TicketHelpTexas.org is a resource for people who cannot pay fines and costs in criminal cases, including those who have had their driver's licenses suspended because of unpaid fines and fees.TicketHelpTexas.org focuses on fine-only misdemeanors, such as most traffic tickets and minor offenses, but not serious offenses like Class A or B misdemeanors or felonies.
The Texas Fair Defense Project and Texas Appleseed published TicketHelpTexas.org. TicketHelpTexas.org is a product of those organizations' work with the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Southern Partnership to Reduce Debt, which is developing strategies to lessen the impact of criminal and civil judicial fines and fees, as well as medical fees, high-cost consumer products, and student loan debt, on communities of color. The findings and conclusions presented here are those of the authors of TicketHelpTexas.org, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation.
The creators of TicketHelpTexas.org thank Judge Ed Spillane, Judge David Cobos, and Bronson Tucker for their review of and helpful suggestions for this guide.
TexasLawHelp.org offers special thanks to Texas Fair Defense Project and Texas Appleseed for this article.
What are class C misdemeanors and fine-only misdemeanors?
TicketHelpTexas.org explains the concept of "fine-only offenses", which are Class C misdemeanors and other misdemeanors that are punished by a fine. The maximum fine for these offenses is $500, and they can include traffic violations, non-traffic Class C misdemeanors such as public intoxication or disorderly conduct, and city ordinance violations. A person charged with a fine-only offense may receive a ticket and can usually resolve the case by paying the fine through the mail or online.
However, there are some exceptions, such as Class C assault/family violence or public intoxication, where the person must appear in court. Hiring a defense lawyer is optional in these cases, and they are handled by either a municipal court or a justice court.
Learn more at Class C and Fine-Only Misdemeanors - Ticket Help Texas.
What happens at my first appearance in court?
At your first court appearance, the judge will ask you to enter a plea, which is your formal response to the charge.
The three possible pleas are guilty, no contest, and not guilty. Pleading guilty means admitting to the crime and being sentenced on the same day. Pleading no contest is similar to guilty, but cannot be used as an admission in a civil lawsuit. Pleading not guilty means denying the crime and having a trial to determine guilt, with the possibility of a plea deal. The consequences for each plea, including fines and driver's license suspension, are discussed at What Happens at Your First Court Appearance - Ticket Help Texas.
Am I eligible for a deferred disposition?
A deferred disposition is a court agreement where you complete certain requirements in exchange for having the case dismissed. It's not the same as probation, but you'll need to show proof of completing the requirements to the judge. It's up to the judge to decide if you're eligible, and the conditions can vary. Benefits include avoiding a criminal record and higher insurance fees. To be eligible, you'll need to plead no contest or guilty and complete the conditions, which may include defensive driving courses or community service. Upon completion, you may be eligible for record expungement.
I received a ticket that I won't be able to pay.
If you received a ticket that you can't pay, it's important not to ignore it. Show up to court by the date on your ticket or try to reschedule. If you fail to show up, the court may issue an arrest warrant or charge you with a separate crime. When you appear in court, you'll be asked to enter a plea. If you can't pay the fine, you can ask for a payment plan, community service, or a reduction to an amount you can afford. If the judge finds you unable to pay, the judge will order a sentence, which may consist of fine and court costs. If you can't afford it, ask the judge for alternatives such as a payment plan, community service, or a waiver of the fine. Remember to bring evidence of your inability to pay and explain your preferred alternative.
I've been ordered to pay fines and fees I can't afford.
The judge will impose a sentence that almost always includes fines and court costs after a guilty or no contest plea, or a Not Guilty plea that results in a conviction at trial. If you can't afford the fines and court costs, you should explain your financial situation to the judge and show proof of your income, assets, and expenses. Most courts have a form called the "Statement of Inability to Pay" that you can fill out to show your financial situation. You will also be asked to bring proof of your income and expenses to court. If the judge finds you unable to pay, they may offer alternative sentences such as a payment plan, community service, waiver of the fine, or reduction to an amount you can afford. The amount you are ordered to pay will usually consist of the fine and court costs, and the judge may waive the court costs if you can't afford them. If you are unsure about completing community service, you should seek additional information.
I’m not sure if I can complete community service.
Community service is a way to resolve fines if you are unable to pay. This can be difficult for some people for reasons such as physical or mental impairments, pregnancy, family commitments, work responsibilities, transportation limitations, or homelessness. If you are unable to complete community service, the judge may waive or reduce your fine, but they are more likely to reduce it instead of waiving it completely. If you are able to complete community service, the judge may waive the court costs, which are part of the amount you have been ordered to pay. Community service can include a wide range of activities, such as volunteering, job skills training, education courses, or counseling. You should let the judge know about any activities you already do that could count towards community service. If you cannot think of any, the court may suggest a place for you to complete it or you can suggest an organization to the judge. You need to show proof that you completed the community service and keep records of the hours worked. If you cannot complete it on time, you should communicate with the court to avoid having a warrant issued.
I have an old ticket that I still can’t pay.
If you have an old ticket that you still can’t pay, set up a time to talk to the judge. When you get to court, explain to the judge that you cannot pay the fine but want to resolve what you owe. The judge can only consider your ability to pay at the present time.
Even if you have outstanding warrants related to these tickets or other tickets for fine-only offenses, you should not be arrested or jailed if you voluntarily show up in court to try to resolve what you owe.
I can't travel back to where I got my ticket.
If you can't travel back to where you got your ticket, first, call the clerk and ask about their procedures. If their procedure won't work for you, write to the court explaining your inability to pay and travel. Ask for alternatives such as payment plans. Ask for court costs to be waived and suggest a specific community service option. Some judges may hold a hearing by phone or videoconference to discuss alternative sentences. The judge may respond with their decision by sending a letter.
TicketHelpTexas.org offers sample letters your can send to the court requesting various alternative sentences in a court that’s too far for you to travel to.
Read I Can't Travel Back to Where I Got My Ticket at TicketHelpTexas.org.
A collection agency is sending me notices about a ticket.
Some courts contract with collection agencies or law firms to collect unpaid tickets. The agency can try to collect a ticket even if you have never been to court to see a judge.
If you have never been to court but pay what the collection agency tells you to pay, you will be considered to have entered a plea of “no contest” and give up your right to trial.
If you pay the ticket through the collection agency, the agency can charge you an additional 30% of the total amount owed as the fee. That means if you owe $100, the collection agency can charge you an additional $30 for a total of $130. If you owe $300, the collection agency can charge you an additional $90 and make you pay $390; etc.
Even if you are receiving notices or calls from a collection agency, you still have the same rights. The notices will often say something like, “Please return your payment in the amount of $300 (or whatever amount you owe) immediately.” But, you can still choose to deal directly with the court and seek an alternative sentence, bypassing the collection agency.
You have the right to plead not guilty and have your guilt or innocence determined at a trial, if you have not already entered a plea.
Even if you have already entered a plea of not guilty or no contest or been convicted at trial, you have a right to a hearing before the judge to consider whether you cannot pay what you owe.
You still have the right to an alternative sentence, like a payment plan or community service, if the judge determines you cannot pay.
In short, you do not have to pay the collection agency and can instead contact the court directly and ask to set up a hearing if you wish to do so.
The court is requiring me to buy car insurance.
It’s not uncommon for the court to require you to show proof of auto insurance in order to enter into a deferred disposition. The court can require you to purchase car insurance as part of the deferred disposition agreement, even if you cannot afford it. Unlike fines and court costs, there’s no legal right to have this requirement waived even if you're unable to afford it.
You may also be required to purchase insurance in order to reinstate your driver’s license after your second conviction for No Insurance (known as Failure to Maintain Financial Responsibility). You will have to obtain an “SR-22,” which is basically a certification that you have the minimum liability insurance required by state law. Your insurance company can provide the SR-22.
There are low-cost options available for car insurance, so don’t automatically assume you can’t afford it until you’ve actually priced it for yourself.
- Texas only requires drivers to have “liability coverage,” which pays for damage to another driver’s vehicle and any of their medical expenses.
- You’re not legally required to have “collision coverage,” which would pay for repairing your own vehicle in the event of a crash.
- Ideally, you would have both, but if you cannot afford both, ask auto insurance companies to give you quotes for the minimum liability coverage required by Texas law.
- The minimum amount of coverage required by law is available here.
- You may also be eligible for discounts if you’re a veteran or a student, or bundle your car insurance with other types of insurance from the same company like homeowners insurance.
- Keep in mind that the court will not order you to purchase insurance as part of a sentence after conviction, but only if you as a condition of a deferred disposition to get the charge dismissed. So if you absolutely cannot purchase insurance, you can be either plead Not Guilty and ask for a trial, or plead Guilty or Not Guilty and be sentenced. As part of your sentence, you will only be ordered to pay fines or court costs, not pay for insurance.
A warrant has been issued for my arrest.
There are two types of warrants that may be issued in a fine-only case: Failure to Appear (also called a “FTA” or “Alias”), and Capias Pro Fine Warrants.
Before issuing either type of warrant, the court is required by state law to take certain steps.
If a warrant has already been issued for your arrest, contact the court. If you do not have a lawyer, follow the instructions in A Warrant Has Been Issued for My Arrest - Ticket Help Texas.
I'm afraid I'll be jailed for my unpaid ticket.
Read Warrants and Jail Time for Fine-Only Misdemeanors, which explains the potential consequences of having a warrant issued for a Class C Misdemeanor, including the possibility of arrest, jail time, and court proceedings. It also outlines the rights of people who face such charges, such as alternatives to jail time. Jail time should only be imposed if the judge determines that the nonpayment of fines was intentional. Warrants and Jail Time for Fine-Only Misdemeanors also discusses ways to present your case to the judge in order to avoid jail time, and how to make alternative arrangements for paying fines.
I want jail credit towards my fines.
You can request jail credit for time spent in jail on unrelated offenses towards your unpaid tickets. The court is not obliged to grant the request, but many do. You are legally entitled to jail credit if the time spent was related to the ticket. The court typically gives $100 credit for every 24 hours spent in jail and some may give more or waive additional amounts owed. To request jail credit, check the court's website for a form or write a letter to the judge including the case number, charges, dates spent in jail, and proof from jail. Enter a guilty or no contest plea before seeking jail credit.
Read I Want Jail Credit Towards My Fines at TicketHelpTexas.org.
I can't renew my driver's license.
To determine the type of suspension or hold on your license in Texas, go to the website www.texas.gov/driver and select "Driver License Reinstatement & Status." You will need to enter your license number, date of birth, and last 4 digits of your social security number. If you are not eligible for a driver's license, it means you either have to wait out the suspension or are unable to get a license. Suspensions can be due to criminal convictions, driving without insurance, too many tickets, etc. In some cases, an Occupational Driver's License may be available during the suspension period. To get your license back after a drug-related conviction, you need to complete a drug education course and wait for 6 months. If your license was suspended for a second No Insurance, you need to purchase SR-22 insurance. To get your license back, you may also have to pay reinstatement fees or resolve Omnibase holds for outstanding fines or traffic tickets. The Driver Responsibility Program was repealed on September 1, 2019, and all suspensions under this program were lifted, but any paid surcharges will not be refunded.
Read I Can't Renew My Driver's License at TicketHelpTexas.org.
I need to resolve OmniBase holds.
In order to lift an OmniBase hold on a driver's license in Texas, one must first determine the number of holds and from which courts they come from. This information can be found by searching the database at www.texasfailuretoappear.com by providing the driver's license number and date of birth. The website only shows the holds related to license renewal, not all unresolved tickets. If a person is unable to find their holds, they can call OmniBase Services at 800-686-0570. The person must then work with each court to resolve the holds by paying the fines or completing community service. If the person is unable to pay the fines, they can request a payment plan, community service, or a waiver. They should bring a letter or a special form to show their inability to pay to the court. A $10 fee is charged for each hold (or $30 if the hold was placed before 2020) to lift it, but the fee can be waived if the person is considered indigent. The person must then complete the requirements and wait for the hold to be lifted or request that it be lifted earlier if necessary. After all the holds are lifted, the person should check for any other steps to get their license back, such as renewing it if it has expired.
Read I Need to Resolve OmniBase Holds at TicketHelpTexas.org.
I want an occupational driver's license.
What is an Occupational Driver's License (ODL)?
A type of driver’s license ordered and overseen by a judge, where the court orders DPS to issue a license so you can drive for certain limited purposes only, like work, school, or essential household duties.
Who is eligible for an ODL?
If the reason you cannot drive is due to OmniBase holds for unresolved tickets and you don't have other suspensions, you are probably eligible for an ODL.
You are not eligible for an ODL if
- You lost your license because of a mental or physical disability or medical condition;
- You lost your license due to failure to pay child support;
- You want to drive a commercial motor vehicle, not just drive for personal reasons;
- You have received two ODLs in the past 10 years after criminal convictions; or
- You have a “hard suspension” waiting period due to a DWI arrest or other conviction.
How do I get an occupational driver's license?
You will need to apply to a court for an order granting you an ODL. To apply, follow the steps and use the forms available here.If the judge grants the order, you take it to DPS, which will issue the ODL.
I can't renew my vehicle registration.
The Scofflaw Program can prevent you from renewing vehicle registration for not paying fines or failing to appear in court. In order to renew your registration, you will have to resolve the fines that are leading to the Scofflaw hold.
Contact the Texas DMV explaining:
- that there is a hold on your registration,
- that you believe the hold is under the Scofflaw Program,
- that you need contact information for the county with jurisdiction that placed the hold on your registration.
If you can pay the fine, visit that county’s Scofflaw webpage to pay the corresponding fine.
The fine must be paid to the court that issued the hold; only resolving the underlying offense will clear the hold.
If you cannot pay your fine, you will need to contact the court that placed the hold on your registration and ask for a time to speak to the judge about alternative sentences.
- There are usually several courts within each county that may have placed the hold. If you are unsure which court to contact, contact the county that placed the hold with the information provided by the Texas DMV (see above).
- The rest of this guide provides information about alternatives that are available to you if you are unable to pay.
- After you have resolved the fines and costs owed, the judge will lift the hold. There is a $20 Scofflaw fee charged when the judge lifts the hold. Ask the judge to waive the $20 Scofflaw fee given your inability to pay the fines and costs in your case.
I'm under age 17. Do I have any special rights?
Texas Appleseed and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid produced a series of “Youth in Court” videos to explain the court process for children under 17 and how to defend against common Class C misdemeanor charges.
Note that the videos were produced in 2014 and “Failure to Attend School” (commonly referred to as truancy) is no longer a criminal charge. While you may still be referred to a justice of municipal court for Failure to Attend School, your case should not involve fines or a criminal conviction.
If you are under 17 and charged with a fine-only offense, you can ask for alternative sentences like tutoring, counseling, mentoring, job training, community service, or alcohol or drug abuse rehabilitation instead of paying the fine. Courts may also offer deferred dispositions to people younger than 17, where if the conditions imposed by the court are completed, the charge will be dismissed.
Some courts have "teen court" options where defendants can have their cases heard by their peers and receive penalties in the form of community service or educational programs. Juvenile case managers may be employed to check in on those given alternative sentences. Finally, as a juvenile, you have the right to have your record expunged if you were only convicted of one fine-only offense when you turn 17.
See I'm Under 17—Do I Have Any Special Rights?at TicketHelpTexas.org.
I want to expunge my record.
You may, in certain circumstances, have your criminal record in a fine-only case “expunged,” meaning the record ceases to exist and you do not have to report it on most applications for employment, college, professional licenses, student loans, etc.
If you were charged as an adult (17 or older in Texas), you are eligible for expunction if:
- you were acquitted (meaning you were found to be innocent);
- the charges were dropped; OR
- you successfully completed a deferred disposition as ordered by the court.
You have special rights to have your record expunged if you were under 17 when you were charged with a fine-only misdemeanor. Even if you were convicted, you have the right to have your record expunged when you turn 17 if you were only convicted of one fine-only offense.
An expunction is not automatic. To obtain an expunction, you’ll need to file a petition with the court. There are time limits after being arrested before you can file a petition for expunction. Check with the court before filing a petition.
Where do you file the petition?
- If a justice court handled your fine-only case, you can file an expunction petition in that justice court or in a municipal court of record in the same county.
- If your fine-only case was handled by a municipal court of record (most municipal courts in large cities are “courts of record”), you can file an expunction petition there. Ask the clerk to tell you if the municipal court is a court of record.
- If your fine-only case was handled by a municipal court that is not a court of record, you must file a petition for expunction in the district court for the county in which you were arrested or received the ticket.
- Some courts will provide you with a form you can use if you ask the clerk. If not, a sample petition is available here.
- You’ll need to pay a fee with the petition, usually around $30. The fee can be waived if you cannot afford it. Ask the clerk for a Statement of Inability to Pay Court Costs that can be submitted alongside the petition.
Even if you’re not eligible for expunction, you may be eligible for nondisclosure. This means that even though the record of conviction is not erased, most people, except for law enforcement and a few other agencies, cannot view it, so they won't know about it.
To see if you may be eligible for an expunction or nondisclosure, use the Fresh Start App. It will ask you questions and tell you which option might be right for you.
This article provides information on navigating traffic court.
The difference between clearing (expunction) and sealing (nondisclosure) your criminal record in Texas.