Motorists charged with driving without a valid license are being punished harder in Travis County than anywhere else in the state, and that has a handful of criminal justice officials concerned.
Travis County has taken a tougher stance by prosecuting the offense as a Class B misdemeanor, which carries a possible jail sentence and is flagged on a person’s arrest history.
The number of Class B misdemeanors filed last year in Travis County — 3,425 — was three times higher than the combined total in Bexar, Dallas and Tarrant counties and exceeded the number of filings in the more populous Harris County, according to data produced by the Office of Court Administration.
“It was a little bit of a surprise to me,” said Vicki Ashley, director of the county attorney’s criminal trial division. “First thing I did was call prosecutors in other counties to see how they were accomplishing this. They said law enforcement is not filing Class B misdemeanors.”
That discovery has prompted calls for local law enforcement to file more Class C misdemeanors — which, unlike the higher misdemeanors, are ticketed municipal offenses that don’t carry the possibility of jail time or make the defendant take time off from work to make monthly court appearances.
Generally, the higher misdemeanor charge is filed when a person has a history of driving without a valid license or was the responsible party in a wreck that caused serious damage to another person or their vehicle.
In 2017, 64 percent of those cases were eventually dismissed, often after the defendant fulfilled a court-mandated condition. An additional 34 percent of cases ended with the defendant pleading guilty or no contest, often after accepting plea agreements that involved the re-suspension of their license. That, according to County Court-at-Law Judge Elisabeth Earle, can prompt a “perpetual vacuum you can’t get out of.”
“Our ultimate goal is to get people legal,” Earle said. “If we can do that at the Class C misdemeanor level, hopefully that person will never be charged with Class B.”
A 2015 American-Statesman story detailed the complications that can arise from being struck by an unlicensed motorist. With no special coverage to protect against uninsured drivers, an Austin woman said she paid $5,000 in repairs, a $400 towing charge and $408 for a rental car after the car she was driving was hit by a 20-year-old man who had been cited five times previously for driving without a license.
At that time, state records showed about 86,000 vehicles registered in Travis County did not have corresponding insurance. Last year, it was 94,500.
So far, the county’s two major arresting agencies have not committed to making any changes to the way they handle uninsured drivers. An Austin police spokesperson said the department is looking into the issue, “but nothing has been decided on at this time.”
A Travis County sheriff’s office spokesperson said, “We have had some very good conversations with people who are interested in this matter, and we are waiting to receive counsel from the county attorneys.”
Austin police union President Ken Casaday said the conversation is worth having, but he cautioned that unlicensed drivers accounted for 25 to 30 percent of Austin’s fatal accidents in the past four years. He said many people who have an invalid license are behind the wheel illegally after previous drunken driving arrests.
“The thing we’re concerned about is DWIs and no insurance,” Casaday said. “Don’t mind looking at it, don’t mind having a conversation about it. But you’re victimizing people who pay for insurance. We have numerous accidents every day in this city where people don’t have insurance.”
Travis County’s reliance on Class B misdemeanors is a stark contrast to Tarrant County, which in 2017 filed just 48 cases — the lowest number among the state’s big counties. Tarrant County Assistant Criminal District Attorney Dawn Boswell credited a conversation officials with her office had with law enforcement after the Legislature in 2009 made it possible to issue a ticket for driving without a license.
“Law enforcement and prosecutors’ offices have a finite amount of time and resources with which to address all public safety concerns,” Boswell said. “Offenses in the criminal justice system are tiered for a reason. We prosecute in accordance with the law; these are low-level offenses, and if our police agencies determine it is best to file them as municipal charges, we respect and support those decisions.”
Travis County prosecutors find themselves in a holding pattern as they wait for more guidance on the issue, Ashley said. Facing several hundred unfiled cases, they have begun issuing letters to defendants, offering to abandon the charges if they obtain a valid license and present proof of insurance. If a deal cannot be reached, Ashley said her office will file the cases as Class C misdemeanors.
The county attorney’s office has the final say on whether to reduce the charges. But legal observers say that process can be sped up if law enforcement opts to file the cases as Class C misdemeanors.
“What we would like to see is an agreement with arresting agencies in Travis County to file these as tickets,” defense lawyer Betty Blackwell said.