Dallas Area Courts Cracking Down on Unpaid Tickets as Municipal Deficits Rise
Aggressive Enforcement Adds Financial Strain to Already-Struggling Texans
Economic strain on local governments is forcing municipal courts in the DFW metro area and around the state to ramp up attempts to collect revenue from fines associated with tickets arising from speeding, parking violations, disorderly conduct and more. Cities are not only getting more aggressive in their efforts to receive payments, they are also finding more creative and cost-effective ways to do so.
In recent years, municipalities have not only steadily increased the number of tickets written, they have worked hard to make sure that the people who get the tickets actually pay the fines imposed upon them. Traditional collection methods, setting a court date and issuing bench warrants if payments are not made, have not been altogether successful. Now city administrators and municipal court directors throughout Texas are thinking outside the box to find new ways of convincing people to pay up. These include:
- Publishing a “Top 10” of people with outstanding fines for Class C misdemeanors
- Allowing payment plans for higher fines
- Using collection agencies
- Calling those who haven’t made a timely payment
- Sending reminder letters that payments are due
- Offering alternate payment options; payments can now be mailed in, paid over the phone, online or at satellite offices (reducing the wait time and frustration that keep many people away from paying their fines in person)
- Offering non-interest-bearing extensions of payment dates for those in need
- Prohibiting renewal of drivers’ licenses and/or vehicle registrations
- Doubling fines if a warrant must be issued
- Negotiating settlements
Millions of Dollars in Fines Are Unpaid
In the Fort Worth area alone, roughly 400,000 of tickets are issued for Class C misdemeanors, traffic violations and parking citations annually. Recent data shows that nearly 850,000 tickets were handed out since January of 2008, and 125,000 of them resulted in the issuance of bench warrants. Considering the amount of uncollected fees, fines and court costs associated with those unpaid tickets and the warrants themselves, the city is waiting on nearly $80 million of payments. The situation is almost as dire in nearby Arlington; that city has over 100,000 active warrants stemming from unpaid citations.
The economic impact of non-payment of these bills extends beyond the city governments themselves; the state of Texas receives a portion of all recovered fees, so they are adding fuel to the fire, pressing cities to make more aggressive collection efforts. To see just how much of an interest the state has in pursuing unpaid fines, look to Fort Worth: of the $60 million in municipal court payments collected since October of 2007, $19 million went to pad the state budget; another $16 million (of a total $42 million collected) came from Arlington.
Ignoring Tickets Will Not Make Them Go Away
Some people choose, out of principal or stubbornness, to not pay tickets. Some are financially unable to pay fines and court fees – this is especially true in a bad economy – and hope they will be able to make them in the future. Others are confused by the options available for resolution. To use traffic-related citations as an example, people who have been issued a ticket have the right to:
- Plead guilty and pay the ticket
- Pay the fine and attend a defensive driving course; this will keep the ticket from appearing on their driving record
- Plead not guilty and argue their case at trial
- Request a payment plan
- Ask about working off the fine by performing community service
- Consult with a caseworker about the possibility of “sitting out” the fine in jail (equivalent to $100 in fines each day, with a maximum time of eight days)
Regardless of your reason for not paying the fines associated with any of the nearly 3,000 citable offenses handled by Texas’ municipal courts, ignoring them will not make them go away.
What Are the Penalties for Non-Payment?
Even a single unpaid ticket could potentially result in:
- A bench warrant for your arrest
- Accrual of interest on your fine
- Additional court or filing fees
- A blemish on your driving record (for traffic-related citations)
- You being prohibited from renewing your driver’s license or vehicle registration
- Intervention of a collection agency (and the often-harassing ways in which they attempt to recover past due amounts).
What Should You Do to Minimize the Consequences?
Many people assume that having a citation issued to them means that they have been “found guilty” of something – that is not the case. You have a right, under Texas state law, to challenge a ticket. Your chances of success in doing so, however, are greatly improved when you work with an experienced advocate who has in-depth knowledge of the municipal court system.
Having a lawyer handle citations on your behalf can protect your rights, your hard-earned money, your driver’s license and even your freedom. Attorneys who focus their practice on resolving traffic tickets and other citations on behalf of their clients have the knowledge and skill necessary to navigate the often-confusing legal system. They educate you about your options (paying the ticket, community service, etc.), examine your specific situation to determine what the best course of action for you is, and then work to resolve the matter in the most beneficial way possible. Where you might not be comfortable approaching a judge to seek a payment plan or negotiating with the prosecutor to reduce or drop charges, an experienced attorney can make an effective argument on your behalf.