Via America’s Lawyer: Texas has been asking judges to stop throwing people in jail for unpaid parking tickets. They haven’t listened. RT Correspondent Brigida Santos joins Mike Papantonio to discuss.


*This transcript was generated by a third-party transcription software company, so please excuse any typos.

Mike Papantonio:             Texas has been asking judges to stop throwing people in jail for unpaid parking tickets. They haven’t listened. RT correspondent, Brigida Santos has the full story. People are arrested and jailed when they can’t afford small fines, even though Texas passed a law that tried to curb the practice two years ago. What’s going on here Brigida? What a crazy story. What’s happening here?

Brigida Santos:                   This is insane. Now let’s rewind two years. Like you said, back in 2017, the Texas legislature passed a law allowing judges to shift punishments from jail time to community service or other alternatives for defendants who simply cannot afford to pay fines associated with Class C misdemeanors. Now Class C misdemeanors are the lowest level criminal offenses in Texas and they carry a maximum fine of up to $500. And in 2018 to give you an idea of what kind of offenses these are, 70% of all Class C misdemeanors in Texas were traffic related.

So these are nonviolent. These are not that big of a deal and there’s no jail time attached to Class C offenses particularly themselves. But judges can still throw people in jail if they fail to pay those fines. Now the keyword there is can. The whole point of the legal change in 2017 was to get judges to stop putting people in jail if they were too poor to pay and instead to divert these nonviolent offenders from overcrowded jails to serving the community or signing up for payment plans, and that has not happened.

Mike Papantonio:             Well, yeah, Brigida, is this a problem that’s specific to Texas? I mean, you told us if, you told us about law change in Texas. I mean, why judges are still sentencing poor offenders to jail. We, we kind of get the notion of that, but is it a problem specific to, to Texas?

Brigida Santos:                   Oh no, absolutely not, this is happening across the country. In fact, back in 2016 I actually covered this issue here in California, where minorities are disproportionately arrested for being unable to pay parking tickets and parking tickets in Los Angeles are insanely expensive. There $68 on average. The fee only doubles if you don’t pay them within 21 days. If you go without paying them long enough, more fees are added.

The state can charge the owner of the vehicle with a failure to appear in court, suspend your drivers license and car registration and even issue a warrant for your arrest. So this is something that’s happening all over the country. It is not specific just to Texas.

Mike Papantonio:             Yeah, a ticket for $60 or $80 could mean the difference of whether or not that company, that, that, that family can go out and buy groceries for goodness sake. I mean these judges know that. I mean have we become so, have we become so awful in choosing our judges that they don’t get the reality of how people live? Listen, Texas’ state judicial network, it’s vast and the system trust’s judges to use their brain, to have discretion with little or no oversight.

Is this where the problem lies? Have we gotten to a point where we can’t actually have a judge use their common sense and understand this is the human condition that you have to work around? You need to be creative. You don’t need to throw people in jail. You don’t need to fine them for $200 because they can’t pay a traffic ticket when they can’t, some of them barely feed their family. I mean, what’s happening out there?

Brigida Santos:                   Yeah, look, this isn’t a perfect law, so judges are not using their discretion. It doesn’t require them to rely less on jail sentences. And while the law has made some improvements, for example, it’s led to a small increase in waved fines and diversion to community service. Still last year, 75% of all Class C misdemeanors in Texas were resolved with jail time, which means they’re not using their discretion. Now, in the past, judges did say that they had no idea they could use their discretion and waive fees or issue alternative punishments. So it’s very likely that’s still the case today, especially if it’s not being streamlined and no one’s making a bigger point of this issue in, with judges.

Mike Papantonio:             Well, how, how does a judge, how does a judge get to the point that they’re appointed as a judge and they literally don’t understand that they have discretion? That it’s not, it’s not black letter law that they have discretion. How did they get to the point? That’s the first question. And then the other thing I’m wondering is it, is it likely that Texas is going to pass a policy that limits judicial discretion and do away with time, jail time as a consequence for unpaid fines? What’s your take on both those issues?

Brigida Santos:                   Well, first of all, I think that judges know that they can use their discretion more than they admit that they do. But a lot of them have said that they want these punishments because they think that it results in personal accountability. But if people can’t pay, what is their accountability for not paying because they’re poor or for having a traffic violation? It’s unclear. And when it comes to your second question, I think that the argument could easily be made because there are over 2000 judges determining these cases.

So I don’t know. They just don’t seem to know that they can do this or care that they can do it. And unfortunately, it’s creating a modern day debtors’ prison, which is something that was outlawed a long time ago and has been ruled to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Mike Papantonio:             The debtor’s prison is back in full swing in America right now. Brigida, thank you for joining me. This is another one of those startling stories that again, look for it on, look for, look for this story in corporate media. See if you can find it. Thanks for joining me, okay.

Mike Papantonio is an American attorney and television and radio talk show host. He is past president of The National Trial Lawyers, the most prestigious trial lawyer association in America; and is one of the few living attorneys inducted into the Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame. He hosts the international television show "America's Lawyer"; and co-hosts Ring of Fire Radio, a nationally syndicated weekly radio program, with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Sam Seder.