Texas drunken driving surcharges meet economic reality

Mimi Coffey wants to scrap Texas' Driver Responsibility Program.

If she doesn't accomplish the task first, the Texas Legislature appears poised to do so.

The Fort Worth defense attorney has filed a federal lawsuit asserting that the surcharges assessed through the program are unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment.

The act, established in 2003, violates the double-jeopardy clause in the U.S. Constitution that prohibits the government from imposing more than one punishment for a single offense, Coffey said.

Under the law, people convicted of drunken driving are required to pay surcharges of $1,000 to $2,000 a year for three years on a first conviction. A second conviction carries a surcharge of at least $2,000 for three years. Driving without insurance could result in a surcharge of up to $250 for three years.

The charges are levied in addition to the punitive measures of a court of law and collected through the Department of Public Safety.

An inability or unwillingness to pay the surcharges results in a driver's license suspension.

"The surcharges are outrageous," Coffey said. "You can't get blood out of a turnip; people just can't pay them."

Coffey said the program is also causing a logjam in the court system. Many defendants would rather take their chances at trial than accept plea agreements because of the high fees. Neither prosecutors nor judges have the authority to waive the surcharges.

The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.

The law has generated increasingly negative attention during the economic downturn. Critics of the law say it is illogical, causing a grim cycle of financial hardship for people who are struggling to get back on their feet after an already very costly conviction. A first conviction carries up to two years in jail and a fine up to $2,000, plus court costs and lawyers' fees.

"You can't deprive property without due process," Coffey said. "I think it's time somebody do something about this."

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