Austin rethinks whether to send poor people to jail
for unpaid traffic fines they can't afford
Caught in a cycle of traffic tickets and expensive surcharges, Valerie Gonzales kept driving, even as she amassed fines of more than $4,500 she had no hope of paying.
The 31-year-old mother did not have a driver’s license but said she needed to get her five children to school. She had to get herself and her husband to work. Her family sometimes lived in her car, out of motels or at a homeless shelter. There were bills, medical expenses and everyday necessities they were struggling to afford.
But 12 hours after she was booked on traffic warrants last summer, an Austin municipal judge told her she would have to serve 45 days in Travis County Jail if she didn’t come up with at least $1,000 that day. She said the judge did not ask about her income or dependents; he did not ask whether she could settle the bill with community service; and he did not consider reducing her debt due to her inability to pay.
Her story became one of the first to highlight what civil rights advocates have called unlawful practices at the Austin Municipal Court when she and other mothers filed a lawsuit in October alleging city judges were illegally jailing poor residents who did not have the funds to settle their court fines.
A federal judge in March tossed out the case, finding judges are not municipal policymakers and that the city cannot be sued for their rulings. But the lawsuit has set in motion efforts to examine and change procedures within Austin’s municipal courts.
City leaders and civil rights lawyers say it’s not a matter of avoiding further litigation: They want Austin to be among the first communities to tackle what has become a national problem.
Texas law and two unanimous Supreme Court decisions prohibit courts from jailing people because they cannot afford to pay their fines. But many cities have ordinances on municipal court fees that violate those orders. Others give full discretion on payment collection to judges who skirt the law.
Courts across the nation are facing lawsuits over municipal court policies that plaintiffs say have turned jails into modern-day debtors prisons. The issue is brewing in political forums, among academia, in courtrooms and in civic conversations at every level of government.
Speaking at the University of Texas in February, Vanita Gupta, the Justice Department’s top civil rights prosecutor, said excessive jailing over municipal fines has been a persistent problem in many of the nation’s 6,500 municipal courts. And the issue fueled racial unrest in Ferguson, Mo., where protests raged after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man in 2014.
In a rare letter penned in March, Gupta called on chief judges and court administrators across the country to root out those unconstitutional policies and practices.
Their harm “can be profound,” she said. “Individuals may confront escalating debt; face repeated, unnecessary incarceration for nonpayment despite posing no threat to the community; lose their jobs; and become trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape.”
Stuck in a loop
Gonzales said she had long battled her rising ticket fees. She was stuck in a loop all too familiar to poor residents: She was ticketed for driving without a valid license but was unable to obtain a license until she paid off all her fines.
Sheriff’s deputies once arrested her on traffic warrants at the pediatric clinic where she worked as a medical assistant. Another time they arrested her outside of her children’s school. She would ask judges for extensions to pay or a chance to work off the fines with community service.
But the extensions were not long enough, she said, and she struggled to find the time for the community service hours in addition to working multiple jobs.
“Other expenses would come up, and I would fall behind,” she said. “I felt like I was in a mess I could not untangle.”
She was last arrested after a crash in East Austin. Her cousin had been driving. But the officer at the scene also ran Gonzales’ name through a law enforcement database, discovered the outstanding tickets and took her to jail.
READ: Valerie Gonzales' opinion piece, 'Why do courts fine poor people for being poor?'
Over nine years, she had accumulated 16 tickets: two for speeding, two for minor traffic infractions and 12 for driving without a valid license, driving without insurance and failing to register her car. She would have sat in jail for more than a month had a lawyer from the Texas Fair Defense Project not reached out to her on the fourth day and represented her in court for free, Gonzales said.
The Austin-based nonprofit had been researching Class C ticket debt over the past year and was investigating several Texas jurisdictions that waived fees and fines seldom, if ever. They found that, over five years, Austin’s Municipal Court had offered such waivers only 11 times — a concerning number for a city with a relatively high poverty rate.
Lawyers started interviewing Travis County inmates, like Gonzales, and found other mothers in similar situations. Along with the University of Texas School of Law Civil Rights Clinic and Houston-based law firm Susman Godfrey LL, the Texas Fair Defense Project sued the city, alleging it had violated the rights of such plaintiffs to counsel and equal protection under the law.
Their amended lawsuit filed in December centered on Karian Harris, a single mother of seven children who had been drowning in ticket debt for 14 years. Harris, 35, lost her job as a housekeeper in December 2010 when she was jailed while pregnant. Her financial struggles worsened, and she was jailed again in June 2013.
“I was scared and crying,” Harris recalled of the latest arrest. “I was just thinking I was going to miss my kids.”
Austin evaluates its policies
The civil rights lawsuit against Austin has opened up a broader conversation about municipal court policies in a city with limited public transit and mental health services. City officials are working with a coalition of advocates, including Texas Appleseed, the Texas American Civil Liberties Union and the Equal Justice Center.
The court handles Class C misdemeanor cases, including traffic and city ordinance violations. It does offer payment plans and community service “if the defendant qualifies,” according to city records. But if people don’t pay their fines — which increase if they miss court dates — they can be jailed for a “failure to pay” charge.
In an emailed statement, a city spokesman said an updated court report shows Austin judges have granted nearly 6,000 waivers since 2015. “However, Judge (Sherry) Statman, presiding judge of the Austin Municipal Court, is always interested in improving its operations and thinks that the national discussion on these topics is very healthy,” he said.
City Council Member Greg Casar said he has met with Statman to review the court’s procedures. He and fellow Council member Ann Kitchen also have requested the city auditor’s office to analyze how municipal judges are applying the rules, such as how often they give people alternatives to incarceration and whether those alternatives are feasible for poor residents.
In a parallel effort, the Austin Public Safety Committee is expected to hear testimony on the issue on Monday.
“Even if a court finds that our practices are legal, it doesn’t mean they are the right ones,” Casar said. “We need to investigate to figure out where people aren’t being treated as they should.”
Civil rights advocates want to ensure judges determine whether people have the ability to pay their fees and that they don’t automatically convert fines into jail time. Among their concerns are whether the rules are disproportionately targeting black residents. When the Texas Fair Defense Project was investigating the city, it found 27 percent of those jailed by the city in July 2015 were African-American, though black residents make up 8 percent of Austin’s population.
“This is an opportunity for City Council to lead on a hot topic nationally,” said Rebecca Bernhardt, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project. “They are in a great position to be an innovator.”
San Antonio a model
Municipal judges said they have a difficult balance to weigh: They must give people fair options but also hold them accountable and interpret laws and policies as they stand. Ultimately, they said, the solutions will have to come through a multilateral approach that includes police and lawmakers.
At the state level, for example, bipartisan support has led to calls for reform of the Texas driver responsibility program, which imposes some of the toughest surcharges on drivers.
Meanwhile, El Paso and Amarillo have been sued over their policies, while a report commissioned by Mayor Sylvester Turner in Houston found that the city, like Austin, rarely reduces or waives payment.
Amid the complaints, San Antonio has emerged as a national model. Judge John Bull said the city moved away from imprisonment in 2007 when Bexar County was grappling with jail overcrowding. Even during warrant roundups, the city now focuses on helping residents resolve their fees, giving them the opportunity to work out a payment plan without the fear of arrest. And residents can now meet with municipal judges at kiosks in grocery stores throughout the city.
Bull said judges no longer commit people to jail for traffic citations, and carefully weigh the amount of community service they offer, as well as often giving poor residents generous “jail credit” for the amount of time they spend in the booking process if they are arrested.
“Contrary to fears, there were no spikes in traffic crimes, and the city did not lose revenue,” Bull said.
In 2014, San Antonio’s Municipal Court dropped $327,514 in misdemeanor fines because the offenders were too poor to pay, criminal justice experts said. That same year, Austin’s Municipal Court reported that it didn’t reduce or waive any fines for that reason.
At the North Austin offices of the Texas Fair Defense Project this month, Valerie Gonzales said she is still paying fees and has not obtained her driver’s license.
“I can’t be at ease,” she said. “I don’t know when I am going to be pulled over next.”