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Driving In Fear: Unpaid Tickets, Spiraling Debt And A Fort Worth Court’s Plan To Help

Michael Barera
The Fort Worth Municipal Court building in Fort Worth, Texas

These days, when Ashley Bryant drives around in her black Nissan, she does it without the anxiety she carried for six years whenever she got behind the wheel.

“Every time I’d do this, I’d get in the car and I’d be like, ‘God, please cover me, that no police are going to get me today,’” she says.   

Bryant used to have a bit of a lead foot, she says, and by 2012, she’d racked up half a dozen tickets. She’s a certified nursing assistant, and simply couldn’t afford to pay the tickets. When she didn’t, she ended up with an arrest warrant from the Fort Worth Municipal Court. Her license was suspended. Every drive – to get groceries, to pick up her kids – was stressful.

“It’s scary,” she says. “You’ve got to look behind you, make sure the police aren’t going to turn around and get you, because you know you’re going to go to jail because you’ve got a warrant.”

Ashley Bryant stands with her black Nissan.
Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA

She ended up owing more than $2000, she says. Without the cash to pay it, she kept driving, kept praying, kept nervously watching for cops.

Then, in 2018, a Bryant’s Catholic Charities case worker told her about a new effort the City of Fort Worth was doing: a warrant forgiveness program. Basically, it’s a push to get people to work with the court to resolve outstanding citations.

She was a bit suspicious, at first.

“I wasn’t going down there because I’m going to go to jail because I don’t have any money,” she recalls thinking. “But then I found out it was safe through the warrant forgiveness program. I took the chance and went.”

There are roughly 280,000 outstanding arrest warrants from Fort Worth’s Municipal Court, court officials say. They’re mostly unpaid traffic tickets and some code violations and other low-level Class C misdemeanors like shoplifting.

Announcing the court’s third annual Warrant Forgiveness Month, Fort Worth Municipal Court Chief Judge Danny Rodgers says a lot of people ignore tickets when they don’t have money to pay them. Many don’t know they have alternatives available, like community service and payment plans, if they can’t afford to pay off the fine immediately. He says it's also confusing and the court has been trying to demystify the process for people in recent years.

“They don’t understand what to do," Rodgers says. “If you look at a ticket now, it’s three pages long. People don’t read that, so they don’t understand. If they come in and talk to us, we can walk them through that process, we can help them get into a situation where they can handle it.”

For years, the court would participate in statewide roundups, tracking down people with outstanding warrants in an effort to collect debt. It’s an expensive way to collect debt – it costs marshals about $55 to process each person, and that doesn’t include resources spent searching for the person – and it’s often to track down people who have avoided paying because they don’t have the cash.

So a few years ago, the court shifted strategy. Now it focuses on outreach and problem solving. The court is hosting court-in-the-community events throughout February to help people resolve old tickets. About 40,000 cases have been resolved through these efforts.

“Just come see us. We have no interest in putting someone in jail because they don’t take care of their tickets,” Rodgers says.

(A list of Fort Worth court-in-the-community events are here. Dallas Municipal Court will also hostpop-up community events in the coming weeks.)

Ashley Bryant says she’s still paying off the original tickets, which cost her $25 dollars a month. She was able to get additional court fees and surcharges dropped by the judge when she went to the warrant forgiveness event at Como Community Center, which accounted for half or more of the debt she owed. That’s allowed her to get her license back, to get car insurance she can afford and save up for a new car. 

“Now I feel like I can drive in peace, since I took care of my business, taking care of my warrants."

Bryant knows a lot of people with warrants from unpaid tickets, and she now urges them to go into court and work out a plan to pay them off, but says many are still afraid they’ll face arrest.

Fort Worth’s Municipal Court deserves praise for moving away from an enforcement approach and focusing on outreach and problem solving, says Mary Mergler from the advocacy group Texas Appleseed.

Class C cases are punishable by a fine and don’t carry jail time, but they often send low-income people into a debt spiral, Mergler says. The most minor criminal offenses in the state can end up having massive consequences if you’re poor.

Depending on the city, there are fees to get on payment plans, collection fees and fees for having a warrant issued in the first place.

If you don’t come to court, you get charged with failure to appear, adding new fines and fees. If your driver’s license is suspended, you can get tickets for driving without a license. That ratchets up car insurance rates. Warrants, even just for non-payment, can make it hard to get a job. And of course, you could actually get arrested.

“If at any point you have the money to pay what you owe and you just go to the court and give them the money, all of this goes away,” Mergler says. “So clearly, the people who have these warrants and license suspensions are struggling to pay, because money makes these problems go away, but they just don’t have the money.”

Fine-related offenses accounted for about 95% of arrest warrants issued in 2016, and hundreds of thousands of people spent time in jail because of criminal justice debt.

The Texas Legislature passed legislation in 2017 and again in 2019 sessions to reduce the onerous effects that Class C misdemeanors have for people who can’t afford to pay the fine. That seems to be reducing the number of people going to jail for offenses that, by definition, are not supposed to carry jail time. The legal changes ask judges to determine whether someone can afford the fine at the time its being assessed, and give judges more latitude to adjust punishments for old citations and expand alternatives to payment.

Municipal courts are now considered ‘safe harbor,’ meaning people with outstanding warrants for outstanding tickets and other Class C misdemeanors won’t be arrested if they come to the court to resolve the issue.

All of this is promising, Mergler says, but it’s still a two-tier system.

For those with money, a ticket is an inconvenience, a fine that can be paid online. For those without the cash, Mergler says it’s a confusing, stressful and much more expensive system that can hang over people’s heads for years, putting their jobs, families and liberty at risk.

“It’s just a dramatically different system depending on how much money you have,” she says, though she’s happy to see Fort Worth and other cities move in a new direction.

Photo: Michael Barera/Wikimedia. 

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.