2019 Legislation: Fee & Surcharge-Related Reforms

People who become entangled in the justice system can have trouble escaping the fees and fines that are assessed for certain violations – and, over time, failure to afford those amounts can result in the levying of additional fees. The bills below will help reduce the burden of heavy fees and fines, including by designating them uncollectable and by eliminating the sources of such fees – the Driver Responsibility Program and red-light cameras.

HB 435 (Authors: Shaheen, Thierry, Smith | Sponsor: Zaffirini), Relating to the maintenance of information entered into a fee record. The clerk of a court in which a court cost or fee was imposed on a party in a civil case can ask the court to make a finding that the cost or fee is uncollectible because it has not been paid in 15 years. [Note: This does not apply to court costs or fees imposed by the Texas Supreme Court, Court of Criminal Appeals, or a court of appeals.]

Separately, regarding criminal actions or proceedings: Any officer authorized to collect a fee can ask the trial court to make a finding that it is uncollectible if the fee has not been paid in at least 15 years, if the defendant is serving a sentence of life or life without parole, or if the defendant is deceased. This now applies in any county – not only counties with a population of 780,000 to 790,000 [Collin County], as existed under previous law. Signed by the Governor; effective on 9/1/2019

HB 1631 (Authors: Stickland, Collier, Burrows, Senfronia Thompson | Sponsor: Hall), Relating to prohibiting the use of photographic traffic signal enforcement systems. This bill prohibits the implementation or operation of red-light cameras. Furthermore, a local authority cannot issue a civil or criminal charge or citation for an offense or violation based on a recorded image produced by a red-light camera.

Note: If a local authority had enacted an ordinance to implement red light cameras before May 7, 2019, and had already entered into a contract for their administration and enforcement, that local authority can continue to operate the cameras until the expiration date specified in the contract as it existed on May 7, 2019. Furthermore, such red light cameras and any resulting proceeding initiated – or civil or administrative penalty imposed – after September 1, 2019, are governed by former law. However, this does not apply to a contract entered into before May 7, 2019, that authorizes the contract’s termination on the basis of adverse legislation. Also note: Neither the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles nor a county assessor-collector can refuse to register a vehicle alleged to have been involved in a violation based on a red-light camera recording solely because the vehicle’s owner is delinquent in paying a civil penalty imposed for that violation as permitted by an ordinance and contract entered into before May 7, 2019. Signed by the Governor; effective on 9/1/19

HB 2048 (Authors: Zerwas, Darby, Krause, Sarah Davis, Howard | Sponsor: Huffman), Relating to the repeal of the driver responsibility program and the amount and allocation of state traffic fine funds; eliminating program surcharges; authorizing and increasing criminal fines; increasing a fee. This bill repeals the Driver Responsibility Program (DRP), eliminates points assessed on driving-related offenses, and reestablishes what does and does not constitute a moving violation, which impacts various Texas codes.

The bill also increases automobile insurance fees from $2 to $4, and it increases state traffic fines for moving violations from $30 to $50. Traffic fines for DWI offenses are $3,000 on a person’s first conviction within three years, $4,500 for a second or additional conviction within three years, and $6,000 if the person’s alcohol concentration level was 0.15 or higher when the analysis was performed. If the court makes a finding that the person is indigent, it must waive all fees and costs; documentation used as proof of indigency can show that the person’s income or household income does not exceed 125% of the applicable income level established by the federal poverty guidelines, or that the person (or the taxpayer claiming the person as a dependent) receives assistance from: Texas’ food stamp or financial assistance program; the federal special supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children; Texas’ medical assistance program; Texas’ child health plan program; or the national free or reduced-price lunch program. The repeal of the DRP applies to any surcharge pending on September 1, 2019, regardless of when the surcharge was imposed. Furthermore, the Texas Department of Public Safety must reinstate any driver’s license suspended for failure to pay a DRP surcharge. Signed by the Governor; effective on 9/1/2019