Judge Guillory: Better approach could help county collect hundreds of thousands in unpaid warrants

Published 12:40 am Thursday, April 27, 2023

In his fourth month in office, Justice of the Peace Joseph Guillory II and his staff discovered the Precinct 2 office had more than $364,000 in unpaid warrants on file.

They dated back to 1997.

“It’s not just this office,” Guillory said. “I’ve talked to other JPs and they’ve experienced the same thing.”

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Judge Brad Burnett said the JPs utilize a program called Omnibase Services, which prevents drivers from renewing their license if they have an unpaid warrant.

“But that’s a slow process,” Guillory said. “We only renew our license once every few years.”

Passed by the Texas legislature in 2011, Scofflaw allows municipalities to flag vehicle registration stickers. Those with unpaid debts cannot renew their registration until the fine is cleared.

“There are other counties that have this system in place, and they’ve proven it to be very helpful,” Guillory said. “When I was talking with the tax assessor in Hidalgo (County), they received $30 million in the first year this program was implemented. That caused me to do more research on the program and what we had available here in our office.”

Hidalgo County implemented the program in 2012.

Guillory hopes to speak with county commissioners regarding Scofflaw soon.

“I really don’t want this to come to the point where we go out and arrest people,” he said. “That’s labor intensive. That’s more burden on the taxpayer. And on the defendants, that puts a greater squeeze on them, simply because now they aren’t able to go to work.”

The typical fine ranges between $300 to $400, Guillory said. Those that cannot pay it when arrested are credited $100 per day.

“I don’t think that’s the right approach to serving the community,” he said. “We want to do what’s best for the community, and we want to take the least abrasive approach and ask for everyone to comply.”

But in addition, Guillory said, the extra funds could prevent tax increases and potentially lead to a reduction in property taxes.

“I think that’s an opportunity for us to collect millions of dollars,” Burnett said.

And while there’s no guarantee the county would collect every dollar owed, Guillory said the opportunity is there.

“We cannot continue to allow things to go undone without at least making a conscious effort to minimize it,” he said. “Maybe we don’t collect all of it. Maybe we collect half of it. Whatever we collect is a whole lot more than we’re collecting now.”

Warrants owed to a Justice of the Peace are typically Class C misdemeanors issued by the Department of Public Safety and Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.

“Why write the tickets in the first place if we’re not going to collect? One minute we say we’re going to keep this county safe, and the next minute say we’re not going to enforce it because we’re worried about whether we get re-elected or not,” Guillory said. “I’m not concerned whether I get re-elected or not. For me, it’s about the work. I just want to make sure I do the work and set the standard for the work. When I took this job, I made that commitment. I made a promise. And prayerfully I will see it through.”

Currently Precinct 2 is offering a warrant amnesty program through the end of May. Green cards are being sent to urge people to address their debt. Red cards will follow warning of an impending arrest, beginning June 1.

Guillory said the office offers payment plans and other options.

“There’s many options,” he said. “The biggest thing is the people fail to come in and communicate with us.”