Sunday, July 07, 2019

Reasonably Suspicious podcast, July 2019 episode: Featuring an interview with TPPF's Marc Levin about parole, allegations of judicial misconduct in San Antonio, and a proposed mascot for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

Here's the July 2019 episode of Just Liberty's Reasonably Suspicious podcast, covering Texas criminal justice politics and policy. Co-hosted by me and Amanda Marzullo, it's also available on iTunes, Google Play, and Soundcloud.

This month:

Top Stories
  • Texas Legislature legalizes hemp and in the process may have accidentally made it impossible to prosecute workaday pot cases. Is this really a problem?
  • San Antonio Judge ignores due process on probation revocations. How common is this?
Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation discusses probation and parole policy.

Chris Harris of Just Liberty on the rollback of Austin's anti-homelessness ordinances.

The Last Hurrah
  • Texas Legislature created 50 new crimes in 2019
  • Alfred Brown denied innocence compensation
  • The Canadian Supreme Court has a fuzzy mascot owl named "Amicus." What should be the mascot for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals? My suggestion:
Find a transcript below the jump.

For the summer #cjreform reading pile

Grits will head on holiday soon, and while I'm hoping to spend time engrossed in fiction, I usually end up reading a few academic articles on justice topics for which my day-to-day work hasn't afforded time. To that end, here are a few items I'm flagging to read later:
  • The Rational Villain Myth: This article addresses a hobbyhorse I've been riding most of my adult life. Economists think they know a lot about crime. In my experience, such certainty is based on the same delusions that the rise of behavioral economics (for which Richard Thaler won a Nobel Prize) intended to correct. Thalerites aside, MANY traditional economists cling to this "rational villain" theory. Economists generally tell us that punishment is the "price" of crime and if you want less crime, one need only raise the price. However, crime is a more complicated social problem than that, and in situations involving addiction, family violence, mental-health problems, extreme poverty, or an array of other variables, that simplistic approach harms people and creates blinders that cause policymakers to bypass better solutions. I'm looking forward to digging into this one.
  • The Policing of Prosecutors: This article seeks to apply lessons from regulating discretion in administrative law to the prosecutor's function, and it's an interesting approach. Parole decisions would benefit from similar tools.
  • The Founders Forfeiture: Asset forfeiture in early America included constraints and recourse for property owners that don't apply to modern forfeiture cases.
  • Beyond the Algorithm: The Center for Court Innovation examined issues of pretrial reform, risk assessments, and racial fairness.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Biometric Blues: Facial-recognition tech starting to be good enough to threaten privacy

Several recent items related to the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement caught Grits' eye lately:
The rise of facial recognition and other biometric identification technology was an early hobbyhorse on this blog. I stopped covering the topic after civil libertarians lost all the big, related fights at the Legislature over gathering biometric data, particularly from Texans' driver's licenses. (Texas allowed DPS to gather Texas drivers' fingerprints and facial-recognition biometrics from their licenses then almost immediately began to hand the data over to the federal Department of Homeland Security.) But those were bitter, memorable battles, with the losses made more palatable only by the reality that, back then, facial-recognition tech simply wasn't ready for prime time and didn't work well enough to threaten privacy.

Today it's closer, but not quite yet there. But that utilitarian excuse for not confronting totalitarian surveillance tech will soon fall away. Even if facial-recognition is reliable, it's a bad idea as a generalized surveillance tool. So, arguments against it must ultimately rest not on the prospect of errors (right now, they have higher error rates when identifying racial minorities), but on the prospect of privacy vanishing, and a new form of high-tech totalitarianism rising, if the product were to ever work perfectly.

For more thoughts and background on the subject, here's an old blog-post series I wrote headed into the 2005 Texas legislative session:
Looking back, much of it still holds up.

Homes and services, not criminal prosecution, are the best (read: only) solution to homelessness. Keep the cops out of it!

We've all heard the refrain: Police are overworked because they've been asked to solve society's social problems.

So why do our police-union friends get so upset whenever government tries to handle those problems by other means?

The brouhaha over Austin's homeless-ordinance revisions - which eliminated the no-sit/no-lie ordinance and modified the panhandling ordinance to make it constitutional - really is much ado about nothing. In fact, it may even be cause for cautious optimism. At the same meeting, the Austin City Council also voted to create a new homeless shelter to provide expanded services, on top of voters approving housing bonds in 2018 to expand affordable housing options.

Giving tickets to homeless people who could never pay them wasn't solving any problems, so it's not like Austin eliminated tools that were working. All the law did was set people up to have an arrest warrant later, at which point county taxpayers would host them in the jail for a while. But that doesn't help anything, and in the long run, created additional problems.

Austin spent years ramping up punitive responses to homelessness that never worked. Maybe this won't either, but it's got a better chance than continuing with the failed status quo.

The question of "What works?" brings us to an excellent and timely Texas Tribune article by Juan Pablo Garnham, "Why homelessness is going down in Houston and up in Dallas." The short answer: An influx of funds, mainly from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to provide homes and services to homeless people. As a result, Houston has reduced its homeless population by 53 percent, according to an annual census, while the problem in Dallas is getting worse, surpassing H-Town in the latest count. What's their secret?
“If you have a homeless person and you put them in houses, and simultaneously give them social, behavioral and health support services, 92% of them will be stable in that facility,” [Houston Coalition for the Homeless executive director Mike] Nichols said. 
But there’s a hidden secret in Houston’s formula: coordination. 
The scenario from 20 years ago when different organizations would serve food, give clothes or offer shelter — all done separately — has changed. There’s now constant communication between these institutions and a digital database called the Homeless Management Information System (or HMIS) that allows people at several organizations to understand each case. 
Most cities today have HMIS in place, but Houston was quick to adopt it, and that helped organizations strategize, analyze, share information and find personalized solutions.
Giving homeless people tickets won't get them off the streets, but providing them homes, services, and opportunities to get back on their feet will. Austin has finally chosen to shift resources toward confronting homelessness with policies that at least have a chance at working instead of doubling down on ineffective, send-in-the-cops strategies.

Let's do mental health next.

Monday, July 01, 2019

No need for special session on marijuana potency, but if Governor Abbott calls one, he should greenlight broader pot debate

Grits has enjoyed the delicious irony of the Texas Legislature legalizing industrial hemp in such a way that criminal prosecutors now say they can't make their cases. But the growing calls for a special session over this issue should be quashed. There's really no need; worst-case scenarios aren't that bad, and there are easy fixes that don't involve new legislation.

The issue is that industrial-grade hemp with a THC content below .3% has now been legalized, first by the Trump Administration and then by the Texas Legislature. But Texas crime labs don't have the necessary equipment to delineate marijuana by THC levels. (A legislator told Grits these machines cost about $44,000 each. UPDATE: This was understated. According to the Houston Chronicle's Keri Blakinger, $44k was the cost for Ag-grade testing equipment; forensic-grade machines would run between $300k-$400k. AND MORE: Blakinger has now reported that the more expensive machines are needed for analyzing edibles, but not plant material.)

Here's the thing, though: this won't stop police from arresting people for marijuana (in jurisdictions that still do so). They only need probable cause for an arrest. Instead, the change would allow defense attorneys to challenge allegations later on by demanding the THC levels be proven. Most pot arrests already result in time-served pleas after just a few days, so nothing would really change except the lack of a criminal conviction.

Given that the Governor, who is the only one who can call a special session, wanted to remove pot smokers from county jails in the first place, he may decide just stand pat and allow this legislative error to accomplish what Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick would not allow.

To be clear, like Governor Abbott, I don't believe people should be arrested for low-level pot possession in the first place, much less charged with a Class B misdemeanor for it (max penalty: 6 months in jail and a $2,000 fine). So as far as I'm concerned, there's no crisis here that impacts public safety. Everything will be fine and the sky won't fall if nobody is prosecuted for pot possession over the next two years (a highly unlikely, worst-case scenario).

Does it put prosecutors in a tough spot? Sure. But they have an easy alternative: Just use their discretion to dismiss these cases.

Alternatively, if the Governor agrees it's a big problem to dismiss these cases, the situation can be resolved without a special session. If there were no other options, maybe the Governor's Criminal Justice Division could help pay for new equipment with grants. But in most cases, if District Attorneys are really worried about it, they could pay for the machines out of their asset forfeiture funds. Or they can just stop accepting charges in these cases, which would be easier, cheaper, and have no negative impact on public safety.

If the Governor wouldn't call a special session after Hurricane Harvey, the idea that we're going to do one to salvage petty pot prosecutions makes little sense.

If he DOES choose to call a special session on marijuana, though, Governor Abbott should frame the call in such a way that allows the Legislature to take up his proposal to reduce marijuana penalties. That suggestion was endorsed in the state GOP platform and polling shows majorities in both parties support the idea. That way, instead of calling attention to the failures of Texas government, a special session call could be framed as promoting something positive that's overwhelmingly supported by the public. That's the only way a special session makes sense.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Judge abused discretion, violated due-process rights, by revoking probation w/o a hearing: Will he be sanctioned?

A misdemeanor DWI case out of San Antonio deserves broader attention, with interesting and important implications on several levels.

Wayne Christian - a Republican county-court-at-law judge in Bexar County first elected in 1996, who ran unopposed in the 2018 election - has routinely inserted himself on behalf of the state in lieu of county prosecutors in probation revocation cases, often refusing to allow testimony and deciding them with no evidence. But thanks to appellant Allison Jacobs, her attorneys, and perhaps most interestingly, new Bexar DA Joe Gonzalez, that practice will now be revisited.

Here's Judge Christian dressed in a camo robe. (source)
According to columnist Josh Brodesky of the SA Express News, Judge Christian's court "leads all County Court-at-Law judges in what’s known as MTRs - motions to revoke probation. He also leads other judges in jail bed days."

In Jacobs' case, she'd been a model probationer but failed three urinalysis tests toward the end of her 14-month probation period. Her attorney wanted to argue that this was a false positive caused by a diet pill she'd been taking, which long-time readers know is not an implausible scenario, particularly in Bexar County.

But Judge Christian refused to hold a hearing and based his decision to revoke on a brief conversation with the court liaison from the probation department. This violated Jacobs' due process rights, which should have entitled her to challenge evidence against her in a hearing before she's revoked to jail. But Christian went even further. Reported Brodesky:
Not only did Christian sentence her [to jail], but court records show he also denied her appeal for reasonable bail. He then modified a district court judge’s order of bail for $1,600 to make conditions more onerous. Another district judge lessened those conditions, and when Jacobs was finally released from the Bexar County Adult Detention Center in November, Christian responded. 
According to court filings: Upon release on bail, Jacobs was scheduled for a pretrial services orientation on Nov. 19, 2018. But Christian called pretrial services and had the orientation changed to Nov. 13, 2018. Pretrial services was unable to notify her about this change, so she missed the orientation. The next day Christian revoked her bail, issuing a warrant for an arrest. 
What gives? This is a defendant who was two weeks away from completing 14 months of probation for a serious, but misdemeanor charge. 
[Jacobs' attorney Jodi] Soyars said she likes Christian personally, and, obviously, has concerns about crossing him. She has other cases in his court. But she viewed this as representative of a broader issue and unfair to her client.
“He routinely denies defendants the right to due process,” she said.
So the judge routinely disallows prosecutors from participating in revocation decisions, acting himself on behalf of the state. And he doesn't allow a defendant to present evidence of possible actual innocence, simply declaring the allegations "true" by fiat without, as Soyars said in her brief, a "scintilla of evidence."

And it wasn't an isolated incident. Again from Brodesky: “There have been situations where our prosecutors have been placed in positions where they are not in agreement with going forward on a motion to revoke,” District Attorney Joe Gonzales said. “And they have made the decision to not sign off on the motions, and the judge has moved on them on his own.”

Let's delve into the secondary issue of denying the defendant bail while her appeal was litigated. The actions attributed to Judge Christian, who went out of his way to thwart the decision of a district judge in a habeas corpus writ, seem like extraordinary measures for a judge to take. The brief from Jacobs' attorney includes a footnote - which the DA's office corroborated (more on this later) - describing the remarkable sequence of events in more detail (citations to the record omitted):
While the appeal and motion for new trial procedures were taking place, some additional procedural issues arose and were dealt with, which are evident in the clerk’s record. A brief explanation to make sense of the clerk’s record follows: After a Notice of Appeal was filed, a Motion for Reasonable Bail Pending Appeal was also filed. . This is a misdemeanor case and bail was required to be granted. Judge Wayne Christian denied bail. An Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus Seeking Setting of Reasonable Bail was then filed and heard by District Court Judge Melisa Skinner in the 290th District Court. Judge Skinner granted the Writ and ordered bail of $1,600 and SCRAM as a condition. . The same day, Judge Christian called his clerk and added full GPS, daily reporting, and daily UAs as conditions of release, effectively changing the order of a District Court judge. A second Application for Writ of Habeas Corpus was then filed, requesting reasonable release conditions. Judge Joey Contreras in the 187th District Court set this Writ for a hearing on October 17, 2018. At the hearing, Judge Contreras granted reasonable conditions. After several weeks passed with Jacobs unable to meet the bail requirements, Judge Contreras amended his bond order to allow Jacobs a way to be released pending the appeal.  Jacobs was released from jail and given an orientation date of November 19, 2018 to report to pre-trial services. On November 13, 2018, Judge Christian called pre-trial services and ordered pre-trial services to require Jacobs to report on that date. Pre-trial services was unable to contact Jacobs and Jacobs had not yet had her orientation that would put her under the requirements of pre-trial supervision. Judge Christian then required pre-trial services to send over a violation report on November 14, 2018, whereupon Judge Christian revoked her bail and issued a warrant. Judge Contreras again intervened and reinstated Jacobs’ bail on November 16, 2018.
This conduct to my mind, deserves public censure if not ouster by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. And indeed, in its opinion, the 4th Court of Appeals called Christian's actions an example of "an unsuitable practice by a county court at law judge."

All of this is remarkable, and more than a bit concerning. Judge Christian seems intent on ignoring the mandates of his job and substituting his own judgments for the process. In doing so, he's also increasing incarceration - keep in mind he has the highest numbers of all Bexar-county-court-at-law judges on both revocations and resulting jail-bed days.

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the case was the fact that District Attorney Joe Gonzales joined with defense counsel to dispute Christian's "unsuitable" practices, which apparently had been tolerated by his predecessors without contest for many years. 

One aspect of electing reform-minded prosecutors Grits had not fully considered (or perhaps more accurately, had not dared dream possible) is that they could challenge unconstitutional court practices from the inside, or join those challenges, as happened here. So kudos to Gonzalez for his stance here, that's a big deal!

Prosecutors' role should be to "seek justice." But too often, they see themselves as on a side, and it's the opposite side from the defendant. So when the judge plays prosecutor as well, as is the practice in Judge Christian's court, defendants without means to pay a phalanx of private lawyers have little chance.

Finally, Grits was interested in the Express-News' analysis that Christian leads all other Bexar judges in motions to revoke. How do we know? That's something tracked in state-level court data, but totals are only available in Office of Court Administration queries at the county-wide level.

Grits doesn't immediately know the data source from which Brodesky identified the number of probation revocations by court. (If any readers know how to access this data from public sources, please let us know in the comments.) But that's a useful figure because, as regular readers are aware, probation revocations are a significant cause of Texas prison admissions, and revoked misdemeanor probationers go to county jail, contributing to local costs. 

So, to summarize, here are the implications and questions Grits would take away from this episode (feel free to suggest more in the comments):
  1. A judge for years felt free to ignore his duties to hold probation-revocation hearings and neither local defense attorneys nor the DA's office called him on it. Is this happening elsewhere?
  2. Will the State Commission on Judicial Conduct sanction Judge Christian?
  3. Does this flagrant disregard for judicial duties rise to the level of the state bar challenging Christian's licensure?
  4. Will media in other jurisdictions begin analyzing which judges have the most probation revocations and hold them accountable for successes/abuses?
  5. An under-examined aspect of evaluating "progressive" prosecutors will be how they respond to appeals challenging unconstitutional practices and other reform litigation. People have discussed this in the context of bail reform, but Jacobs case shows there are potentially many more areas where this could become important.  
This is quite a significant case, I think, certainly for San Antonio, and potentially exposing an area where judges may be abusing their discretion in other jurisdictions as well, if reporters and advocates were to look. The pressures on ADAs and defense counsel to acquiesce in judges' abuses for the sake of other cases certainly aren't unique to Bexar County.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Driver Responsibility surcharge abolition, by the numbers

The death of Texas' Driver Responsibility surcharge was the single, outstanding #cjreform highlight of the 86th Texas Legislature, outdistancing all other reforms in terms of impact by a country mile. Let's run through the numbers:

Nearly 1.4 million drivers currently have suspended licenses based on unpaid Driver Responsibility surcharges, or roughly half of all drivers who've ever received them. And on its website, the Department of Public Safety pledged to "reinstate all driver privileges that were previously suspended solely for having unpaid surcharges." But hold on just a second ...

While everyone will have their debt erased - the Texas Fair Defense Project estimated that the total amount of debt waived will approach $2.5 billion - a large number of people won't immediately get their licenses back.

Reported the Dallas Observer, 630,000 drivers will be immediately eligible to get their licenses back on Sept. 1st. Another 350,000 will be eligible to renew their license after paying a reinstatement fee, and 400,000 have other holds on their drivers licenses, mostly through the Omnibase program, through which the state suspends licenses for non-payment of fines and fees.

The reinstatement fees for the 350,000 people who owe them are $125 (Source), so that's just shy of $44 million dollars in fees those drivers must pay to get back on the road.

Bottom line, some portion of those folks will still have suspended licenses a year from now, plus the 400k people with licenses suspended under Omnibase also are still out of luck.

Thus, the new law stopped the generation of new surcharge debt, and waived past debts, but it only resolved license suspensions for a fraction of surcharge debtors - perhaps half of them or more.

Going forward, surcharges were abolished for points, no-insurance, and driving with an invalid license (DWLI), but retained and converted into criminal fines in DWI cases. Under the old program, DWIs only made up 12 percent of people who were assessed surcharges, so that eliminates them for 88 percent in the future. It remains to be seen how often judges waive those new DWI fines - they couldn't waive the surcharges at all.

There was an extent to which the Driver Responsiblity surcharge contributed to county-level incarceration by generating a huge pool of drivers with suspended licenses. When the surcharge program first rolled out, county jails were flooded and the Legislature in 2007 reduced first-offense DWLI penalties from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor. But people are still arrested and jailed for second offense DWLI and higher.

In 2017, the Office of Court Administration documented 21,836 new Class B DWLI cases. We know that the overwhelming majority of people with suspended licenses lost them because of the Driver Responsibility surcharge - let's assume 75 percent, for the sake of the math. If those folks averaged just 2 days in jail each (the maximum penalty for a Class B misdemeanor is 6 months in jail and a $2,000 fine), then they collectively would have spent about 90 bed-years in jail!

So that's where we are, by the numbers. On September 1st, $2.5 billion in debts will be erased and hundreds of thousands of people will be eligible to get their licenses back.

For more background and/or details on license reinstatement, see FAQs from DPS and the Texas Fair Defense Project.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Progressive prosecutors as elusive as Bigfoot ... are both mythical creatures?

Do so-called "progressive prosecutors" really exist, or are they fictional beasts like Bigfoot or jackalopes?

On the June 2019 episode of the Reasonably Suspicious podcast, my co-host Amanda Marzullo and I delved into this question. I got a lot of good feedback on the segment, so let's excerpt it in hopes that a six-minute clip may be heard more widely.

For a transcript of the segment, see the blog post with the full podcast; this segment was toward the end.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Why revocations from probation and parole make up nearly half of Texas prison admissions and what to do about it

Two recent reports on supervising people in the community post-conviction deserve Grits readers' attention:

From the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Marc Levin has a 10-point agenda on parole that's more aggressive than any decarceration proposal that conservative group has promoted before.

Meanwhile, the Council of State Governments issued an analysis of the proportion of prison admissions related to revoked probation and parole terms.

Let's look at the CSG report first, since it provides the lay of the land. They have state-specific pages for each jurisdiction; here's the one for Texas.

By their calculations, 47 percent of people entering Texas prisons in 2017 were revoked either from probation or parole - 36 percent from probation, 11 percent from parole.

My first thought was to double-check their math, so here's my calculations using verifiable, public sourcing.

In Texas, according to an annual TDCJ report to the legislature, probation revocations to prison in FY 2017 totaled 23,101; of that, 11,522 were for technical violations.

In FY 2017, according to the Board of Pardons and Paroles' Annual Statistical Report, 6,555 parolees were revoked; of those, 1,043 were for technical violations.

Combined, that's 29,656 people revoked from probation and parole combined in 2017; 12,565 of those were for technical violations only.

TDCJ admitted 65,278 total people that year, according to the TDCJ Annual Statistical Report.

So, by my math, that's 45% of TDCJ admissions from probation and parole revocations, not 47%, with 19% coming from technical violations alone. (According to their methodology appendix, they had trouble coming up with data on technical probation violations, which may account for some of the disparity.)

But that's nitpicking. The authors' point was to demonstrate that nearly half of prison admissions arise from supervision revocations, not new convictions. That is certainly true, which brings us to Marc Levin's TPPF policy brief on parole.

Whereas CSG aimed to identify the scope of the problem, Levin proposes reforms to reduce unnecessary supervision and revocations.

In Mr. Levin's ideal world, prisons would begin planning for reentry soon after a person is incarcerated and make sure all necessary treatment and programming has been completed by the time they're first eligible for parole. Moreover, he would have the parole board mainly assess risk to the public going forward, emphasizing behavior while in prison and participation in programming. By contrast, in Texas, one of the most common reasons for denial of parole is "nature of the offense," which cannot ever change.

He touts a Michigan statute, in particular, which limits the reasons parole can be denied to 11, mostly public-safety oriented items. (The references in this document are a treasure trove.)

Levin wants to ensure parole conditions are manageable and adjusted based on risk level, with lower-risk people receiving less supervision. He wants prisoners to get credit for "earned time," which in Texas is optional for the parole board to recognize (this provides scant incentive for program participation, cooperation on work details, etc.). He would reduce barriers to employment for parolees and stop the use of regressive zoning practices to restrict where parolees can live. (January Advisors just did a major analysis on this topic focused on Houston.)

Levin wants to alter how parole officers are evaluated, focusing on recidivism reduction. And finally, he wants some reentry duties currently performed by the justice system to be performed by nonprofits and other entities, which incidentally is what happened recently in Colorado with its community reinvestment program.

I'm glad to see people thinking more deeply both about how to measure the community-supervision elements of mass incarceration as well as how to better utilize those tools for reducing prison populations and preventing recidivism. Taken together, these two documents reaffirm many of the findings in an analysis published last year from the Columbia University Justice Lab titled, "Too Big to Succeed" (which also has informative footnotes), that gave recommendations for cutting the size of community corrections systems in half.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Covering prosecutors in the media: A primer

Your correspondent was asked to speak tomorrow at an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Houston on the topic of covering prosecutors. I told them I'd focus on three areas: Available data on prosecutors (focused on Texas), innocence issues, and context for covering so-called "progressive prosecutors." Since I had to prepare, anyway, here are a few highlights:

Texas prosecutor data

For the most part, data on prosecutors is scarce. In Texas, the first concerted effort to dig beyond the surface came from a reporter (now an attorney) named Cindy Culp, writing at the Waco Tribune Herald, 2009. (The stories are no longer available free online, but here are some excerpts, and Grits' contemporary coverage of her work.) The police union had accused the local DA of dismissing too many felony cases, so Culp examined case-dismissal rates in 3 counties - McLennan, Wichita, and Jefferson. She found:
Local prosecutors either refused or dismissed 50.3 percent of felony charges during 2006-08. For misdemeanor cases, there was a 39.7 dismissal/refusal rate, and for all cases combined, it was 43 percent. 
By comparison, during the same three years: 
* Prosecutors in Jefferson County, home to Beaumont and Port Arthur, refused or dismissed 45.7 percent of felonies, 40.4 percent of misdemeanors and 42.2 percent of all cases combined. 
* Prosecutors in Wichita County, where Wichita Falls is the county seat, refused or dismissed 46.3 percent of cases with felonies and misdemeanors combined. Data were not available broken down by felony versus misdemeanor.
The main thing Culp's work showed, however, was how hard it is to acquire meaningful prosecutor data and analyze it in a way that's useful and informative. She showed us more than we'd seen before, but also made more glaring the stark absence of data regarding prosecutorial decisions.

No one else attempted to track this data in Texas until the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition created its Harris and Dallas County Data Dashboards:

This resource lets case data be broken down by charge, by race, by census tract, and by arresting agency. Probably the two most interesting and/or newsworthy analyses will pertain to racial disparities, which can be broken down by type of crime and arresting agency, and dismissal rates. That takes these analyses several steps beyond the Culp's agency-wide analysis. But it's not available except for those two counties. And it's not clear it could be replicated everywhere through open records requests; both those counties have more robust data systems that could be scraped for these purposes.

Otherwise, in Texas what's readily available is Office of Court Administration Data:
The annual report gives statewide and county-level trends for new cases, overall caseloads, number of convictions/pleas/jury trials, and case clearance rates. The number of new cases and convictions both are often a useful datapoint to combine with other sources to make various calculations. Summary information at the front of the report may be useful, but more interesting are the data tables at the end.

Data queries allow MUCH more detailed breakdowns by county. In addition to county-level data on the datapoints from the Annual Statistical Report, you can get data on motions to revoke probation.

One of the best-kept secrets in the Texas judicial data can be found with a municipal and/or JP-court query. Select "Additional Activity" at the drop-down box under "Section." There you can find data on arrest and search warrants, Class C fines, how many fines are waived, how many were satisfied through community service, jail credit, etc. Prosecutors play a role in all of these decisions.

Another data-based story angle: just recently, Keri Blakinger of the Houston Chronicle published a landmark article on prosecutor caseloads at the Harris County DA, showing that District Attorney Kim Ogg had significantly overstated the prosecutor-to-cases ratio when pitching the commissioners court to let her hire 100 new prosecutors. Her open-records-based methodology would be interesting to replicate in large cities where caseloads may be an issue. For more background on the caseload issues, see this academic article, also focused on Harris County. To my knowledge, this caseload story has not been replicated elsewhere. If you're going to do this work in Texas, the Indigent Defense Commission keeps excellent, county-and-lawyer-level data on defense-attorney caseloads for comparison.

Data gaps: There are more parts of a prosecutors' job about which we don't have data than those we do. One of the most glaring data gaps regards plea bargaining and the "trial penalty" - i.e., how much more harshly defendants are penalized if they insist on the state proving their case at trial. Most datapoints that exist for prosecutors involve taking cases to trial, but overwhelmingly most cases (97+%) are resolved by plea bargaining. That process is a black hole with scarce little quantitative or qualitative information ever arising from it. But it's the most important (and common) thing prosecutors do.

Finally, Larry Krasner in Philadelphia and perhaps a few other new "progressive" DAs are beginning to generate more and different types of data. Although my presentation only discusses Texas datapoints, their example eventually may educate us about different analyses that DAs can do with their internal data that haven't typically been made public in the past. This is an aspect of the progressive DA movement that could have out-sized impact down the line, providing transparency to what has been an utterly opaque process.

Prosecutors and Innocence

My first bit of advice to this group when it comes to prosecutors and innocence:

Don't contribute to tunnel vision in high-profile cases: The cases that receive the most media attention paradoxically put the most pressure on prosecutors to cut corners to get convictions. In these instances, journalists play less a role of holding government accountable than government cheerleader, since the government (read: prosecutors) control all the evidence presented. That's both useful to understand after the fact when covering innocence cases, and a cautionary tale when covering cases on the front end. Sensationalized coverage of high-profile trials may not reach jurors, but it reaches voters and DAs react to it. (Watch Ava Duvernay's When They See Us on Netflix for an excellent example.) Given that we've seen so many such cases later overturned through DNA exonerations and other means,  the press has some soul searching to do when it comes to pandering to the public with salacious coverage and their role in generating false convictions.

Otherwise, when false convictions have already occurred, there are a handful of issues in innocence cases that fall directly on the shoulders of prosecutors. Here's what to look for:

Improper arguments: Prosecutors may say things at trial that can lead jurors to wrong conclusions: e.g., misstating the law, or relying on perjured testimony. These flaws likely will not be evident to reporters from the trial record (which is another reason to be cautious when covering trials up front), but typically will arise in appellate arguments down the line.

Failing to disclose exculpatory evidence: Brady v. Maryland is the federal case covering what prosecutors must disclose to the defense, but in Texas we passed the Michael Morton Act, which makes the requirements more stringent and requires disclosure earlier in the process. In Texas, prosecutors now must create a list of what was turned over and make it part of the record. This is an issue that will only come out in the appellate process; it's impossible to know at trial what evidence a prosecutor DIDN'T present. For an example of how to analyze appellate records to identify this type of prosecutor misconduct, see a study of California cases by the Veritas Institute.

Police records a gap in the system: Prosecutors cannot disclose records of police misconduct in Texas civil service cities governed by the state civil-service code: about 74 police departments out of nearly 2,000 statewide. That's because police-misconduct records in civil-service cities were made confidential by law in 1989, with departments forbidden even from sharing the information with other law enforcement agencies. (Of the large cities, only Dallas and El Paso aren't under the civil service system. Among sheriffs, only Harris County operates under this system.) In one case in San Antonio, a false conviction was overturned when police did not turn over video evidence of an officer assaulting a handcuffed defendant; instead, the defendant had pled guilty to assaulting the officer! So sometimes, Brady or Michael Morton Act violations may not be a prosecutor's fault, even if they're the ones with the legal obligation to turn it over.

The national exonerations registry is a great starting point for identifying innocence cases in your jurisdiction and for more examples of various types of prosecutor misconduct. Check it periodically for cases in your state that may have flown under the radar.

Setting expectations re: "progressive prosecutors"

Lately, we have seen prosecutors elected as "progressives" in America for the first time in nearly a century. But beware these labels. Podcast listeners heard a related discussion toward the end of our June episode.

Before Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, I considered the notion of a progressive prosecutor a myth. Krasner makes the best case for the possibility of a progressive prosecutor. Krasner's memo to prosecutors on charging and sentencing was a landmark moment, and self-styled progressive prosecutors should be judged based on how much of that agenda they're implementing in their jurisdiction. Most Texas prosecutors labeled "progressive," for example, aren't coming close.

But at the end of the day, I still don't believe in progressive prosecutors because the DA's function is fundamentally regressive. As I put it on the podcast, "A prosecutor has just one tool in the toolbox. They lash out with the power of the state to exact retribution on someone who violates its dicta." There is simply no "progressive" function involved in that activity. Their only power, and only leverage, comes from harming people in retaliation for ignoring state pronouncements. When that pronouncement is "don't murder" or "don't rape," the public broadly supports their function (at least until it came to light how often innocent people are convicted). But when that pronouncement is "Don't smoke pot," the prosecutorial function becomes more controversial.

My belief is that the #cjreform movement's focus on prosecutors has been overblown. They're important, but not the only decision makers in the system. And focusing exclusively only on them lets others - e.g., legislatures, police, judges, crappy defense attorneys - off the hook.

MORE: Here's a brief write-up of the panel.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Reasonably Suspicious, June 2019 episode: 2019 #txlege roundup, Dallas cops' racist Facebook posts, and are 'progressive prosecutors' really a thing?

Here's the June 2019 episode of Just Liberty's Reasonably Suspicious podcast:

In this month's episode:

Top Stories
Fill in the Blank
  • Texas Supreme Court: DAs can order prosecutors to violate constitutional rights
  • Bail-reform died, and that's a good thing
  • Should Texas prisoners all become plumbers?
Discussion: Are progressive prosecutors really a thing?

The Last Hurrah
  • Red-light cameras abolished, will debts be erased?
  • Colorado, Oklahoma surpassing Texas on #cjreform
  • Evidence left behind after Houston SWAT raid
Find a transcript below the jump.

Monday, June 10, 2019

86th Texas Lege a killing field for #cjreform

Having mentioned a handful of #cjreform victories from the 86th Texas Legislature - most notably, by far, abolition of the Driver Responsibility surcharge - we must also acknowledge that the session overall was a major disappointment for anyone interested in reforming the justice system.

Heading into the session, there was cause for optimism. In the Texas House, Speaker Joe Straus for a decade had refused to let #cjreform legislation receive floor votes, while Speaker Dennis Bonnen was much more willing to let members vote on significant reforms. The Governor had endorsed both bail reform and reduced marijuana penalties. And both party platforms had endorsed important reform proposals that entered the session with bipartisan support.

Accentuate the positive
Once the session began, however, it became clear the Senate in particular was all but a lost cause. Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire spent more time shooting down reform legislation than promoting it. (We must accept that raise-the-age and police transparency legislation, for example, will never receive hearings, much less pass, as long as he chairs that committee.)

Reformers have lost all our senate champions over the last few cycles - nobody has stepped up to replace Rodney Ellis or Konni Burton's work on these issues - and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick remains hostile even to minimalist reforms, like reducing pot penalties.

Indeed, since Patrick took over the role of Senate President in 2015, Texas has seen scarce little reform legislation compared to, say, 2007-2013, when an array of decarceration and innocence reforms established Texas as a national #cjreform leader.

These days, the Lone Star State can no longer claim that mantle. Not only has California decarcerated more significantly than Texas (with the help of federal litigation, to be sure), but since 2014, Oklahoma, Utah, Alaska, Connecticut and Colorado have all reduced user-level drug possession to a misdemeanor. Texas has never even seen such legislation get out of committee, and this session nobody even tried. Past efforts had evinced tepid support in the House, and the bill clearly could never even be debated in the Texas Senate under the current leadership.

Grits can think of only five significant #cjreform bills passed in Texas since Dan Patrick became Lt. Governor: 1) increasing property-theft thresholds (which happened in 2015 via amendment, not a bill), 2) eliminating the "key man" system for grand-jury selection (we were the last state to do it), 3) the 2017 Sandra Bland Act (which had the most popular provision that would have saved her life stripped from the bill), 4) debtors-prison reform legislation in 2017 that made it easier for judges to waive fines (though still, 10x as many are jailed as have them waived), and 5) this year's abolition of the Driver Responsibility surcharge, an effort 12 years in the making.

While these were not insignificant bills, they're definitely overshadowed by accomplishments in other states.

Beyond that, the capitol grounds are littered with the corpses of modest, bipartisan #cjreform legislation, much of which would have relieved pressure on cities and counties at a time when the Legislature also restricted their revenue. Here are some of the decarceration measures the Legislature failed to pass:

Reducing marijuana penalties
This passed the House with overwhelming support and would have eliminated around 75k arrests per year, as well as the resulting incarceration stints. But Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick were quick to shoot down the idea and declare it would never be heard in the Texas Senate.

Limiting Class C misdemeanor arrests
House Democrats famously shot themselves in the foot, killing legislation that, had it been law at the time, would have prevented Sandra Bland's arrest, incarceration, and ultimately her death. Statewide, there were about 76k Class C arrests in 2017, extrapolating from primary research by Texas Appleseed. In Austin, where police implemented a policy on Class C arrests that complied with the proposed law, arrests declined by nearly two-thirds. If that proportion held statewide, the law would have prevented 45-50,000 arrests per year.

Reducing DWLI penalties
Although the Driver Responsibility surcharge has been abolished, 1.5 million people still have their licenses suspended because of it. And when they're caught driving without a license a second time, they're charged with a Class B misdemeanor, meaning police arrest them and counties must pay for incarceration and indigent defense costs. HB 372 (Allen) got out of committee this year but the House Calendars Committee never gave it a floor vote. According to the Office of Court Administration, there were 22,427 new Class B DWLI charges in 2018. Her bill which would have changed the penalty to a Class C - would have prevented most arrests for this low-level administrative violation.

Eliminating debtors-prison practices
Regular readers know that more than a half-million Texans last year sat out their Class C misdemeanor fines in jail, while roughly a tenth of that number had their fines waived for indigence. Rep. James White filed legislation to stop arresting people who don't pay Class C fines and using commercial collection practices instead, a measure endorsed in both the Republican and Democratic Party state platforms. But heated behind-the-scenes opposition made it clear the bill faced trouble this year and likely couldn't make it through the gauntlet. So Chairman White "substituted" in the language from Sandra-Bland bill, discussed above, after Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee Chairman Poncho Nevarez refused to give Senfronia Thompson's HB 482 a vote in his committee. In the end, debate over the original bill was vigorous, but never public. But a lot of intelligence was gained to promote the idea again in two years.

Bail-reform blues
Bail reform died, but that's probably a good thing. As Grits has described previously, the legislation in play failed to address constitutional concerns arising in federal litigation, and created a new, politicized advisory panel to monkey around in what should be evidence-based risk assessments. Texas is MUCH better off waiting to see what the courts do on this before legislating. Texas needs bail reform, but only if it's done right. This legislation was a hot mess.

In addition to all the bills dying that would have reduced incarceration in county jails, measures to limit state-prison intake numbers also foundered:

Three-strikes misdemeanor theft
Three-strikes theft reform (HB 1240 by Davis) was another good bill that died in the Calendars Committee without a floor vote. Presently a defendant's third misdemeanor theft may be automatically "enhanced" (read: increased) to a state jail felony, regardless of the item's value. This legislation would have scaled back the enhancement for lower-value items to go up only one category - e.g., theft of a Class-C-value item would be enhanced to a Class B, not a state jail felony. This legislation sailed out of committee and appeared to be doing fine until Dallas DA John Creuzot announced his own decarceration initiatives mid-session. One of them was that his office would use discretion not to prosecute people stealing personal items with no intent to sell them or profit. The Governor proceeded to go into full-demagogue mode, and his agents killed the bill in the Calendars committee.

Probation reform
A modest probation reform bill passed the House which looked for a moment like it had legs. Chairman Whitmire had filed the companion bill, and his former staffer Terra Tucker was promoting the bill for the Alliance for Safety and Justice. But Whitmire never gave the bill a hearing in his own committee, even though it cleared the House with plenty of time to pass. Further evidence the Texas Senate has become a black hole for #cjreform.

Pretrial diversion nixed
An agency bill proposed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice would have expanded pretrial diversion programming in ways that would have an undetermined but not insignificant de-carceral effect. The bill passed out of committee but died in Calendars without receiving a floor vote in the House.

Motion for a new trial
This one still has me fuming! HB 4202 (Smithee) was an elegantly designed bill which would have allowed for out-of-time motions for a new trial in cases where someone is sentenced to more than three years if the prosecutor and judge agree. Cases could either be dismissed or new sentences agreed upon. Debates surrounding the bill centered mostly on innocence cases - particularly the Houston drug convictions based on faulty field tests - but it also could have implications for people with unreasonably long sentences or even problematic death-penalty convictions. Astonishingly, this gem of a bill passed the Texas House with NO ONE voting against it! It cleared committee 9-0, passed the House 142-0, but never received a hearing after it was referred to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Another black-hole victim.

Earned-time Credits
After Donald Trump signed the First Step Act, which included provisions to give more generous "earned time" credits to offenders who demonstrate good behavior or diligent participation in programs, some observers hoped similar legislation in Texas might get a boost. But HB 1271 (S. Thompson) never earned the votes to make it out of the House Corrections Committee. While most decarceration bills in Texas have been aimed at lower-level non-violent offenses, this bill would (modestly) chip away at incarceration rates for people convicted of violent crimes whose only chance at release is parole. It also would provide new tools for administrators to punish inmate misbehavior, incidentally, as credits earned can also be taken away. Taking a few weeks or months off of the longest TDCJ sentences in exchange for pro-social behavior inside should be a no-brainer, from a corrections-best-practices perspective. But legislators remain fearful to do anything that might benefit anyone convicted of a violent crime, which is to say, a majority of Texas prisoners.

Other justice-reform legislation also fared poorly:

Death Penalty
The Texas House passed legislation to fix the state's unconstitutional standard for executing intellectually disabled people and another bill addressing capital punishment for people with severe mental illness. But the Senate radically watered down the ID bill and the two chambers couldn't come to an agreement. After the SMI bill passed the House, the Lieutenant Governor never referred the bill to committee; another black-hole victim.

Closing the 'dead-suspect loophole' to the Public Information Act
After Speaker Pro Tempore Joe Moody amended his legislation to close the "dead suspect loophole" to the Public Information Act to a Senate bill by Kirk Watson that restricted records access, the Austin senator refused to concur and took the bill to conference, where Moody agreed to strip it off. The amendment was the subject of an intense lobbying campaign by police unions, and in the quarter century I've known him, starting as Austin's mayor, Watson has never bucked their agenda. It's little surprise that this time was no different.

Transparency for police misconduct
Thirty years ago, police unions convinced the Legislature to exempt personnel files at around 70 out of 2,500 law enforcement agencies from the Public Information Act if they had opted into "civil service" provisions of Chapter 143 of the Local Government Code. But after the Lege passed the Michael Morton Act in 2013, it became apparent this provision was allowing police departments to withhold evidence of prosecutor misconduct even from District Attorney offices, leading to egregious miscarriages of justice. Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa filed SB 433 to fix the problem, but it couldn't get a hearing in Whitmire's Criminal Justice Committee.

No A/C expansion for Texas prisons
A bill that began as a suggestion to provide air conditioning to Texas prisons became a bill to study the issue, then even that couldn't pass. Grits has said for years that only federal litigation will force Texas to do this, certainly as long as John Whitmire chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

Personal location data remains poorly protected
In the wake of the US Supreme Court's Carpenter decision, the Texas Senate approved one of the few reform bills to come out of that chamber this year requiring law enforcement to secure a warrant to access personal cell-phone location data from cell-service providers, including both historical and real-time data. But Google and Facebook intervened in the House and the legislation died in the committee. Apparently they objected to transparency provisions that would let Texans know how often law enforcement access location data they hold about users. That's understandable - IMO people would be shocked if they knew how frequently law enforcement accesses that highly personal data. And the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is doing all it can to limit the extent to which Texas state courts require warrants under the Carpenter ruling. But in Grits' view, the tide of history is against them. This legislation would have prevented a lot of headaches.

Grits could go on. In many ways, the abolition of the Driver Responsibility surcharge was the biggest #cjreform success in years. But it was a lonely victory, and the dynamics on most other topics makes it difficult for reformers to muster a sanguine outlook for the near future without unforeseeable changes in the Texas Senate.

RELATED: In an assessment Grits would generously call putting lipstick on a pig, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition counted 79 "positive" bills which passed, a prospect at which they declared they were "thrilled." Beyond the ones mentioned in this post, however, from a decarceration/civil-liberties perspective, most of them were big nothingburgers, or else agency bills with which the #cjreform movement had little to do. I suppose one can look at many of those bills as modest incremental reform - a few more than others - but Grits comes from a school in which one claims no easy victories. The most important stuff, beyond surcharge abolition, all was lost.

AND MORE: See Texas Monthly's biting Worst-Legislators installment for Sen. John Whitmire.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Scaling back justice debt biggest #cjreform accomplishment of 2019 #txlege

Texas justice reformers will spend the next couple of years lamenting what the Texas Lege DIDN'T do in 2019 - e.g., reduce marijuana penalties, pass the Sandra Bland law, close the dead-suspect loophole to the Public Information Act - or else frustrated by new criminal penalties boosting sentences for petty offenses.

But it's worth giving legislators credit for what they DID do on #cjreform, and by far the most important measures relate to providing relief from justice-system debt:

Abolishing the Driver Responsibility Surcharge: The Texas Fair Defense Project estimates that $2.5 billion in justice-debt will be wiped off the books on September 1st when HB 2048 takes effect, and some 1.5 million people will be eligible to have their drivers licenses reinstated.

Eliminating red-light cameras: While a few cities have lengthy contracts which will keep red light cameras operating for years to come, the Legislature forbade new ones and eliminated the ability to deny vehicle registration or license renewal for nonpayment. These cameras affect on safety is dubious, at best, and are viewed by locals as revenue generators.

Limited automatic driver's license suspensions: HB 162 would end the practice of searching driver records to suspend licenses of people driving without them. Now, such administrative suspensions based on a government database search will be limited to people whose licenses are suspended for DWI, and those would be limited to 90 days. The Washington Post last year reported that Texas has more people with suspended licenses than any other state. This new law and abolition of the Driver Responsibility surcharge should go a long way toward knocking that number down.

Defined "undue hardship" in debtors prison cases: In 2017, the Texas Lege approved legislation to make it easier for municipal judges and justices of the peace to waive Class C fines and authorize community service. But many local judges had been defining the term "undue hardship" narrowly to avoid waiving fines. Amendments to SB 346 define that term so that more fines will be waived. This was a cleanup bill, but quite necessary: Although more than 50,000 people had fines waived in the 2018, for example, more than ten times that number sat out their Class C fines in jail.

Two of these - surcharge abolition and eliminating red-light cameras - were pushed by reformers for 12 years before finally passing.

Overall, Grits is disappointed with the 86th Texas Lege, and particularly the Texas Senate, which produced scarce little reform legislation of consequence and killed most of what came over from the House. These bills amount to a consolation prize. But as my father likes to say, that's better than a sharp stick in the eye.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Abolition of driver surcharges a rare #cjreform upside for 2019 #txlege

In a Texas legislative session where scarce little justice-reform legislation of any stripe made it through the process, the abolition of the hated Driver-Responsibility surcharge will be remembered as the signature accomplishment. The bill getting rid of the program has finally passed and HB 2048 is headed to the governor.

From advocates' perspective, there wasn't a ton left to do. In 2017, a proposal to replace trauma-center funding generated by the surcharges with a nearly identical system of new "fines" died in the Senate. At the time, advocates promoted a number of much more reasonable funding solutions, and once it became clear that the most-regressive-possible surcharge repeal did not have a path, legislative leaders resigned themselves to looking at those suggestions.

With Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson's blessing, Sen. Joan Huffman filed legislation in the senate, with Appropriations Chairman Dr. John Zerwas filing a companion bill in the House, which dropped the traffic-fine increase to $20, tacked a new $2 fee on insurance policies, and jiggled the ratios around regarding who got what to make the hospitals whole.

The bill abolished surcharges for everyone but DWI offenders. They receive 12 percent of all surcharges, so 88 percent of surcharges will be eliminated going forward.

For everyone owing surcharges at the time the bill becomes law on September 1, 2019, the debt will be nullified along with the program. That will allow 1.5 million people whose licenses currently are suspended over nonpayment of surcharges to get their licenses back.

Some of these folks have gone without licenses for more than a decade because they couldn't pay, with surcharges compounding because they drove with revoked licenses. Since 2003, about 3 million people have racked up 16 million surcharges, with half of them losing their licenses permanently, until this bill.

For DWI offenders, the old "surcharges" were kept on the books and renamed criminal fines, tacked on in addition to other punishments already on the books for the offense. But in contrast to "civil" surcharges, judges can waive criminal fines for indigent people. Plus, Emily Gerrick of the Texas Fair Defense Project convinced the senate to add a provision creating a presumptive indigence provision for these fines similar to that for surcharges. And with those perfecting amendments, the bill passed the senate.

This is a moment your correspondent has been working toward for more than a decade. Long-time readers will recall Grits worked with Alison Brock at Rep. Sylvester Turner's office, to create amnesty/indigence provisions for the surcharge, and with Mandy Marzullo, now my podcast co-host at Reasonably Suspicious, to implement the rules at DPS. Hating on the program has been a pet project of mine nearly since the inception of this blog.

The surcharges were created in 2003, and by 2007, people driving with licenses suspended under the program had become a chronic problem. That year, the Legislature changed DWLI on the first offense from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor because unlicensed surcharge-owing drivers were filling up local jails. They also added DWLI to a list of offenses, the most prominent of which was pot possession, for which police could give citations instead of arresting people. That temporarily stemmed jail overcrowding pressures, though today, in some counties, Class B DWLIs still account for large percentages of the misdemeanor docket.

Indeed, during the worst of it, before indigence provisions kicked in, judges told the Legislature they were sentencing DWI cases as reckless driving or obstruction of a roadway to avoid defendants racking up surcharges that everyone knew they couldn't pay.

So these surcharges have driven misdemeanor-justice policies in Texas in unexpected, weird, and mostly negative, regressive ways for many years now. It's an incredible relief that they're about to go away.

The Texas Legislature may not accomplish much in 2019 on justice reform. But this will help so many people, the one victory nearly outweighs the (heart breaking) losses.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Call your state senator to support #SandraBland legislation!

Police unions are launching a massive misinformation campaign about an amendment to S.B. 815 limiting jail time for Class C misdemeanor arrests. Check out this absurd press release in which they suggest drivers will physically attack cops if police are required to give reasons when they arrest people for Class C misdemeanors. See here for a more reality-based assessment of the amendment.

Cops are doing an all-out blitz against the bill, and Texas state senators need to hear from reform supporters. Go here to find your senator’s contact information and call them now! Ask them to support the House Amendments to S.B. 815.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

How confused Texas Democrats killed #SandraBland legislation, twice; or, how police kill a civil-rights bill when legislators overwhelmingly support it

The death of HB 2754 (White) limiting arrests for Class C misdemeanors was the strangest bill ride in which Grits has ever participated. Readers will recall that this provision was stripped out of the Sandra Bland Act in 2017, so reformers came back this year for another bite at the apple. The bill has overwhelming support in the Texas House, but now it's dead.

Let's try to unpack what happened:

In essence, Democrats killed the bill twice: first because they didn't understand the legislation (or why current law allowed Sandra Bland to be pulled from her car), and then because a bunch of them left work before the big vote on Friday, so the rules couldn't be suspended to reverse the error.

For bill author James White, a Republican, it's evidence that no good deed goes unpunished. His HB 2754 was narrowed in committee to the Sandra-Bland language because Rep. Senfronia Thompson's HB 482 couldn't get out of the Homeland Security and Public Safety committee. Advocates believed they could count to a majority, but Democratic Homeland Chairman Poncho Nevarez wouldn't give Thompson's bill a vote. So, essentially similar language was substituted into White's HB 2754, which had been referred to Chairwoman Nicole Collier's Criminal Jurisprudence committee. Again, the bill had the votes, so she brought it up and voted it out. The bill found sufficient support to make it through Calendars and landed on the House floor with plenty of time to pass.

First Kill
Before the second reading vote on the House floor, Chairman Nevarez brought White an amendment from the police unions to let officers arrest if the offender failed to present identification. White declined to add it, and Nevarez did not press the matter. On the morning of third reading, however, the police unions brought the amendment to White directly. He added it under his own name on 3rd reading, and the bill passed the House 126-20, with Nevarez "absent."

Because it did not change current practice (officers currently ask for identification at traffic stops in order to write you a ticket and HB 2754 would not have changed that), the amendment was not clearly substantive. Instead, it was a "poison pill" designed by the police unions to change the conversation from overreaching police power to verification of identity at traffic stops - an issue covered by different laws not altered by HB 2754, poorly understood by most of the membership, and likely to gin up dissension. It worked.

After the bill passed, Democrat Shawn Thierry complained to White about the amendment, and in a rare move, he agreed to bring the bill back up and strip it off, even though HB 2754 had already passed on to the senate. Advocates had no idea he was planning to do this. And thus the bill came back up late Wednesday night after it had already passed in the lower chamber.

However, once the bill was brought back up and the amendment was off, Thierry began nitpicking at the rest of the bill in ways that fundamentally failed to comprehend either current law or the effects of the legislation. Currently, police can arrest absolutely anyone for any Class C charge and no other reason; the bill limited this power. But Thierry appeared to believe the bill expanded police authority rather than limiting it. 

Thierry dug in on an open-ended clause in the new limitations that would let police arrest if they had probable cause to believe someone wouldn't show up in court. This was compromise language demanded by law enforcement; certainly it was broader than Grits would prefer, and was the most open-ended exception. But requiring cops to have "probable cause" to believe someone won't show up is an improvement over giving them wholesale authority to arrest without any such justification. Taken as a whole, the measure limited arrest authority compared to current law. Thierry mistakenly believed it gave police new arrest powers.

Then, Nevarez, along with his roommate, Terry Canales, a criminal-defense attorney, stridently doubled down on Thierry's confused interpretation. Another Democrat even accused White of promoting racial profiling! In reality, the opposite is true: when policies compliant with HB 2754 were installed at Austin PD, Class-C arrests declined by nearly two thirds and racial disparities lessened.

House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairwoman Nicole Collier, one of a handful of Democrats who stuck with the bill, tried to help White out with questions that clarified the language. But he became frustrated and called for a vote. Confused Democrats sided with the bill critics en masse, including some who were coauthors!

And with that, a black Democrat pursuing a misguided argument killed Texas legislation which, had it been law, would have prevented Sandra Bland's arrest. Ironically, on her Twitter page, Thierry includes the following quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. in her bio: "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will." I think, at this point, we can all agree on that!

As an aside, I bet Chairman White has learned his lesson about doing Democrats favors. The Republican committee chairman tried to accommodate them - first adding the police-union change that Nevarez had requested, then pulling it off when Thierry complained. As a result, a bill Democrats should all support was killed for his trouble.

Within about 15 minutes of the vote, the Democratic caucus understood they'd screwed up big time, with Nevarez, Garnet Coleman, Harold Dutton, Joe Moody, Nicole Collier, and others coming outside to tell supporters they were going to "fix this." By the next morning, the path was clear. Chairman White agreed to accept one amendment to repair the open-ended text related to failure to appear. Democrats agreed to come back en masse to vote "yes" because the concern had been addressed. Everyone had a path forward.

Second Kill
But it was not to be. Chairman White needed yet another vote, and could have tried to get it the following day when, under the rules, he needed a simple majority. The problem was the calendar: it was the last day that House bills could be heard on "second reading." Bringing a potentially contentious bill back up - one that had already had its day - would mean killing other legislation. With 20/20 hindsight, White should have bucked protocol and done it anyway. Instead, he waited.

So the motion to reconsider wasn't heard until the day after, when it required a 2/3 vote for suspension of the rules. Democrats asked for the bill to be brought back mid-afternoon. The speaker chose to wait until regular business was complete, which frankly Grits thought was reasonable considering we were asking for what amounted to an extremely rare 5th reading vote!

About 6 p.m. Friday - not a late hour for this time of session - the Speaker recognized Garnet Coleman for his motion to reconsider. Initially the rules suspension seemed to pass. But opponents called for vote verification, and 20 Democrats who voted FOR the bill the first time and should have been there to vote for it again had already left the building. (see listing of absent members; excused and unexcused is a procedural difference.) The bill failed to get the 2/3 needed to suspend the rules by just two votes.

One absent Dem that we know of had legitimate reason not to be there: Donna Howard's husband had a medical emergency. But why would Austin's Eddie Rodriguez not show up? Members from Houston, San Antonio, and other drive-able locales went home early for the weekend instead of staying to vote.

If just two of them had cared more about preventing what happened to Sandra Bland than leaving work early to start their weekend, this bill would be on its way to becoming law.

Honestly, why bother seeking election to the Legislature if you're not going to show up on big votes to do your job?

It's possible an amendment vehicle will be found and HB 2754's provisions can be revived. At this point, the bill is supported by a wide majority of House members and opposed by only a few. Just 26 people voted against the bill on third reading, and 37 voted against the motion to reconsider.  So the votes are there if a vehicle is found.

It's easy to blame all this on legislative incompetence. Thierry's failure to understand the bill was the pivotal error that caused everything to melt down. Even if the line she complained about had not been fixed, the bill would have radically limited existing police power to arrest for Class C violations. And blowing a vote so important to core Democratic constituencies because members wanted to get home for Mother's Day weekend is about the lamest outcome possible. All of those absent members should hear about the issue during the next primary.

But at the end of the day, the "poison pill" strategy was promoted by the police unions. They're the behind-the-scenes force ultimately responsible for the loss, however satisfying it may seem to blame confused or absent legislators. That's certainly who I blame.

And that, my friends, is an example of how powerful interests can kill a bill opposed by only 37 out of 150 House members through confusion and misdirection. I've got to hand it to them; their strategy worked.

See related MSM coverage: