Study reveals half a million Houston drivers can't renew their licenses

Half a million Houston drivers, mostly low income, can't renew their driver's licenses due to unpaid tickets, according to a new study, Driven to Debt, Houston. Consumer advocates say it's creating a cycle of poverty.

Harris County Commissioners just voted to stop that cycle this month. But it's still a problem for hundreds of thousands of drivers in Houston and around the state.

"It was about in the $5,000 to $6,000 range and it got like that because when you get a ticket and you don't show up to court, you're hit with late fees," said Jude Augustin.


After letting traffic tickets slide as a young man, Augustin said he lost his license and his ability to drive to, even apply for, better jobs.

"I've missed out on great, great jobs just because of that driver's license. I didn't have that driver's license so I missed out on great offshore jobs and work here in the city," he said.

In their report Driven by Debt, Houston, Texas Appleseed, and Texas Fair Defense Project found 550,000 holds on Houston driver's licenses for unpaid traffic tickets. The report says 40% were Black drivers, while the city's Black population is only 22%.

"As you can imagine, a lot of people lose their jobs or can't get employment if they don't have their driver's license. It creates a lot of barriers to employment and to housing," said Emily Gerrick, Managing Attorney with Texas Fair Defense Project.

The Texas legislature eliminated the Driver Responsibility Program last year, which suspended licenses for unpaid tickets. However, many Texas cities and counties have the OmniBase program, the Failure to Appear or Pay Program, which puts holds on licenses for unpaid fines and fees.

Harris County Commissioners Court just voted this month to end its OmniBase contract and lift holds on 25,000 licenses. But the report says Houston municipal courts, which utilizes OmniBase, issued 300,000 warrants last year for unpaid tickets and jailed 6000 drivers. Yet the report states jurisdictions that use OmniBase only collect about the same amount of fines and fees as those that don't.

"It seems to only create harm for people who are already vulnerable and struggling financially and has huge racial disparities," said Gerrick.

A program through the Fountain of Praise church helped Augustin pay his fines, restore his license, and land a better job.
But Augustin says the system needs to change.

"That is a big hindrance to a lot of people and it really needs to be changed, because a lot of people are really hurt," he said.

Drivers who have lost their license for failure to appear or pay fines can contact the Texas Fair Defense Project or Texas Appleseed.