(CN) – Driving with a suspended license is undoubtedly a petty crime, but more than 6,000 Texans were jailed for it in 2017. Texas state lawmakers heard testimony Wednesday on a bill that would reduce the penalty to a fine.
It’s a hazard of the impoverished, civil rights attorneys say. Poor people get a traffic ticket they cannot pay, fines and surcharges are tacked on and their licenses are suspended.
But they still have to go to work, to the grocery store and to doctor’s appointments and public transportation is not always an option. Should they face jail time for being caught behind the wheel?
State Representative Alma Allen, a Houston Democrat, does not think so.
Her House Bill 372 would lower the penalty for a second driving without a license conviction from a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in a county jail and a $2,000 maximum fine, to a Class C misdemeanor, for which the harshest penalty is a $500 fine.
The bill would further amend the Texas Transportation Code so those found driving with an invalid license could no longer be charged with a Class B misdemeanor if they do not have insurance.
Mary Mergler, a staff attorney with the nonprofit public advocacy law firm Texas Appleseed, testified about the bill Wednesday before the Texas House’s Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee.
“Texas Appleseed has looked at the jail booking records of about 10 large counties and we saw that at least 6,000 people over the course of a single year  were booked into jail on account of driving with an invalid license and nothing more serious,” she said, citing a study released last month by Texas Appleseed and the Texas Fair Defense Project.
Emily Gerrick, a Texas Fair Defense Project attorney, provides pro bono legal services in Austin municipal courts for people with overdue traffic fines through the Driver’s License Reclamation Project, a collaboration with University of Texas law students.
Gerrick said her very first client is a prime example of why she supports the bill.
She said the woman had been arrested for driving with an invalid license, or DWIL, and was told she would be released within 24 hours. So she made arrangements for someone to watch her 2-month-old and 4-year-old children overnight.
“Instead she was put in jail for 21 days for unpaid traffic tickets,” Gerrick said in a phone interview.
Unable to contact her children, the woman broke down in tears when she met with Gerrick.
“I had to make calls and figure out where they had gone,” Gerrick said. “And we see that a lot where people won’t be able to make child care arrangements when they are arrested. And if they aren’t able to get out quickly they could even lose their kids.”
And jail time for such offenses is the norm in Texas, Mergler told the committee. “Statewide, 75 percent of driving with an invalid license Class B convictions involve a jail sentence. And yet most of the time these are not people who have ever been dangerous drivers,” she said.
The proposed bill would keep in place the Class B misdemeanor for DWIL after the driver’s license has been suspended for a driving while intoxicated conviction.
But Gerrick said the fact that people convicted of DWI can usually get an occupational driver’s license, which restricts the licensee to driving to work or school, if they can afford to pay court costs, underscores that the current law is unfair for poor drivers.
“So it’s mostly just low-income people who are driving with suspended licenses. If you have money you can afford to get your license back. And the vast majority of license suspensions are for unpaid fines, fees and surcharges, over 70 percent,” she said.
The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a nonprofit civil rights group, said in a report that if passed, HB 372 will be a boon for jail budgets across the state because it “will reserve costly jail beds for those who pose a true threat to public safety.”