The Great Texas Warrant Roundup is Upon Us Once Again
February is the month that municipal and justice courts across Texas traditionally begin their “Great Warrant Roundup” — an attempt to enforce warrants for unpaid fines in low-level misdemeanor cases by showing up at people’s home or workplaces to arrest them.
People who cannot pay fines have not historically been offered meaningful alternatives, like community service, in most Texas municipal and justice courts so the warrant roundup has been an unnecessary exercise that harms and stigmatizes people who cannot afford to pay.
Over the past few years, Texas Appleseed has been working with other organizations and agencies to shed light on the problem of debtors’ prisons in Texas. With the Texas Fair Defense Project, we documented the injustices that were occurring when people could not pay their fines, and we supported 2017 legislation to make the justice system fairer for low-income people.
In the spirit of that new law, a couple of courts are opting for a new and improved approach instead of a traditional warrant roundup. The Fort Worth Municipal Court, for example, has developed Warrant Forgiveness Month, where a mobile courthouse will travel to different locations, such as libraries and community centers, to help people resolve warrants, using alternatives like payment plans and community service when appropriate. Also, the Austin Municipal Court has a “Warrant Amnesty” program this month advertising the alternative sentences that are available and holding community information sessions at libraries to provide people additional information about how to resolve outstanding fines.
Still, there are no shortage of holdouts doing things the old way. In cities like Arlington and in smaller towns, courts are announcing the commencement of traditional warrant roundups. Arlington’s website reads: “Got warrants? Now’s the time to pay up to avoid arrest.” It goes on to explain that people have the option of paying with cash or credit card but fails to cite the alternatives like community service that are available when people don’t have the means to pay.
Not only does the warrant roundup continue across the state, stories about low-income people being jailed for unpaid fines continue to surface. Other courts are reportedly not following the new law’s requirement that community service be offered as an alternative when people cannot pay.
Perhaps courts are emboldened by the recent backtracking of the Department of Justice on the issue. In 2016, the DOJ issued guidance to state courts across the U.S. concerning the imposition of fines, fees and bail upon low-income individuals, in an effort to provide clarity of the law. The guidance highlighted common local practices that violated individuals’ constitutional rights and was issued in the wake of well-documented injustices occurring when people could not afford fines or fees, including rampant problems in our own state. In December 2017, under a new administration, the DOJ announced that, among many other long-standing legal guidance documents dating as far back as 1975, it was rescinding the 2016 letter issued to judges across the country regarding fines and fees..
Still, the Department of Justice’s rescission of the guidance does not change the law and does not alter long-standing Supreme Court precedent holding that no court may jail a person for not paying fines unless the nonpayment was willful—meaning they had the ability to pay but refused. Last month, the Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, Maureen O’Connor, sent a letter to all Ohio state judges that serves as sound reassurance in the face of this regressive decision by the DOJ, stating that the role of state judges “does not change” (her emphasis) even with this rescission. Courts that continue to jail people for no other reason than their lack of money violate individuals’ constitutional rights and must end the practice immediately.
It’s also time for courts to look beyond the minimal constitutional and statutory baseline requirements and ask what best practices they can implement to achieve justice for all people they serve. Threats to arrest people at their home or office if they don’t pay their fines do absolutely nothing to help low-income people escape the burdens of living with these warrants. Courts need to ensure that people know that there are alternatives when they cannot pay, and get the word out that they will not be arrested for coming to take care of their outstanding warrants. By following the lead of courts like the Fort Worth and Austin Municipal Courts, other Texas municipal and justice courts can make major strides towards justice for all in their communities and improve public safety simultaneously.
We Want to Hear from You
If you have been jailed because you didn’t have money or have questions about the warrant roundup, contact Texas Appleseed at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your story. Also, review the "Know Your Rights" tip sheet that we published in 2016 about the Great Warrant Roundup.