AUSTIN (KXAN) – In 2015, a record-breaking 102 people died on Austin roads. According to police records, 32 of the fatal crashes last year involved a driver with a suspended or invalid driver license.
A KXAN Investigation reveals thousands of drivers were ticketed for driving without a valid license in 2015.
As the number of deadly crashes mount, the Austin Police Department says it backs a citizen-led plan for tougher law enforcement policies to curb the problem, which includes impounding vehicles of suspended or invalid drivers. What’s unknown is how realistic such a move would be since there is little evidence such a policy is in practice anywhere in Texas.
Currently, Austin police say a first time offender will typically be cited, issued a ticket for a Class C misdemeanor to appear in Municipal Court then allowed to get back in their car with a promise they’ll show up for their court date. APD policy allows the same for a second-time offender where the citation is raised to a Class B. The process is known as cite and release.
“What happens is, a lot of times the policy allows for not making a custodial arrest,” says APD Commander Art Fortune. Fortune heads up a busy Highway Enforcement Division, a unit of APD that responds to and investigates traffic collisions across the growing urban area.
“[The officer] can issue a citation in lieu of arrest. And a lot of times that is [done] to not tie the jail up with what are considered non-violent offenders,” Fortune says.
Currently, police say a driver’s vehicle will only be impounded if the driver is arrested on a DWI charge or outstanding criminal warrant.
It's a well-used option. In 2015, KXAN discovered 3,883 Municipal Court cases where Austin police issued tickets to people driving while their license was suspended or invalid. KXAN Investigators counted another 12,633 citations for no driver's license—that included repeat offenders in cars or motorcycles.
Lives Changed or Lost
One of the drivers who died while driving without a license was 29-year-old Travis Lee Baromeo. Baromeo died behind the wheel of his 1989 Honda Civic the evening of May 27, 2015.
Police crash reports concluded Baromeo was traveling 47 mph when his small red car slammed into the front of an SUV driven by another young man. The devastating head-on collision happened as the SUV driver, traveling north on Cooper Lane started to turn left on a yellow light onto West William Cannon Drive. The speed limit on Cooper Lane is 30 mph. In police reports, witnesses say a southbound Baromeo tried to run the same light. A small, memorial marker now shows the spot.
Baromeo died three weeks shy of what would have been his 30th birthday. An obituary shows he was one of four brothers. He had gone to school to be a chef and loved to work on cars. His aunt tells KXAN Baromeo was following in her footsteps in the food service industry and even lived with her for awhile.
The man he hit, a 23-year-old Austinite, admits he is still consumed by that traumatic night.
“I'm turning, then lights, I had maybe a split second to think about it then… just the best descriptive I can [make] is [that it was] just an explosion, a lot of force,” remembers James, who asked that his last name not be identified.
Court records show Baromeo had been stopped twice before for driving with a suspended license; he pleaded no contest in both cases.
Those brushes with the law apparently didn’t keep him out of trouble. Municipal Court records show four tickets for speeding, other moving violations like no seat belt and failure to keep a clear distance as well as three for driving without insurance (failure to maintain financial responsibility). All tickets were paid, records show.
The night he collided with James, the police report shows Baromeo—had he lived—would have been charged with yet another driving while suspended offense.
James says he's slowly recovering from what he admits was a profound life event. "[I think about it] two, three times a week. I think about how I had just gotten out on my own… I was actually doing pretty good, paying all my bills by myself, groceries. Then this happened,” says James. “I will always reserve some fault for myself [for failing to yield]... And it's going to take I imagine a little bit longer than eight months to come to terms with,” James says.
Drivers who have been cited more than 10 times for driving without a valid license, driving with a suspended license and lack of insurance.
Source: City of Austin Municipal Court
It is not difficult to find someone flouting the law. Recently, KXAN sat in Travis County Law Court, where people with multiple driving offenses end up if they don’t take care of citations in Municipal Court.
KXAN tracked one 33-year-old man who the docket showed has three outstanding charges of driving while license suspended. KXAN chose not to name the man since he has made an apparent effort to clear his name. The day he was in court he asked the court to appoint a lawyer for him claiming he was indigent. When a KXAN photographer followed him out to his car—even though he told police he had no insurance or a valid Texas license—the man got behind the wheel of a Toyota sedan registered to a family member and drove away.
Records show the first two times Austin police stopped him, in July and September of 2014, they wrote him citations and released him. Only on his third traffic stop this past November, when the officer noticed outstanding warrants for failure to appear in court related to those first citations, was the man arrested. Even then, he bonded out of jail the next day. Records from the Department of Public Safety show the man’s license was first suspended for impaired driving offenses.
That driver was just one of dozens of people listed on the court docket the day KXAN sat in; and only one of a few who actually showed up to take care of their driving-related offenses.
“We do see quite a bit of recidivism… People aren't seeing the seriousness of getting that license and complying with the law. Part of that could be them being irresponsible,” says Fortune.
Impounding an Unlicensed Driver's Vehicle
After a year where a third of Austin’s traffic fatalities involved a driver whose license was suspended or invalid—eight of the drivers with existing infractions lost their own lives—Fortune confirms to KXAN he is pressing forward with a task force recommendation to reduce the number of avoidable crashes and the resulting trail of broken vehicles and bodies left behind.
The recommendation to consider changing the cite-and-release policy for people who drive without a license or a suspended license is one of more than 60 short-term actions in the Vision Zero Task Force draft report. The plan has been presented to various city commissions for further public input. A final version is due before City Council in May, according to Transportation Department staff. The Vision Zero Task Force was formed in late 2014 to curb traffic deaths.
"People aren't seeing the seriousness of getting that license and complying with the law. Part of that could be them being irresponsible."—APD Cmdr. Art Fortune
“One of the things we're looking at doing is making that recommendation [to the Chief] if you, the driver are stopped, and you don't have a driver’s license or your license is suspended, even if it's their first offense their vehicle should always be towed, unless there's another driver in the vehicle that has a valid license that can drive the vehicle,” Fortune explains. “The way I look at it, if it's their second offense for not having a driver's license, or being 'license invalid' then potentially a custodial arrest should always take place in lieu of the citation.”
Jailtime. Period. State law allows authorities to suspend or even revoke someone's license for a variety of offenses, from not having vehicle insurance to failure to pay child support.
On Feb. 1, Austin’s citizen-led Public Safety Commission voted to recommend council pass even tougher standards: endorsing a motion to create an APD policy change to allow police to impound someone’s car for driving on a suspended or invalid license.
It’s a move Fortune backs, though any policy change would ultimately be up to the police chief after a legal review.
Several Texas cities already have a version of that on the books including San Antonio, Wichita Falls, Waco and El Paso. But, the local laws relate to driving with no insurance, not suspended/invalid driver’s license. Dallas in 2009 led the way in North Texas allowing city police to impound someone’s vehicle after a traffic stop if they showed having no insurance.
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