Sunday, April 21, 2013

Previewing committee highlights from the week ahead

Here's a quick look at a few bills of interest being heard in criminal-justice related committees this week at the Texas Legislature that jumped out at me: Click on the committee names for the full agendas.

House Criminal Jurisprudence

HB 967 by S. Turner is the companion to SB 344 by Whitmire which has already passed the Senate. The bills stem from a recommendation from the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions to amend the habeas corpus statute to allow petitions based on newly discovered scientific evidence that contradicts expert testimony at trial, an issue that has come up in cases from dog-scent lineups to so-called "shaken baby" cases. See more from Grits and the Texas Tribune.

HB 3164 by Stickland would require law enforcement to obtain a search warrant to access personal, cloud-based email older than 180 days old. Currently Texas' statute, tracking the 1986 federal Electronic Privacy Communications Act, does not require a warrant for electronic communications stored more than six months. See related Grits coverage.

HB 2964 by Alonzo would allow writs of habeas corpus in cases where a defendant "was not properly advised as to a material direct or indirect consequence of the plea." This would create in state habeas law a remedy for lawyers' failure to advised their clients of collateral consequences, following a recent SCOTUS precedent on-point in Padilla v. Kentucky.

HB 3637 by Hughes adds one sentence to the Code of Criminal Procedure defining the role of juries, declaring, "The court shall inform the jury of its role to judge the facts and to apply the law in relation to the facts in controversy." Sort of a throwback bill. In modern courts, judges interpret the law and narrowly proscribe what jurors may decide. That one sentence would be a pretty big change.

Senate Criminal Justice

SB 368 by Whitmire would "authorize a county sheriff to operate an electronic monitoring program or house arrest program for inmates serving a term of confinement in the county jail, with the sheriff selecting those inmates," according to the bill analysis. Seems like a common sense, permissive bill to reduce local jail costs.

SB 1360 by Rodriguez would enhance the penalty for witness tampering in domestic violence cases to a second degree felony. I wonder if he can effectively answer Marc Levin's questions?

SB 1439 by West would recodify all the statutes related to evidence retention and preservation in one section and "create a training and certification process for all law enforcement personnel assigned to receive, store and process property held in police evidence rooms." Professionalization of this long-ignored substrata of law enforcement is overdue.

House Corrections

HB 937 by Farias would create a restorative justice pilot program for juvenile offenders, bracketed to Harris County.

HB 2520 by Springer would increase juvenile probation fees 400% from $15 to $60, comparable to what adult probationers pay, and also increases certain juvenile court costs a whopping 1,500%, from $20 to $300.

HB 2650 by Allen would empower the Criminal Justice Legislative Oversight Committee - made up of the chairmen of House Corrections, Senate Criminal Justice and appointees of the Speaker of the House and Lt. Governor, to provide for the regular inspection of at least 25 adult prison units per biennium.

House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence

SB 393 by West, according to the bill analysis, would "remove ticketing as a means to address certain behaviors on school district property and puts in place a complaint-based system, similar to what is currently done for truancy. It establishes graduated sanctions, such as warning letters, school-based community service, or referral to counseling, for juveniles who committed certain fine-only misdemeanors prior to referral to court.  It expands the use of juvenile case managers by allowing for their use without a formal court order and prior to cases being filed.  Finally, it authorizes local juvenile boards to authorize law enforcement to dispose of certain fine-only offenses without referral to a court, and adds Class C misdemeanors, other than traffic offenses, to the list of offenses that can be disposed of through the use of first offender programs."

SB 462 by Huffman would create "a new Subtitle K within the Government Code where all relevant specialty court provisions can be easily located; improves oversight of specialty court programs by requiring them to register with the criminal justice division of the Office of the Governor and follow programmatic best practices in order to be eligible to receive state and federal grant funds; and changes the composition of the Governor's Specialty Courts Advisory Council to nine members and requires the council to recommend programmatic best practices to the criminal justice division." Specialty courts have sprawled across the state rapidly over the last decade, in many different forms, so it's probably a necessary evil for the state to begin to get a better handle on them. The rubber will meet the road when the Specialty Courts Advisory Council (SCAC) created last session recommends "programmatic best practices" and the Texas Judicial Council approves them. All I can say is I hope they do a good job. The quality of those best-practice guidelines will be what determines, ultimately, whether this bill is a good thing or a bad one. MORE (4/22): See KUT News coverage.

As Senate bills being heard in a House committee, both of these are well on the way to passage.

House Homeland Security and Public Safety

HB 3246 by Callegari declares that "a person may not be assessed a fine for driving within 10 miles per hour of the posted speed limit unless in the opinion of the officer, adverse weather or traffic conditions, or other hazardous situations constitute an imminent danger to the general public." There are exceptions near schools, hospitals, and when officers judge weather or other conditions create an imminent danger.

I was happy to see this committee unanimously voted out HB 104 by Gonzales last week. The committee substitute would eliminate the Driver Responsibility Surcharge for two years to try to find alternative hospital funding. Hopefully the Calendars Committee will give it a floor vote soon.

* * *

See also the Texas District and County Attorneys Association summary of current action on related topics, where Shannon Edmonds rightly notes that, "This week is probably the last week for House bills to get a hearing in a House committee before they are unofficially declared dead—and truthfully, most of the ones being heard this week already have one foot in the grave, which is why you will start to see Senate bills debated in House committees.  Senate bills have another week of life in their own committees because of more lenient deadlines in that chamber, but they also must move quickly to avoid the hangman’s noose."


Anonymous said...

I was just about to ask you of the status of HB 104. I can't figure out how to navigate these bills but this one will impact me. So if it passes the senate and Perry signs off on it, will the surcharges be suspended? I'm in the same boat as many Texans and am scheduled to pay these surcharges in 2014. Does this mean I won't have to pay them? I mean, I can't get a job without a valid license and mine are suspended. I can't afford the attorney fees for an occupational permit so I've been flying under the radar and playing "dodge the cop." I have no clue as to what this bill will do, or not do, for me. Thanks for your time.

Anonymous said...

Grits, when will we find out about the status of closing Dawson state jail and Mineral Wells? A lot of us are waiting for this since the senate and house disagreed on it.

Anonymous said...

HB104 would repeal the surcharge when it becomes effective, but surcharges assessed under the old law remain in effect...unless they do another forgiveness program for indigence.

Anonymous said...

@ 09:31 PM - I haven't been convicted - yet. They forced a blood draw and as of today, I have not seen or heard of what they intend to do. The two years comes up in February 2014. So if I hold out until this bill passes, does that mean I can avoid these ridiculous surcharges?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

3:44, prison closings won't be decided for sure until the conference committee on the budget. The Senate conferees have been named but not yet the House folks.

3:20, it won't retroactively suspend surcharges, but DPS may do another amnesty period before long. That may be your best bet in the near term. Sorry I don't have better news for you right now.

11:26, 9:31 is correct, and what you suggest is possible (though the bill is a ways from passage and by no means certain). Otherwise, if you're low income you may qualify to have them waived by the judge or reduced to $250 under the DPS indigency plan. It's also possible you could get them reduced under the "incentive" rules that will roll out this summer encouraging people to pay a lower amount up front.

And again, if you're not indigent, your best bet may be if they do another Amnesty program. best,

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your responses fellas. I just want to get my DL back and then leave Texas. I think I've had enough of this police state. I accept responsibility for what happened but jeez, I think I've been punished enough. No DL - No job. Now bankrupted and damn near homeless, and I haven't even been to court. Lets just hope they pass HB 104 so this nightmare can end. You know the sad thing too is that I can't afford probation fees and all those classes they will make me take so I'll be another non-violent offender sitting in a county jail for God knows how long. But I accept responsibility because I shouldn't have been driving. It was the most stupid idiotic decision I ever made.