Occupational Driver License Facts

There are two authorities that can suspend a driver’s license: DPS and a criminal judge. There are two authorities that can order DPS to issue an occupational driver’s license: a criminal judge and a county court judge. In some counties, one county court at law judge is assigned the task of handling all petitions for occupational driver’s licenses (Fort Bend and Montgomery). In Harris County, jurisdiction is split by administrative rule.

Criminal judges can suspend licenses for various reasons, usually for a conviction for a DWI, a drug case, or for some other driving-related crime, such as racing or fictitious inspection sticker. The Texas Department of Public Safety can also administratively suspend a driver’s license for a myriad of other reasons (commonly called a departmental suspension). In Harris County, whenever a criminal judge suspends a license, the criminal judge has jurisdiction over a Petition for an Occupational License. Additionally, by administrative rule, some departmental suspensions that by law could be heard in the county civil courts at law are instead heard by criminal judges, such as a breath test failure or refusal suspensions. These are in cases where there is a related pending criminal case, including DWI probation or DWI DIVERT for first offenders.

Harris County civil courts at law encounter petitions for occupational licenses for several reasons, almost always unrelated to a criminal case. Most suspensions have their genesis from unpaid surcharges, either knowingly or unknowingly. Surcharges accrue from convictions for certain ticket cases, most notably failure to maintain financial responsibility (no insurance). The surcharge for this violation is $750, spread over three years. A second conviction not only adds another $750, but there is an “SR suspension” that requires the licensee to file an SR22 certificate with DPS, even if current on the surcharges.

If the only problem you have is an “SR suspension,” all that is required is to get current on the surcharges and file an SR22 insurance certificate. Your regular license is then reinstated without the need for an occupational license.

However, many people either can’t afford the surcharges, or more commonly, do not know that anything is amiss. Lack of actual knowledge occurs because notices of surcharges sent by DPS (through its contractor Municipal Services Bureau) never reach the licensee, even when the licensee has filed a change of address with the post office. All mailed notices from DPS instruct the US Postal Service “DO NOT FORWARD.” By law, you must notify DPS directly of any address change. Change of address notices filed with US Postal Service do not work for DPS mailings. Thus, many DPS notices never arrive in the licensee’s mailbox.

Many in such a suspended status are then later ticketed for something new. The citation issues for the violation that drew the attention of the officer in the first place, such as an expired inspection or registration, speeding, etc. Even if the officer does not run the license, and does not write a Driving While License Invalid violation, a problem arises.

The driver then, without counsel, pays one of more of the violations. When thc municipal or JP court reports the conviction to DPS, DPS’ computer then matches the date of the violation with the surcharge suspension. The licensee is determined by DPS to be driving while the license was suspended (for nonpayment of the surcharge), triggering another suspension action.

When the time comes to renew the license, or when another police officer checks the driving record, voila!, you are surprised to learn that your license is suspended. Hopefully, you don’t find out the hard way via an arrest for driving with a suspended license. The usual first offense for driving while license suspended is a Class C ticket, unless you cannot show current insurance or your suspension arises out of a criminal case. A conviction for a driving while license invalid or suspended results in another $750 surcharge and an additional suspension. A second offense is a Class B, up to 180 days in jail, and more surcharges. And on and on!
The problem can be like a black hole, perpetuating itself, driving you deeper and deeper into debt, creating longer and longer suspensions and increasing the risk of incarceration.

Some other common reasons that a person might have a suspended, cancelled or invalid license are as follows:

  1. Being convicted of four or more moving violations within any 12 month period (termed “habitual violator” by DPS).
  2. An unresolved issue from another state. That state’s counterpart to the Texas Department of Public Safety notifies the Texas Department of Public Safety of the suspended status of driving privileges in that other state. The Texas Department of Public Safety honors that out-of-state suspension as a matter of comity. DPS then notifies the Texas licensee of the cancellation of the Texas license.
  3. Driving after the license is expired. Sometimes a person has a failure to appear or an unpaid fine in a municipal or JP court, and that court notifies DPS. DPS will not permit renewal until the issue is resolved in the court. Driving after the expiration is the same as driving on a suspended license.
  4. Being determined at fault in an accident without insurance. DPS requires a settlement with the aggrieved party before it will remove the indefinite suspension. Sometimes, an occupational license is the only way the licensee can work in order to pay off the claim.

What is the proper role of the court regarding proof of insurance, including SR22 certificates, in connection with an occupational driver’s license? Once the court is satisfied that an SR22 certificate is in the possession of the petitioner, the court need only include language in the order that the petitioner comply with the law of financial responsibility throughout the term of the license. To begin with, the court’s order is not the license itself. Instead, it is an order directed to DPS to issue an occupational license. Pursuant to Trans Code 521.244(c), the court shall as part of the order determine the actual need of the petitioner and require petitioner to provide evidence of financial responsibility in accordance with Chapter 601. Trans Code 601.341 requires that the licensee file with DPS evidence of financial responsibility. This is commonly known as the SR22 certificate. If an SR22 is not continuously filed, the suspension cannot be terminated. 601.341(1). In other words, the DPS will revoke any occupational driver’s license if an SR 22 certificate lapses, no matter what a court may order.

If an SR22 has been produced for the court, the court will know that the petitioner has prepaid liability protection for at least 30 days. A copy of the court’s order to the DPS to issue an occupational driver’s license may only be used by the petitioner as a restricted license until the 31st day after the date the order takes effect. Trans. Code 521.249(a). After that period of time, DPS monitors insurance and will cancel the license if proof is missing in the form of SR22. This is because that is the purpose of SR22. It is a certificate issued by the insurance carrier that it has already been paid at least 30 days in advance, and that it will notify DPS if you miss a payment and the insurance company is going to cancel the policy once your prepaid period runs out. After that, DPS must cancel the occupational license if proof of insurance is not thereafter continuously filed with DPS. Trans. Code 521.249(b) and 601.341.

The court need only require a show of current liability of insurance, and SR22, and condition the order to require insurance as required by law to protect the public and itself. Regardless of the wording of the order, DPS will cancel the occupational license in advance of any period of time when insurance will not be in effect. It is not the court’s role to continuously monitor petitioner’s payment of insurance once it finds an essential need to drive and orders DPS to issue an occupational driver’s license. At the time of this writing (May, 2012), out of the 19 Harris County courts at law, and all of the surrounding county courts in Montgomery, Waller, Fort Bend, Galveston, and Brazoria, only two courts require subsequent insurance compliance hearings (Harris County Civil Courts at Law Nos. 1 and 4).

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