It was just after midnight on Dec. 28 as Nicole DeAngelis was returning from the airport when a car with a black racing stripe suddenly cut across her lane and braked. She tried to stop but slammed into it. As she pulled over, the car sped away.
Luckily for her — less lucky for the young driver with whom she collided — the road he chose for his escape was a dead end, according to court accounts describing the incident. By the time Hector Gutierrez-Chavez returned, Austin police were waiting.
It turned out to be DeAngelis’ last piece of good news. Police and court records show that Gutierrez-Chavez, 20, shouldn’t have been driving the 2014 Dodge Challenger at all. He had no valid license — something for which Austin police had cited him five times previously. He was also uninsured.
With DeAngelis not having special coverage to protect her from uninsured drivers, that meant there was no one to pick up the $5,000 tab to repair her car, a $400 towing charge and the $408 she later paid for a rental car.
Aside from her pounding pulse, DeAngelis was physically fine. “We were very grateful she wasn’t hurt,” said her mother, Janice. But surely, they thought, there was some way to avoid paying for a crash that clearly was not her fault.
They launched a family investigation. Nicole, a project manager, and her mother, a retired paralegal, and father, a hospital executive, were unusually tenacious and sophisticated clients of the traffic court system. They traced the car that hit her, examined the driver’s record, analyzed his court history, pestered prosecutors.
And came away baffled. “We were led on a very wild chase,” Janice said.
Nearly a year later, their efforts to recover any money have been met only with frustration. “How is someone like this able to keeping walking away and continue doing what he’s been doing?” Nicole wondered.
Fatality wrecks uninsured
The problem of uninsured and unlicensed Texas drivers is at once small and huge. Compared with Austin’s traffic fatalities — the number of 2015 deaths has already surpassed every other year in the past three decades — fender benders or even minor injury crashes are relatively small problems.
Yet their volume also renders them of enormous significance to tens of thousands of Texans. Although the number has been dropping steadily, state records show about 2 million vehicles registered in Texas don’t have corresponding insurance. In Travis County, it’s about 79,000 vehicles. Austin police record an average of 50 citations every day for drivers stopped without a valid license.
Inevitably, many drivers without licenses or insurance coverage crash. The Insurance Research Council, a nonprofit funded by the industry, calculated that medical claims made by Texas drivers with uninsured motorist coverage came to $110 million in 2012, the last year for which figures are available. While no organization appears to tally property damage, a wreck involving an uninsured driver can easily reach thousands of dollars of out-of-pocket expense.
And experts say dollars and cents are only one measure of the damage caused by illegal motorists. Nearly one-third of Austin’s fatality crashes in 2014 involved a driver without a valid license, department figures show.
Of those, two-thirds were speeding, 90 percent were impaired and nearly 60 percent had at least four previous license suspensions, suggesting that motorists who ignore their paperwork also tend to disregard other traffic laws. “Having no driver’s license won’t kill you,” said Commander Art Fortune, who leads the city’s Highway Patrol Division. “But the beliefs that go along with that can be deadly.”
Failed policy adds to unlicensed
Law enforcement officials say a certain number of motorists will always drive without insurance or a license. (In Texas, prosecutors say some are undocumented immigrants, though not in DeAngelis’ case.) Some can’t afford the costs. Others may simply choose to ignore or game the law. Sales of one-month vehicle insurance policies — enough to permit a motorist to legally obtain a driver’s license before the policy expires — are common, said Henry Moore, an Austin lawyer who specializes in auto insurance law.
Yet policies promoted by Texas lawmakers also have produced more illegal drivers than otherwise would exist.
The Texas Driver Responsibility Program was passed in 2003 with the promise of raising money for the then-cash-strapped government and making roads safer. It levies civil surcharges against people who are convicted of driving without a license or insurance, or driving while intoxicated, or who are habitual traffic offenders. The fees are on top of any criminal fines and court costs defendants pay.
The fees, which with nonpayment penalties that can quickly escalate into thousands of dollars, create a cycle that unnecessarily makes and keeps drivers illegal, said Emily Gerrick of Texas Fair Defense Project, which has advocated repealing the program. Many can’t pay — about 60 percent of the surcharges go uncollected — so they simply continue to drive illegally because they must. Others living paycheck to paycheck may stop buying insurance to cover their fines — meaning they, too, eventually lose their licenses.
According to the Department of Public Safety, more than 1.3 million Texas drivers currently have their licenses suspended through the surcharge program. The top reason, said Gerrick: fees for driving without insurance and driving without a license.
The program “is actually putting more cars on the road without licenses — making public safety more dangerous,” she said.
It has been such a failure that one of the lawmakers who created it recently begged the Legislature to trash it.
“This program was never intended to cause as much harm as it has to Texas families,” Mike Krusee, who represented Williamson County in the 1990s and early 2000s, wrote in May. “For many individuals, the program has dramatically and negatively impacted their ability to work and has resulted in more unlicensed and uninsured drivers on the road.”
Yet hospitals, which are recipients of the surcharge fees, have successfully lobbied politicians to keep the program alive.
“We recognize the funding mechanism is not ideal,” said John Hawkins of the Texas Hospital Association. But, he added, until lawmakers figure out how to replace the money, the industry will continue to oppose the surcharge program’s repeal.
‘Left in a conundrum’
Persuading drivers to maintain their legal paperwork “is a balancing act of seeking compliance and punishment,” said Bianca Bentzin, Austin’s chief criminal prosecutor. “At the end of the day, we want people with driver’s licenses and insurance.”
Lawmakers and police have struggled to find that point, however. One obstacle is that many people caught driving illegally can’t afford the required costs, yet they still need a car for work and family.
For the court system, “there are no clear answers,” conceded Ryan Kellus Turner, general counsel for the Texas Municipal Courts Education Center. “How do you punish the poor with fines?”
Until recently, Texas drivers caught without a valid license could be jailed. But several years ago the number of defendants trapped in the Driver Responsibility Program vortex began overwhelming county courts and local lockups.
In 2009 the Texas Legislature reduced driving with an invalid license to a citation offense (it can be enhanced for multiple violations). In Austin, Fortune said, as long as a driver can provide legal identification, police typically only issue citations when they stop motorists with no license or insurance.
Such cite-and-release policies mean a still-illegal driver can be free to drive away. In response, a handful of Texas cities have impounded vehicles found to be uninsured, releasing them only after drivers prove they are covered — a tool Fortune said Austin police don’t use but are considering.
Yet a recent state attorney general’s opinion weakened such initiatives. In an Aug. 14 opinion, Attorney General Ken Paxton determined that cities do not have the right to demand a driver show proof of insurance before releasing his or her car — effectively reducing the tactic to an inconvenience for illegal motorists.
Even without the new restriction, impound costs and logistical hassles can be a burden to cities. “We’re left in a conundrum,” Turner said. “We don’t want to fill up the jails. We don’t want to fill up impound yards.”
On the other hand, “you can fine, fine, fine,” said Kevin Madison, a municipal judge in several Austin suburbs for nearly 30 years. “But it doesn’t stop the behavior. And the numbers are staggering.”
‘Cracks in the system’
While Texas requires insurers to offer coverage protecting drivers from damage caused by uninsured drivers, it is not mandatory, and, like Nicole DeAngelis, many drivers decline it. Still, the DeAngelises thought someone should pay.
Using the vehicle identification number from the police crash report, they traced the Challenger to the dealership where it had been purchased only a week before the wreck. After some pleading, Nicole said, the dealer turned over the name of the Fort Worth insurer at the time the car was bought.
The policy revealed disappointing news, though. Issued in the name of a friend of Gutierrez-Chavez’s, it contained a specific — and legal — exclusion for him, meaning the DeAngelises had no valid claim.
Their searches of Travis County court records, meanwhile, showed that before colliding with DeAngelis, Gutierrez-Chavez — who, contacted through his attorney, James Bourque, did not respond to an interview request — had been stopped five times while driving without a valid license in just over a year. Yet each time, records show, he wasn’t cited or paid only a minimal fine. (Driver Responsibility Program surcharges are protected from public disclosure, so it is unclear how many, if any, civil fees he was assessed for the violations.)
The reason: While state law allows police and prosecutors to levy escalating fines for repeat driving without a license violations, they can do it only if they know about it.
Fortune said Austin police often don’t check a driver’s history during stops. “Are there cracks in the system?” he said. “It appears there are.”
And court records show that by simply walking up to the city’s cashier window to pay a ticket, defendants can also avoid court and prosecutors’ scrutiny of their past legal run-ins. City records show Gutierrez-Chavez paid the minimum $175 fine and court costs for his citations in January 2014, in September and again in early December.
“Oftentimes, it’s the worst offenders we don’t even know about,” Bentzin said.
Another no-license charge was dropped in August 2013, when he agreed to plead guilty to speeding during the same stop as part of a deal. That was about to happen after the crash with DeAngelis, too; Gutierrez-Chavez was charged only with leaving the scene of an accident. Bentzin said that it’s not uncommon for police to charge only the most serious offense in a traffic case.
Furious, the DeAngelises petitioned prosecutors to press additional charges. In mid-February, they agreed to add the violations for driving without a license and without insurance. In March, Gutierrez-Chavez paid fines for each charge — including another minimum $175 for the no-license citation. A separate criminal case brought at the family’s request, causing a crash resulting in significant property damage, is pending in county court.
The DeAngelises’ attempt to collect restitution has been equally frustrating. This spring Nicole filed a $6,000 lawsuit against Gutierrez-Chavez and the car’s owner in small-claims court. But it bogged down when process servers couldn’t find the owner.
A spokeswoman for the Precinct 1 justice of the peace said the case might have a hearing in a few weeks, at which point Nicole might get a judgment for the costs of replacing her car.
But even then, the court’s website warns, “it is likely that you may never recover any money.”