current and you should do something to change it.

I as always am happy to answer any questions about surcharges, the waiver programs, and the application process.

Surcharges: What are they and what can you do?

If you are struggling with surcharges, the following may be able to help:

The Texas Driver’s Responsibility Program: What You Need to Know

I. Overview

One reason your driving privileges may be suspended is because of unpaid surchages.

The Texas Legislature created the Drivers Responsibility Program in 2003. This authorized DPS to assess surcharges on Texans’ driver’s licenses for certain convictions or for a certain number of points on the license. Once this surcharge is assessed, it must be paid in order for the driver to retain his driving privileges. It was thought at the time that this program would do two things: 1) incentivize good driving and decrease traffic accidents, and 2) raise money to fund trauma centers across the state. Ninety-nine percent of the money raised goes to the Texas Trauma Center fund and the General Revenue fund. One percent goes to DPS to administer the program. The money raised through the surcharge collection has fallen short of what the Legislature anticipated and the program has drawn a high level of criticism. There have been efforts by policy groups to abolish the program, but these have failed to get traction in the Texas House.

Surcharges are assessed by DPS when a driver either has a conviction for an offense reported to DPS by a court in which the conviction was entered or when a driver is assessed six points or more on their license.

II. Types of Surcharges

A. Convictions-based

There are three offenses for which a conviction reported to DPS will cause a surcharge to be assessed. These are Driving While Intoxicated, Driving while License Invalid, and Failure to Maintain Financial Responsibility. These offenses must have taken place after September 1, 2003. If a driver is convicted of one of these offenses after September 1, 2003 but the offense took place prior to September 1, 2003 no surcharges should be assessed.

1) Driving While Intoxicated: If a driver is either found guilty at trial or pleads guilty to DWI, the court will report this to DPS and a surcharge will be assessed on the driver’s license. This surcharge is $1000 per year for three years if the DWI was a first conviction for DWI and the alcohol testing result, if any, was was below .15 (g/210L). This surcharge is also assessed for first time convictions for intoxication assault or manslaughter. The surcharge is $1500 per year for three years if it is a 2nd or more DWI or intoxication offense such as intoxication assault or manslaughter. It is $2000 a year for three years if a conviction for DWI or intoxication assault or manslaughter and the blood alochol result was .16 or greater.

2) Driving While License Invalid: If a driver is convicted of driving while license invalid/suspended/revoked the surcharge is $250 a year for three years. This applies to Class C misdemeanor convictions as well, so for example if a driver receives a ticket for DWLI and pays the fine, thereby entering a plea of no contest, a surcharge will be assessed once this is reported to DPS.

For convictions of DWLI where the driver has no license or a commercial license or where the license is expired, or where a person is convicted of driving with an endorsement violation (driving without eyeglasses where they are required by DPS, for example), the surcharge is $100 a year for three years.

3) Failure to Maintain Financial Responsibility: When a driver is convicted of failure to maintain financial responsibility, the surcharge is $250 a year for three years. This conviction may also carry a license suspension if it is not the first conviction on the driver’s record. This suspension may be rescinded if the driver provides proof to DPS that he or she had insurance at the time of the alleged offense, but even if that proof is provided, the surcharge will not be waived.

These surcharges will be applied if a Texas driver receives a conviction for one of these three things out of state.

These surcharges will always be assessed for these convictions regardless of the driver’s eligibility to drive or even his possession of a driver’s license. Even if a driver has never been licensed in any state, DPS will still assess these surcharges and the driver will have to pay them in order to ever gain possession of eligibility to drive legally and test for a driver’s license.

B. Points-based

DPS will add “points” to a person’s driving record for each moving violation of which a driver is convicted. A moving violation is a traffic violation in which driving is involved, such as failure to stop at a stop sign or speeding. Things like expired registration do not count as moving violations.

For every moving violation, in Texas or out of state that is reported to DPS two points is added. For every moving violation in which there is a crash related to the violation, three points is added.

For every six points a driver receives, DPS assesses a surcharge of $100 every year the point total is six. For every point over that, DPS adds $25 dollars in surcharge every year.

III. Administration of the Program

DPS contracts with a private entity called the Municipal Services Bureau to collect the surcharges and manage the accompanying Indigency/Incentive Programs. The entity has a website where information about a driver’s surcharge accounty can be found: txsurchargeonline.com.

Surcharge notices are mailed to the last known address DPS had for the driver. If a driver is not receiving his or her notices, it is most likely because the address used by MSB is out of date.

MSB is also known to call drivers to collect surcharges.

Surcharges are assessed every year for three years and then broken down into monthly installments plus a $2.50 service fee per month. A driver must pay the monthly installment each month. Failure to do so will trigges a suspension of the license until the drive is current on the payments again.

There is no time-triggered forgiveness. A surcharge assessed in 2004 willn ot be forgiven at any point unless a driver applies for the Indigency or Incentive Program.

IV. Indigency and Incentive Program

A driver who meets certain income-based criteria may apply to have some or all of his surcharges waived. These programs can only be used to reduce surcharges billed on or after September 1, 2011.

A. The Indigency Program

For drivers earning 125% or less of the federal poverty level, surcharges can be reduced so that the amount owed no less than 10% of that originally owed. The total can be no more than $250. The driver is then put in forbearance for 6 months and the driving privileges, barring any other reasons for suspension or any other bar to renewal, will be restored during that period.

Drivers will be required to provide proof of income when applying for the Program. This can be pay stubs, income tax returns, or proof of receipt of income based government benefits such as Food Stamps or TANF. It is very important that the driver’s address is up to date with DPS and MSB, as any correspondence regarding the driver’s application for the Program will be sent to the last known address, including requests for further documentation of income.

B. The Incentive Program

For drivers earning between 126% and 300% of the federal poverty level, surcharges can be reduced to 50% of the amount owed. As with the Indigency Program, the amount owed will be put in forebearnce for 6 months, and barring any other reasons for suspension or denial of renewal, driving privileges will be restored during that period.

V. Surcharge Waiver Orders

The only way to get surcharges completely waived is for the judge presiding at the time of the conviction to sign an order telling DPS to waive the surcharges that would normally be assessed.

This can only be done on motion of the defendant’s attorney. In the motion, the attorney must allege and provide proof that the defendant is indigent and only makes up to 125% of the federal income level. Providing proof of receipt of benefit of governement benefits is one way to prove up the client’s indigency.

In Travis County, it is very common for judges to sign these orders if the defendant has a court appointed defense attorney, as the judges deem these clients to have already proved up indigency.

VI. Conclusion

Surcharges can be a huge burden on the driver with an average income. It is important that if you are accused of a crime that carries a surcharge, it is important you consult with an attorney who can structure the result in the case so that a surcharge can be avoided. There may be ways to get a case dismissed or a conviction on the case deferred, either of which will allow the driver to avoid any surcharge on that case. If you are a driver who has wracked up many moving violation convictions on your driving record, it may be important to seek representation in order to avoid any further convictions if you are charged with a moving violation again so that you do not hit the point limit and have a surcharge assessed.

I am happy to talk to anyone charged with a crime that carries a surcharge or is close to hitting the six point limit. I am also available to guide clients through their applications for the Indigency and Incentive Programs as part of a package to help ineligible drivers get back into eligibile status.

Failure to Appears in OMNI Database

If you are struggling with failure to appear entries that prevent you from renewing your license, you may find the following helpful:

The Texas OmniBase Program: What You Need to Know

I. Overview

Texas Transportation Code Chapter 706 authorizes the Department of Public Safety to create the Texas OmniBase.

If a receipient of a Class C ticket fails to appear in court on that ticket as ordered, or if a he/she enters a plea on a ticket, agrees to pay a certain amount, and fails to satisfy that judgment, the court may have the ability to enter that failure into the Texas OmniBase.

If a driver has an entry in the OmniBase, that driver will not be able to renew his driver’s license once it expires. If the driver is not yet licensed, he will not be able to get a regular driver’s license until the entry is cleared. He will be obligated to take action on that ticket in order to get it cleared from the OmniBase so that he can renew or test for a license.

If a driver has an entry in the OmniBase, his license will not be suspended. Instead, the driver will only be blocked from renewing or testing until the entries in the OmniBase are cleared. That means that he will not be charged a reinstatement fee by DPS in order to renew his license once the entries in the OmniBase are cleared.

II. Entries in the OmniBase

In order for a court to enter failures to appear and failures to satisfy judgments in the OmniBase, the “political subdivision” – ie, the county or the city in which the court has jurisdiction – must have a contract with DPS to do so. The political subdivision will have to pay a certain fee to DPS to have this contract. There is an incentive for political subdivisions to have this contract as it provides them some leverage on drivers to take care of open citations in their courts and thereby collect revenue generated by those citations.

If a driver receives a ticket in a jurisdiction that has a contract with DPS, that court can report a failure to appear or a failure to pay as agreed to DPS. Once that entry is made, the driver will not be able to renew his driver’s license through DPS until one of several things happens to that ticket. If the driver failed to appear and has never entered a plea, then the driver must either a) be acquitted on the ticket at trial, b) get the ticket dismissed by the prosecutor in the court, or c) enter a plea and pay the judgment on the ticket of fine and court costs. If the driver has entered a plea and failed to satisfy the judgment, then the driver must a) perfect the appeal of the judgment or b) satisfy the judgment.

In some jurisdictions, if a driver has an open ticket on which he has never entered a plea, the court may require the driver to post a bond – either cash or surety – to get that ticket back on the docket so that the driver can negotiate a plea deal on the case. An attorney may be able to help a driver post a surety bond. Some courts will withdraw the entry in the OmniBase once a bond is posted with payment of the OmniBase fee; some will not.

The statute also requires DPS to clear OmniBase entries if they are in error or if the record of the ticket has been destroyed by the courts.

III. Administrative Fee

The statute requires drivers who have an entry in the OmniBase to pay a $30 administrative fee to get the entry cleared from the OmniBase. This is in addition to the actions the driver must take to close out the ticket. The only time this does not have to be paid is when the driver is acquitted at trial of the underlying offense that is the basis of the ticket.

If the driver takes action to resolve the ticket entered into the OmniBase, that driver will still be denied renewal until the $30 administrative fee is paid.

The administrative fee is collected by the court that has jurisdiction over the ticket and is deposited in the political subdivision’s treasury. The political subdivision is allowed to deposit the fee in an interest bearing account and is entitled to keep that interest. After it is collected, $20 is sent to the Texas state comptroller and $10 is kept by the political subdivision. Of the $20 that is sent to the comptroller, $10 is given back to DPS to administer the OmniBase program.

IV. Pitfalls of Resolving OmniBase Entries

Drivers may be tempted to simply pay tickets in order to be able to renew their driver’s licenses. To simply pay a ticket without negotiating a result with the prosecutor that keeps the ticket off your driving record means that the driver has entered a plea of no contest and will receive a conviction for this offense. This could have negative consequences on that driver’s ability to continue driving legally.

One way a conviction may have negative ramifications is causing a suspension of the driver’s priviliges to drive. This could happen for many reasons. If the driver didn’t have a driver’s license or was under a suspension already when he received the citation, and if the citation is a moving violation, pleading no contest will cause what’s called a “departmental suspension” because a no contest plea requires the driver to admit to driving at the time he got the ticket. This admission to driving illegally triggers a departmental suspension by DPS. For example, if a driver is not driving legally, gets a ticket for running a stop sign, and enters a plea of no contest, he has admitted to the court and DPS by entering that plea that he was indeed driving during a period in which he was not legally eligible to drive. The Department will move to suspend the driver’s license. If this happens, the driver can request a hearing in his or her county of residence in front of the Justice Court or Municipal Court to challenge the suspension. The driver must request this hearing within 20 days of the notice of suspension. DPS will send that notice to the last known address of the driver.

Another way entering a plea of no contest to a moving violation in the OmniBase can be detrimental is that it will add two points to the driver’s license. If the moving violation causes a traffic accident, three points are assessed. If the driver gets six points on his license, he will be assessed a surcharge of $100 every year the point total is six plus $25 for every additional point.

Another way entering a plea of no contest to a moving violation can have negative consequences is by adding moving violations to the driver’s record. If a driver has four moving violations in twelve months, or seven violations in twenty four months, the Department will move to suspend his license. The driver is entitled to a hearing to challenge the suspension. He must request it in 20 days of receiving notice of the suspension.

Pleading no contest to certain citations will result in an automatic suspension in which the driver is not entitled to a hearing. Entering a plea of no contest to DWLI will result in an automatic suspension. If a driver pleads no contest to a citation for failure to maintain financial responsibility (not having insurance) and the driver already has more than one violation for this offense, the driver’s privileges will be suspended automatically and the driver will be required to provide proof to the Department of possession of an SR-22 (high liability) insurance policy for two years.

These kinds of negative consequences can be avoided with the help of a good lawyer who knows how to navigate Class C tickets and negotiate resolutions that do not result in convictions on the driver’s record.

V. Conclusion

It is important to check the OmniBase at www.texasfailureto appear.comprior to the expiration of your license with enough time to rectify any entries in the database before your license is expired and you cannot renew.

If you check the OmniBase and see entries there, consulting with a lawyer can be helpful. Attorneys can post surety bonds and get cases back on the docket so that beneficial resolutions can be negotiated for the driver that will not result in suspension of driver’s privileges.