What Happens If You Drive a Car Without Proof of Insurance in Texas?
February 11th, 2019 by Tad Nelson in Traffic Offenses
When stopped by a police officer on suspicion of a traffic violation, a driver is typically asked to produce “proof of financial responsibility,” i.e. that their car is properly insured. Under Texas law, operating a motor vehicle without proof of insurance is itself a violation. Fortunately we are not talking about a felony here. The maximum penalty for a first offense is a fine of between $175 and $350.
Defendant Tries, Fails to Avoid Ticket by Employing Clever Wordplay
As with any traffic violation, you have the right to contest a charge of driving without proof of insurance in court. But keep in mind, not every argument has legal merit. For example, a state appeals court in Amarillo recently rejected a self-represented defendant’s attempt to beat his $350 fine by attempting to engage in some creative wordplay with the court.
The defendant in this case, Lamberth v. State did not dispute the underlying facts of the case. When stopped by a police officer, the defendant failed to provide proof of insurance during a traffic stop. The officer also could not verify the defendant was insured using a database.
So what was the defendant’s argument? Well, the Texas Transportation Code says that a person may not operate a motor vehicle “in this state” establishing proof of financial responsibility. A separate section of the Code defines “state” to mean “a state, territory, or possession of the United States.”
Now, obviously Texas is a state within the United States. But the defendant maintained the prosecution only proved that he was “cited while he was within a state (Texas) of the United States of America.” Somehow, the omission of the words “of America” made the financial responsibility statute ambiguous in the defendant’s view. The Court of Appeals said that was ridiculous. Indeed, even if the phrase “United States” was somehow unclear, the financial responsibility statute itself only requires proof that the defendant operated a vehicle within the State of Texas, not the United States (or the United States of America).
Does “Unconfirmed” Insurance Status Justify a Traffic Ticket?
As noted in the case above, the arresting officer searched a database to confirm whether or not the defendant was actually insured. Such databases are commonly used by law enforcement. For instance, in another case from last October, Morning v. State, a defendant challenged the legality of a traffic stop based on the fact a database search of his license plate returned an insurance status of “unconfirmed.” The Texas Tenth District Court of Appeals held that taking into account all of the circumstances–notably the arresting officer’s experience and the overall accuracy of the database–there was “reasonable suspicion” to justify the stop.
However, the Tenth District also pointed to a number of cases from other Texas appeals courts that held the police “lacked reasonable suspicion” to initiate a traffic stop “based on the word ‘unconfirmed’” in a database search or dispatch “and no other information.” So if you are cited for driving without proof of insurance, you might have grounds to challenge the ticket and accompanying fine.