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Jo Clifton is the Politics Editor for the Austin Monitor.
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Friday, May 22, 2020 by Jo Clifton
City to exit driver’s license hold contract with DPS
City Council voted unanimously Thursday to direct the city manager to discontinue the city’s participation in a state Department of Public Safety program that places holds on driver’s licenses when people fail to pay or miss payments on class C misdemeanors, such as speeding tickets or driving without insurance.
Council took action after hearing from advocates for low-income people who said those who are unable to renew their driver’s licenses under the OmniBase program “often become trapped in a cycle of debt when they must continue to drive in order to resolve their tickets and provide for their families, thereby risking more tickets and holds for driving without a valid license,” according to language from the Council resolution.
The item was sponsored by Council Judicial Committee members Jimmy Flannigan, Natasha Harper-Madison, Greg Casar and Delia Garza. Garza described passage of the resolution as “one more important step” by Council “to help our most vulnerable population back on their feet.”
The city has been participating in the OmniBase program for many years and in the past the contract has renewed automatically. However, this year the agreement between the city and DPS will expire on July 16 and will not be renewed.
Council heard testimony from two lawyers who explained that many people have trouble understanding the program and how OmniBase prevents them from renewing their licenses even when they have signed an agreement with the court and started making payments.
According to Emily Gerrick of the Texas Fair Defense Project and Mary Mergler, director of the Criminal Justice Project at Texas Appleseed, data comparing collection rates in jurisdictions that use OmniBase with jurisdictions that do not show there is no apparent relationship between use of the program and fine collections.
One woman who has experienced years of trouble because of her inability to pay a fine for failure to have auto insurance wrote Council a letter describing her difficulties. Gomez, who asked that the Austin Monitor not reveal her first name, said she got a ticket in 2009 for driving without insurance. Her husband had lost his job, she said, and she had to make a choice between buying food and paying for the insurance.
She wrote in her letter, “That was the first time I hadn’t been able to pay insurance, but in that month I got a ticket. I couldn’t pay it, so I got more fees on top of it and a license hold. After that, I got another ticket because I couldn’t get my license and I still had to drive. After that I just became trapped in a hole I just couldn’t climb out of.
“Not having a license makes you live in fear. At the time I got my first ticket, I wasn’t living near any public transit. I had to drive in order to get to work and support my family. It made everything incredibly stressful. I remember driving to HEB to get my sick child baby Tylenol, and being terrified the whole time of being pulled over.”
She said the thing that bothers her the most about being unable to pay and not understanding how to resolve the situation was that she passed up a number of jobs because they required a driver’s license.
Gomez was finally able to resolve the situation with help from a lawyer at the Texas Fair Defense Project. At this point, she said even though she has finally gotten the hold released, since DPS is not open she still does not have her driver’s license. However, she said she was hopeful and is ready to get her license back as soon as the DPS office opens.
The most recent data Mergler has for the total number of holds from Austin is from 2018, when there were 5,252 new OmniBase holds placed by the Austin Municipal Court. In addition to not renewing the contract, Mergler said, the city must proactively reach out to DPS to tell them to release all the remaining holds.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.