by Johnathan Silver / texastribune.org
If a California-based company has its way, the following scenario could become common across Texas: A police officer pulls over a driver, not for speeding or some other traffic violation, but for outstanding court fines.
The cop then reveals a credit card machine and gives the driver two options: Pay off their bill now or go to jail.
Such a scenario is already playing out in a few spots in Texas, where Vigilant Solutions has partnerships with a handful of communities. The company is one of several that markets license-plate reading software to law enforcement, but it has gained attention in recent months for also offering credit card readers to allow officers to directly handle payments. Vigilant provides all of the equipment — the license-plate recognition technology and the credit card machines — for free but adds a 25 percent surcharge for processing each payment.
The cities of Kyle, Orange and Decatur and Guadalupe County are among the fewer than a dozen communities participating in the pilot program, according to interviews with law enforcement agencies and city officials around the state. The city of Blue Mound, outside of Fort Worth, has also recently signed up for the program, according to its police chief.
An official with Vigilant Solutions declined to identify any of the Texas cities or counties enrolled in its warrant redemption program.
Detractors such as Texas Appleseed, a social advocacy group, worry that the program encourages police to constantly search for drivers with outstanding fines. In those cases, pay now or go to jail are unfair options, said Mary Mergler, director of Texas Appleseed’s Criminal Justice Project.
“My biggest concerns are what’s happening when the law enforcement pull over people who can’t just get out of it with the swipe of a credit card,” Mergler said.
But Kyle police chief Jeff Barnett said officers are simply doing their job and justified using the program as a way to free up time to fight other crimes and help get outstanding court fines paid off faster.
“They’re already tasked with that responsibility anyway,” Barnett said. “They make house calls to warn or remind them of warrants and make arrests.”
The program’s growth follows last year’s passage of House Bill 121, which explicitly allowed police officers to use credit card readers to collect payment of fines during stops. The bill’s author, state Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, chairman of the House Select Committee on Emerging Issues In Texas Law Enforcement, said such programs are needed because outstanding court fees total more than $1 billion statewide. Kyle, alone, has $5 million in court fees related to unpaid warrants, according to city officials.
“The time has come where we’re going to use the technology available,” Fletcher said. “It’s going to keep our officers out there taking care of real criminals.”
The new law also saves the valuable time of officers, who might otherwise lose two or more hours arresting someone and taking them to jail, Fletcher said.
Both Barnett and Fletcher used a similar anecdote to defend the program: a mom driving with children in her car is pulled over for outstanding warrants. Making a payment during the stop would allow her to avoid the inconvenience and embarrassment of going to jail, as well as additional costs such as impounding a vehicle and being booked, they say.
“There’s never a convenient time to go to jail,” Barnett said, “but that is definitely not a convenient time to go to jail, when you’re caring for children or you are heading to work.”
Most of the state’s largest police departments told The Texas Tribune that they have not signed up for Vigilant Solution’s warrant redemption program. However, some cities, including Arlington, El Paso and San Antonio, either currently have or previously had a contract with Vigilant Solutions to use its license-plate recognition software. The police departments of Austin, Fort Worth, Corpus Christi and Laredo are not in the program either and do not have relationships with the company at all.
Plano uses the company’s license-plate recognition software but not its warrant redemption program. However, the city’s officers engage in a similar protocol with drivers with outstanding fines, offering them the chance to avoid a trip to jail by immediately visiting GovPayNow.com to make a payment. A Plano Police Department spokesman stressed that its officers don’t personally handle a driver’s debit or credit card.
Todd Hodnett, vice president of government relations at Vigilant Solutions and executive chairman and founder of Digital Recognition Network, a partner company of Vigilant, said the company’s program is a valuable tool for police departments. He noted that many law firms assess a 30 percent fee for collecting the same overdue fines by sending warrant notice letters to last-known addresses. Vigilant only charges a 25 percent fee, and its software more effectively helps find people with warrants, Hodnett said.
Along with concerns about the changing role of officers in collecting fines from drivers, Vigilant’s program has also drawn criticism from the Electronic Frontier Foundation that it turns law enforcement agencies into “data miners.” The group notes that participating law enforcement agencies are helping grow the company’s massive database, which identifies the location of millions of vehicles at different points in time.
“Even though the technology is marketed as budget neutral, that doesn’t mean no one has to pay,” writes Dave Maass, an EFF researcher. “Instead, Texas police fund it by gouging people who have outstanding court fines and handing Vigilant all of the data they gather on drivers for nearly unlimited commercial use.”
Hodnett disputed this characterization, as the company’s agreements with law enforcement agencies allow for either party to end the relationship. When that happens, he said, the company no longer has access to that client’s data that was collected.
Hodnett said he was struggling to understand why Vigilant’s pilot program has drawn so much criticism, given that the payment aspect is optional.
“If the person doesn’t want to do that, then they can go to jail, which was the alternative before [license plate recognition] or roadside swiping of a credit card ever came about,” Hodnett said. “It seems to me to be a good benefit that gives the citizens a choice that I know, if I were given that choice, I would gladly do that because I don’t want to go to jail.”
The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.