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:

Monday, May 13, 2019

Dems killed #SandraBland bill - details to come

This blog has closely covered efforts at the Texas Legislature to pass HB 2754 limiting arrests for Class C misdemeanors, but the bill died last week  thanks to Democratic incompetence. (See coverage here and here, plus Twitter commentary.) First, Democrat Shawn Thierry misunderstood the bill, driving her colleagues to vote against legislation that, had it been law at the time, would have prevented Sandra Bland's arrest, incarceration and death. Then, on a motion to reconsider after Dems recognized their mistake, the bill failed to earn a rules suspension by two votes because 20 Democratic supporters went home on Friday before their work day was finished.

Certainly, there were Democratic champions for this bipartisan legislation. Reps. Garnet Coleman, Nicole Collier, Joe Moody,  Ron Reynolds, and Senfronia Thompson all pushed hard for the measure. But they couldn't stop their colleagues from blowing the bill up.

Over the weekend, I wrote up the bizarre denouement of this process - in which legislation died that only 37 of 150 House members opposed - but have decided to withhold commentary for a few days to let my anger die down. More later.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Bail-bondsmen amendments made 'reform' bill actively harmful

Texas' bail-reform legislation remains a mess and Grits has said for weeks the bills not ready for prime time during the 86th Texas Legislature. But after an amendment from the bail-bond industry was tacked on to HB 2020 (Kacal) yesterday in the Texas House by Democrat Oscar Longoria, "bail reform" has gone from a premature, ineffectual and pointless bill to an actively harmful one. (See the Texas Tribune for a quote-both-sides version of the story.)

According to our friends at the Texas Fair Defense Project:
The amendment would: 
REQUIRE money bond and disallow non-monetary bond, aka personal bond, for a huge number of people, including:
  • People who are charged with possessing just four grams of any controlled substance;
  • People who have a history of failure to appear after being released on personal bond within the last two years. Failure to appear is not defined and could include non-intentional failure to appear. Failure to appear rates are also closely tied with socio-economic status.
  • People who are charged with any level of crime that has a victim, including any level of assault. This means that a high school kid who gets in trouble for pushing a classmate would not be able to get out of jail unless he or she had money.
Codify bail schedules, which have resulted in litigation across the state. Bail schedules mean that anybody with money can get out of jail. This is particularly bad for a bill titled the "Damon Allen Act," since the man who killed Damon Allen was released because he had the money for bail, and so could have gotten out under this bill automatically (as could anybody with money). 
HB 2020 also now has an amendment that would put a bail bondsman on the new Bail Advisory Commission that will be making recommendations for pretrial detention practices, which will ensure that there will always be people with power on the commission who want to increase reliance on money bond. This would mean that wealthy people can get out of jail while poor people have to sit in jail until they take a plea bargain (even if they're innocent). 
HB 2020 is now the complete antithesis of bail reform. It will drive up pretrial detention rates, drastically increase jail costs for counties, and force judges to rely on monetary bond over any other alternatives. 
Yesterday's bill passed on a voice vote, but third reading votes are all on the record. I suppose there's some small hope that House members will vote against the bill or peel off the amendment, and they should. But if not, here's hoping Senate Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire will (please!) kill the bill in the senate.

The legislation cannot be "fixed" because the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has yet to define the questions the Lege must answer. In two years, the 5th Circuit will have ruled in either the Dallas or Galveston litigation and we'll know what constitutional baseline the Lege must meet. Until then, this entire endeavor is premature, and now potentially harmful.

UPDATE: The House removed the Longoria amendment on third reading.

Tuesday, May 07, 2019

My last sliver of hope regarding 2019 marijuana reform in Texas: political pragmatism

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declared HB 63 (Moody) reducing penalties for marijuana possession "dead" in the Texas Senate, and Senate Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire has said the bill wouldn't get a hearing in his committee, though he's backtracked on that a bit.

Grits still harbors the slightest of hopes that the Lt. Governor may change his mind. Here's why.

First, the bill is different from what he's criticizing. Patrick opposed "decriminalization" in his comments, which is what El Paso Democrat Joe Moody had proposed in his original bill.

Governor Greg Abbott, by contrast, had proposed keeping marijuana possession criminal but reducing the penalty category from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor. His reasoning had nothing to do with legalization: Rather, he was concerned about counties wasting money incarcerating pot smokers and paying for their lawyers if they're indigent.

Judging from his comments, when the Lite Guv made them, he was unaware that language matching the governor's proposal had been substituted on the House floor for Moody's decriminalization bill. If that's true, maybe he won't be as opposed once it's clear (as it should be by now) that "decriminalization" is not what the House passed.

The second reason I remain hopeful is that Republicans at the capitol are justifiably worried about the 2020 election cycle, and killing HB 63 is bad politics.

Democrats made substantial gains in the Texas House in 2018. If they win nine (9) more seats in 2020, which is not remotely outside the realm of possibility, given prevailing national-election dynamics, Democrats will select the next Speaker of the House, just in time for redistricting in 2021.

Which brings us to marijuana: Reducing marijuana penalties is a popular political issue, supported by 62 percent of Texas Republicans and 79 percent of Texas Democrats, according to a Texas Tribune poll. That makes it a wedge issue for Democrats (not to mention Libertarians, who may swing elections at the margins by siphoning off Republican votes).

Republicans in swing districts, by Grits' calculations, supported HB 63 by a 2-1 margin. They know they have to run to the center to win a general-election contest, and most of them think this hill isn't worth dying on.

For that matter, the state GOP party platform endorsed reducing marijuana penalties to a civil infraction with a maximum $100 fine. There's an extent to which Patrick's stance is out of step not just with the electorate and legislators in swing districts, but also his own party.

The 2020 election will be dominated by a national referendum on Donald Trump, and the fates of Republicans in swing districts may be decided by the extent to which candidates can convince new voters to split tickets.

Marijuana reform is a popular, readily understood issue with which Rs in those swing districts could distinguish themselves, if the Legislature were to pass HB 63. But if the Lt. Governor's hard "no" stands, a yes vote on a dead bill won't help them.  What other wedge-issue legislation is being passed to help R members withstand a "blue wave"? This is the highest profile-example I can think of, by far.

Handing a popular issue to Democrats with which 62 percent of Republicans agree during an election cycle with so many swing districts in play makes no sense. The smarter play is to steer into the skid: Pass HB 63 and allow Republicans in swing districts run on less government, lower costs, and more freedom. Take the issue away from Democrats and make it a wedge issue with their base.

So there's my sliver of hope: 1) Dan Patrick's public statements appear to leave open options that don't endorse "decriminalization," including the governor's preferred approach (which is what's actually in the bill that came over to the senate). And 2) Republicans need to bolster their state reps in swing districts if they want to control the Texas House during redistricting next session.

Or, HB 63 could just be screwed. That's more likely, but hope springs eternal.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

As jarring #SandraBland news arrives, Texas House will consider limiting arrests for fine-only traffic offenses

NUTHER UPDATE: This legislation was brought up on a motion to reconsider, and killed by Democrats who did not understand the bill! As of this writing, we're waiting on another motion to reconsider where the bill could be revived. If that doesn't happen by midnight tonight, the bill is dead and House Democrats will be responsible for killing legislation which, had it been law at the time, would have prevented Sandra Bland's arrest.

UPDATE: This bill passed the Texas House on second reading late Tuesday night on a voice vote. Congratulations to Chairmans James White, Senfronia Thompson, Garnet Coleman, and everyone else who helped make this happen. Now on to the Senate, where Dawn Buckingham had filed similar legislation on the eastern side of the building.

(Original post.) Against the odds, and the wishes of police unions, HB 2754 (White) limiting arrests for fine-only Class-C misdemeanor violations is scheduled for a floor vote in the Texas House tomorrow (though it's about 100 bills down on the calendar, and so could be pushed til Tuesday).

The legislation has its roots in the US Supreme Court case, Atwater v. Lago Vista, which was decided in 2001. And the issue came to a head in Texas after the death of Sandra Bland in the Waller County Jail following a traffic-stop notoriously gone bad. (More news on her case will be coming out this week, according to this teaser from WFAA-TV in Dallas, which discovered Bland was filming the trooper with her cell phone at the time she was arrested. Wow! How could that have been concealed?)

In response to her case, the Texas Legislature passed the Sandra Bland Act. The original version of that bill, filed by House County Affairs Committee Chairman Garnet Coleman, included a similar provision to HB 2754 limiting Class C arrests. But it also included an array of other, important reforms that got much less publicity. When the limit on arrests was pulled out of the bill in the senate, many activists behaved as though the legislation had been gutted. That was far from the case. It included new protections for the mentally ill, required an independent investigation of every death in custody at a Texas county jail, and most importantly in the context of HB 2754, expanded racial profiling reporting by law enforcement to include data on how often police arrest people on Class C misdemeanor violations.

In 2017, law-enforcement representatives told the Texas Legislature that Class-C arrests rarely happen. But really, they weren't tracked by anyone, so nobody knew.

Now, between the Sandra Bland Act data and an analysis of jail booking data from 11 counties performed by Texas Appleseed, in 2019 we have learned much more about how often people are arrested for Class C misdemeanors than was previously understood.

Appleseed counted more than 30,000 Class C arrests in 2017 from 11 Texas counties making up 39% of the state's population. If the same Class-C-arrest rate held for the rest of the state, that would mean more than 76,000 people were booked into county jails that year when a Class-C misdemeanor was the highest charge.

From the Sandra Bland Act data, we learned about the subset of Class C arrests that occur at traffic stops. Just Liberty analyzed data from police departments in cities with 50,000 population or more and sheriffs in counties with more than 100,000 population. Collectively, those agencies arrested one out of every 150 drivers pulled over at a traffic stop for a Class C misdemeanor (excluding arrests for outstanding warrants, which were broken out separately). Some jurisdictions, however, arrested much more often. Waco PD, for example, arrested one out of every 22 drivers they pulled over.

In the Appleseed report, Class C arrests made up between seven (7) and 16 percent of all bookings at the county jails studied. This corroborates other data points on the topic. A 2016 analysis of Harris County jail bookings found 11 percent were for Class C misdemeanors. The Austin Statesman last month reported that Class Cs made up 12.5 percent of jail bookings in Travis County in 2017.

If it's true that more than 76,000 people were arrested for Class Cs annually, that makes it one of the largest arrest categories. Texas DPS estimated that roughly 75,000 people per year are arrested in Texas for user-level marijuana possession, as a point of comparison. So it turns out, these arrests take up a significant chunk of police officers' time.

How much savings are we talking about? Austin PD recently changed its local policies to restrict Class C arrests in a way that conforms with the requirements of HB 2754. They saw an immediate 57% decrease in Class C arrests after the new policy was implemented, with no associated harms to public safety.

In a year when the Legislature wants to cap growth in property tax revenues, it would behoove them to also reduce local expenses. Eliminating tens out thousands of jail stays for Class-C misdemeanors would be a boon to local budgets that helps counter growing caseloads and costs. (Ditto for reducing marijuana penalties, btw.)

Here's hoping the Texas House passes HB 2754 without incident, and that it's well-received in the senate.

Grits has been thinking and writing about Class C misdemeanors for a while now, so rather than revisit all the arguments for this legislation, here are the main items I've published on the topic.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

In Austin, a reminder why indigent defense should be independent of the judiciary

Judges in Travis County later today will consider a public-defender proposal that became controversial when the local criminal-defense bar stormed away from the table like spoiled children. (The judges initially opposed a PD office outright, but some of them appear to have softened up.) Luckily, not all the defense lawyers on the working group quit, more were added, and the county-convened working group continued its work, producing this proposal for a public-defender office to handle 30% of the indigent caseload in Travis County criminal courts.

In a sop to the local defense bar (which, personally, I wouldn't have afforded them, after their self-righteous hissy fit), the proposal solicits new resources for the existing "Managed Assigned Counsel" system, which has been an embarrassing failure by any measure. But it would also establish a public-defender office in the largest American county not to have one. And over time, Grits has little doubt which system will prove more effective.

The managed-assigned-counsel system in Austin has been criticized for not promptly appointing counsel, and attorneys with the largest caseloads took on MORE cases under the CAPDS system than before. Inmates spent more time in jail. And in general, outcomes for indigent defendants in Travis county were worse than defendants with private lawyers, while national analyses have found outcomes for public defenders and retained counsel are much closer.

So if Travis County judges were making a decision based on the merits, they should absolutely support a public-defender office. But here's the thing: Ethically, it shouldn't be any of their business.

Texas law gives elected judges tremendous control over appointment of counsel for the indigent. However, the very first of the American Bar Association's 10 principles on indigent defense declares that the appointment, payment, etc. of defense counsel should occur independently of the judiciary. That's the county commissioners' business, not theirs.

That's necessary to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest. You don't want a judge appearing to pick a poor attorney for a maligned defendant, nor choosing an exceptional one for a family friend. You don't want them hiring lawyers with a reputations for "moving cases" at the expense of asserting defendants' rights. Plus, criminal-defense lawyers who practice before local courts frequently are among the largest contributors to judges' electoral campaigns. So from the outside, an appearance of reciprocity may exist no matter what the individuals' intentions. (Occasionally, in Texas, it's more than just an appearance.)

All of this is a problem. Thus, the ABA's first "principle" of indigent defense reads: "The public defense function should be independent from political influence and subject to judicial supervision only in the same manner and to the same extent as retained counsel." Specifically, the ABA said "selection, funding, and payment" of attorneys should be independent of the judiciary.

As such, here's the bottom line: As politicians, Travis County judges legally can intervene to oppose a public-defender office. But as attorneys and custodians of the legal profession, they should refrain and support what the commissioners court wants to do.

Monday, April 29, 2019

#cjreform on life support: Good TX justice bills need a House floor vote

How much criminal-justice reform the Texas Legislature can muster this year will largely be decided over the next few days. Marijuana-penalty reduction should receive a House floor vote today, and a vote on eliminating the Driver Responsibility surcharge should happen this week. The Senate hasn't done much at all, tbh.

Otherwise, much of the bipartisan Texas justice-reform agenda remains bottled up in the House Calendars Committee, facing deadlines that could kill them off soon if that body doesn't act.

Basically, if a House bill hasn't been voted out of committee by now, it's dead as a door nail. If it's made it to the Calendars Committee, it still has a chance to be voted on in 2019, but only if that committee sets it on one of the next couple of calendars. After that, time will run out, with hundreds of bills that will never receive a vote stranded on what the lobby calls the "consolation calendar."

With that now-or-never context, let's run though a top-line list of #cjreform bills that the House Calendars Committee should immediately set for a floor vote.

Sandra-Bland-Bill Redux
HB 2754 (White): Limits police authority to arrest for Class C misdemeanors where the maximum allowable punishment is a fine, not jail time. This provision was pulled out of the Sandra Bland Act in the Texas Senate in 2017, in part because law enforcement claimed it rarely happened. But now - thanks to data-collection mandated under that bill, as well as an analysis of jail booking data from 11 counties by Texas Appleseed - we know that tens of thousands of people are arrested statewide for Class C misdemeanors, which make up more than one-in-ten jail bookings in large counties like Harris and Travis.

HB 2754 includes provisions allowing officers to arrest in situations involving intoxication offenses, family violence, when the defendant asks to be taken to a magistrate, or where failing to arrest would result in a continued breach of the peace. The bill enacts an idea which both the Texas Republican and Democratic Parties endorsed in their 2018 state party platforms, and enjoys strong bipartisan support.

Rationalizing misdemeanor theft enhancements
HB 1240 (Davis): Presently, a third misdemeanor theft in Texas can be "enhanced" to a state-jail felony, even if prior offenses happened decades ago and/or the third theft is only a small amount. This can cause petty shoplifting charges to end up costing the state to incarcerate people for very low-level theft. This bill adjusts the enhancement for repeat, misdemeanor property theft in two ways: It requires that all three thefts occurred within five years, and it would enhance the triggering theft by one penalty category, not all the way to a state-jail felony.

So if the third theft were a Class A ($750-$2,500), there would be no change. But if the third theft were a candy bar from the grocery store, that Class C charge would only be enhanced to a Class B, not to a felony. Not only does that give the person a felony record, state jails notoriously have higher recidivism rates than other TDCJ divisions. So we're sending these folks someplace that won't rehabilitate them.

Finally, this bill will generate budget savings. In the fiscal note, LBB couldn't estimate the exact amount, but declared that passing HB 1240 would result in "fewer demands upon the correctional resources of counties or of the State due to short terms of supervision in the community and fewer person sentenced to a term of confinement in state correctional institutions."After Texas reformed its property-theft thresholds in 2015, this category of offenders has accounted for most state-jail felony theft cases, and the second largest number of incarcerated state-jail felons (behind less-than-a-gram drug possession) of all case types.

Defining 'undue hardship' would keep people out of debtors prison cycle
HB 465 (White): This legislation updates debtors-prison reform legislation from 2017 by defining what "undue hardship" means in the context of municipal judges and Justices of the Peace waiving Class C fines or authorizing community service. After debtors-prison reform passed in 2017, the number of people whose fines were waived or who were allowed to satisfy debts through community service increased significantly. But many times more people (more than 524,000 in 2018) satisfied their Class-C debt via jail credit. At the same time, the Federal Reserve estimated last year that 40 percent of Americans can't afford a surprise $400 debt without selling something or going into debt, while 20 percent can't pay their current month's bills. The state should respond to this level of economic pressure with compassion, not incarceration.

Mitigate unintended consequences from surcharge-related license suspensions
Even if the Texas Legislature abolishes the Driver Responsibility surcharge this year, hundreds of thousands of people have already been cited for driving with license invalid (DWLI) because of them. The first offense is a Class C misdemeanor, but the second offense is a Class B. And in some jurisdictions, the cases are piling up. The Ector County Attorney, for example, estimated last year that these were the second most common type of case on his misdemeanor caseload after marijuana possession and more than intoxicated driving! Alma Allen's HB 372 would make all driver-invalid cases a Class C misdemeanor, meaning counties wouldn't have to pay to incarcerate people over it or, pay for attorneys when drivers are indigent. Counties often complain of unfunded mandates, but this bill relieves counties of mandates during a time when the Legislature may limit their revenue. That makes this bill potentially very important for local governments.

Other excellent #cjreform bills
There are too many other small #cjreform bills stuck in Calendars to highlight them all, but here are some that definitely should make it onto the list in these final days.
  • HB 1653 (White) would implement a pretrial-diversion grant program that TDCJ in its appropriations request suggested would reduce prison admissions by several thousand per year. The House included money for the program in its version of the budget.
  • HB 176 (Canales) would mandate that prosecutors can't require waiver of future non-disclosure/expunction of their sentence as part of a plea bargain. Grotesque to think that's even happening, really.
  • HB 353 (Blanco) would codify the US Supreme Court's Carpenter decision requiring warrants for law-enforcement to access customers' cell-phone location data from their cell-phone company. 
  • HB 1761 (Coleman) and HB 828 (Rose) are similar bills authorizing courts to credit defendants who are charged with a new offense after their initial arrest to have their pretrial detention apply toward sentencing in both offenses. This will have modest decarceration effects but perhaps bigger benefits in judicial economy and misdemeanor-court caseloads.
  • HB 3500 (Gonzales): Grits loves, loves, loves this bill by a freshman Democrat who's been a bold voice and potential future #cjreform star on the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. I was delighted it made it out of committee unanimously. It would require judges to appoint counsel in habeas corpus writs if they determine the applicant has a "potentially meritorious" claim. This is an interest-of-justice question: Lots of valid claims are getting thrown out by the Court of Criminal Appeals not because they have no merit but because the pro se applicant somehow screwed up their filing. (That's not a criticism, necessarily, the nine judges evalute thousands of pro se habeas corpus filings every year. So viable writs get denied, but come back again and again.) Better to appoint lawyers and competently deal with the issue up front.
  • HB 2559 (Bowers): Counties perennially complain about paying to incarcerate parolees in the county jail for "blue warrants" - these are people accused of a parole violation and awaiting a hearing. The state has balked against reimbursing those costs, but this bill lets alleged violators receive a summons instead of issuing an arrest warrant, keeping them out of the county jail while they wait for the state to convene parole hearing. This bill would save counties money.
  • HB 1189 (Johnson): This legislation requires courts not to assign fines and fees to juvenile defendants in the foster care system. These fines and fees are almost always paid by family, not the kids, and that puts these children in a unique situation.
  • HB 2973 (Gonzalez): In cases where judges order indigent defendants to pay for appointed counsel through probation fees, this bill disallows judges from extending probation periods just to collect those costs. It also creates a mechanism for amending the order if defendants can't pay. This is needed. Another good bill from the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee's star freshman.
  • HB 64 (Canales) and HB 691 (White) relate to expunction and non-disclosure, respectively, and while this isn't my area, I'm told by those who know that these are both good bills which should pass.
  • HB 363 (Johnson): Against all odds, and helped greatly by the barrage of reporting from Keri Blakinger this spring on TDCJ malfeasance, this bill creating an office of independent oversight for TDCJ made it into Calendars in time to be heard before the deadline! No one knows its prospects in the Senate, but this would be a great bill to debate on the House floor. I suspect enough state reps may be sick of the stream of misconduct-at-TDCJ stories to think it may be necessary.
  • HCR 33 (White): Last but not least, this resolution would formally oppose automatic driver-license suspensions in Texas for drug crimes, which is a pre-requisite for eliminating such suspensions here at the state level. (Long story short, this is something states opted into; now some of them, hopefully including Texas, are deciding it wasn't a good idea.)
So-called "bail reform  legislation" also made it into the Calendars Committee, but these are not ready for prime time and all should die.

It's not even May yet. But if there's a snowball's chance of Santa coming early, please let him come in the form of the House Calendars Committee giving these good bills a floor vote before time runs out.

And for heaven's sake, please don't waste valuable time on bail-reform bills that aren't responsive to the federal litigation and will be mooted by the federal 5th Circuit Court of Appeals before the 87th Legislature meets.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Podcast: Creuzot critiques, pot possibilities, Twin Peaks prosecutions peter out, and other stories that may or may not alliterate

Check out the April 2019 episode of Just Liberty's Reasonably Suspicious podcast, covering Texas criminal-justice politics and policy. This month, we spent a lean half hour discussing law enforcement attacks on Dallas DA John Creuzot, prospects for Texas marijuana penalty reduction bills, whether the Twin Peaks biker massacre was the biggest prosecutorial screwup in Texas history, and other important Texas-justice topics. As always, you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or Soundcloud, or listen to it here:


Here's what Mandy and I discussed this month:

Top Stories:
  • Tuff-on-crime backlash against Dallas DA John Creuzot
  • Marijuana penalty reduction bills at the Texas Legislature
Fill in the Blank:
  • Twin Peaks indictments all dismissed
  • Texas cops are arresting tens of thousands for traffic offenses
  • How will #cjreform advocates remember the 86th TX Legislature?
The Last Hurrah
  • $12k bail for $1 theft in Austin
  • Travis County DA will reject "trace" drug cases
  • Harris County DA is bleeding staff
As always, I've ordered a transcript and will add it below the jump when it comes back. Hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Time to move NOW on Driver Responsibility surcharge abolition

The Texas Legislature has its best-ever chance to abolish the Driver Responsibility surcharge before it in HB 2048 (Zerwas). All the major interests have signed off. Early in the session, leadership appeared prepared to (finally) move on the issue, and the bill was voted out of committee in early April.

But the legislation remains stuck in the House Calendars Committee and has yet to be considered, much less set for a vote, on the House floor. Although, officially, the last House calendar is May 7, bills must be placed on a calendar several days before - probably by the 1st or the 2nd - to be heard before the deadline for the House to consider House bills.

Every legislator knows about problems with the Driver Responsibility surcharge because they all get constituent calls from people whose lives have been ruined by this ill-conceived government boondoggle. Nobody likes the program who's not receiving money from it. But those special interests were so powerful, the money had to be found for the program to go away.

HB 2048 solves that problem through several sources. It increases fees on traffic offenses by $20 and adds a $2 fee to auto insurance policies.

That latter is apparently the hold up: Insurance industry lobbyists are fighting the $2 fee. But legislators should ignore them. The problem with the Driver Responsibility program is precisely that it relied upon a small number of mostly impoverished people - folks caught driving with suspended licenses or without insurance - to pay for trauma-hospital care. But that's the sort of classic public good whose cost should be spread among everyone. After all, anyone may eventually wind up in a trauma hospital.

A few other, disparate critics object to the new, stiff criminal fines for DWI, which replicate high DWI surcharges under the Driver Responsibility program, re-labeling them a criminal fines instead of civil penalties. And to be clear, Grits isn't a fan of that part of the bill. We know 44% of drivers can't pay fines at that level (because that's how many DWI offenders didn't pay the identical surcharges), so there's a real sense in which they're setting people up to fail.

The flip side is, under the status quo, DWI offenders still owe the same amount, just as civil surcharges instead of criminal fines. The difference is, judges can waive criminal fines but cannot waive surcharges. So there's more prospect for relief under HB 2048 than those drivers would have otherwise.

To recap: There are 1.5 million people with licenses suspended because of the Driver Responsibility surcharge. Those surcharges will be voided and those folks can get their licenses back.

Moreover, while the DWI folks still get large fines, they only made up 12 percent of people with surcharges. So 88 percent of people who would have previously gotten a surcharge will avoid them going forward.

Helping 1.5 million people at a whack, plus eliminating 88 percent of the problem going forward, makes this a Very Good Bill. The DWI fines are an unfortunate compromise, but even for those folks, they're better off if judges can waive those fines.

Since this terrible statute first passed back in 2003, there has never been a better opportunity to eliminate this program than right now. Grits hopes the House Calendars Committee will set this legislation on the Major State calendar at the earliest possibility and leadership strongly supports it. Every day they dawdle risks Texas wasting two more years before this longstanding problem is addressed.

UPDATE: Hurray!! This bill was added to a House floor calendar for Monday, April 29, meaning it still has plenty of time to pass. Thank you, Calendars Committee!

Monday, April 22, 2019

Class-C arrests by Austin PD plummet after policy restrictions implemented

As bills are considered at the Texas Legislature to restrict Class-C misdemeanor arrests, Austin PD revealed that new policies limiting such warrantless detentions have radically reduced their number. "In the first three months of the year," the Statesman reported, there was a 57% decline over 2018 arrest numbers."

The new changes eliminated the majority of allowable reasons officers could make an arrest for Class-C misdemeanor violations, for which the maximum punishment is only a fine, not jail time. From the Statesman:
“If an officer came across an individual that was committing a violation that was eligible for cite and release, we used to have a long list,” Manley said. “I believe it was 11 disqualifiers, or reasons that the officer could state for making the arrest otherwise.” Police now have only four criteria that could be used to make the arrest versus issuing the citation, he said. 
Officers are still allowed a bit of nuance in their decisions on making arrests. Before police can cut a person loose with a citation:
  • The officer must be satisfied that the person has fully identified themselves.
  • The officer has to believe that the safety of the person or property would not be endangered.
  • The person must not ask to be immediately taken before a magistrate judge, which is allowed under state law, Manley said.
  • The offense also must not involve exposure with sexual intent, for which police will always make an arrest.
Offenders suspected of driving with an invalid license won’t be released if they were involved a serious crash and deemed to be at fault, or if their license was suspended or invalid because of a drunken driving offense.
Maybe the most controversial reason that no longer justifies arrests in Austin: an officer's desire to search a vehicle to investigate potential crimes beyond the traffic offense for which a driver was pulled over. Austin PD policy no longer condones Class C arrests as an investigative tool on the roadside.

We know a lot more now about these arrests for petty offenses than we did in the aftermath of Sandra Bland's death nearly four years ago, much less 20 years ago when Gail Atwater was pulled over in Lago Vista, presaging a legal battle that took the issue of Class-C arrests all the way to the US Supreme Court, where she lost 5-4.

The SCOTUS majority in Atwater's case consoled itself that there was no evidence Class-C misdemeanor arrests in Texas were at "epidemic" levels. Now, we have solid evidence that they are.

Texas Appleseed analyzed jail bookings for 11 of Texas' 254 counties and discovered more than 30,000 Class C arrests in a single year, ranging from seven (7) to 16 percent of jail bookings in counties studied. 

Meanwhile the Sandra Bland Act, passed in 2017 by the Texas Legislature, required new reporting by law enforcement on Class C arrests at traffic stops, separating them out from arrests for warrants or more serious Penal Code violations. When Just Liberty analyzed data from the largest cities and counties (PDs in towns bigger than 50,000; sheriffs in counties bigger than 100,000), there were nearly 23,000 Class-C-only arrests in 2018, with nearly 5,000 more made by Texas DPS troopers. Overall, Texans were arrested at about one out of every 150 traffic stops. But in some jurisdictions, the proportion was much higher: Waco PD reported arresting 4.5 percent of drivers its police officers pulled over, or roughly one out of every 22 drivers.

These two datasets corroborate that tens of thousands of these arrests are being made annually. (To be clear, they're measuring slightly different things: The Sandra-Bland data only documents Class-C arrests made at traffic stops, while the Texas Appleseed analysis includes Class-C arrests made under any circumstance by all agencies in those 11 counties.)

Overall, recent findings seem pretty consistent with past estimates. In 2016, an analysis of Harris County jail bookings by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition found Class C arrests accounted for 11 percent of jail bookings in Texas' largest county. In Travis County, the Statesman reported, Class-C misdemeanors accounted for 12.5 percent of jail bookings in 2017. Those numbers fall squarely in the middle of the range Appleseed discovered.

Further, we know Texas municipal judges and Justices of the Peace issued more than 2 million warrants and capias pro fines for Class C misdemeanors in 2018, down from nearly 3 million just a few years ago. And we know that 524,628 people in 2018 satisfied their Class-C-ticket debts with "jail credit." Indeed, that figure is down significantly: In 2012, according to the Office of Court Administration, 820,231 people sat out their Class C fines in jail (combining totals for muni courts and JPs - select "Additional Activity" under "Section" to query on jail-credit data).

So we can say with confidence that Class C misdemeanor arrests are common, accounting for a significant portion of Texas jail bookings. Further, we know that they're not just happening at traffic stops, but that a large number of Class-C arrests occur in other settings (because the jail bookings numbers are so much higher than the traffic-stop numbers). Finally, we know that Class-C warrants have become ubiquitous, and hundreds of thousands of Texans end up in jail over them every year. Texas muni judges and JPs issue millions of such warrants annually and they never expire.

Austin PD's experience tells us that Class-C arrests can be radically reduced without harming public safety. And the data tell us they're not the only Texas jurisdiction that would benefit from such a policy.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Creuzot Crucible: Critic raves over entire cast's performance in media-driven melodrama

The kerfuffle over Dallas District Attorney John Creuzot's rather modest decarceration proposals, discussed in this Grits post upon their announcement, has taken on rather telling and delicious overtones I had not expected.

What a delight! The DA's law enforcement critics came off like a Greek chorus of scalded cats. And I loved Governor Abbott in his new role as Inspector Javert!

The howls of recrimination from the usual tuff-on-crime crowd, using every nasty tactic in their rhetorical arsenal, could be heard from orbit. But the public hasn't sided with the lock-em-up hard-liners as reflexively as in the past, and so far, Creuzot hasn't backed down.

Best of all, at least for those of us who view all this weeping and gnashing of teeth as essentially performance art and judge it based on its entertainment value: Because Creuzot's policies are actually entirely modest and reasonable - not remotely as aggressive as other recently elected "progressive prosecutors" like Larry Krasner or Rachel Rollins - his critics look like buffoons, making outlandish claims that everyone can see on their face overstate and over-dramatize the issue.

The Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas immediately went to their go-to move: they called for Creuzot to straight-up resign, the equivalent of their frequent "no confidence" votes staged whenever a police chief disagrees with their affiliates locally. Notably, this tactic was promulgated in books and lectures by CLEAT founder Ron DeLord for two decades, most prominently in a police-union leadership textbook titled, "Police Association Power, Politics, and Confrontation."

However, DeLord, who is a self-branded acolyte of the Saul-Alinsky school of organizing, has more recently walked back his call for confrontation tactics by police unions, suggesting police had gained so much power that they now face an inevitable backlash. And this appears to Grits to be an example where the union has overreached.

A CLEAT spokesman declared, "When he was campaigning for the office, we don't remember not prosecuting crime as part of his platform." But that just shows they weren't paying attention during the campaign. The group I work with, Just Liberty, co-hosted a DA candidate forum in Dallas where Creuzot discussed non-prosecution of petty offenses and promised to produce this memo with the details within a few months in office. He wasn't specific about up-to-$750 theft, but he was about criminal trespass, and in general he ran on a platform of reducing incarceration, de-emphasizing low-level offenses, services instead of prosecution for the homeless, and using prosecutorial discretion to stop punishing the poor. No one who heard his campaign pitch would be surprised at this recent news.

Here's the absurd part: Dallas PD isn't arresting in these low-level shoplifting cases, anyway, precisely because they're too small-time to bother. Reported the Morning News, "the Dallas Police Department, shorthanded as it is, can't respond quickly to low-priority crimes like shoplifting." So there's some blame shifting going on here: Cops aren't arresting in these cases anyway, and have found an opportunity to shift responsibility to the the District Attorney. Even if they get what they want, though, the storekeepers aren't better off.

Creuzot is trying to make the best of a bad situation; the union is taking politicized pot shots.

Some of the local municipal police chiefs joined in the fun, even going to far as declaring they'd begin to prosecute these thefts in municipal courts as Class C misdemeanors. Those offenses do not carry jail time as a possible punishment, only a fine up to $500. But we're only talking about cases in which poor people are stealing basic necessities. How is fining them going to help? Who imagines they can or would pay?

Like I said, delicious! The unexamined assumptions and muddled thinking are just splayed out for everyone to see.

Creuzot's memo turned out to be a Rorschach test that tells us more about whomever is interpreting it than it does about the practical effects of his policies.

The most brilliant, glorious example of that had to be Governor Greg Abbott's pair of tweets. They were amazing, a magnificent fusion of Inspector Javert, Mr. Burns from the Simpsons, and Scrooge McDuck!

Opined the Governor, "If someone is hungry they can just steal some food. If cold, steal a coat. Where does it end? It's wealth redistribution by theft." The responses were perfect. I can't do them justice, go read them for yourself.

Then, after pausing for a bit to construct a tweet declaring all property taxes are theft (!), Abbott weighed back in, responding to a constituent who suggested that the problem of hungry people stealing food or people stealing a coat in the winter to keep warm might be resolved by other means.
TX provides for the hungry and needy through TANF and other programs. You proved my point. You & others reveal that STEALING is ok when people want things: cell phone, tire, lawn mower, almost any item you see in a store or in the open. That's socialism.
So let's be clear: Government programs that help the poor? Those are not "socialism." Instead, socialism is direct theft of private property by criminals, says the governor. (Like property taxes, apparently.) In his mind, police aren't arresting criminals, they're arresting socialists!

Again, utterly delicious!

Grits predicts this will all blow over soon because nobody has the authority to oust Creuzot over it, he's perfectly within his rights to exercise his discretion this way, and in fact if a Republican DA had done it, Abbott likely would never have said a word.

Again, to my mind, this should all be viewed as performance art. Everyone had a role to play in the media-driven melodrama, and the entire cast hammed it up admirably.

I'm already looking forward to the sequel.

Monday, April 15, 2019

'Thousands of Sandra Blands': Just Liberty analyzes new arrest data from Texas traffic stops

As the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee today prepares to hear HB 2754 (White), the committee substitute to which would limit most Class C misdemeanor arrests (with certain public safety exceptions), Just Liberty put out a new analysis of data titled, "Thousands of Sandra Blands: Analyzing Class-C-misdemeanor arrests and use-of-force at Texas traffic stops." 

The analysis relies on the new racial profiling reports which came out March 1st, analyzing information for Texas police departments in cities with more than 50,000 people, and sheriffs in counties with more than 100,000. Here's the table from Appendix One of the report with the underlying data.

Readers will recall that new detail about Class-C arrests, use of force, and outcomes of searches were added to the report as part of the Sandra Bland Act passed in 2017. But the provision to restrict Class C arrests was removed before the law was passed. So HB 2754 amounts to unfinished business for those concerned about what happened to Sandra Bland.

Our findings: The practice of arresting drivers for Class C misdemeanors - not warrants, and not more serious offenses - is more widespread than portrayed by law enforcement. The 96 police and sheriffs in our sample arrested people nearly 23,000 times for Class-C misdemeanors last year, with the Texas Department of Public Safety accounting for nearly 5,000 more.

While the average arrest rate at traffic stops is low - a mere 66.7 per 10,000 stops - that's about one arrest out of every 150 traffic stops. And some agencies arrest people much more often. Waco PD stood out the most, arresting people at 451.4 times per 10,000 stops, or at just more than 4.5 percent of all traffic stops in 2018.

The new reporting also included data on how often police use injury-causing force at traffic stops. After Austin PD corrected its misreported data, Houston PD stood out with the highest rate of injury-causing force among the jurisdictions in our sample, at 53.2 incidents per 10,000 stops. That's about one out of every 188 drivers pulled over by HPD.

These data represent fewer than 100 law enforcement agencies, but more than 2,000 agencies must submit racial profiling reports because they perform traffic stops in come capacity. Agencies in our dataset represent the largest jurisdictions, but not all by a longshot. If we assume that these departments plus DPS represent 60 percent of traffic stops in the state, and that the average arrest rate for the other 40 percent is the same as in this sample, then Texas law enforcement agencies arrested more than 45,000 people at traffic stops statewide last year, the report estimated.

These higher-than-previously-understood estimates are corroborated by Texas Appleseed's recent analysis of jail bookings. Examining data from eleven (11) counties, they found more than 30,000 jail bookings where Class C misdemeanors (not warrants) were the highest charge. The difference between analyzing jail bookings and racial-profiling data is that jail bookings include Class C arrests which happened anywhere. The racial profiling reports Just Liberty analyzed only consider arrests made during traffic stops. 

Taken together, these analyses demonstrate that the overall number of Class C arrests is much higher than anyone ever imagined when this topic has been discussed in the past.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

$12K bail for stealing $1?; Twin Peaks prosecutions petered out; Harris justice system still digging out after Harvey, and other stories

Here are a few odds and ends that merit Grits readers' attention while mine is focused elsewhere:

Hurricane Harvey aftermath still affecting Harris County
The Houston Chronicle reports on long delays and an uncertain future for Harris County criminal courts. Commenters are blaming the new county judge, but this is a crisis she inherited. Meanwhile, terms of the county's bail settlement proffer has been announced; more on that development once your correspondent has time to digest it and talk to a few folks.

Twin Peaks prosecutions petered out
The last of the Twin Peaks biker shooting cases were dismissed. What a disaster! After all that hoopla - arresting many dozens for no good reason - not one person will be prosecuted for anything in the whole mess. Grits was told by a defense attorney whose seen the discovery that there may be a not-completely-unacceptable reason for that: The people involved in the shooting were all killed by one another or police during the event, and nearly everyone who was arrested were just innocent people who happened to be there. The few remaining cases finally dropped were ancillary to the event and the statute of limitations has now run out on all of them. Grits can't think of many recent competitors for examples of more egregious prosecutorial overreach. Abel Reyna screwed the pooch on the day of the shootings, substituting his own judgment and investigative approach for police commanders, and the community has been paying a steep-and-getting-steeper price ever since.

Panhandler gets $12K bail for stealing $1 at a food truck
An aggressive panhandler snatched a dollar bill - maybe two, it's a disputed account - from a food-truck customer in Austin last week and the courts gave her a $12,000 bail amount. What kind of jackassery is this? Are they TRYING to give bail reformers a poster child? Good Lord!

Fighting for police accountability via their union contract
Chas Moore and Sukyi McMahon from the Austin Justice Coalition had an op ed in the New York Times about their group's fight to reform the local police-union contract and improve civilian oversight of the Austin Police Department. For more background, check out this interview with Moore and two police-union negotiators in the aftermath of the contract agreement, reflecting on the year-and-a-half long fight.

Grand jury declines indictments for guards accused of falsifying disciplinary cases
Hard to get District Attorneys in small counties with sizable prison-guard populations to get real enthusiastic about prosecuting corruption, so one shouldn't be completely surprised that a grand jury declined to indict guards who allegedly falsified disciplinary cases against inmates. But it certainly contributes to an ongoing perception that the agency benefits from insular, rural settings and that external oversight is needed.

Texas still leader in exonerations/false convictions
Texas tied with New York for the most exonerations last years, according to the national registry. That's primarily because of exonerations based on plea deals based on flawed drug field tests, which have caused hundreds of false convictions in Harris County, and probably other jurisdictions where they haven't been uncovered because no one ever looked.

When prosecutors are too jaded to make a proper argument and too lazy to go farther than their Twitter feed to find an improper one
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ordered a new trial after a prosecutor used a viral video of a lion trying to get at a baby on the other side of a glass partition at a zoo to say that a defendant was a dangerous predator.

Is asset-forfeiture reform ready for its close-up?
Monday is civil-asset forfeiture reform day in the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.

For the reading list
Finally, here are a few disparate items for the reading list:

Austin PD misreported use of force data at traffic stops

After The Atlantic and the Austin Chronicle picked up on the data Grits first crunched in this blog post regarding use of force and Class C arrests at Texas traffic stops, the Austin Police Department issued a correction regarding its use-of-force data in the department's most recent, annual racial profiling report.

New reporting on use of force was mandated by the Legislature as part of the 2017 Sandra Bland Act, which required departments to include much more data about traffic stops than anyone had ever seen from local agencies. So police were reporting much of this information for the first time (though presumably it's all recorded somewhere in internal records).

According to Chief Bryan Manley, APD statisticians included the number of ALL use of force incidents resulting in bodily injury, rather than only those that occurred at traffic stops. That reduced their 2018 number from 921 - which put them at the highest statewide rate among larger agencies - to 80, which shifts the agency toward the back of the pack when it comes to the rate of use of force.

With APD's correction, Houston PD takes the prize for using force at traffic stops at higher rates than any large agency. More on this Monday when Just Liberty releases a new report analyzing these data.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Dallas DA dishes decarceration decisions: John Creuzot releases a much-anticipated memo

At a debate co-hosted by Just Liberty last fall, then-Dallas-DA-candidate John Creuzot promised to produce a memo three months into his term to identify changes/reforms designed to reduce mass incarceration.

Here's the memo. Check it out! Let's run through some highlights:

Marijuana: The Dallas DA will not prosecute first-time offenders unless the offense occurred in a drug-free zone, involved a deadly weapon, or there is evidence of delivery. He also said he'd decline first-time 3rd degree felony THC possession cases, with the same exceptions.

Harder drugs: Creuzot will no longer prosecute "trace" drug cases, which typically involve sending paraphernalia to a crime lab to scrape traces for a possession prosecution. In addition, his office will not file drug charges on arrestees until after a lab report has come back, an will ask judges for summons instead of warrants to get those folks back into court.

Criminal trespass: Aiming to reduce prosecution of homeless people, Creuzot will decline criminal trespass prosecutions unless they involve a residence or "physical intrusion into property."

Theft of Necessary Items: Creuzot pledged not to prosecute theft under $750 "unless evidence shows the alleged theft was for economic gain."

Driving With License Invalid: Here's one where he could have gone further. Creuzot announced a "diversion program that will result in charges being dismissed for defendants who clear their drivers licenses." Since most people with suspended drivers licenses had them suspended because of nonpayment of Driver Responsibility surcharges, and since those aren't going away (at least not just because of this announcement), most folks simply won't be able to "clear" their licenses. Instead, he should simply decline prosecution for DWLI, as he's doing for most pot cases. No one needs to be arrested for what in essence is a criminalized administrative violation.

Probation: Arguably the most important measure announced when it comes to decarceration in the state prison system is Creuzot's decision to significantly shorten probation stints, a decision with a great deal of evidence-based support. He suggested presumptive probation terms of 6 months for misdemeanors, 180 days for state jail felonies, two years for 3rd and 2nd degree felonies, and 5 years for 1st degree felonies. He also instructed prosecutors to stop revoking probationers for "technical violations" that do not threaten public safety. Regular readers will recall that about half of probationers revoked to prison in Texas have their probation terminated over technical violations.

Bail reform: Creuzot established a presumption of release for misdemeanants and state-jail-felony defendants with no criminal convictions in the last five years. If there is clear and convincing evidence the accused will fail to appear or a victim could be harmed, a risk assessment will be used "as a guide for developing appropriate conditions of release," a protocol that will also be applied to more serious offenses.

Magistration: "As soon as construction permits," Creuzot will begin assigning prosecutors to magistration hearings so prosecutors "can screen cases and decline to prosecute those cases" that fall within his new policy.

***

To be sure, Creuzot's reform policies are more moderate than those rolled out last year by Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner. (See his memo.) Grits would have liked to see the Dallas DA embrace some of the plea-bargain and sentencing reforms adopted in Philadelphia. But this announcement definitely ensconces Creuzot in the ranks of reform-minded prosecutors; nobody else in Texas is doing more.

MORE: Here's the Dallas News' coverage of the memo.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Governor Abbott radically scales back support for reduced pot penalties

I'll take "Things you say in a campaign that
you don't really mean" for $500, Alex
What a disappointment!

During his campaign last year during a debate with Democrat Lupe Valdez, Governor Greg Abbott announced his support for making possession of up to two ounces of marijuana a Class C misdemeanor. But the governor has now backed off of that position, radically limiting his earlier proposal. He's still for reducing marijuana penalties, but only for amounts so small that it won't affect most cases.

At the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee meeting on Monday, Chairman Nicole Collier laid out a new committee substitute to HB 335 (Dutton) to make possession of only up to 2 grams a Class C misdemeanor. On a third offense, charges would increase back to a Class B. She declared the changes were made at the request of Governor Abbott.

The governor said last year he did not want to see "jails stockpiled with people who have possession of small amounts of marijuana." But that's exactly what will continue to happen thanks to this change in the bill.

Two grams is a very small amount. Texas law currently treats up to 2 ounces as a Class B misdemeanor, which is considered a user-level amount. Most folks buy pot in quantities of an ounce (~28 grams), a quarter ounce (~7 grams), or an eighth of an ounce (~3.5 grams). So this change will keep pot possession a Class B misdemeanor for most people charged with the offense.

The same committee earlier approved HB 63 (Moody) making possession of up to one ounce of marijuana a civil penalty. But the governor reportedly favors keeping pot possession in the criminal statutes.

In this, Abbott is out of sync with his own party. The Texas GOP state party platform approved last year declares, "We support a change in the law to make it a civil, and not a criminal, offense for legal adults only to possess one ounce or less of marijuana for personal use, punishable by a fine of up to $100, but without jail time." Moody's bill is the closest legislative proposal to that position.

If the scaled-back version of HB 335 is all Governor Abbott will allow to happen, then I suppose, as my father likes to say, it's better than a sharp stick in the eye. But after seeing him campaign on a more aggressive proposal back when he was seeking to appeal to swing voters in a general election, it's discouraging to watch the governor backtrack.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Texas bail-reform legislation not ready for prime time

Competing bail-reform bills are up in the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee today, but in this writer's view, none of them is ready for prime time.

For reasons articulated before, the Texas Judicial Council bill carried by Murr/Whitmire (HB 1323) fails to address the main constitutional flaws identified in Texas' system by federal litigation.

The Governor's bill, carried by Rep. Kyle Kacal and backed by the bail-bond industry (HB 2020), is even worse. It creates a new layer of government - the Bail Advisory Program - and the committee substitute stocks it with politicians instead of issue-area experts. The program's mandate? To reinvent the wheel, creating a new validated-risk-assessment tool, even though the Office of Court Administration already has one that's available free for counties to use.

Neither bill addresses the failure of counties to provide defendants counsel when magistrates set bail, which is the principle issue at stake in all three federal litigation sites. And neither addresses the fundamental constitutional question of incarcerating people because they can't afford to pay money bail. So the matter won't be resolved no matter which bill passes.

In that light, Grits has come to believe legislating this topic is premature. In two years, once the 5th Circuit has clarified the constitutional baseline, it will be possible to create legislative rules that implement it. But if legislators aren't going to address the core subjects at issue in the federal litigation, Grits fails to see the point of passing anything now.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Vetting police arguments against limiting Class-C misdemeanor arrests

In preparation for tomorrow's hearing on HB 482 (Thompson) limiting Class C misdemeanor arrests Texas House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, I just watched last session's hearing on Chairwoman Senfronia Thompson's similar bill, which passed out of that committee on a 7-1 vote.

A few thoughts:

First, on defining the problem: the ship has sailed on the idea that Class C misdemeanor arrests are rare or only used in extraordinary circumstances. They happen tens of thousands of times around the state every year. and are a significant contributor to local county jail costs. No need for that debate again. The problem is much bigger than even the most vocal critics estimated.

Second, nobody has "Spidey Sense": Almost all the police testimony involved war stories of times when an officer had no evidence of a crime but sensed something was wrong and arrested a serious criminal on a hunch. The problem is, nobody knows how many times officers guess wrong, and the likelihood is, it's a lot. After all, every time a defendant is booked on Class C charges, it means the officer was unsuccessful at finding evidence of anything more serious. And that happens tens of thousands of times per year.

In the comic books, Peter Parker may have a "Spidey Sense" that lets him detect danger. But police officers aren't superheroes who've been bitten by radioactive spiders. And they are constrained by legal doctrines like "probable cause" and "reasonable suspicion" that do not concern masked comic-book vigilantes.

Third, a police officer opposing the bill outlined a scenario where a suspect left a drug buy and police wanted to arrest them with the evidence, but chose to arrest them for a Class C misdemeanor traffic violation because they didn't want to "burn" their confidential informant.

Grits had so many questions on this one! So you're not going to mention the confidential  informant or the undercover drug operation in the arrest report, even though you're going to charge the person with drug possession? I am not a lawyer, but wasn't this officer in essence admitting to using Class C misdemeanor arrests to get around the Michael Morton Act and Brady v. Maryland? Nobody asked, but the whole scenario didn't sound kosher.

Fourth, nearly everything specific that police named as a problem, like public intoxication or Class-C assault, are excepted in the committee substitute, which allows police to arrest for Class Cs if failing to do so would result in a continued breach of the peace.

Finally, the lobbyist for CLEAT repeated a phony re-imagining of the Timothy McVeigh story to argue against the bill. Grits has written about this before. McVeigh was arrested because he informed the Oklahoma state trooper who pulled him over that he was carrying an illegal handgun. That's what he was arrested for, not a fine-only traffic offense. The trooper has said so publicly many times.

None of that sounded too convincing, frankly, which I suppose is why the bill passed out of committee two years ago by a 7-1 margin, dying on the General State Calendar on the final day awaiting a House floor vote. Now that the legislation has returned with new life, having been endorsed by both state political party platforms after being stripped out of the Sandra Bland Act in 2017, here's hoping the committee looks favorably on Rep. Thompson's bill once again. It's time is now.