DWI’s By The Numbers

By: Julia Bunch

Travis County could stand to earn $8.7 million from the arrests issued for driving while intoxicated thus far in 2012, figures which have earned the highest rate of DWI arrests per population in Texas. That ranking, however, has led to accusations that the county is farming the poor for badly needed revenue.

According to Travis County criminal records, there were 5,968 class A and B misdemeanor DWI arrests in Travis County in 2011. So far this year, there have been 1,362 such arrests.

DWIs in Texas can be the most expensive in the nation, most costing between $7,000 and $10,000 each. Counties collect up to $6,500 of that revenue from fees, surcharges and probation charges. With Travis County issuing more DWI arrests per population than any other county in Texas, the budget reflects such profits.

“Revenue collected is not specific to offense type,” said Neomia Bailey, misdemeanor division director for the Travis County Clerk. “Travis County Clerk collects all court costs and fees. The rest is general budget.”

Money that goes into the county budget includes probation fees of $60 per month for a maximum of two years, up to $2,000 in fines, and a Texas surcharge of $1,000 per year for three years. The surcharge, instituted by the Department of Public Safety in 2005, was originally supposed to fund hospital emergency rooms in respective counties. However since the recession, the money collected from such surcharges goes into general funding.

“When the economy tanked, Texas needed money,” said Betty Blackwell, Austin attorney specializing in DWI arrests. “This surcharge is the biggest issue with DWIs in Travis County because it is imposed on people who can’t afford to pay it. When these people don’t pay, their driver’s license is taken away. They drive anyway to get to work, but then they go to jail for driving on a suspended license. This cycle encourages poverty among the already poor.”

Recipients of DWIs can be found indigent and given reprieve of the surcharge, but only by discretion of a judge. Other counties in the state can find DWI offenders indigent by parties other than a judge. Counties like Travis, Harris, Dallas, Tarrant and Bexar often have varying policies on DWI offenses because they issue the most in the state.

“We have a very intense focus on DWIs in Harris County,” said Justin Wood, district court chief for the Harris County district attorney. “We have specialized units with specifically trained officers that know all the technical aspects of issuing a DWI correctly. When things aren’t done correctly on the front end, it makes them impossible to enforce on the back end.”

Harris County has the highest rates of DWI arrests in Texas, but when population is taken into account, Travis County is the highest. Such high numbers of arrests could be credited to the three task forces from Austin Police Department, Travis County and the Department of Public Safety that police DWIs in the county with special programs.

“It’s a common trend to create harsher ways of dealing with DWI arrests,” Blackwell said. “I’ve lived in Travis County my whole life and been practicing law here for 32 years. Punishment has only gotten more severe and it will continue to be that way. Organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving have brought so much attention to this.”

MADD aims to create awareness and change in the behaviors of drunk driving all across America. Most legislative sessions, members of this organization propose stricter measures to crack down on DWI arrests.

“The legislation that keeps increasing DWI costs is pretty adequate,” said Chelsea Demel, Travis County resident. “Making them more expensive might knock some sense into people. I would like to see the money collected from DWIs to fund more drunk driving awareness.”

The money collected from DWIs that goes into the general budget funds things like health and human services, public safety, corrections and rehabilitation. The largest part of the general budget, 20 percent, funds general government.

“DWI costs to society are much different now than they used to be,” Blackwell said. “My practice focuses on what is being heavily policed at the time. Right now about half of all my cases are DWI related. It will only get higher.”

DWI charges can be expensive for citizens, often costing thousands of dollars. They also funnel much of that cash into the county budget – as much as $6,500 apiece.

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Julia Bunch is a photojournalism sophomore from the Dallas area. Julia plans to spend the rest of her days being a travel journalist, photographer, news addict, and culinary genius.

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