Thursday, March 31, 2005

Gathering biometric data on drivers back up this morning

HB 2337 allowing the Texas Department of Public Safety to gather a database of biometric facial recognition information on Texas drivers and ID card holders is up at 8 a.m. in a re-scheduled hearing of the House Defense Affairs Committee. I'll be there to testify, then I'm tied up most of the day, but check out prior Grits coverage for more on the subject:

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Cheerleaders 1, Al Edwards 0

Former Westlake High cheerleader Margeaux Goodfleisch, 18, deserved great props yesterday for her classily reserved testimony, I'm told by those who attended the hearing regarding Al Edwards' no-sexy cheerleaders bill. Afterward, one legislator told her she'd given the best testimony he'd heard all session, an ACLU lege team member reported. The Statesman's Jason Embry was impressed enough to devote this much-deserved blog post to her testimony. Here's the money quote:
“It could be someone’s opinion that any time a group of young, attractive girls dance, it’s sexually suggestive."
I'm pretty much in that camp, personally. I just don't favor banning the practice. I got to meet Margeux and her two-toned hairdo briefly before showtime yesterday, and she seemed together and prepared. Sounds like she knocked their socks off. Only the Eagle Forum, a religious right group affiliated with Phyllis Schlafly, supported the bill, and their main question was whether it would include dramatic performances? Yes, Edwards said, to their satisfaction. Great -- why don't we just ban free expression entirely until Edwards gets around to issuing a checklist of do's and don'ts for dance and theater?

Embry said there was loose talk of a "softer version" of the bill, but it sounds to me like
it's not going anywhere fast. Good job, Margeaux, Pam and Tracey!

Why Drug Task Forces Must Go 101

Here's a few highlights of the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee hearing yesterday regarding HB 1239 which would end Texas' current drug task force system and require creation of regional unified drug control strategies:
  • Rep. Hodge showed a 20-minute video by the Kunstler sisters about the Tulia case after laying out the bill. Later on, during a discussion on another bill about tow-truck regulations, a tow-truck company owner said he'd seen that video and thought to himself, "You know, I don't really have any problems. I should just go on home."
  • Hulon Brown, an 84-year old former state representative and former district attorney from Jacksonville testified regarding several scandalous cases involving the Dogwood Trails drug task force, which is the one that busted 72 black folks last fall in an undercover drug sting. (The defendants in those state cases recently began to go to trial and are starting to be convicted.) One of his clients, he said, was arrested for cocaine possession based on a positive field test performed by a task force officer, but the lab found no cocaine, just worming medicine for dogs. The DA did not disclose the lab test results once he knew them, he said. Brown described how corrupt task forces in East Texas were corrupting the local police agencies in turn.
  • Freddie Brookins, Sr. from Tulia, gave some details I'd never heard before. He thinks his son was caught up in the Tulia sting by accident. Freddie did business at the auction barn where Tom Coleman worked and knew him a little bit. He thinks Coleman got his address from his checks at the auction barn and told the authorities to arrest Freddie Brookins, not realizing there was a junior and a senior. Freddie's one of my favorites from the Tulia crowd - a real hero. (There are a lot of heroes over at Tulia Friends of Justice - Thelma, Alan, Nancy, Mattie, Charles, everybody - I'm talking 'bout you.)
  • Charles Workman from Hearne said the task force in his area targeted the same black families and neighborhoods over and over since it began in the late '80s. Documents revealed during discovery in litigation with ACLU reveal that over a several-year period, 85% of arrests by the drug task force in the Hearne sting were black defendants.
  • Jeff Blackburn, the lead attorney in the Tulia cases, said quotas for narcotics investigators should be banned just like for traffic tickets. He thought spending Byrne grant money on drug treatment facilities and drug courts instead of task forces would have helped several addicted Tulia defendants who could not find drug treatment programs in the Panhandle region. After much effort, Blackburn finally found them help in not-so-nearby Abilene.
  • The only drug treatment center for indigents in Wichita Falls has closed, a witness said. Now the nearest treatment facility is in Abilene. How many people, one wonders, can receive drug treatment in Abilene?
  • Testimony on behalf of Hodge's bill was so compelling that proponents of later reform bills tried to draw themes from what happened. An Austin police officer testifying to reform towing regulations said the lack of accountability over towtruck operators was the "same" issue as in Tulia. Somehow I doubt it.
Good stuff. If you want to see more, including law enforcement apologia not described above, the video feed is here, and HB 1239 comes up at 4:30. My own testimony was first up after the Kunstler video, but you guys have read my schtick.

UPDATE: This bill was voted out of committee this afternoon (3-30)

Penalty increases DOA in Senate?

Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire will block any bills increasing prison sentences in response to the overincarceration crisis, the Houston Democrat told Mike Ward in today's Austin Statesman.
"They're not going anywhere," said Whitmire, referring to the dozens of Senate and House bills that would enhance punishments for a variety of crimes, including auto burglary, theft from vending machines and dog fighting. As chairman of the committee that oversees prisons and criminal justice issues, Whitmire has the clout to keep bills from passing out of his committee.

"If it's really an issue of public safety, then we'll find the money to get the additional (prison) beds. But with many of the bills I've seen, we're being asked to enhance penalties when prosecutors and judges aren't even sentencing people to the full penalties now.

"So far, I haven't seen any enhancement bills I believe we absolutely have to have."

Thank heavens, and thank you, Senator. Whitmire said the bills he wouldn't allow to pass include HB 151, discussed previously by Grits here, here, here, and here.

Pack your pistola and hit the road

If this Fall a rash of gunfights break out on Texas' highways, maybe you should blame me. A little bit, anyway. Or maybe it will just be okay.

Despite good intentions, I've not been blogging much when I testify before legislative committees, often because I get home tired then realize what I just sat through was boring as hell. But last night I was rewarded for waiting through a long hearing by getting to significantly influence a bill.

Testifying on behalf of ACLU of Texas at a meeting of the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, I spoke in favor of HB 823 by Keel, which I discussed Monday, allowing Texas drivers to carry a firearm in their vehicle. The National Rifle Association was there in force behind it. Like
Sputnik from the Motorcycle Rights Association, though, I complained about a change in the committee substitute that defined "traveling" as only occurring when a driver "crosses or intends to cross a county line."

Such language would invite drivers to lie to police officers, I told the committee, since the only defense to carrying a gun in one's car would be to say you're preparing to travel to the next county.
Rep. Debbie Riddle surprised us both, I'd guess, by agreeing with me, declaring that she lived four minutes from the Harris County line north of her home, but didn't feel the need to carry a firearm traveling into Montgomery County. By contrast, she could travel for two hours south through Houston, depending on traffic, without reaching a county line, and she felt more like she needed personal protection for that trip.

I argued that current law encouraged unnecessary and unproductive vehicle searches because police officers considered even legal guns contraband. If guns were legal to own they should be legal to transport, and gun owners shouldn't be harassed. The current statute is an example of what Michael Quinn Sullivan of the Texas Public Policy Foundation has called the "criminalization of civil life," I told them. Public safety isn't the issue. If I were packing a gun in the committee meeting that evening, I said, the committeemembers wouldn't be one bit less safe because I don't want to shoot anybody. Similarly, police wouldn't be less safe because law abiding gun owners don't pose a risk, and they're already in jeopardy from the bad guys.

Chairman Terry Keel, R-Austin, the bill sponsor, said the definition of "traveling" for the purpose of carrying a firearm in your vehicle had been debated for years but never adequately resolved, and asked how I would solve it. I suggested deleting the county line nonsense, simply defining "traveling" as when someone is in a private motor vehicle, is not "otherwise engaged in criminal activity," and is "otherwise entitled or eligible to possess a firearm" - language that was already in his bill. In essence, that means that if you legally own a gun and don't intend to use it to commit a crime, you could legally transport it wherever you want in your car. After conferring a moment with his colleagues, Keel announced he would accept ACLU's suggestion. I replied that he should take it and run with it.

I did have one chilling moment in the hearing, I'll say. A cop's wife brought by the National Rifle Association testified that she wanted to carry a small pistol, loaded, in her glove box, but assured committee members that it would be locked in the glove compartment with the safety on to protect "the little ones." If some dumbass leaves a pistol in the glove box as a result of this bill and some kid blows his fool head off, I probably won't feel so friggin clever. By contrast, though, a lot more kids die in car wrecks and that doesn't cause the government to restrict our right to travel. Sh*t happens. Similar dire predictions about allowing concealed carry permits for handguns didn't pan out, so hopefully that fear won't either. The same risk already exists in gun owners' homes.

I split after my testimony, but I see this morning that Chairman Keel wound up leaving the bill pending. I figured as much. By the time the bill had been heard (it was the final one on the agenda), the committee no longer had a quorum. It seemed to have the necessary votes, though, and could be voted out as soon as next week. Here's the video feed of the hearing, if you're interested; the bill came up at 9:55 p.m.

UPDATE: The next day this bill passed favorably out of committee.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Busy criminal justice day at the Texas Lege

3-30 Addendum: Blogger's funky today and won't let me do a new post, but I've updated yesterday's items, and will post later if the system allows. SH

Busy day for me, so light blogging, but check out these Grits posts about today's hot criminal justice topics:

  • Penalty increases may require new prisons. The House will vote on budget busting increases in prison sentences today, while the Legislative Budget Board continues to mislead legislators about the costs. Civil rights groups are holding a press conference at 9:30 this morning to oppose these so-called "enhancements." See the Solutions handout opposing Rep. Truitt's HB 151 increasing penalties for burglary of a vehicle, and here for more background on penalty increases. Update: Bill passed, see coverage from the Houston Chronicle. The Brownsville Herald credits Rep. Aaron Peña with both supporting the penalty increase and opposing filling the prisons up: nice trick, that. His stratagem so far didn't pay off with any compromise, though. Nuther update: Rep. Peña has more on his own blog.
  • Shift task force money to treatment. Legislation to abolish Texas' regional narcotics task forces will be heard today in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. Civil rights groups want that money shifted to other priorities like drug treatment and fixing Texas' crime labs. Later this morning I'm headed up to go around the capitol with an 84-year old ex-legislator and defense lawyer from Jacksonville named Hulon Brown, who is coming into town to testify in favor of task force abolition. After nearly two decades, he's fed up with their local task force. See the Solutions handout in favor of the bill. Update: No coverage of the hearing, but the testimony was compelling and committee members seemed to view it favorably.
  • Meth madness hits the Senate. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee today will hear legislation to increase penalties for meth use and production, even though treatment and drug courts are proven to work better. In Oklahoma, a much-ballyhooed meth crackdown just shifted addicts to cocaine. See the Solutions handout on meth. Update: Bill was left pending. See coverage here, here, and here.
  • Second Amendment at traffic stops. Rep. Terry Keel's bill I supported yesterday allowing drivers to carry a handgun in their personal vehicle will be heard this afternoon in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. Update: Bill was left pending, see here for more.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Well looky here

Responding, apparently, to demands from the peanut gallery, Texas' first legislator blogger, Rep. Aaron Peña has moved to a blogspot address: Drop by and say "hello," and update your bookmarks; it's

I must say I'll appreciate being able to link to the good representative's posts. (His old blog cannot be adequately described, only experienced.) Now we need to get Eddie Rodriguez up and running.

Enjoy your new digs, Rep. Pe

Private prisons lurking as last resort to overincarceration

There is a vested interest that expressly hopes that a) Texas will continue to indiscriminately increase prison sentences, and b) that the state chooses not to fix the problem: Private prison companies. In the long run, if the state does not build more prison units and continues to increase penalties, the only alternative is to lease space from increasingly full county jails and, ultimately, private prisons.

There's little question private prison companies would like for the state to turn to their industry to solve the overincarceration crisis, as Governor Perry has occasionally hinted, though one always hears it phrased "as a last resort." Corrections Corporation of America has several lobbyists at the capitol -- the Ethics Commission website lists five of them, receiving between $75,000 and $170,000, collectively, but they spent more money on more lobbyists in 2003. One of their lobsters, Lara Laneri Keel, is married to a cousin of House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee chairman Terry Keel, reported Texans for Public Justice. That didn't help CCA much last session, though, when she also worked for them and Chairman Keel opposed privatization, calling it a "dismal failure" in Texas.

CCA only gave token amounts in Texas' 2004 election cycle, but was not a big player in legislative elections: $5K to Governer Perry, even though he wasn't running, and another $2,500 to the Republican Legislative Caucus, reports The only other recipient of CCA largesse was East Texas Democrat Chuck Hopson, who got $500.

By contrast, two other private prison firms who had a big lobby presence in 2003 don't seem to be around this time, at least according to the Ethics commission lobby reports: Wackenhut and Correctional Services Corp. didn't register any lobbyists this time around, compared to 7 and 3 respectively in 2003. Wackenhut gave $6,250 in Texas state legislative races last year to just seven candidates,
according to, but that hardly makes them a big gun in the Texas lobby field. Overall, private prison lobbyists don't seem to be out in force by comparison to last session, when there was a big push on their behalf and a House floor fight. This year, I know of no legislation to privatize existing prison facilities, though anybody, please, correct me if I'm wrong.

On the other hand, there may be good reasons they're laying low. I'm clearly not visiting the South Texans Opposing Private Prisons (STOPP) website often enough because I'd missed them highlighting this piece on the resignation of two Willacy County officials in an alleged bribery scandal involving private corrections companies, including three that allegedly employed state Sen. Eddie Lucio or his firm as a consultant. (While that may seem a bit cozy to those not used to how we do things here in Texas, nobody to my knowledge has accused Lucio of any impropriety. Remember, these guys earn $7,500 per year as legislators, so they all earn a living somehow.)

The fallout from the story hasn't reached Austin yet, but obviously there's that possibility. According to this article from the February edition of LareDos,
It is apparently resignation season in South Texas. Willacy County commissioners José Jimenez and Israel Tamez resigned just after waiving indictment and being convicted on federal conspiracy charges for accepting bribes of about $10,000 in the awarding of contracts for the Willacy County Adult Correctional Center in Raymondville. The violation of the Hobbs Act carries a penalty of imprisonment of not more than 20 years and/or a fine not to exceed $250,000.

Decisions for the construction of the $14.5 million Willacy correctional facility began in June 2000. Both commissioners admitted to receiving $10,000 or more from corporate representatives involved in the design, construction, financing, maintenance, and management of the 500-bed facility. The payments, according to a factual summary signed by the defendants, were in exchange for providing the particular corporate representatives with advantages not available to others interested in and competing for the design, construction, financing, maintenance, and management of the facility.

The companies involved in the construction of the Willacy County facility include jail consultant Corplan Corrections of Argyle, TX, design-builder Hale Mills Construction of Houston, Aguirre Corp. of Dallas , and the Management and Training Center (MTC) of Utah , which manages the Willacy detention center.

No company has been named as a source of the bribes; however, the investigation underway by the Texas Rangers, the FBI, and the Willacy County Sheriff's Department continues. It is widely speculated that other individuals, including a third Willacy County commissioner, will face charges.

There are several very interesting sidebars to this story.

One is that Senator Eddie Lucio of Brownsville has been on the payroll of both jail consultant Corplan Corrections and MTC, the Utah firm that manages the Willacy County correctional facility as a consultant. Aguirre Corp. is also a client of Lucio's consulting firm. According to the Texas Ethics Commission, in 2003 Lucio received $25,000 or more from Corplan; $25,000 or more from MTC; and $10,000 to $24,999 from Aguirre.

If the names Corplan, Aguirre, and Hale Mills sound familiar, it's because they are. The three companies formed the team that built the Webb County Detention Center on Hwy. 83, the $23 million facility that was begun in late 1997 and sold to Correctional Corporation of America before construction was completed.

Former Webb County Commissioner Rick Reyes later became a consultant for Corplan and Hale Mills and worked with Corplan, Aguirre, and Hale Mills on a $1.5 million, 180-bed upgrade on the downtown jail in 2000.

Encinal residents are no doubt familiar with Corplan and Hale Mills, whom consultant Reyes brought to the table for the planning and construction of the $27 million LaSalle County detention facility which was completed last spring. Though Encinal residents waged a good fight against the 500-bed facility from the inception of the project in September 2002, the LaSalle County commissioners -- ignoring the detention center's environmental and quality of life issues that have taxed the small town's water and sewage infrastructure and doubled Encinal's population -- gave the project a green light.
Juicy stuff. See LareDos for more. Hopefully legislators like Keel, Kolkhorst, Whitmire and others who stopped the private prison stampede in 2003 will do so again this time around. But if the Legislature keeps increasing penalties, Texas may not have a choice in the short term but to lease space from somebody - we're gonna have to put these guys somewhere.

Law allowing guns in vehicles protects rights

I support Rep. Terry Keel's HB 823 which will be heard in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee tomorrow. As I read it, the bill amends section 46.02 of the Penal Code to make it legal to carry a gun in your vehicle, regardless of whether you're traveling out of your home county, unless you're barred from possessing a weapon for other reasons, like a felony record, etc.

A lot of my liberal friends will complain that road rage incidents will henceforth involve roadway gunfights. Maybe so. A few always did. Perhaps they'll grant, though, that allowing Texans concealed carry permits never caused the much-predicted upsurge in gun violence.

Even if you oppose gun violence - and who doesn't? - it's hard to deny that the erosion of individual Second Amendment rights has had the unintended consequence of allowing law enforcement to abrogate other important liberties. Police frequently use legal weapon ownership as an excuse for searching vehicles, for example, and prosecutors do the same to "enhance" charges for otherwise penny-ante offenses. A drug beef becomes a more serious offense if there's an otherwise legal gun in the house, especially in the federal system where a lot of gun crimes now go. Many Texans legally own a gun, myself included, and there's no good reason for gun owners to receive extra attention from law enforcement unless there's probable cause to believe we've done something wrong with it.

Arguing on behalf of ACLU for a consent search ban, I've been told by officers that they're only searching for two things: guns and drugs. This bill would remove one major incentive for police to search at traffic stops.

Beyond that, though, I favor reversing the trend of making criminal offenses of otherwise legal behavior like carrying a legal firearm, sleeping on a park bench or suggestive cheerleading - what Michael Quinn Sullivan of the Texas Public Policy Foundation has called the "criminalization of civil life." We've got too many damn laws, and too many ways the system can jack with people for no good reason. HB 823 would remove one of those reasons at a traffic stop.

Scott has more.

Who is to blame for prison red ink? LBB, and those who believe them

This week, the Texas Legislative Budget Board's phony estimates regarding the cost of bills increasing prison sentences appear about to come home to roost. If legislators don't figure out LBB's numbers are bogus, the state can expect an ocean of red ink for which nobody's budgeted.

I mentioned Friday that HB 151, which increases the penalty from a misdemeanor to a felony for burglary of a vehicle, appears on Tuesday's House calendar. That bill would require building 500-700 new prison beds, but in his coverage on Sunday, the Statesman's Mike Ward repeats LBB's laughably false estimate that the bill would only cost the state $9 million per year. The real figure is more like $200-$350 million to build more prison units, depending on who is estimating.

I know from experience where LBB is getting their math wrong, because ACLU made exactly the same mistake a couple of years ago. Ultimately, then-Texas Criminal Justice Policy Council Director Tony Fabelo set us straight, and in the end of our discussions I'd accepted that his model was more valid than our simplistic approach. Now that his agency has been abolished, LBB apparently is reinventing the wheel, and without Fabelo's sage experience, they're giving the Legislature flat-out wrong information.

Here's how I learned this lesson. When preparing
in 2002 to promote sentence restructuring for low-level, non-violent offenders last session, ACLU asked for Texas' prisoner database under the open records act. The data wasn't much good, but we were able to come up with rough estimates of how many inmates would be removed from the state system, say, if low-level drug possession became a misdemeanor instead of a state jail felony. This gets a little wonky, but it's important, so stay with me.

To estimate costs, we took the state's estimate for cost-per-prisoner, multiplied that by the number of folks whose sentences would be affected by the bills, and used the totals in our literature to say how much cost would be avoided. Fabelo learnedly quashed those numbers about mid-session, though, coming up with much lower savings estimates that became the official ones. He noted that the bulk of prison costs come from actually running the prisons, so you don't avoid spending money unless you start to mothball units. Since the projected additional prisoners coming in from other crimes would more than offset the difference, the cost avoidance did not translate directly into real dollars for the state.

Similarly, we were told, much to my chagrin at the time, penalty increases were routinely given no fiscal note, meaning the Legislature was told they didn't cost anything. That's because as long as Texas had extra prison space, the marginal cost of adding new prisoners wasn't much. Building new units or leasing extra space, Fabelo said, is what costs big bucks, and in 2003 we weren't quite there yet -- on paper, the prison system supposedly had a little excess capacity, so the marginal extra cost was low.

Pero, no mas.
Now, even if Texas does nothing, current penalties require incarcerating thousands more inmates than the system can hold.
Texas prisons are full to the brim. Reports Ward:

On Thursday, Texas prisons held 150,862 prisoners. Completely full is 151,500, officials said.

Though the Legislative Budget Board earlier predicted prisons would reach capacity in March, officials now say it will probably occur by sometime in May. Then, the state will have to begin leasing bunks in county jails and private prisons, more than 3,800 in the next two years.

Under a plan earlier endorsed by legislative leaders, officials want to avoid building new prisons by placing more nonviolent felons in community-based treatment and probation programs. They also hope to release on parole more medically incapacitated felons, release others on intensive-supervision programs and put others in new community-justice programs as a way to keep prison beds available for only those criminals who need to be there.

But if only a few of the enhancement bills pass into law, the additional felons coming into the system could easily exceed the projected savings in bunk space during the next five years, critics of the bills note.

Dead right. Tony Fabelo is gone, and apparently he never gave that same math lesson to LBB before he left. In the fiscal note for HB 151, LBB made the same error we did in 2003: they took the overall cost-per-prisoner for Texas prisons, multiplied that by the (probably lowballed) estimate for the number of new prisoners
(500-700 inmates; Rep. Truitt said 500 at the hearing, while Ward estimated 700), and came up with $9.1 million - in the context of Texas' overincarceration crisis, an absurdly low estimate. Says LBB of HB 151:
Costs of incarceration by the Department of Criminal Justice are estimated on the basis of $33.78 per state jail inmate per day for state jail facilities, reflecting approximate costs of either operating facilities or contracting with other entities. No costs are included for state jail construction.
So, if state jails are full and we're not budgeting to build any more, where are they going to go? Mexico? Great advice guys. That's the kind of fuzzy math that got us into this mess.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Letter from an innocent man

As millions of Christians today contemplate Christ's victory over death on this fine Easter morning, Kerry Max Cook can celebrate, in a way, his own resurrection and life - after DNA evidence exonerated him regarding a 1978 rape conviction, this marks his first Easter sunday as a free man in almost three decades. The Jacksonville Progress this morning published a letter to the editor from Cook, who was convicted in the courthouse in my home town of Tyler, Smith county, in East Texas. (Not a conflict alert so much as a small-world oddity; the DA he references, Jack Skeen, is the ex-husband of my 8th grade English teacher.) Cook's case was highlighted on Court TV in January. Here's the text of his LTE:

More evidence of innocence?

Since Court TV premiered "The Exonerated," featuring my story, much has been said seeking to undermine my lack of a judicial exoneration in the 1977 rape and murder of Linda Jo Edwards.

In the high court's ruling reversing my second conviction, they stated the Smith County DA's office engaged in fraud and misconduct to secure my 1978 and 1994 convictions. (Cook vs. State, 940 S.W.2d 623, Tex. Crim. App. 1996)

This misconduct included (Jack) Skeen hiding evidence that Sgt. Collard committed perjury by aging fingerprints found on the victim's patio door to coincide with the time of the murder. Skeen kept this document hidden from my attorney on the eve of an execution date.

The only public accountability Skeen and his chief felony prosecutor, David Dobbs, ever had was in a June 11, 2000, Houston Chronicle article, "Justice Under Fire." Skeen and Dobbs filed a defamation suit claiming the article was false and malicious. Recently, the Texas Supreme Court dismissed their suit by a vote of 9-0. The court uses one of the instances of misconduct in my case to support their findings - "A Court of Criminal Appeals opinion stating an assistant D.A. (Dobbs) attempted to interview a defendant without his attorney's knowledge." Dobbs is mentioned again, "Ša [sic] deposition in the Smith case of chief prosecutor Dobbs, in which he admitted confronting the plaintiff of the malicious prosecution case in a bar and asking 'how much money would it take to make it go away.'"

My "no contest" plea was based on my profound distrust of Skeen's administration.

In the end, it was not a jury, but rather DNA evidence that scientifically exonerated me.

The truth is, it is too costly to allow a constituency to believe the real murderer escaped justice. It is much safer to promulgate the "he's convicted" mantra and have it appear as a case closed.

Kerry Max Cook,

First of 72 Palestine cases moving in state court

Of the 72 defendants, all black, accused of participating in a "crack distribution ring" by the Dogwood Trails Narcotics Task Force, last fall, 56 were charged in state court. The first two of those were convicted this week in Palestine, TX (pronounced Pal-uh-steen) of selling small amounts of drugs to a confidential informant, receiving sentences of 6 and 18 years. "I say he's a user," said the sister of one defendant during cross-examination on the stand, "he's not a dealer." Who cares? Lock 'em up, said the jury. Sixteen more were indicted in federal court in Tyler, and two of those have pled guilty to charges regarding very small amounts in exchange for lesser sentences.

See trial coverage from the Jacksonville Progress, and their editorial, which quotes me advocating shifting task force money to drug courts. They're not sure whether Cherokee County would want drug courts, but couldn't help but notice that all 72 of the arrests were in Anderson County, and that Cherokee seems to be getting the short end of the stick in the task force partnership. See the Palestine Herald's coverage, here and here, plus their odd, vague statements that deputies were working overtime and they'd restricted access to the courthouse because of "veiled" threats regarding the drug trials.

Of note, the first cases brought by the prosecutor relied on testimony by undercover officers, not their much-ballyhooed confidential informant, Othella Kimbrew. There's no need for corroboration for officers' testimony in Texas, as mentioned yesterday. Obviously they'd like to avoid relying on Kimbrew's sworn testimony as long as possible. The usual practice in these large roundups is to bring the very strongest cases first, get the longest sentences possible, then try to bully everyone with weaker cases into a plea bargain. In Tulia and Hearne, it worked like a charm. We'll find out soon how it goes in Palestine.

Another case begins tomorrow.

Other background: The Texas Observer's November story on the Palestine case is here, and here I've linked last fall's Grits coverage, plus takes from other bloggers. Find below a shrunken version of a full-page ad ACLU of Texas ran in the Palestine and Jacksonville newspapers last week regarding Dogwood Trails task force, urging support for President Bush's proposed budget cuts that would end funding for these rogue entities.

(If the graphic isn't showing up, scroll down.)

Dogwood trails task force is creating crime in East Texas, says ad run by ACLU

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Passing along police lies

Crime and Federalism has an interesting list of online sources about police lies.

I'd add to their list, off the top of my head, a few Texas items:
  • Alan Bean's account of the Tom Coleman perjury trial, - he was the lying undercover cop on whose uncorroborated word 15% of the black population was arrested in the infamous drug stings in Tulia, Texas. See also Nate Blakeslee's coverage from the Texas Observer that first broke the story.
  • In 2001, Texas considered legislation that would have required corroboration for cops and confidential informants' testimony in undercover drug stings. In the end, Texas didn't go that far, passing instead a first-of-its-kind requirement that prosecutors corroborate informants' testimony to convict in drug cases. Officers' uncorroborated word alone is still enough to obtain a conviction.
  • The requirement for corroboration of snitches led to the discovery of the Dallas sheetrock scandal, when prosecutors began to seek corroboration for snitches they'd used for years with abandon. Over the course of the "sheetrock" cases, eight different officers performed field tests supposedly finding "positive" for drugs that turned out later to be fake, but only two were indicted.
  • Crime and Federalism references a case from the San Antonio newspaper and link to a summary of mine from an old Copwatch Blotter. I keep all those old clips, and the narcotics officer who misrepresented search warrant affidavits so that federal prosecutors had to drop cases was named Carlos Ancira.
  • The same Copwatch blotter referenced by Crime and Federalism summarized a 2/17/01 story by Amy Dorsett in the San Antonio Express News, "Truth policy tars 24 officers," that said 24 SAPD cops were found by official departmental proceedings to have lied over the previous five years. In light of Ancira's case, the chief implemented a new policy, protested vigorously by the police union, that anyone found lying would be terminated.
  • Albert Villareal, an undercover drug task force cop in Floresville, TX, was convicted in 2002 of several counts involving setting up innocents, including evidence tampering.
  • Here's a story from 2002 about lies of omission: the Austin police department's Internal Affairs Division routinely failed to forward evidence of criminal activity by police officers to the District Attorney, an 18-year IAD investigator testified.
Good idea for a post Mike, and I'd appreciate anybody else, too, who can help the list along.

SCOTUS to review foreigners' rights in Texas death row case

If, like me, you never quite understood what was happening when President Bush pulled the U.S. out from under the review of the International Court of Justice under the Vienna Convention (other than perceiving that Bush was acting on a generalized right wing belief that international institutions are bad, as he did appointing John Bolton UN ambassador), you should check out this SCOTUS blog entry about the case Medellin v. Dretke,involving a Mexican national sentenced to death in Texas. Oral arguments will be heard Monday. SCOTUS blog gives a clear, brief explication of a complex matter that explains a lot about how this particular case motivated what Bush did and why. Good stuff. Via Jurispundit.

See here for more on what's going on regarding the Vienna Convention in Texas.

Marijuana, medical and otherwise

Raich v. Ashcroft, which will determine whether the federal government may prosecute medical marijuana patients who are protected under state law, may be decided soon, and Pete Guither as usual has a good preview. Meanwhile, Loretta received a visit from the feds over an angry web comment, not hers, about the Jonathon Magbie case - he was the quadriplegic arrested for medical marijuana who died in the Washington D.C. jail.

Texas' pending medical marijuana legislation, HB 658, has been referred to the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, which is chaired by one of the bill's co-sponsors, Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, but it has not been set for a hearing yet. As always, check with Texans for Medical Marijuana to find out how you can help on that bill.

The other big pending marijuana-related legislation in Texas is HB 254, which would restructure penalties for low-level pot possession to become ticketable offenses. In the comments, Taylor cited an action alert from NORML asking folks to call the committee members. I think that's likely to be helpful if you're from a committee member's district, and less so if you're not.

If you live in Texas, though, and you don't have a representative on that committee, I'd encourage you to call your local sheriff and county judge to ask them to call the committee in support of HB 254. Tell them it will free up space in the local jail, save money on indigent defense and incarceration costs, and boost income, for once, instead of expenses from the tickets given by sheriff's deputies. Tell them the bill is not soft on crime - in Columbia, Missouri when they restructured penalties, enforcement actually increased! In many (especially larger) counties, jails are full and county commissioners are considering issuing new debt to build more. HB 254 helps counties in real, pragmatic ways, if they can muster the political courage to call the committee and say so. Try to get the local police chief to speak out: many police administrators in private hate these low-level pot busts because they take officers away from more important enforcement actions. Many would secretly welcome the change, I've occasionally been assured, but out of fear, they never speak up. Those type of institutional voices have more weight than average Joes, sad to say, and the committee didn't hear those messages, at least, from those messengers, at the hearing, even though their half-expected opposition was conspicuously absent.

Finally, check out what Professor Becker and Judge Posner have to say about the War on (Some) Drugs.

Set your expectations to "Cool"

Bored with politics and looking for a little comic relief, Kathy and I took in Be Cool last night at the Alamo Drafthouse, and I have to say I enjoyed it a lot. If you're looking for scintillating drama, this ain't it, but with my expectations adjusted to just the right level (e.g., I was looking for something more interesting to watch than this guy), I thought the show was hilarious from start to finish. Best line in the movie: "You know what you tell a guy with two black eyes? Nothing. He's already been told twice."

I didn't even mind the self-referential stuff thrown in, like a gratuitous
Pulp Fiction homage in the John Travolta-Uma Thurman dance scene.

I'll tell you what else, too, this gal, Christie Milian, who I'd not heard before, has some major-league singing chops. Like Uma Thurman, she's not difficult to look at, either:

Finally, and quite surprisingly, what really brought the movie together as a comedy was the performance of The Rock as a gay bodyguard who can't reconcile his tough guy image on the job with his would-be acting career, where his flaming tendencies irrepressibly emerge. He auditions for Travolta's character with a "monologue" in which he performed both girls' parts in a dialogue from Bring it On, a stupid movie about high school cheerleaders. Even that was topped, though, when he performed Tammy Wynette's
Stand By Your Man in a red satin cowboy outfit in a music video. It was a break-through part for him, I thought; he showed some range and some comic chops. And if he's trying to move beyond action flicks, I'd say he's broken down any preconception about what part he might play.

He really hams it up. In short, it was a romp. The plot wasn't particularly compelling, but it hung together enough to justify the array of talent represented in the show, including Harvey Keitel, Cedric the Entertainer, and a few other recognizables. I thought everybody in the principle ensemble, perhaps with the exception of Travolta himself, did a good job fleshing out their characters over the course of the film. The critics didn't seem to like it, but I wasn't there to judge the art - it made me laugh, and I could listen to Christie Milian sing all night.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Memo to state budget writers: Pencil in more prison money if HB 151 passes

Texas will need to construct 500 new prison beds in the next two years if the Legislature approves HB 151 by Truitt, which appears on Tuesday's House floor calendar. That bill, which increases the penalty for burglary of a vehicle from a misdemeanor to a felony, would shift payment for incarcerating hundreds of inmates on burglary charges from county jails to state government.

The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee appears to be the weak link in the Legislature's efforts to restrain prison spending. They already passed out Truitt's HB 151 plus two similar bills on the same topic. And the subcommittee on "enhancements" (the euphemism for increased prison sentences), chaired by Rep. Terri Hodge, D-Dallas, has begun approving new increases in prison sentences. Last session, Chairman Keel also created a subcommittee on "enhancements," but it was the legislative equivalent of a dead letter office -- to my knowledge it never or hardly met. By contrast, Hodge's subcommittee will meet twice next week.

Much has been made of the bid to stave off massively expanding Texas' prison system by enhancing probation services, reducing probation caseloads, and creating new drug courts. Given the punishment levels and incarceration trends under current Texas law, the state will be forced to pay more than $1 billion for new prison construction by the end of the decade if something isn't done.

Probation reforms are a smart idea, but they are only enough to counter the existing problem ... barely ... maybe ... if everything goes right. They won't stop more prison building if legislators can only imagine punitive solutions to society's problems, and if the Legislative Budget Board continues to mislead them about what these bills really cost.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Man bites dog

Dennis Bailey at the Open Society Paradox, normally the most strident champion of Big Brother in the blogosphere, has two posts mentioning some of surveillance technology's downsides and failures. I checked, but April Fools is still a week away. ;-)

Actually, I've enjoyed an interesting email exchange recently with Dennis, and look forward to cracking open his book, of the same name as his blog, when I find two spare minutes to rub together.

The Scoop is Dead, Long Live the Scoop

Says Adina.

UPDATE: On the other hand, Banjo's items on pollution emissions reports in
Brazoria County qualify as scoops, to me, and he's on that trail like a bloodhound. I really like her points, though. Maybe there are still scoops - by definition, as new information is generated, there have to be - but they've just been devalued, or rather, blogging exhibits different values, I think is what Adina would say.

More from Kimberly and Kuff.

Heard from an old pal today

Got a call today from college pal Greg Moses and I've added links to his two blogs, the Texas Civil Rights Review and Peacefile, to the blogroll. Check them out, and it was good to hear from you, Greg. Though he left Texas for a while and we'd lost track, Mr. Moses was a pretty darn good political researcher back in the day and, to judge by these sites, it appears that hasn't changed. Kuff recently compiled links and summarized some of Greg's writing here, though when I read it I didn't make the connection it was THAT Greg Moses. Greg didn't just call to chat - he's keeping an eye on voter rights stuff at the Lege and was looking for Adina. Small friggin world.

DPS database risks Texans' computer passwords

Okay, let's recap: Bill Gates says biometrics will replace everyone's computer passwords, especially for businesses, and the products enacting that vision are already hitting the market. Fine, you can't stop progress.

There are presently, to my knowledge, two types of biometrics commonly used in place of passwords:
fingerprints, and facial recognition technology. Follow me, because here's where it gets tricky.

Right now, the Texas Department of Public Safety gathers thumbprints from every applicant for a drivers license or ID card, and maintains that information in a database. HB 2337 by Rep. Corte embodies a DPS proposal to maintain everyone's facial recognition metrics in the same database.

So, if a couple of years from now somebody steals drivers' personal information from DPS, like happened recently in Nevada to one of the companies bidding to run Texas' system, and their database includes Texans' fingerprints and facial recognition data, won't the thieves have effectively stolen the passwords to private computers in thousands of Texas homes and businesses?

I'm just asking.

Needle exchange could fight Hep C epidemic

On Tuesday the Texas Senate Health and Human Services Committee passed SB 127 authorizing local governments to enact needle exchange programs on a 5-1 vote. The bill now needs 16 more senators' approval to reach the Senate floor. Tracey Hays testified for the bill on behalf of ACLU, highlighting especially the health and financial concerns that make the legislation so immediately pressing. She also focused on how needle exchange helps develp values of personal responsibility among addicts that can lead to them entering treatment. Since her testimony contained a lot of interesting stuff I didn't know, and I'll bet Grits readers didn't either, with her permission I post her testimony here. After introducing herself, Tracey launched into these prepared remarks:

Texas needs syringe exchange

Between 2000-2003, TDH tracked infection rates for Hepatitis C. During that time, 5,500 new cases were diagnosed in Denton and Tarrent counties. Harris and Jefferson county combined reported almost 14,000 cases of hep C in 3 years. In those same years, TDH reports over 113,000 new cases of hep C. So 113,000 people in Texas now know they have hep C, and TDH says that almost 300,000 have it but do not know.

Most new infections occur among young adults, and over 60% of these cases happen among those who share syringes, and their partners, spouses and children. HCV treatment is incredibly difficult to endure, costs about $100,000 per person, is complicated and doesn't always work. With an over extended health care system, the state of Texas is paying a lot of money to treat a large epidemic of easily preventable blood bourne disease. And I havn't even mentioned AIDS, which is equally communicable, and easily preventable .

In our prisons, 28% of men and 40% of women enter with hep C.

I haven't even mentioned HIV or AIDS yet, which is as communicable, and preventable, by many of the same methods that hep c spreads, or doesn't. Without a vaccine or a cure, prevention is the only tool we have to control the spread of HIV, and of hep C.

Current penalty for syringe possession harm public health.

While it is common knowledge that syringe sharing leads to the spread of blood-boune diseases, tough paraphernalia laws make it impossible for health care workers to get sterile syringes into the hands of injection drug users who need them. Possession of syringes is a Class C misdemeanor, however, distribution of syringes is a class A misdemeanor. Under paraphernalia laws, a health care provider exchanging sterile syringes for used ones could face jail time, while a person in possession would face a fine.

Syringe Exchange programs work

Syringe Exchange programs are an important component of a comprehensive set of programs designed to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne infections among injection drug users, their families and communities. They've been recommended by every major medical organization that has ever studied their effectiveness. In that list of organizations, we find the Institute of Medicine, who reported in 2000 that the consequesnce of prohibiting access to sterile syringes has resulted in
"missed opportunities to prevent new HIV infections, resulting in lost lives and wasted expenditures……The committee recommends: removing legal and policy barriers that limit access to sterile drug injection equipment."
Similar statements have been issued by the American Medical Association, the Texas Medical Association, the Texas Pharmaceutal Association, and the list goes on, and I included it on the back of the ACLU hand out that I provided earlier.

Last week, I was speaking with Glen Mayhall at UTMB, where I was overwhelmed with the supportive response I got from the staff when discussing SB 127. Glen Mayhall, the Director of the Infectious Disease Department told me that he couldn't imagine a physician who wouldn't support syringe exchange programs. They are, quite simply, the right thing to do, regardless of politics."

Provide access to hard-to-reach populations.

SB 127 is written so that local municipalities can design and operate programs that not only exchange syringes one-for-one, but that also provide literature to participants about hep C/HIV prevention, drug abuse treatment options, and safe and proper medical waste disposal. SB 127 allows these programs to offer some simple health care to addicts, which is usually provided them by emergency rooms only. Very basic yet important care can be provided by SEP staff, such as vein and abcess care, hep C/HIV testing, and hygienic supplies. Other services can include counseling and testing for HIV infection, distribution of condoms, and safe disposal of returned contaminated equipment.

Perhaps the most important services provided by Syringe Exchange programs are the relationships built between the health care workers and the clients of the program. Those relationships often act as bridges to addiction recovery services. Every needle exchange in the United States recruits drug users into treatment. In Tacoma, the needle exchange is the single largest source of treatment referrals in all of Pierce County. In the last two years, Seattle's needle exchange has helped more than 400 people get into treatment.

The effects of a successful syringe exchange program resonate out into the non-drug using population. Preventing blood bourn diseases in injection drug users also prevents them in the partners, new born children, and friends. Many women are at risk for blood-bourne diseases because of their own injection drug use or because they are sexual partners of injection drug users.

SEPs decrease blood borne diseases

A study done on Baltimore, Maryland revealed that where NEP's operate, the rate of HIV infection is down and crime has not gone up. The presence of drity needles is down, and 1,500 IDU's used NEP's as a bridge to treatment.

The Hawaii Dept of Health funds an NEP, and reports similar success rates. From 1993 to 1997, 74% of Hawaii's NEP clients reported they did not share needles. Additionally, only 18% of the AIDS cases reported in Hawaii during 1997 were related to drug injectors, as compared to one-third of reported new cases throughout the rest of the United States.

SEP's don't increase drug use or crime

This question has been examined until today there is little debate. In the last seven years, eight major studies funded by the federal government have concluded that clean-needle programs reduce Hive transmission and do not increase the use of injected drugs. The studies are listed on the back of the ACLU hand out that I gave you.

One of those studies was conducted in Cambridge, Massachussets, where another successful NEP operates legally. Cambridge Police Commissiner Ronnie Watson reported that the existence of NEPs had no impact on crime in Cambridge, no impact on his department's ability to make drug arrests, and no impact on their ability to police. NEP's actually decrease the likelihood that a police officer will get stuck with a dirty needle during a pat down, because program participants feel safer telling officers when they have a needle on their person.

SEPs promote personal responsibility

Ultimately, abstinence from drug use is the goal of all health care providers who work with drug addicts. However, syringe exchange promotes values of personal responsibility and self-preservation that can be the first steps toward recovery for some addicts. By recognizing that some people, whether we approve or not, are unwilling or unable to discontinue engaginging in risky behavior, the CDC recommends giving them the choice to follow guidelines for the preservation of a disease free body. Many of these people are long term addicts, and are not able to make the choice to just quit using drugs. They will continue to shoot drugs, and they will use dirty syringes, if that's all they've got.

Portland Oregon went from handling 10,000 needles a year in 1989 to 450,000 today. 20,000,000 syringes were exchanged in the US in the year 2000, through 107 syringe exchange programs. Today that number is closer to 200. We have a lot of people being given the choice to protect their health, and they are taking it.

So, do Texans want syringe exchange?

I'd like to share an excerpt from a letter that I'm sure all of you received in your email's yesterday. But just incase, I've included a print out that I've handed to you all. Jill Rips, MA, MPhil, Associate Director of San Antonio AIDS Foundation wrote
Several times a month we receive phone calls at SAAF from person who are addicted to intravenous drugs who have just moved to San Antonio from a city that had harm reduction programs and they are seeking a similar program in San Antonio, so that they do not put themselves or their drug sharing partners at risk of infection. Sadly, we have no where to send them. Additionally almost weekly we have clients who show up asking for help. They are ready to give up drugs, and are seeking a placement immediately in in-patient programs. Slots are never available upon demand. We are told by drug treatment programs to have the client call back in several weeks, in which case the client is lost. Most treatment programs are only for a few days, with clients dismissed back to the drug using neighborhood they came from. Drug addiction is a terrible illness and it needs to be treated as such. To be successful in sobriety, people have to come to the decision on their own. Until that happens they need to be afforded the as much support to not get sick, nor to spread disease to others through the sharing of dirty needles.
Texas needs to join with the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Public Health Association, among others and pass this Senate Bill 127 for effective public health policy for now and for Texas' future.

I've included another letter from P Alice Bell, L.C.S.W. Coordinator of the Overdose Prevention Project, and Prevention Point Pittsburgh, who writes that "The program has been well received in Pittsburgh which is considered to be a fairly conservative community.

I hope you all noticed the editorial pieces in the Houston Chronicle today in support of SB 127.

We would be doing the state of Texas a huge disservice if we do not seriously consider the urgings of almost every major medical association in the county, and remove the barriers to syringe access. Each year that we wait, we undergo a serious loss of lives and dollars.

Update from yesterday on muni wireless, biometrics, APD jurisdiction

If your city wants to provide municipal wireless service in your Texas community, as the City of Addison recently chose to do, tell your city council they'd better hurry.

A compromise was reached on an amendment to Rep. Phil King's HB 789 that lets cities install wireless networks through 2006, then forbids it after that. It's better than what San Antonio Democrat Robert Puente disgracefully proposed,
but not as good as the compromise amendment Rep. Vicki Truitt originally offered - they negotiated outside the chamber for quite a while and wound up with the new language. Puente's amendment was Southwestern Bell's wording enacting a complete ban on new public wireless projects

Kudos to local Rep, Todd Baxter, R-Austin, for leading the charge for the good guys on the House floor; Austin Rep. Eddie Rodriguez spoke against the amendment, too, but Baxter was animated and clearly passionate about the topic, which was nice to see. House veterans Sylvester Turner, Garnet Coleman and Scott Hochberg, all from Houston, provided the big guns for the Dems against this particular piece of nastiness. See the Save Muni Wireless blog for the whole story on the amendment, and Statesman coverage on the rest of the bill.

The Defense Affairs committee that was to have heard biometrics did not meet because the House went so late. Meanwhile Rep. Terry Keel's bad bill giving Austin PD jurisdiction on the UT campus passed out of the full House. As Mike Ward related on the Statesman's Lege blog, though, Keel had a highlight reel moment yesterday when he shot down Rep. Tony Goolsby's new massive fines for toll absconders. Blessedly, the House has adjourned until Tuesday for the Easter break.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Today is Cyberliberty Day at the Lege

Two of the most important civil liberties issues of the 21st century take center stage today at the Lege: Whether internet access may be cordoned off by private markets, and whether the state may gather biometric facial recognition data that could let the state track citizens by name from security video.

On the House floor, members will consider amendments to Rep. Phil King's HB 789 that would ban municipalities from providing free wireless services as part of a city's infrastructure. See the Save Muni Wireless blog for details. Meanwhile, the House Defense Affairs Committee this afternoon will hear HB 2337, which would allow DPS to gather biometric facial recognition data from all Texas drivers license photos.

Latent within these two items are some of the most important First and Fourth Amendment issues confronting society in the so-called "digital age." The latter bill will keep me occupied most of the day, but I anticipate writing quite a bit later on.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Bloggers bust stereotypes in two spurious debates

This afternoon a friend dragged me into the aftermath of a press conference in the capitol that I thankfully didn't attend, and the last two media folks in there talking to Eddie Rodriguez were two bloggers, Eileen and Kimberly, whom I'd not had the privilege of meeting previously. Kimberly (who tartly noted that I'd "not yet" linked to her blog, which has been rectified) was busily writing up the event, and I asked on which blog I should look for her report. Oh no, she announced, "it's for Quorum Report." I'd have learned more, but she chased out after Rodriguez, peppering him with questions while earnestly trying to convince him to start a blog.

I got to chat a little more with Eileen riding down the elevator together, but we parted ways when I was headed out of the capitol. "I have to get a quote from Rodriguez," she announced sheepishly. "A quote?," I exclaimed, "What kind of blogger are you?" She laughed and said it was for her freelance gig.

So, what's the difference between bloggers and journalists? For
these two gals, nuthin. And while nobody's mistaking anybody over at the Pink Dome for Sy Hersh, they just broke an important story (and welcome, Bluebonnet!). Adina's done some significant legislative blogging, too, now at Save Muni Wireless.

Which reminds me, speaking of spurious debates, note to Amanda Marcotte: Congrats on the
new digs, but next time anybody asks you where all the women bloggers are, tell them they're kicking ass and taking names at the Texas Legislature, and don't seem to really care who is on the "A List."

Biometrics up tomorrow

Damnit, somehow I'd missed that the bill allowing DPS to gather biometric facial recognition data from Texas drivers license applicants is up Wednesday afternoon in the House Defense Affairs Committee, which recommended the idea in their interim report. I guess I know how I'll be spending my day tomorrow. See here for prior Grits coverage.

In 2003, the Texas House of Representatives voted down the bill with the largest margin of any defeated bill in the 78th session, in a dramatic 111-26 vote. By contrast, the Senate has been more receptive to Big Brother technologies. If the bill passes in the House, it would likely see smooth sailing after that.

Overheard this afternoon from Eddie Rodriguez ...

"Okay, I'll start a blog. What do I do?," asked state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez to the bloggers lingering after his press conference.

First and foremost, spring from your campaign fund to use typepad or movable type or something, or even cheap it out like I did on Blogger. Just please for God's sake don't ask this guy for blog design advice! ;-)
It looked like you'd found a good person to show you the ropes, or I'll bet Adina could hook you up.

Great idea, though, you should do it!

Needle exchange bill passes Senate committee

In the better-than-a-sharp-stick-in-the-eye department: This afternoon, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted out Sen. Lindsay's SB 127, which Grits discussed earlier today, authorizing local governments to operate needle exchange programs. The vote was 5-1, with Chair Jane Nelson voting 'nay.' Republican Senator Bob Deuell joined Lindsay and three Democrats - West, Gallegos and Zaffirini - to support it. Now it needs 21 votes to reach the Senate floor.

Sen. Nelson offered the only critique of the bill, which was unopposed by any interest group who signed up to speak. (By contrast, many healthcare and medical interests supported the legislation.) Most of her criticisms concerned appearances: How would it look? How will we explain it to the children? Bill proponent Bill Martin from the James A. Baker Institute in Houston thought that in the neighborhoods where drug addiction was rampant, the kids had already been clued into drug use by the dirty needles lining the streets. As for what to tell them, to paraphrase since I did not take detailed notes, he suggested parents tell their kids that the folks going to exchange needles were sick, or were at great risk of becoming sick, and that the needles were to prevent them from spreading that illness to others. Tell them to never pick up or touch a needle, he said, so they won't get sick, either, but also that they should feel compassion for those who are afflicted. I thought that was about the best answer I've ever heard to that question.

The District and County Attorneys Association testified "on" the bill, meaning they neither supported nor opposed it, and their lobbyist Shannon Edmonds explained to the committee the mechanism by which the bill would allow doctors and syringe exchange personnel to offer an affirmative defense against prosecution under Texas paraphernalia laws.

This was an historic step. The bill has been around a long time - Austin Rep. Glen Maxey carried a version of it for many years - but this is the first session ever it filed in both chambers, and the first time it's ever passed out of committee in the Senate. Congrats to Tracey, Amanda, and everybody else working on the bill - you're obviously making progress.

Art imitates Grits on biometrics

Did anybody else see the tail end of the TV show "24" last night?

A terrorist murdered an Air Force pilot after blackmailing him to get onto a secure military base. The terrorist shot the pilot and shoved him in the trunk, but before closing it, first cut off the pilot's finger for use in the base's biometric-keyed entry system!

Either this is a sign that Grits' critique of biometric keys and identity cards is on to something, or that I should give up blogging non-fiction and write screenplays for television. (Given my past efforts at fiction writing, I think the odds for the former are better.) On Saturday I wrote:
So, once fingerprints become a biometric key to your car or password to your computer, how long will it be before thieves steal the data, or worse, chop off somebody's finger to steal their stuff?
How long indeed? It wasn't three days before somebody did it on television.