Police Abuse

Texas Police Turning Into Mobile Debt Collectors

So warns the Electronic Freedom Foundation.


Two new technologies and one failed state program could make highway travel perilous for Texans traveling between San Antonio, Austin and Houston.

Law enforcement agencies with jurisdiction over I-10 east of San Antonio and I-35 between San Antonio and Austin have signed contracts with Vigilant Solutions, a license plate reader company, with the aim of stopping drivers who have outstanding traffic warrants.

The company's database syncs real-time license scanning with a government warrants database to ping police when a target approaches.

At the same time, a new law enacted in 2015 allows police to install credit card readers in patrol vehicles. The idea was to allow people to pay their fines rather than be taken to jail. Vigilant Solutions is piggybacking on that policy.

The company's contracts with Guadalupe County and the City of Kyle call for a 25 percent service charge, most of it payable to Vigilant, to be tacked onto the outstanding fines, putting a detained driver into bind: either pay all outstanding debts plus the service charge, or go to jail.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is warning that this turns police into mobile debt collectors for a private company, andr raises questions about the legality of the surcharge, which hinges on whether the fee is "reasonably incurred in providing the access or service."

EFF posted a PowerPoint slide from a Vigilant presentation assuring officials that the charge could be justified under state law. The organization argues that the surcharge is not reasonable because it pays not just for direct costs, but the entire system.

Texas already has a problem with administrative charges tacked onto fines for motor vehicle violations. It's estimated that 10 percent of Texans have outstanding warrants – many of them unaware – because of the state's Driver Responsibility Program.

Since its creation in 2003, the program has billed Texas drivers more than $3.6 billion, but just half of that has been collected, according to the Legislative Budget Board.

"The Driver Responsibility Program was supposed to improve public safety," the Texas Observer reported. "Instead, it has saddled countless drivers with onerous fines, introduced a new form of double jeopardy to the legal system, stripped more than a million drivers of their drivers' licenses and—in a classic example of perverse incentives—decreased DWI convictions."

If you are convicted of any number of driving violations, or rack up more than six points on your driving record, you fall into the clutches of the program, and face additional fines of $100 to $2,000 every year afterward for three years.

The program has struggled with notifying drivers of their fines, leading to rampant license suspensions. As of April 2014, some 1.4 million Texas drivers had their licenses suspended for nonpayment.

Watchdog.org's reporting on license plate readers in Northern Virginia raised a number of privacy and surveillance concerns.

The Texas program raises even more, according to the EFF. Vigilant Solutions gets to keep a copy of all license plate data gathered by police. It also sent out an undisclosed number of erroneous warrant notices across the state last month, although the company denies that any "personal information was divulged to any unintended recipients."

This article originally appeared at Watchdog.org.