ocultar mi visita

Ticket Help Texas: A Toolkit to Resolve Your Unpaid Fines & Restore Your Driver’s License

×

Status message

Actualmente, este contenido solo está disponible en inglés. Estamos trabajando en traducirlo, así que vuelva pronto para ver si ya esté disponible en español. Si necesita ayuda antes de que se traduzca, consulte nuestra Buscador de Ayuda Legal para encontrar una organización que pueda ayudarle.

Ticket Help Texas is a resource for Texans who owe fines and costs in criminal cases that they are unable to pay. This toolkit was published by the Texas Fair Defense Project and Texas Appleseed. Access the full toolkit and related resources by clicking here.

Introduction

  • This toolkit is intended to be a resource for people who owe fines and costs in criminal cases that they are unable to pay, including those who are not able to obtain a driver’s license because of unpaid fines and fees. It includes information about your rights, as well as suggestions for resolving what you owe.
  • When someone is unable to pay a fine right away, the costs may compound over time, often resulting in more tickets, fines, and fees. Additionally, failing to pay a fine or failing to appear in court can lead to an arrest warrant and jail time, as well as a hold that prevents you from renewing your driver’s license. We hope this toolkit will help you resolve what you owe and break this difficult cycle.
  • This toolkit is intended to provide advice specifically about fine-only misdemeanors, which include Class C misdemeanors, most traffic tickets, and other minor offenses that are supposed to be punished by only a fine and no jail time. If you are charged with a more serious offense, like a Class A or B misdemeanor or a felony, defense counsel must be appointed to you by the court if you cannot afford to hire an attorney; they can advise you what to do if you are convicted and cannot afford your fines or fees. However, in a fine-only misdemeanor case, no counsel will be appointed to represent you if you cannot afford to hire your own.
  • Sometimes, it is possible for a legal aid or nonprofit attorney to represent you for no cost in a fine-only misdemeanor case. For more information on free legal representation, see the Legal Help section. 
  • The authors of this toolkit are nonprofit organizations working to ensure justice for all people in the Texas courts, regardless of their race or income. The authors are not affiliated with any court, law enforcement agency, or other government agency.
  • This toolkit is not legal advice. For legal advice, consult an attorney.
  • Special thanks to the Annie E. Casey Foundation: This toolkit is a product of our 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. We thank the Casey Foundation for its support but acknowledge that the findings and conclusions presented here are those of the authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Foundation.
  • Special thanks to the following individuals: Judge Ed Spillane, Judge David Cobos, and Bronson Tucker for their review of and helpful suggestions for this toolkit.

What are Class C Misdemeanors and Fine-Only Misdemeanors

In this toolkit, we use the term “fine-only offenses” when we are talking about Class C misdemeanors and any other misdemeanors intended to be punished by only a fine.

The fine for a Class C misdemeanor and most traffic tickets can range up to $500. There are also other fine-only offenses that are punishable by fines potentially greater than $500, though they are less common.

Fine-only offenses include:

  • Traffic offenses such as speeding, running a red light, or failure to yield. They also include driving-related violations like a first offense of driving with an invalid license, driving with defective equipment, driving without insurance, or having an expired registration.  The maximum fine amount varies by offense but does not exceed $500.
  • Non-traffic Class C misdemeanors include public intoxication, theft of something valued less than $100, possession of drug paraphernalia (but no drugs), assault without any injury (like verbal assault, unwanted touching and family violence), disorderly conduct, minor in possession of alcohol, and more. The maximum fine does not exceed $500.
  • City ordinance violations like leash laws, health and safety ordinances, and solicitation or panhandling ordinances. The maximum fine does not exceed $2,000.

Usually, you will receive a ticket when you are charged with a fine-only misdemeanor, instead of being arrested and booked into jail. Still, even those these are supposed to be “fine-only”, people may be arrested on warrants when they fail to pay their fines or fail to appear in court in these cases. A judge may also order someone who willfully refuses to pay to sit out their fines in jail. Click here to see what information your ticket usually includes.

For almost every fine-only offense, a person may choose to just submit payment through the mail or online and resolve the case. But for those not paying by mail, the citation will provide you with a date or time you must appear in court, or deadline before which you must either appear in court or set a time to appear in court.

One exception is Class C assault/family violence; you cannot resolve this type of case by merely paying the fine by mail or online; you must appear in court to enter a plea. Your fingerprints will be taken and, if convicted, it must be reported to DPS for inclusion on your criminal record.

Another exception is Public Intoxication; you will usually be arrested for this rather than issued a ticket, even though it's a Class C misdemeanor.  You’ll be booked into jail until you see a judge and are sober enough to be released, usually with an order to appear in court at a later date.

Finally, a handful of other Class C misdemeanors, such as Parent Contributing to School Nonattendance, are usually charged by a person filing a complaint with the court rather than an officer witnessing you commit the offense. So rather than receiving a ticket, you may receive a summons in the mail ordering you to appear in court on a certain date.

Unlike other criminal cases, you will not have a defense lawyer appointed to represent you when you’re accused of a fine-only misdemeanor, even if you cannot afford to hire your own lawyer. You are permitted to hire your own lawyer if you can afford to do so.

Fine-only misdemeanor cases are handled by either a municipal court (operated by the city) or a justice court, which is also known as a Justice of the Peace or a JP court (operated by the county). When you receive a ticket or a summons to appear in court, it will tell you the name of the court where your case was filed.

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. These are your options:

1. Guilty

What does it mean?
Pleading guilty is admitting to the crime. You will be convicted and sentenced that day. You lose the right to trial, but your case will be resolved more quickly.

What are the consequences?
You will usually be sentenced to pay a fine and court costs. There are alternative sentences like community service that the judge can impose if you can’t pay that day. Be sure to ask about those if you cannot pay. If you plead guilty but don’t pay your fines, you will often have a warrant issued for your arrest and will often not be able to renew your driver’s license until resolving what you owe. See I Received a Ticket That I Won't Be Able to Pay and I Can't Renew My Driver's License.

Also, if you plead guilty to driving while your license was invalid, or any traffic violation like speeding or running a red light that occurred while your license was suspended, you will likely have your license suspended for an additional period of time, somewhere between 90 days and 2 years. Convictions for other fine-only offenses, like certain offenses related to minors and alcohol, can lead to a driver's license suspension too. For more information on driver's license suspensions, see I Can't Renew My Driver's License.

If you wish to complete a driver’s safety course or other standard deferred disposition offered in that court, you may be required to plead guilty to do so; some courts will allow a no contest plea instead of a guilty plea (see below).

However, before you decide to plead guilty, you may want to ask to speak with the prosecutor. To do so, you will probably have to plead Not Guilty and come back to court on a different day to do so. You can suggest to the prosecutor a reason why your case should be dismissed or a reason why your fine should be lowered or waived. Sometimes a prosecutor will agree to lower your fine if you follow through with an agreement (like a promise to pay for car insurance or a defensive driving course).

2. No Contest

What does it mean?
Essentially, this is very similar to a guilty plea. You are agreeing to be punished as if you were guilty without admitting your guilt. You will be convicted of a crime and sentenced that day. You will lose the right to trial, but your case will be resolved more quickly.

What are the consequences?
The consequences are basically the same as a guilty plea (see above).

One key difference between guilty and no contest pleas is related to a civil lawsuit arising from the incident (like if you hit another driver when you received the ticket and that driver is now suing you). If there is ever a civil suit filed against you, a no contest plea cannot be used as an admission of your guilt, while a guilty plea can.

3. Not Guilty

What does it mean?
You do not admit to the offense and want to exercise your right to a trial where the state must prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that you committed the offense before you are convicted and punished.

Your case will be set for a trial at a later date (not the same day that you enter the plea), and your guilt or innocence will be determined at that later date.

When you plead not guilty, you have a right to a jury trial, meaning a jury will decide your guilt or innocence. You can decide whether you prefer a jury trial or bench trial, meaning the judge decides your guilt or innocence.  It is your decision whether you want to waive your right to a jury trial in writing and you should not feel any pressure one way or the other.

You can decide based on your experience with the judge and court whether you feel a jury trial or bench trial will lead to the fairest outcome. You will not be asked to explain your reasoning.

What are the consequences?
Usually you will have a chance to speak with a prosecutor and attempt to resolve your case before trial. You may have to come back to court at another time (but before your trial date) to do this. When you talk to the prosecutor, you may be offered a deal and you must decide whether you prefer that deal over going to trial. If you decide to accept, one condition will be that you change your plea (from not guilty to guilty or no contest), and the trial will not take place.

You will not be appointed counsel to represent you in a fine-only misdemeanor case. Unless you can afford an attorney, you will have to represent yourself at trial. (Sometimes, it may be possible for a legal aid or nonprofit attorney to represent you for no cost in a fine-only misdemeanor case. For more information on free legal representation, see the Legal Help section.) 

At trial, you will have the right to present evidence of your innocence and ask questions of the witnesses against you. If you have documents or photos that help prove your innocence or witnesses that will testify for you, bring them with you on the date of your trial. You are not required to testify at the trial, and no one can force you to testify at your own trial.

You will be found innocent unless the jury or judge finds you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If you're innocent, you will not owe anything. If you’re found guilty and convicted, you’ll be ordered to pay fines and court costs, same as someone who pled guilty or no contest. Your driver's license may be suspended as well for certain charges just like someone who pleads guilty. And a warrant may be issued for your arrest and you may not be able to renew your driver's license if you don't pay your fines. See I Received a Ticket That I Won't Be Able to Pay and I Can't Renew My Driver's License.

Note that if you’re convicted of assault family violence, either after pleading guilty or no contest, or after pleading guilty and being convicted at trial, you will have your fingerprints taken and the conviction will be reported to DPS for inclusion on your criminal record.

Am I Eligible for a Deferred Disposition?

A deferred disposition is an agreement between you and the court. If you complete the requirements of the deferred disposition, the court will dismiss the case. Some courts may refer to it as “probation,” but it’s different than the probation sentence you would receive as a result of a conviction for a more serious criminal offense. You won’t have a probation officer, but will be required to complete the requirements ordered by the judge and show proof to the judge you have done so.

It’s ultimately up the judge whether you can enter a deferred disposition, so if you want one you should ask the judge. Check the court’s website or call the clerk ahead of time to ask if it’s an option for everyone.

Also, if you are able to speak to the prosecutor before court, you can ask the prosecutor for a deferred disposition and see if you two can work out the terms. The prosecutor will then take that agreement to the judge, who will almost always agree to the terms if the prosecutor has already agreed.

Be prepared for the the court to impose a fine and court costs as part of a deferred disposition. However, your inability to pay this fine and costs should not keep you from receiving the benefits of a deferred disposition. If you cannot pay the fine and costs, ask the judge to waive the fine and costs. If the judge is not willing to waive them, offer to do community service or pay in installments. Most courts have affidavits of inability to pay fines and fees that you will be asked to complete in order to be granted these options. Basically these are forms where you provide information about your income and your expenses, so the court will know you actually cannot pay. Complete this form in as much detail as possible.

The benefits of a deferred disposition are that you can avoid a criminal record and avoid a change to your driving record that could increase your insurance fees.

To be eligible for a deferred disposition, you’ll be required to plead no contest or guilty and to waive your right to a trial. If you don’t complete the requirements of the deferred disposition, you’ll be convicted of the offense and sentenced the same as somone not eligible for deferred disposition.

Terms of deferred disposition agreements will vary from court to court and even from case to case. Typical requirements may include the completion of a driver’s safety course (commonly known as defensive driving) for a moving violation, or for offenses involving alcohol or drug use, the court may require an alcohol or drug awareness class or treatment. Other requirements may include counseling, tutoring if you are in school, or community service. You will have to submit proof to the court that you completed the requirements before the case is dismissed.

  • Here’s a sample deferred disposition agreement from the Austin Municipal Court for people charged with certain moving violations. If a person has not taken a Driver Safety Course in the last 12 months, they are eligible to have their case dismissed if they complete the course and pay a fee.
  • Here’s another sample deferred agreement for driving without insurance (formerly called “Failure to Maintain Financial Responsibility”). If a person maintains insurance and a valid license and pays the fee within 180 days, they can have their charges dismissed.

If you successfully complete the terms of the deferred disposition and the case is dismissed, you will usually be eligible to have the records expunged. See I Want to Expunge My Record for more info.

I Received a Ticket That I Won't Be Able to Pay

Do not ignore it!

Even if you can’t afford the fine, it is important to show up in court by the date on your ticket. If you miss court, the court may:

  • Issue an arrest warrant;
  • Charge you with a separate crime of failing to appear in court that also carries more fines as punishment;
  • Consider your failure to pay when considering your fine later on, and fine you a greater amount;
  • Place a hold that will prevent you from renewing your driver’s license, meaning when it expires you cannot legally drive until you resolve what you owe; and
  • Place a hold that will prevent you from renewing your vehicle registration until you resolve what you owe.

Contact the court if you aren’t sure when your court date is or absolutely cannot make your court date.

If you can’t show up for your court date, call the court and try to reschedule. You will likely need to ask for a different date in writing; often, the court has a form you can fill out.

Go to court prepared to handle the ticket and prove your inability to pay.

You’ll be asked to enter a plea. See What Happens at My First Appearance in Court. If you plan to plead Guilty or No Contest, the judge will likely sentence you that day. If you plead Not Guilty, you'll have to come back for your trial, where you may be either convicted (found guilty) or acquitted (found innocent). If you're convicted, the judge will sentence you then.

Your sentence will likely require that you pay a fine and court costs. When the judge sentences you to pay a certain amount of fine and costs, they are required by law to ask about your ability to pay. But if the judge doesn't ask, speak up and tell her that you are unable to pay because you don’t have enough money. Bring with you any evidence that you have that can help show the judge you are unable to pay.

If the judge finds you unable to pay the fines or costs, you have several alternatives. Think about the alternatives to full payment that will work for you, and ask the judge for the one that works best for you.

Generally there are four alternatives for people who cannot immediately pay:

(1) full payment all at once but at a later date in the future, usually in 30 days;

(2) a payment plan, where you pay in monthly installments until you’ve paid the full amount;

(3) community service, where you work off what you owe at a rate of $12.50 or more per hour, and which may include traditional volunteer work, as well as things like job training, drug or alcohol treatment, tutoring and other activities; and

(4) waiver of the fine or reduction to an amount you can afford.

If you would prefer one of these options over the others, explain that to the judge. If the judge is ordering to do something that you know you will not be able to do, respectfully let her know.

The amount you are ordered to pay will usually consist of both the fine and court costs. Know that judges are usually only willing to agree to waiver or reduction of the fine if neither a payment plan or community service is possible for you. However, the judge may waive the court costs, even if you're able to complete community service or enter a payment plan for the fine. Always ask for the court costs to be waived entirely if you're unable to pay them, even if you're completing community service or entering a payment plan to resolve the fine.

For more information about alternatives, See I’ve Been Ordered to Pay an Amount I Can’t Afford and I’m Not Sure If I Can Complete Community Service.

 

I've been Ordered to Pay an Amount I Can't Afford

After you plead Guilty or No Contest, or if you are convicted at trial after pleading Not Guilty, the judge will impose a sentence that almost always includes a requirement that you pay fines and court costs. The judge is required by law to ask about your ability to pay. But if the judge doesn’t ask and you do not have enough money, explain to the judge that you are not able to pay the fine and court costs.

The judge may use the word “indigent,” which is just a term courts use to refer to people who do not have enough money to pay fines and costs. But there’s no special word you have to use to describe your situation.

Most courts will want you to prove that you do not have enough money to pay. This will involve showing the court that you don’t have any income or make little money, that you don’t have a lot of money in the bank or other assets, and/or that your necessary expenses already take up all of your income.

Most courts also have affidavits of inability to pay fines and fees that you will be asked to complete before the judge considers alternative sentences. Basically these are forms where you provide information about your income, assets and expenses, so the judge will know you actually cannot pay. 

If you are not able to pay, call the court and ask if they have a specific form you need to fill out. If not, go to the Documents and Forms and download the "Statement of Inability to Pay." Filling this out in as much detail as possible prior to court will help to prepare you for the questions the judge will ask you. Bring the form and any documents that help prove what you have written on the form to court with you.

If you feel like the form alone does not give the judge a good picture of your financial situation, write and attach a short explanation, explaining your unique circumstances and why you cannot pay.

When the judge is considering your ability to pay, you will almost always be asked about:

1. Your income to show the judge you do not have enough money to pay the fine and court costs. Proof of income could include:

  • A paycheck or stub showing your income;
  • Last year’s W-2 or tax returns showing your income;
  • A document or check showing you receive unemployment benefits or a letter stating you’ve been terminated from your job;
  • Copies of your bank statements or other financial statements showing your lack of money in the bank; and/or
  • Letters or documents showing you receive government benefits for low-income individuals or families. Examples include Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (“TANF” or “welfare”), Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (“SNAP” or “food stamps”), Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program (“CHIP”), Supplemental Security Income (“SSI” or “disability”), or “Section 8” subsidized housing and housing vouchers.

2. Your expenses to show the judge you have no money left over after paying for necessary household expenses. The following are some common household expenses and documents that help show the judge the expense. If you have more to include, be sure to list those as well:

  • Mortgage statements or rent payment receipts;
  • Statements related to student loans, car loans, credit card debt, and other debt;
  • Utility bills (electricity, water, gas, phone) and other bills for necessary household expenses and repairs;
  • Receipts for child care expenses;
  • Letters documenting child support obligations; and
  • Medical and prescription drug expenses, including bills and receipts.

If the judge finds that you are unable to pay, there are four alternative sentences that they may impose:        

  1. full payment all at once but at a later date in the future, usually in 30 days;
  2. a payment plan, where you pay in monthly installments until you’ve paid the full amount;
  3. community service, where you work off what you owe at a rate of $12.50 or more per hour, and which may include traditional volunteer work, as well as things like job training, drug or alcohol treatment, tutoring and other activities; and
  4. waiver of the fine or reduction to an amount you can afford. 

If you would prefer one of these options over the others, explain that to the judge. If the judge is ordering you to do something that you know you will not be able to do, respectfully let her know.

The amount you are ordered to pay will usually consist of both the fine and court costs. Know that judges are usually only willing to agree to waiver or reduction of the fine if neither a payment plan or community service is possible for you. However, the judge may waive the court costs, even if you're able to complete community service or enter a payment plan for the fine. Always ask for the court costs to be waived entirely if you're unable to pay them, even if you're completing community service or entering a payment plan to resolve the fine.

If you're not sure whether you will be able to complete community service and may need the judge to waive or reduce what you owe, see I’m Not Sure If I Can Complete Community Service for more information.

I'm Not Sure If I Can Complete Community Service

Community Service is one option for resolving your fines when you cannot pay, but it's not realistic for everyone. Some examples of why you may be unable to complete community service include:

  • having a physical or mental impairment or disability;
  • being pregnant or having just given birth;
  • substantial family commitments or responsibilities, including child or dependent care;
  • work responsibilities and hours;
  • transportation limitations; and
  • homelessness or housing insecurity.

If one of the reasons above or another reason would prevent you from completing community service, explain that to the judge.

  • If you are unable to complete community service, the judge can waive your fine in whole or in part, which means the amount is forgiven without you having to do anything. But judges are generally unwilling to waive fines if you are able to complete commnunity service.
  • Most judges are more likely to reduce a fine rather than waive it completely. If the judge seems unwilling to completely waive what you owe, ask if the judge would be willing to reduce what you owe to an amount you could truly, realistically pay at that moment (whether that’s $10, $20, $50, etc.).
  • The amount you have been ordered to pay consists of both a fine and court costs. Even if you are able to complete community service the judge may waive the court costsAlways ask for the court costs to be waived entirely if you're unable to pay, even if you are able to complete community service (or enter a payment plan) to resolve the fine

The definition of "community service" is broad and includes a wide variety of activities.

  • Think about the activities in your life that might already count as community service. In addition to traditional volunteering, the definition of community service is very broad and can include:
    • A job skills training program;
    • A GED prep course;
    • An alcohol or drug abuse program or rehabilitation program;
    • Receiving counseling or mentoring;
    • Similar activities.
  • For example, if you attend AA meetings regularly or serve as someone’s AA sponsor, this could count as community service. If you already volunteer at your child’s school or your church, this could count as community service. If you are taking classes to prepare for the GED, this could count as community service. Tell the judge about any volunteer, education or self-improvement activities that you think could count towards your community service.
  • If you can’t think of an existing activity, the court may have a list of places they suggest you complete community service.  Or you can suggest to the judge an organization where you would like to complete the community service so long as it is either a governmental entity, a nonprofit organization or other organization that provides services to the public, or an educational institution.

You will have to show the court proof that you completed any community service that you agreed to do.

  • Be sure to record every hour worked, including the date, time and a description of the work performed.  The judge may also ask that a supervisor sign off on these records to verify you completed the work before you submit them to the court.

If you are not going to complete community service on time, call the court to explain. Ask when you can see a judge to get an extension.

  • If you have a good reason for not completing it, many judges will allow you more time.
  • Communicating with the court could allow you to avoid having a warrant issued for not completing community service.

I Have an Old Ticket That I Still Cant Pay

First, set up a time to talk to the judge.

  • Call the clerk of the court and tell them your situation.
    • Some courts have “walk in dockets” where anyone with unpaid fines can come talk to the judge without an appointment.
    • Other times you will have to schedule a specific time and date.
  • Another option is to send a letter or email telling the judge about your circumstances and requesting a time to talk to the judge. This may be the best option if you live far away from the court.

Even if the court previously determined you are able to pay the fine, you have the right to at least one additional hearing where the court must reconsider your ability to pay.

If you failed to appear when you were supposed to appear, some courts will ask you to pay an “appearance bond” in order to schedule a hearing.

  • This bond is usually an amount double the fine that is charged to make sure you come to court; when you come to court, it is returned.
  • The court cannot require you to pay an appearance bond if you cannot afford it. Tell the clerk that you need a personal bond instead because you are unable to pay the appearance bond. A personal bond is a promise to appear at a future date but that does not require the payment of any money that day.
  • If the court insists you post an appearance bond that you cannot afford in order to see a judge, go to Documents and Forms and download the Personal Bond Letter.
  • The court should not require an appearance bond if you’ve already appeared in court and been convicted, but just never paid what was ordered.

When you get to court, explain to the judge that you cannot pay the fine but want to resolve what you owe. If you haven't already been convicted, you will need to enter a plea at this time. Refer back to What Happens at My First Court Appearance? for plea options. If you want to be sentenced that day and discuss alternative sentences, you'll usually need to plead Guilty or No Contest to do so. Pleading Not Guilty will require you come back for a trial.

The same alternative sentences are available to you that are available to everyone else, including a payment plan, community service or waiver. The is true regardless of how much time has passed, even if you failed to appear in court, and even if you’ve already been sentenced to another alternative that you failed to complete. Refer back to I Received a Ticket That I Won't Be Able to Pay and I've Been Ordered to Pay an Amount I Can't Afford for more on these alternatives.

The judge can only consider your ability to pay at the present time.

  • The judge cannot make you prove how much money you earned or your inability to pay at the time you received the ticket.
  • Instead, the judge should only consider your present ability to pay, at the time you are in court, when deciding whether you can receive an alternative sentence. 

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.

  • However, if you have warrants for more serious offenses (like felonies or Class A & B misdemeanors), you could be arrested on those.

I Can't Travel Back to Where I Got My Ticket

  • As a first step, call the clerk and ask what they would advise. They may explain their procedure in such a case and you find that it works for you.
  • If that doesn’t work, write a letter to the court explaining that you do not have the ability to pay and that you do not have the ability to travel back to the jurisdiction because you lack transportation, money for gas, or for whatever reason is applicable.
    • See Documents and Forms for sample letters your can send to the court requesting various alternative sentences in a court that’s too far for you to travel to.
  • If you have not already entered a plea, you will need to enter a plea to resolve the case. You can ask to plead Guilty or No Contest in the letter if you want the judge to consider alternatives. Remember that there can be consequences of a Guilty or No Contest plea that include a driver's license suspension. (Refer back to What Happens at my First Court Appearance?) If you plead Not Guilty, a trial will need to be scheduled, which you will have to attend in person, before the judge sentences you and considers any alternatives. 
  • In the letter, ask the judge to either waive what you owe, allow you to enter a payment plan, or complete community service.  Only ask for an option that you think you will be able to complete.
  • Always ask for the court costs to be waived, even if you are asking for a payment plan or community service to resolve the fine.
  • If you request community service, ask to complete it in the city where you live, explaining that it would be impossible for you to complete in the city or county where the court is located.
    • Because the judge may not be familiar with the community service options where you live, it would be wise to suggest an option where you could complete the community service.
  • Some judges will impose an alternative sentence based on that letter and inform you of their order by sending you a letter back.
    • Alternatively, some judges will hold a hearing by phone or videoconference over the computer to further discuss the appropriate alternative sentence.  

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 are unable to 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 are unable to 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 Purchase 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”) Warrant
      • Your ticket instructs you to appear in court on or by a certain date. If you do not show up in court by the date on the ticket, a warrant may be issued for your arrest.
      • You may also be charged with the separate criminal offense of Failure to Appear or Violating Promise to Appear. This separate charge carries its own possible fines and court costs.
    • Capias Pro Fine Warrant
      • This type of warrant is issued if you fail to pay your fine in full after you have been convicted. If you are on a payment plan and stop making payments, the court may issue a capias pro fine warrant.
      • The court may also issue one if you fail to complete court-ordered community service on time.
  • Before issuing either type of warrant, the court is required by state law to take certain steps.
    • The court may not issue a Failure to Appear (Alias) Warrant unless:
      • The court sends you a notice that includes:
        • The date and time that you must appear before the judge within the next 30 days;
        • The name and address of the court;
        • Information regarding alternatives to full payment of the fine;
        • An explanation of the consequences if you fail to appear.
      • You may call the court and ask for an alternative date to the one provided in the notice.
      • If you do not show up by the date on this notice, the court may issue an FTA warrant.
      • If you never received this notice, call the court. Set up a time to see the judge and ask for the warrant to be cleared since the notice was never received.
    • The court may not issue a Capias Pro Fine warrant unless:
      • A hearing is held to determine your ability to pay. This is sometimes referred to as a “show cause” hearing, meaning you need to show the court the cause or reason you did not pay. This reason could be that you did not have the money. Come to court prepared to show your income and expenses. 
      • You should receive a summons in the mail telling you when this hearing will occur.
      • The court can issue a Capias Pro Fine if they find at the hearing that you did have the ability to pay OR if you fail to appear at this hearing.
      • If you receive a notice about a hearing related to the ticket, do not skip the hearing because you know you cannot pay. This hearing is an opportunity to explain to the judge your financial circumstances and avoid having a warrant issued for your arrest.
  • If a warrant has already been issued for your arrest, follow these steps:
    • Contact the court.
      • Call the court clerk and explain why you didn’t show up to court, make your payments or do community service.
      • Ask when you can speak with the judge to arrange another way to satisfy what you owe. 
      • If your warrant was for failing to appear and the court insists on your posting an appearance bond to see a judge, tell them that you cannot afford the appearance bond need a personal bond instead because you are unable to pay the appearance bond. A personal bond is a promise to appear at a future date but that does not require the payment of any money that day. 
      • If the court insists you post an appearance bond that you cannot afford in order to see a judge, go to Documents and Forms and download the Personal Bond letter.
    • If the court clerk is not helpful in arranging a time for you to speak to a judge, write a letter to the judge.
      • In your letter, explain your reasons for not paying, and ask for a time to speak to the judge. Also ask the judge to recall the warrant until the hearing.
      • Go to Documents and Forms for sample letters asking for Community Service, Payment Plan or Waiver.
    • When you go to court, you should not be arrested or jailed on warrants from fine-only cases.
      • But if you have warrants for more serious misdemeanors or felonies, there’s no guarantee you won’t be arrested.

I'm Afraid I'll be Jailed for My Unpaid Ticket

  • If you have a warrant issued for your arrest, you could be arrested anytime when going about your daily life.
    • However, you should not be arrested on a warrant in a fine-only case while in court trying to resolve what you owe.
  • If you're arrested, you will usually be booked into a county or city jail until you are able to see a judge.
    • In large counties, this will usually happen quickly, maybe a matter of hours, but in some places, you could be held up to 48 hours before seeing a judge.
  • For every 24 hours you spend in jail, whether it’s waiting to see a judge or after you see a judge, you should be given at least $100 of credit towards your unpaid fines.
    • A judge has the discretion to give you more than $100 a night if they want to do so.
  • When you see a judge, ask for a court-appointed lawyer.
    • It’s very unlikely you’ll be appointed one, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
  • What happens next depends on the type of warrant and which judge you see:
    • If you’ve previously failed to appear and are brought before the court that issued the warrant, the judge may ask you to enter a plea on the original charge.
    • You could also just be ordered to return to the court that issued the warrant at a later date.
      • Usually you will be asked to sign a personal bond before you are released. This is a promise to appear in court and to pay a certain amount of money if you don’t appear at that later date.
      • If a judge or other court staff says you are required to pay a money bond just to get out of jail, explain that you cannot pay. You cannot be forced to pay a money bond in a fine-only case if you are unable to pay the bond amount.
  • You should never be sentenced to more jail time (sometimes called “sitting out” or “laying out” fines) UNLESS the judge has determined that your nonpayment was willful -- meaning intentional or purposeful.
    • This means the judge can only sentence you to jail after making a finding that:
      • you had the ability to pay but refused to do so OR
      • if you’ve been sentenced to perform community service in lieu of paying, that you had the ability to perform the community service without undue hardship but failed to do so.
    • Explain to the judge that your failure to pay was not willful.
      • Tell the judge how much money you make, how many children you have and any other people in your household who depend on your income, and your biggest expenses.
      • Tell the judge how much you have left over at the end of your paycheck, and how difficult it would be to give that money to the court.
      • Tell the judge if you get benefits like TANF, SNAP, Medicaid/CHIP, Section 8 housing vouchers, SSI/SSDI, or free school lunches for your children.
    • If you’ve been arrested for failing to complete community service, explain to the judge that the court-ordered community service was a hardship.
      • Tell the judge that completing community service is a hardship.
      • Tell the judge about your job responsibilities, like how long it takes you to get to work and how many hours a week you have to work.
      • Tell the judge about what you need to do to take care of your family, like getting your kids to school and doctor’s appointments, feeding them, and watching them.
      • Tell the judge if there are times you cannot work for religious reasons.
    • If the judge finds you are unable to pay or that the community service was a hardship, the judge might revise your payment plan terms or give you more community service, and then release you.
    • If the judge decides that your failure to pay the fine was “willful” (you had enough money but simply refused to pay), the judge might order you to stay in jail as a way of paying off your remaining fines and costs. If this happens, you must be given credit of at least $100 per night.

I Want Jail Credit Towards My Fines

  • If you have spent time in jail or prison for any offense unrelated to your unpaid tickets, regardless of how serious or how minor, you can request that time in jail for the other offense be credited towards your tickets as well. This is called “jail credit.”
    • The court handling the tickets is not required to give you “jail credit” for time spent in jail on an unrelated offense, but many will do so.
    • Note that you are entitled to jail credit by law if you spend any time in jail related to the ticket itself.
  • If the court gives you credit, you will be given at least $100 of credit for every 24 hours spent in jail.
    • Some courts will give you more credit per night or waive any additional amount you owe if you’ve spent time in jail.
  • Some courts have a form that they want you to fill out to request credit, so check their website or ask the clerk.
  • If there’s no form, you’ll need to write a letter to the judge asking that you be given jail credit towards your fines and costs for the dates you spent in jail. Go to Documents and Forms and download the Letter Requesting Time Served for a sample letter.
    • If you haven't already entered a plea and been convicted, you'll need to first plead Guilty or No Contest in order to be sentenced and have jail credit apply to your fines and costs. You can often do this in the letter without going to court.
    • Be sure to include the case number(s) and the charge(s) for which you are asking for jail credit. Also include the dates you spent in jail or prison. 
    • You’ll also need to include proof from the jail or prison that you were there on those dates. You can get this by asking the sheriff or another official at the jail where you were confined.

I Can't Renew My Driver's License

First, determine the type of suspension or hold on your license.

  • To check if you have suspensions or owe reinstatement fees, go to www.texas.gov/driver and select “Driver License Reinstatement & Status.” You will have to enter your driver’s license or ID number, date of birth and last 4 digits of your social security number.

Note: If you have had both a driver’s license and a state ID in the past, you will want to check both numbers.

  • You will see if you are ELIGIBLE or NOT ELIGIBLE for a driver’s license.

If you are NOT ELIGIBLE for a driver’s license, it means you either have to wait out the suspension or are indefinitely unable to get a license.

  • Suspensions making you not eligible are often a direct result of a criminal conviction involving drugs, for driving while intoxicated, for driving with an invalid license, driving without auto insurance (known as Failure to Maintain Financial Responsibility) or getting too many tickets within a short period of time, among other things.
  • If you’ve already received such a suspension, you’ll likely need to wait it out before trying to get a license. However, you may be eligible for an Occupational Driver’s License that will allow you to drive to and from work and anywhere else the judge determines is necessary during the suspension period. Visit the section on Occupational Driver’s Licenses.
  • If your license was suspended for a drug-related conviction, there are two other necessary steps to get your license back.
  1. Complete the additional requirement of a Drug Education Course to get your license back. More information on registering for the course can be found here.
  2. There is also a six-month waiting period after your drug-related conviction. But to even start the clock, you must make DPS aware that you want a driver’s license. Call DPS customer service at 512-424-2600 to tell the customer service representative that you want to get a driver’s license. Ask if the six-month waiting period has already started and at what date it will end. If it has not, ask for them to start the 6-month waiting period so you can get your license back as soon as possible.
  • If your license was suspended for a second No Insurance (known as Failure to Maintain Financial Responsibility), you will be required to purchase a special type of case insurance called SR-22 and provide evidence of it to DPS to get your license back.
  • Other reasons you are ineligible include if your license was revoked for medical reasons, out of state tickets and sex offender registry requirements, which are not addressed in this toolkit.

If you are ELIGIBLE for a driver’s license, there may be two more hurdles to overcome to get your license and drive legally.

1. Reinstatement fees: Even if you are eligible, you may still owe reinstatement fees that must be paid in order to get your license back.

  • State law does not allow for any waiver of reinstatement fees currently, even if you do not have the money to pay them.
  • You can pay online or through the mail.

2. OmniBase holds: When checking your eligibility, you may see this language: “You have outstanding citations under the Failure to Appear/Failure to Pay Program.” That means DPS is preventing you from renewing your license until you pay a traffic ticket or other fines and costs in criminal case.

Prior to September 1, 2019, you could also have your license suspended if you did not pay surcharges to DPS under the Driver Responsibility Program.

  • However, the DRP has been repealed as of September 1, 2019. This means all surcharges that were owed have been forgiven and all suspensions under this program lifted. The DRP no longer exists in Texas.
  • Unfortunately, any surcharges already paid – including those prepaid – will not be refunded after the DRP is gone.
  • For more questions on the DRP repeal, see here.

I need to Resolve OmniBase Holds

  • First, determine how many holds you have and from which courts.
    • Search the database at www.texasfailuretoappear.com to find a list of all OmniBase holds on your license. You will need to provide your driver’s license or ID number and date of birth.
      • Note: If you have had both a driver’s license and a state ID in the past, you will want to check both numbers.
      • This website will show you which tickets are leading to a hold on your driver’s license renewal, but it does not necessarily show you all unresolved tickets that you have. You may have other tickets leading to warrants or collections that are not in the database and do not appear in your search results.
    • You may have holds from multiple courts if you received tickets in multiple places.
    • Also, one single court may have placed multiple holds—one for each ticket in that court.
    • You have to resolve each hold before you can get your license.
    • If you are having trouble finding your holds, call OmniBase Services at 1-800-686-0570.
  • Then, work with each court to lift the hold or holds they have placed.
    • In order to lift an OmniBase hold, you will need to resolve the amount owed to each court that has placed a hold or holds. The rest of this toolkit provides information on how to resolve fines and costs when you cannot pay.
    • The first step to lift an OmniBase hold would be to call the court and tell them you want to resolve what you owe to get your license back.
      • Ask when you can come to court to speak with the judge if you are able to get to the court. 
      • If you live outside the area, send a letter explaining that you cannot pay the tickets but want to resolve them, and how you plan to resolve what you owe. 
        • Go to Documents and Forms for sample letters to request Community Service, a Payment Plan or a Letter.
      • If you have not already appeared in court for these tickets, you will need to enter a plea to be given an alternative sentence.
        • If you want to plead not guilty, you will have to go to court for a trial.
        • If you want to plead guilty or no contest, you may be able to do so through the letter without having to go to court. For more information about consequences of Guilty and No Contest pleas, see here.
      • Explain to the judge in court or in the letter how you would like to resolve what you owe: a payment plan, community service, or a request that the amount be waived or reduced to a certain amount you know you can pay. 
      • Ask if they have a special form that they use to show inability to pay. If not, use the Statement of Inability to Pay in the Documents and Forms section.
        • Send their form or the sample form along with a letter, or bring it to court with you.
    • For each hold on your license, you will be charged a $10 fee to lift the hold (or a $30 fee if the hold was placed before January 1, 2020), in addition to any fines and court costs.
      • Ask the judge to waive this fee for each hold, because you are unable to pay it. 
      • State law requires the fee be waived if the judge finds you “indigent,” meaning very low-income.
    • If you need to enter a payment plan or complete community service to satisfy what you owe, ask the court to lift the hold or holds during the time you are completing those requirements.
      • The court has the discretion to wait until all payments have been made or all community service hours have been completed before lifting the holds.
      • However, if you promise the court that you will follow through on the requirements and explain why you need your license back immediately (for example, to get to work or to travel to the court-ordered community service), you may be able to convince the judge to lift the hold earlier.
    • Once you have resolved what you owe by paying it in full or by completing your required community service, the court should lift the hold.
      • Call the court clerk to confirm this has been done.
    • After all OmniBase holds are lifted, check to see if there are any other steps to get your license.
      • You may still need to renew your license depending on whether it expired during the hold. This can usually be done online at www.texas.gov/driver; select “Driver License/ID Renewal/Replacement.”

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 one?
    • 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 who 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:
    • (1) that there is a hold on your registration,
    • (2) that you believe the hold is under the Scofflaw Program,
    • (3) 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 who issued the hold; only resolving the underlying offense will clear the hold.
  • If you are unable to 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 toolkit 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 17-Do I Have Any Special Rights?

Texas Appleseed and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid have 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 available here.

  • 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 justice of municipal court for Failure to Attend School, your case should not involve fines or a criminal conviction.

Alternative Sentencing Options

  • If you are under 17, you do not have to prove that you are unable to pay a fine before asking for an alternative sentence. Alternative sentences are available to people under 17 regardless of their individual income or their household income.
  • You can still choose to pay the fine in full if you prefer to do that.
  • Or at any point, regardless of your income or your household income, you may request the court consider any of the following as your sentence instead of paying the fine:
    • tutoring
    • counseling
    • mentoring
    • job training
    • community service
    • alcohol or drug abuse rehabilitation
    • or other options that related to the charge. 
  • If you’re ordered to attend a class, the court can also order your parents or guardian to attend a class with you.
  • You can also ask for a payment plan too, but only do that if you're reasonably sure you'll be able to make the payments.

Deferred Dispositions & Juvenile Case Managers

  • Courts will often offer deferred dispositions to people under 17 in fine-only cases. This means that if you complete the conditions imposed by the court, the charge will be dismissed.
    • Conditions often include tutoring, counseling, classes, community service, etc.
    • If you don't complete the terms of the deferred, you will be convicted and ordered to pay a fine and costs. You will still have the right to request an alternative way to resolve those fines and costs, as discussed above.
  • Sometimes, the court will charge a fine or fee as part of the deferred disposition.  If you cannot pay the fine or fee, but still want to enter the deferred disposition agreement, tell the court you are unable to pay. The fine or fee can be waived by the court or converted into community service like any other fine.
  • Some courts also have “teen court” options.
    • This allows defendants to plead no contest or guilty and have their case heard by their peers.
    • Penalties are normally given in the form of community service or educational programs.
    • Typically if you complete the ordered community service or programming within a specified time frame, the charges against you will be dismissed.
  • Some courts employ juvenile case managers that you may have to check in with periodically if you have been given an alternative sentence to paying the fine or if you are placed on deferred disposition (aka “probation”).

Expungement

  • You have special rights as a juvenile to have your record expunged. 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.
  • Texas no longer punishes truancy as a criminal offense. All Failure to Attend School convictions prior to the law change in September 2015 should have been expunged.

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:

  1. you were acquitted (meaning you were found to be innocent);
  2. the charges were dropped; OR
  3. 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 to file the petition?
    • If your fine-only case was handled by a justice court, 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 that you can use if you ask the clerk.
  • You’ll need to pay a fee with the petition, which is 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 won't know about it.

To see if you may be eligible for an expunction or nondisclosure, use our Fresh Start App. It will ask you questions and tell you which option might be right for you.