Monday, May 30, 2005

Sine die, baby

The 79th Texas Legislature ends today. Let the binge drinking begin.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Written consent "preferred" by Texas prosecutor manual

Do prosecutors "prefer" SB 1195?

Official guidance given to Texas prosecutors by their professional association confirms the wisdom behind SB 1195: Written or recorded consent for vehicle searches at traffic stops should be preferred to mere oral consent. On page 57 of a manual by the Texas District and County Attorneys Association entitled Traffic Stops, Senior Staff Counsel Diane Beckham writes,
"TIP: Although oral consent is sufficient, written consent is definitely preferred to oral consent because it reduces the likelihood of a swearing match in court later."
Thanks for the tip. I certainly wish Ms. Beckham had found the time to testify to that effect. That's exactly the argument bill proponents made in the Legislature to support recorded consent for vehicle searches -- it wouldn't just protect drivers' rights, it would protect cases made by officers through legitimate consent searches from being thrown out later in court.

Texas prosecutors have a greater need for the certainty provided by written consent forms than DAs in other states. Reports Beckham, the U.S. Supreme Court requires officers to prove they received consent by a "preponderance of the evidence," but under the Texas Constitution officers must show "clear and convincing" evidence consent was given. That means unless officers get it in writing, Texas vehicle searches that locate contraband are even more likely than in other states to have a judge throw out evidence after the fact.

Written consent protects Texans' rights and prosecutors' cases

After the Texas Legislature sent SB 1195 to Governor Perry on Friday, I wrote a constituent letter encouraging him to sign it. That legislation requires police to document consent to search vehicles at traffic stops with either writing or video. I append my plea below. To follow suit, go here to contact the Governor. Let him know you support SB 1195 and want him to sign the bill. Here's what I told him:

To the Honorable Governor Rick Perry,

I'm writing to express my hope that you'll sign SB 1195, which would require documentation for drivers' consent to police searches at traffic stops.
This legislation will keep bad guys from going free when judges suppress evidence under he-said-she-said consent circumstances, but would also inform drivers of their rights.

At the end of the day, since evidence shows consent searches don't produce contraband up to 90% of the time, a reduction in searches without legal cause would also free up officers for more productive uses, like improving 911 response times, without harming public safety.

SB 1195 doesn't ban consent searches, as three other states and the California Highway Patrol have done. (In no case, incidentally, did any crime increase result from the ban.) Instead, the new law merely requires officers to document consent, either in writing or on video, making it tougher for bad guys to dispute later. If the day comes when an officer finds a dead body in the trunk of a car in a consent search, and the search is thrown out because the driver's lawyer successfully disputes whether consent was given, I think the media and public may wonder why the state didn't act earlier to make sure that couldn't happen. This is your chance.

SB 1195 is your opportunity to keep judges from overturning the hard work of police officers on technicalities, at no cost but informing citizens of their rights. It's really a win-win all the way around.

I strongly encourage you to sign SB 1195 to protect Texans' rights and to ensure evidence of crimes isn't suppressed in court.


For more background, see also:

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Houston Chronicle: Stronger probation protects public

The Houston Chronicle urges Governor Perry to sign HB 2193, to "keep dangerous criminals behind bars and help others go straight." UPDATE: The Fort Worth Star Telegram also endorsed the bill.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Watch Texas House debate consent searches

It’s really easy to watch videos of the fascinating House debates on SB 1195 requiring written or recorded consent to search at traffic stops. Go here for the video archives.

To watch the Second Reading debate and vote from May 24 (12 minute video), when you get to the archive page, click on:
“May 24, 2005 7:41 p.m. - 12:27 a.m.” Fast forward to: 3:59:10. The vote ends at 4:11:00

To watch the Third Reading debate and vote from May 25 (49 minute video - the more substantive of the two), click on:
“May 25, 2005 1:50 p.m. - 9:05 p.m.” Fast forward to: 5:10:25. The vote ends at 5:59:14.

Rep. Glenn Hegar's speech in support of the bill on third reading was some of the best House floor oratory I've heard this session, and Chairman Dutton's rebuttal of the bill's critics truly was masterful. Enjoy.

UPDATE: On Friday the Senate occurred with the House amendments on a 28-1 vote, so SB 1195 has finally passed and been sent to Governor Perry for his signature. Go here to let the Governor know you support this legislation, which protects drivers' rights but also benefits prosecutors, since there's less chance a judge will suppress search results later in court.

Signs of a drug war shift?

The Christian Science Monitor's Kris Axtman looks to Texas and sees signs of a shift in drug war tactics in an article published today. Reported Axtman:
Evidence is beginning to build that the approach to the war on drugs in the United States could be changing - by shifting attention away from small-time drug dealers and individual users toward major drug traffickers.

The nation's drug czar, for one, has alluded to changes in thinking. "Break the business," said John Walters at a congressional hearing earlier this year. "Don't break generation after generation [of poor, minority young men], is what we're going for." ...

"The issue is how do we best reduce the supply of drugs in the United States at the national and at the local and regional levels," [Walters] said, concluding that unless there is a shift in the fundamental approach, "you are chasing primarily small people, putting them in jail, year after year, generation after generation."

Walters was referring to hundreds of drug task forces funded nationwide by the federal Byrne grant program. The Bush administration, which has proposed zeroing out their budget, obviously thinks it's time for a different approach. Axtman reports that some on the Right believe homeland security spending requirements provide an opportunity to encourage a sort of new federalism where the feds play less of a role funding local law enforcement.

"There is a growing philosophical shift that the federal government shouldn't fund the daily operating expenses of local law enforcement," says David Muhlhausen, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "They had gotten into paying officers' salaries that local communities should be paying for, and now they realize they need to focus their efforts in more urgent areas like homeland security and defense."

In 2002, Dr. Muhlhausen did a study of the Byrne grant program and found "no evidence that these grants work to reduce crime."

The article also mentioned the Tulia corroboration law just filed in Congress, and Texas legislation already passed and sent to the Governor establishing new oversight for drug task forces. She even quoted some schmuck from the Texas ACLU:

"The structure of these task forces is so flawed that they create more problems than they solve," says Scott Henson, director of the Police Accountability Project for the ACLU of Texas. "They are federally funded, state managed, and locally staffed. There is no accountability."

But then, who'd believe that guy? More credible, surely, is Mr. Muhlhausen, who attributes the Bush administration's position on Byrne grants to the Tulia scandal:

"I think the administration is realizing that what is a state and local responsibility isn't good fiscal policy" at the federal level, he says. And because the Tulia incident occurred while Mr. Bush was still governor of Texas, he adds, the president is "uniquely positioned to understand how this [Byrne grant] money has been misspent."
About 5,000 people live in Tulia, TX. How astonishing the repercussions from what happened there are still altering the national debate. It's heartening to think some good, ultimately can come from the reaction to that unhappy episode.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Federal "No More Tulias" Legislation Filed

Houston Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee yesterday filed federal legislation to require states receiving federal law enforcement grants to have laws on the books requiring corroborating evidence for undercover testimony in drug stings.

The bill is based on a Texas law passed in 2001 requiring corroborating evidence for confidential informant testimony in drug stings. The original filed version would have also required corroboration for peace officers, as Jackson-Lee's bill does, but officers were excluded in the final version of Texas' law. Along with NAACP, LULAC, Tulia Friends of Justice, and a ton of folks on our ACLU legislative team, I personally worked hard to pass that piece of Texas
legislation in 2001, which was sponsored in the Senate by Leticia Van de Putte, and in the House by then Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairman Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa. It's pretty amazing to see the idea bubble up to the national level like that.

Some 50 groups have signed onto a
support letter for the bill. I haven't seen the filed version yet, but here's a description from an ACLU press release issued yesterday:
Legislation introduced today would provide oversight and accountability for the millions of federal dollars distributed to state and local law enforcement agencies to fight the drug war. The American Civil Liberties Union called the bill an important first step toward stopping widespread drug task force scandals such as the one in Tulia, Texas, where many of the town’s African American residents were arrested on bogus drug charges.

"Until now, these drug task forces around the country haven’t had to answer to anyone," said Jesselyn McCurdy, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. "As a result of this lack of state and federal oversight, they’ve been at the center of the some of the country’s most egregious law enforcement abuse scandals. This legislation would put checks and balances on their unfettered power, and make sure citizens aren’t rounded up based on uncorroborated testimony, or their race."

"No More Tulias: The Law Enforcement Evidentiary Standards Improvement Act of 2005," is being introduced by Rep. Shelia Jackson-Lee (D-TX) and cosponsored by John Conyers (D-MI), Charles Rangel (D-NY), Donald Payne (D-NJ), and Ed Towns (D-NY). The bill is named after the drug task force scandal in Tulia, Tex in 1999 during which 15 percent of the town’s African American population was arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to decades in prison based on the uncorroborated testimony of a federally funded undercover officer with a record of racial impropriety.

The defendants have since been pardoned, but Tulia was not an isolated incident. Earlier this month, in a similar case, a lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of 27 African Americans was settled out of court. The individuals were arrested in Hearne, Tex., a town of 4,500, on charges of possession or distribution of crack cocaine.

The bill would help put an end to these abuses by enhancing the evidentiary standard required to convict a person for a drug offense, and improving the criteria under which states hire drug task force officers. It would deny federal money to states that do not have laws preventing convictions for drug offenses based solely on uncorroborated testimony.

Similar legislation, passed in Texas, was the work of a coalition of Christian conservatives and civil rights activists. This federal legislation is endorsed by 50 organizations including the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative.
The fallout from the Tulia scandal just keeps coming and coming.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Written consent for searches clears House

Did I mention I hate drama?

The drama over legislation requiring police to obtain written consent to search at traffic stops wasn't whether SB 1195 had enough votes -- it was whether, as the 62nd bill on the Major State Calendar, it could be heard before the clock struck midnight and hundreds of pending Senate bills turned into legislative pumpkins. SB 1195 passed on second reading with only minutes to spare by an overwhelming margin. The late vote meant most press didn't cover it this morning, but see the
initial coverage.

(UPDATE: The bill has passed on third reading the next day; Rep Pe
ña liveblogged the debate! Here's the Dallas News' coverage of the 3rd reading debate.)

Rep. Jim Jackson, R-Carrollton, the only no vote in the House Law Enforcement Committee, spoke out against the bill. His arguments, though, amounted to little more than declarations that police officers from their district didn't want the bill, that it would "take away a tool" and let criminals run free. When the Austin PD began to require written consent last year, though, no subsequent crime spree ever occurred.

Senate author Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa
heroically worked the House floor himself in support of the bill, negotiating an amendment with opponents at the last minute to allow officers to continue to perform "Terry frisks" if they have a "reasonable fear" for the officer's safety or the public's. (In my opinion, the previous language would have still allowed Terry frisks, but now it's explicit.) Bills sponsors Harold Dutton and Suzannah Hupp did a great job working the floor, too. And Rep. Glenn Hegar, Jr., R-Katy, rebutted Jackson eloquently, explaining why he'd supported the bill in committee.

In truth, though, Tuesday night's time constraints rebutted Jackson as much as any debate opponent. The bill was laid out at 11:38 p.m., but as the clock sped past 11:50, Jackson and company were still debating the bill while dozens more behind it died for time. Fellow Republican members actually heckled Jackson with cries of "Vote! Vote!," and "off the mike." For a minute or two things got pretty rowdy, but the speaker calmed them down, the vote was cast, and several
more bills were even passed with auctioneer-style efficiency in the day's final minutes.

The police unions bitterly fought the idea, issuing a statewide action alert this week filled with misinformation. In the end, though, SB 1195 enjoyed overwhelming support. The bill must receive one more vote today on "third reading" before going back to the Senate for concurrence with the House amendments, then on to the Governor awaiting his signature.

Here are the members who voted in favor of requiring written consent to search at traffic stops. If one of them is your representative, be sure to thank them. UPDATE: The bill finally passed on "third reading" after lengthier debate. The police unions had phone banked their members statewide in a last ditch effort to kill the bill, and flipped a few members. It won strong bipartisan support anyway, though, with 83 votes in favor and 63 against, after an initial "second reading" vote of 96-41. Here are the final aye votes:
Allen, Alma(D); Allen, Ray(R); Alonzo(D); Anchia(D); Bailey(D); Branch(R); Brown, Fred(R); Burnam(D); Callegari(R); Casteel(R); Castro(D); Chavez(D); Coleman(D); Cook, Byron(R); Cook, Robby(D); Crabb(R); Davis, John(R); Davis, Yvonne(D); Deshotel(D); Dukes(D); Dunnam(D); Dutton(D); Edwards(D); Elkins(R); Escobar(D); Farrar(D); Flores(D); Frost(D); Gallego(D); Giddings(D); Gonzales(D); Gonzalez Toureilles(D); Goodman(R); Goolsby(R); Griggs(R); Grusendorf(R); Guillen(D); Haggerty(R); Hegar(R); Herrero(D); Hochberg(D); Hodge(D); Hopson(D); Hughes(R); Hupp(R); Jones, Delwin(R); Jones, Jesse(D); Keffer, Bill(R); King, Tracy(D); Kuempel(R); Laney(D); Leibowitz(D); Luna(D); Martinez(D); Martinez Fischer(D); McClendon(D); Menendez(D); Merritt(R); Miller(R); Moreno, Paul(D); Naishtat(D); Noriega(D); Oliveira(D); Olivo(D); Pena(D); Pickett(D); Puente(D); Quintanilla(D); Raymond(D); Riddle(R); Ritter(D); Rodriguez(D); Rose(D); Seaman(R); Solis(D); Strama(D); Straus(R); Swinford(R); Thompson(D); Turner(D); Uresti(D); Veasey(D); Vo(D)
Thanks to one and all. They each deserve credit for a principled vote. Now the bill heads back to the Senate, where a stronger version passed by a 29-2 margin. They will most likely concur with the House amendments, then it heads to the Governor. Prior Grits coverage of this legislation is compiled here.

Stronger probation sails through Texas Senate

An overhaul of Texas' probation system sailed through the Texas Senate yesterday and is now headed to the Governor. (See details here.)

Dean John Whitmire did a good job of explaining how stronger probation would increase public safety when he laid the bill out, defusing much of the criticism before it began, but one must also credit his fellow senators for their restraint. I mentioned earlier that Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley has been the main vocal opponent. Bradley's senator, Finance Committee Chair Steve Ogden, is perhaps the Senate's most conservative member. Ogden and Sen. Tommy Williams both
vigorously questoned the legislation's details. In the end, though, neither they nor any other senator proposed amending the bill.

Now HB 2193 heads to the Governor. He needs to be encouraged to support the bill, but I'm hopeful he'll sign it. The veto talk appears to be largely media hype, not anything the Governor has personally threatened. If his own state senator won't do so, I fail to see why Rick Perry would feel the need to carry any water for the Williamson County DA.

The Austin Statesman today published dueling op eds from HB 2193's bill sponsors and John Bradley. See also news coverage of the Senate vote from the Statesman and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Finally, the real story about burglary of a vehicle comes out

Dallas-area reps complained all session of a rise in items stolen from cars, spawning a huge push this spring to make burglary of a vehicle a felony. Bill proponents claimed the reduction of the charge to a misdemeanor 12 years ago spawned recent burglary rashes.

The Dallas News, though, finally reports the real reason crime rates for vehicle-burglary rose: Dallas police don't want to investigate property crimes.
Dallas' problem with vehicle burglaries won't be solved by increasing penalties if police aren't enforcing laws on the books.

Related: Rep. Pe
a writes about becoming the House sponsor of HB 1874 by Whitmire, the Senate's vehicle burglary solution, while Injustice Anywhere pens Dean Whitmire a love letter admiring him for his leadership on probation and fighting a vehicle-burglary sentence increase. You gotta give him props: This news out of Dallas really make it sound like Dean Whitmire made the right call.

Slightly less related
: Marc Campos considers Whitmire the "leading voice" of Texas' Democratic Party.
Via Kuff.

John Bradley: Leader with no followers?

The Texas District and County Attorneys Association has a public user forum on their website they use to communicate with one another. On 5-18, just before last week's Senate hearing on stronger probation, Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley issued his call to arms against the bill:
This hearing will be your final opportunity to protest HB 2193 and SB 1266 in a public forum. If this bill leaves the committee, next stop is the senate floor. From there, assuming no changes, it goes to the governor. Any action by the senate and governor could be influenced by the number and strength of criticisms voiced during the committee hearing.
I hope he's right that the decision of the senate and the governor "could be influenced by the number and strength of criticisms voiced." As mentioned earlier, Bradley was the only District Attorney to speak in opposition to the bill. (See the witness list.)

Williamson DA out to weaken probation system

I hate drama this late in the legislative session.

During the hearing Thursday on HB 2193, which would strenghten Texas' probation system, the Statesman's Mike Ward reports that aides to Governor Perry
proposed gutting amendments to the bill. The proposals were apparently supplied by Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, the only bill opponent who spoke at the hearing. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee, though, passed the legislation last Thursday in the same form in which it passed the House. Now it heads to the Senate floor in the next couple of days.

Bradley's amendments would have whittled the bill back to almost nothing after House floor amendments already removed most of the budget benefit, scaling back the estimated savings this biennium by $37 million. Mr. Ward couldn't help but inject more unnecessary drama into the Statesman story, though. Here's how he spun the events:

"Rejecting a last-minute rewrite by Gov. Rick Perry and potentially risking his veto, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Thursday approved the House-passed plan to reform Texas' probation system."
That was Ward's lede, even though it's HIGHLY doubtful Gov. Perry himself had anything to do with this "last-minute re-write." Indeed, the only person in the story predicting a veto is actually Mike Ward! He quoted Perry spokesperson Kathy Walt further down declaring that the proposed amendments did NOT presage a veto threat.
"I wouldn't say that," she quickly added. "We're going to look at it when it arrives on his desk and make a judgment call at that time. . . . That's not for me to say."
Ward's been doing a good job covering the probation topic -- his coverage has been more thorough than any other MSM reporter. But the MSM has its own biases, too, and this one is typical: they're biased toward spins on their stories that 'sex them up,' to use the British phrase, to maximize the appearance of conflct and drama that sells papers and attracts viewers.

In retrospect, Ward could have just as easily attributed the committee's rejection to Williamson DA John Bradley, who spent an hour or so before the hearing huddled with the Governor's staff in the hall outside the meeting room. He was the only person to testify in opposition. (At the time he spoke, the gutting amendments had apparently just been sprung on Whitmire out in the hall.) Bradley's suggested changes were more or less identical to those Ward attributed to the Governor - in particular, disallowing early release if a probationer has any new crime above a traffic-ticket-level offense, or for probationers who are behind on their fees.

Both those proposals seem basically mean-spirited, even counterproductive. They certainly have nothing to do with public safety. Judges already may revoke probation for a B misdemeanor, and under the proposed statute they would not be obligated to offer early release to such a probationer. HB 2193 trusts judges more than prosecutor John Bradley does; it gives judges discretion to decide what is best for society after reviewing the probationer's record in detail for compliance.

Similarly, the proposal to refuse early release because of unpaid fees essentially criminalizes poverty. As Chairman Whimire said to Bradley, "We can't be sending people to prison because they can't afford to pay their fees." Bradley said he was more worried about restitution to victims than fees, but his proposals belie his words -- anyone who hadn't paid off all their extant fees would have to remain on probation, risking being sent to prison, solely because they were poor.

Bradley also objected to a provision allowing judges to decide not to impose community service time as a condition of probation. Chairman Whitmire, he pointed out, carried the legislation in 1993 that required judges to impose community supervision, and Bradley thought the Legislature should establish a floor for such requirements. "Judges are irregular, arbitrary, and inconsistent" about assigning community service, he said.

Sounds like Mr. Bradley has a lot of respect for the jurists before whom he practices, huh?

By contrast, Dana Hendrick, a 32-year system veteran who runs the probation department for three judicial districts in the Texas Hill Country, said community service requirements sometimes hinders probationers success by getting in the way of their day-to-day activities necessary to turn their lives around. He disputed the need for minimum community service requirements, arguing the discretion was appropriate and warranted.

Hendrick told the committee HB 2193 was "innovative," but also just "baby steps." It's "not that dramatic," he said. There's "nothing in here objectionable to me as a practitioner."

Academic and former Criminal Justice Policy Council staffer Pablo Martinez testified that shortening probation terms would improve public safety. People don't need to be on probation longer than three years, he said, since virtually every recidivist will re-offend by then. Probationers need the most supervision right away, immediately after the offense, he said, not 5-10 years down the line. Martinez said 41% of those revoked from probation in Texas were for technical violations.

That figure jibes with those given by Chairman Whitmire when he laid out his bill. About 25,000 Texans each year enter prison after their probation is revoked, he said -- 10,000 of them for technical violations, not new offenses. (Some 12,000 more are revoked each year from parole.)

Whitmire said that, for him, this bill isn't about saving money but strengthening supervision of offenders. The Senate's budget authorized $57 million in new probation program money, and another $62 million to house 3,000 more prisoners in county jails and private facilities. So there's no evidence, he said, the Legislature won't spend what's necessary for public safety; he just wants to focus resources to provide offenders more oversight. The current version would lower probation officer caseloads from 150 to 116 each -- still higher than experts recommend, but an improvement.

My ACLU colleague Ann del Llano testified that interim studies in both the House and the Senate prior to each of the last two sessions recommended these steps to strengthen community supervision. In two hearings on the House bill, she said, the bipartisan legislation was unopposed -- Bradley and the other DAs ignored the process for months before swooping in at the eleventh hour to try to kill the bill.

Surveys of probation departments, judges and prosecutors by the Legislative Budget Board recommended similar solutions, Ann reported. Even the U.S. Justice Department recommends similar probation improvements in the system. These ideas are based in research and evidence, she said, not ideology. Like Hendrick, del Llano said it was possible to "over-supervise" probationers, larding on so many requirements they couldn't function normally in the community. This legislation applies more oversight on the front end of probation, rather than spreading resources over a decade for each probationer. It's impossible to diligently supervise that many probationers (450,000 statewide) for that long. As a private citizen in his eighth year of probation put it, "to defend against everything is to defend against nothing."

A few other DAs hovered outside the meeting room (a couple where there on different topics), but Bradley was the only one offering testimony against the bill. Otherwise, a wide array of groups were there to support it, including the NAACP, LULAC, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Texas Inmate Family Association, the General Baptist Convention of Texas Christian Life Commission, Restorative Justice Ministries Network, the Reentry Roundtable, Texas Catholic Criminal Justice Ministries, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, and the Texas Justice Network, among others.

Now it's on to the Senate floor, where a vote should take place early this week. Will prosecutor John Bradley succeed in thwarting stronger probation? If this bill is gutted or killed and the prisons overflow with 3000 more inmates every year than we have room for ... who will be to blame?
Will Texas ever start to fix its broken criminal justice system? Should we follow the DA's lead and declare "Dumb on Crime" the new state motto? Stay tuned. We'll know the answers before long.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

House considers restricting consent searches on final possible day

Good news! On the final day it can consider Senate bills, the Texas House may take an important step on Tuesday toward restoring drivers' Fourth Amendment rights at traffic stops, which have been diminished by the courts in recent decades to near non-existence. Legislation requiring written or videotaped consent for searches at traffic stops has been placed on the final "major state" calendar for the Texas House of Represenatives. That spot on the calendar is reserved for critical state business, and guarantees the bill will get a vote.

The legislation has moderated considerably from the original total ban proposed in HB 2418 and SB 1195, but it's still a significant first step toward restoring drivers' rights. DPS will be in charge of developing the written consent instrument through its rulemaking process for statewide use, as well as establishing rules for what quailifies as videotaped consent. House co-sponsors Harold Dutton and Suzannah Hupp, along with Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, have all worked tirelessly to move this bill along. I should also add that a solid majority of our ACLU legislative committee members have helped work on this bill at some point, along with NAACP, LULAC, and at key moments, the National Rifle Association. To all: Muchas gracias. I've learned better than to read tea leaves, but given that the bill passed on "consent" in the Senate and was designated "major state" legislation in the House, it seems to have good momentum heading into the homestretch.

I've covered this topic pretty thoroughly in the past, so rather than rehash it further, let me refer readers to prior
Grits coverage on this legislation:

How often do drivers refuse consent to search?
Austin drivers refuse searches when they know they can
'Strange coalition' backs consent search ban
Texas consent search ban legislation monitored overseas
Senate committee endorses written consent for searches
Senator faces police retaliation over bills
Senate consents to consent search restrictions
House panel restricts consent searches
Cops say written consent okay

this report gives a lot of Texas background on the topic of consent searches based on analyses of data gathered by local departments in compliance with Texas' racial profiling law.

One bully DA ...

Inustice Anywhere finds Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal disingenuous. (She's not the first.) IA pokes holes in the arguments against Texas legislation to allow juries the chance to sentence capital murderers to life-without-parole, which is having trouble getting a hearing on the House floor. (The final House floor calendar will be set at the end of the day today.)

I've sort of ignored this bill because the politics behind it are too egregiously complex and capital cases aren't a primary focus of mine. But personally, I've never made peace with the version of the bill that came out of the Senate. That legislation would offer only two options to juries in capital cases: death, and life without parole. I don't understand why the Lege wouldn't trust juries with the same third option they've had ever since the death penalty was reinstated.

If you're interested in the topics this blog covers, keep checking back at
IA, a public defender reporting from the front lines of Texas' legal system.

UPDATE: IA spoke too soon: Life without parole will be debated on the House floor on Monday.

Feeling the Heat: NAACP report targets racial profiling on campus

The NAACP of Texas and the Texas Criminal Justice Coaltion on Friday released a manual (pdf) for university students on the subject of racial profiling entitled Feeling the Heat: Changing the police climate in your campus community. The report was released in Huntsville, where local NAACP branch president and retired Texas prison warden Richard Watkins and NAACP Texas President Gary Bledsoe held a press conference.
"One student was stopped no less than 17 times over the course of a single semester," Watkins said. "He wasn't once given a citation or a ticket or was arrested. That was a very degrading kind of thing for him. He could have been very hostile because of it, but instead he became an activist."
According to WFAA-TV, results from the report included:
•Texas A&M: Blacks were 2.1 times more likely than Anglos to be searched during stops by campus police; Latinos, 1.5 times more likely.

•University of North Texas: In Denton, blacks are slightly less likely than whites to be searched following a stop by campus police. Latinos are 1.5 times more likely.

•University of Texas: Blacks were less likely than Anglos to be searched by campus police during stops. Latinos, however, were 2.4 times more likely than whites to be searched.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Task forces get more supervision instead of the axe

Texas drug task forces narrowly averted abolition this legislative session, but soon they're going to get more supervision. Yesterday the House concurred in Senate amendments to HB 1239 by Hodge/Hinojosa, which would give the Texas Department of Public Safety new statutory authority and enforcement tools to oversee Texas' drug task force system.

Drug task forces in Texas first came under scrutiny after the scandals in Tulia and Hearne. Debate heated up when a South Texas drug task force commander released confidential video of a traffic stop with Senate sponsor Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, hoping to intimidate him into backing off. Hinojosa, though, is a gun-toting ex-marine and Vietnam vet: He doesn't scare easily.

The House version of the bill
would have abolished the drug task force system in its current form based on an interim recommendaton from the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. Disappointingly, though, the Senate didn't want to go that far, plus the Governor's representatives indicated the House version would draw a veto.

DPS will say where task forces operate and who is involved, plus receive a raft of new reporting about task force activities. Participating agencies must abide by DPS Narcotics Division's rules, which are fairly stringent regarding key areas like confidential informant use and asset forfeiture practices. Failure to comply with the rules (which were previously unenforceable) will now lead to a loss of asset forfeiture funds.

The bill now headed to the Governor would also force rogue drug task forces that previously refused to fall under DPS supervision to submit to state oversight.

It's half a loaf, but I'll take it. Congratulations and thank you to Rep. Hodge and Sen. Hinojosa.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Weak probation endangers neighborhoods and families

As the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee prepares to hear HB 2193, Ann has posted a new fact sheet highlighting how a stronger probation system would better protect Texans from crime. Readers who followed the debate this session over HB 151 and the crime of burglary of a vehicle may find this especially interesting:
Texas’ weak probation system puts neighborhoods and families at risk. 16,000 probation absconders are currently running free, but Texas has no resources to go look for them. We need real supervision, or a large number of them will inevitably commit more crimes.

Three thousand probation officers in Texas currently supervise 450,000 men and women on so-called “community supervision.” But if you’re on normal probation in Texas, you show up once a month at the probation office to pee in a cup. The rest of the time, you’re on your own.

Studies show that long probation terms are ineffective at preventing crime, and may even provide disincentives for probationers to go straight, especially habitual, petty offenders like petty thieves and drug users. Offenders need positive incentives to change their bad habits. To maximize public safety, probationers must be able to earn their rights back by becoming a responsible citizen and demonstrating they deserve to leave the system.

Most probationers who are revoked are revoked to prison in the first few years. Probationers who have succeeded for years pose much less risk than probationers in the first few years, but they take up just as much time for the probation officer who has a 150-person case load.

Take the example of burglary of a vehicle (stealing from inside cars, not auto theft). A car burglar on probation with no other requirements than a monthly meeting and urinalysis is sitting pretty. If he doesn’t do drugs, he might continue his crimes for years without raising red flags in the probation system. With stronger probation, probation officers would have fewer cases, and could make surprise field visits, talk to employers, and take other actions to oversee offenders. Right now, none of that happens because the system is broken.

Exactly. The debate over probation this session has exploded the great myth about Texas' "community supervision": that it's actually supervising most probationers well. It's not. A vote for shorter, stronger probation plus increased funding for drug treatment and probation services would actually do more to reduce crime.

See more background on the relevant legislation.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Where are the small government conservatives?

I hope every Texan who voted for candidates calling for smaller government watches closely HB 2337. That bill, which passed out of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee today, would allow the Texas Department of Public Safety to gather biometric facial recogniton data from Texas drivers, and make it available, along with thumbprints from the civilian database, for law enforcement use without judicial review.

There are so many things wrong with this idea it's hard to believe it's come this far. Here's a few examples:

The Texas Department of Public Safety responds to all criticisms with duplicitous doublespeak that boils down to, "Trust us, we're the government, we're only here to help." Bottom line, DPS wants full access to personal data about all Texans, whether or not they've committed a crime, and they don't want those pesky judges looking over their shoulder anymore.

The chief of the DPS drivers license division told me after this morning's hearing she thought it was appropriate for law enforcement to have access to a biometric password to a business or personal computer, without a warrant, because "I trust law enforcement" not to abuse the authority. Really? Ever? Do you think it's okay if police can have your computer password without a warrant, just because it's a thumbprint or facial recognition biometric instead of letters and numbers? That will be Texas law if HB 2337 is enacted.

Since I'm apparently one of hundreds of people who had DPS mail their Texas drivers license
to the wrong person (I was supposed to receive my renewal in the mail before May 10, but it never arrived; now my temp permit has expired and I must return to the DMV), I have a difficult time believing DPS never will make a mistake. What government agency could credibly say that? OBVIOUSLY not this one. What a joke.

Eleven senators need to find the gumption
to say "no" to this foolishness. So far the skids appear to be greased, though, and liberty's champions remain cowed.

Where are the small government conservatives who agree with this plank of the 2004 Texas GOP platform?
The Party directs that legislation be introduced in both the United States Congress and the Texas Legislature to repeal existing statutory requirements to end the ever increasing, incessant, recurring, and calculated gathering, accumulation, and dissemination of fingerprints, Social Security numbers, financial and personal information of law-abiding citizens by business and governments, the use of which are contrary to and destructive of our individual and collective freedom. Such legislation shall provide remedy and redress to any individual denied service for refusing to provide the above-mentioned information.
So far, they appear few and far between.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Watch tough-on-crime arguments go down on probation

Curious how tough-on-crime rhetoric was defeated by more sensible arguments about crime and punishment in the Texas House of Representatives? Watch the floor debate on HB 2193 strengthening Texas' probation system. It's about 45 minutes long. You get a great sense of the shifting terms of debate regarding incarceration policy in Texas. Good stuff.

The Senate version of stronger probation passed out of committee earlier this month and is presently waiting for a hearing on the Senate intent calendar.

Racial profiling repository passes Senate!

Texas' racial profiling law compels collection of the largest racial profiling dataset in the world, but the standards for data and analysis have been all over the map, differing from department to department.

If SB 1503 by West, which just passed the Senate today, becomes law, the Department of Public Safety will become the new central repository and, by rule, the issuer of standards for racial profiling data collection and analysis. Right now, every department reports their data only to their own governing body. Under SB 1503, DPS would tell departments what data to gather and how, then compile it in a central repository where other researchers could access it.

original bill would have placed the repository at the University of North Texas at Dallas, which is in Sen. West's district, but police chiefs and others objected, considering DPS more neutral. The amended bill also stripped out the requirement to gather data in an officer-specific format. Currently some departments gather officer-identified data, but they are not required to do so. Even when their primary criticisms were addressed, though, the law enforcement interests arrayed against the bill continued their opposition.

The data gathered under Texas' racial profiling law, though isn't just about race, but also about police practices like
consent searches. This data contributed to the decision by the Austin Police Department to begin requiring written consent at traffic stops, then documented a 63% decline in drivers' consent to search after the policy was implemented.

The most important part of this bill adjusts the data collected to make it more accurate. Right now, in some cases, racial profiling data is skewed to make officers stop and search data look worse than may be justified. For example, many departments lump together consent searches with searches performed "incident to arrest," meaning the officer was required to search the car by policy after someone has been taken into custody. That search is required, and does not involve officer discretion. If it turns out the officer arrests more minorities than whites at traffic stops, say, because they're more likely to have outstanding warrants, those searches shouldn't be counted against the officer's racial profiling data. Unless the bill passes, though, those kind of data problems will continue to be unfair to officers.

Similarly, presently traffic stop data does not differentiate between drivers from inside and outside the jurisdiction. Comparing in-jurisdiction census demographics, for example, to drivers from outside the jurisdiction is comparing statistical apples and oranges. The new law parses the data so that only in-jurisdiction drivers will be so compared.

Right now, a
report annually compiled by civil rights groups using the Texas open records act is the only source of cross-agency analysis, but many in law enforcement do not trust that source. So with the data fixes, at the end of the day, the new law should allow law enforcement and the public to have more faith in the accuracy of the data and its analysis.

Now it's onto the House, where the companion bill was filed by Rep. Senfronia Thompson.

UPDATE: More later, but this bill, sadly, is D-E-A-D, having never received a House committee hearing. Apparently, the police unions like the way the data is collected right now, and don't want any changes. Okay. But be careful what you ask for, guys. Sen. West made every compromise y'all wanted; in the end this bill would only have made the data more accurate and maintain it in a neutral spot, both of which should help you more than hurt you.

Prosecutor: It's just like beating your dog ...

The War on Drugs is "simply not working," declares the headline in the May 15 New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung.
Comal County’s district attorney and one of its district judges agreed this past week that the United States government’s “war on drugs” — and its judicial system — just aren’t working when it comes to stopping abuse of alcohol and illegal drugs. ...

Law enforcement fights what is at best trench warfare against drug-related crime. The two sides, mired in muddy holes they can’t pull themselves out of, stare at one another across no man’s land. They snipe at one another and there are casualties on both sides, but nothing ever really changes.

The judicial system strives to create an environment in which the war’s wounded and its survivors can be rehabilitated. While there are glowing success stories, the weight of the failures is apparent everywhere and bears on society — including right here in New Braunfels.
That result from the war on drugs is pretty typical, I think, hardly anomalous. But you don't usually see law enforcement types admitting it in the newspaper. Before becoming District Attonrey in Comal County, Dib Waldrip was a New Braunfels cop, then a prosecutor for a narcotics task force, so that background informs his anti-drug strategies. He thinks we're not incarcerating enough low-level drug addicts:
in recent years, Waldrip pointed out, the tendency to downplay the offenses of drug users or even some small-time drug dealers, has hamstrung the ability of the legal system to combat drug use — and has actually increased use.

“From a purely economic standpoint, if you look at it from an aspect of risk, when you reduce that risk, more people are willing to try drugs and your demand curve goes up,” Waldrip said. “Reduce the risks, and people say, ‘Why not try it?’ I’m not saying we should put them all in jail for life, but there needs to be a fast, sure punishment. When you beat your dog four months after he eats your shoe, you aren’t teaching him anything.”
Damn, with such a sophisticated approach, it's hard to know, isn't it, where things went wrong? If Mr. Waldrip's methods of prosecution match his sadistic dog training skills, then we know why the war on drugs is failing there. It's being operated by thoughtless fools whose tactics are making the problem worse. The system he's operating doesn't aim to make the public safe -- it aims to force submission from those it targets, to break their spirit, to build up resentment, anger and spite among them, just like beating a dog leaves the animal scared and confused, but not necessarily better behaved.

Anyone who's done any dog training knows that Mr. Waldrip's approach doesn't work well, even on animals. To train a dog without breaking its spirit or thwarting the breed's natural strengths, one uses encouragement as well as correction -- "beatings" are never useful, and for a skilled trainer are counterproductive. Mostly, to train an animal requires time and the focused attention of the trainer -- animals need supervision, encouragement, and correction in a fashion that changes behavior instead of just seeking revenge for misconduct. Beating a dog may make it quit eating your shoe (or it often may not; sometimes, puppies just eat shoes), but it won't prepare the animal to do anything else.

Not everybody in Comal County agrees with Waldrip. Another former police officer, District Judge Jack Robison, thinks they're already too focused on the little guys. He isn't so sure about the lock-em-up approach for low-level folks:

Robison, now in his 50s, said he could remember one or another variation of the “war on drugs” over his entire career. From his perspective, he said, he would like to see more of the heavy hitters — the kingpins, the dealers and the couriers — come before his bench and hand out the kind of heavy sentences society expects.

“I can remember busting kids for drugs when I was a young cop,” Robison said. “One thing you almost never see is the mules bringing it in getting caught. The user, the guy on the street corner selling it, they’re poor. They’re selling it to pay their suppliers who are pocketing the profits.”

Substance abuse, Robison said, is an enormous drain on society.

“I don’t think we’re being very successful in dealing with it,” he said.

But he wasn’t sure, Robison added, what society could or should do to address it.

“Prohibition hasn’t worked. The latest thing is the drug court, combined with rehabilitation or cognitive programs designed to change behavior. We may be at the point where it’s time to consider a drug court in Comal County,” Robison said.

A bill before this legislature would create another district court — again because of the heavy caseloads here — that would serve only Comal County. Perhaps a drug court wouldn’t be very far off.
That drug court is a better approach. From a dog trainer's perspective, stronger probation systems like drug courts provide the kind of oversight people need to avoid getting into more trouble. In the current system, you receive either probation or prison as a sentence, but for most offenders on regular probation, no one really supervises them, so many re-offend or are revoked on technical violations. With 150 probationers per case officer statewide, there really isn't any hope of providing stronger supervision that protects the public without significant changes to the system. Caseloads must decline and the goal of the system must be for offenders to end their addictions and change their behavior, not just to find an excuse to revoke them to prison.

I'm glad to see this debate taking place in small-town Texas. Folks in New Braunfels may not have any more solutions than the rest of us, but it's good they're starting to ask the right questions. Like, "Is this working?"

Monday, May 16, 2005

Big Brother a vote or two away

The future is now.

Today, Big Brother is no longer some paranoid concept from a futuristic novel -- it's a phenonmena that's just a vote or two away at the Texas Legislature from near-permanent ensconcement.

As the Texas Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee prepares to consider gathering biometric facial recognition data on Texas drivers and ID card holders on Wednesday morning, Austin's KXAN-TV reports on the proliferation of surveillance cameras in Austin, many operated by local government, that monitor public spaces. Those government cameras could ultimately hook into the proposed biometric facial recognition database, so police could theoretically identify individuals by name from surveillance footage. I doubt many people realize the scope of the current proliferation of surveillance technology, but it's fairly stunning:

The government has them. Restaurants and shops have them too.

Surveillance cameras are going up everywhere often without your knowledge.

The government is making sure, soon you won't be able to get away with anything especially on Central Texas streets.

You can find them almost anywhere in alarm clocks, pagers, smoke detectors, motion detectors, ceilings and doorways. Little eyes watching you.

"We were able to see you drive up in the front parking lot. Actually approach the front door and come into the office today," Matt Vickers with Dyezz Surveillance said.

Vickers installs cameras all over Austin. Many of which you'd never have a chance to notice.

"The camera's designed to catch anyone coming into our business. So, that's literally a pinhole camera? All it looks like is a tiny hole in the ceiling that nobody would notice," Vickers said.

It's not just in front of private businesses where you could be watched. Even if you're just walking down the street, chances are someone's looking at you.

A government agency has even requested revolving cameras for downtown buildings to monitor foot traffic and traffic violations.

"The city of Austin will start using cameras to be able to see if people pay their tolls on the new toll roads," Vickers said.

The technology isn't there yet to identify people from video using current facial recognition systems, but it's headed in that direction. The biometric industry's stated long-term goal is to merge their products with closed circuit camera systems to identify individuals from video. Do Texans want their government monitoring them by name as they walk down the street, law abiding, minding their own business? Right now, with votes that may occur at the Legislature this week, Texas is setting the stage for such a scenario -- unless, that is, the Senate decides to protect Texans' privacy and rejects HB 2337. Even then, it will be up to future Legislatures or the courts to confront the privacy invasions inherent in the proliferation of generalized, non-probable-cause-based camera surveillance by the government on this scale.

More Texas drug task forces going under

The Houston Chronicle reports that more Texas task forces are collapsing under their own weight. In addition to the Harris County task force folding, as Grits mentioned recently,
Other multijurisdictional task forces also will disband: the 35-member Jefferson County Narcotics Task Force that covers Jefferson, Orange and Hardin counties; the 10-member Westside Narcotics Task Force that covers Waller, Austin and Colorado counties; and the eight-member Independent Narcotics Task Force that covers Washington and Burleson counties.
Naturally, the task force cops think they're hard done by: "'There were some loose cannons with shady practices, but that should not put a bad name on all of us,' said [Roger] Clifford, the coordinator of the Harris County task force."

No, your task force's
bad name should stem from its own problems, and those of its host agency, the Baytown Police Department. Still, it's interesting to me that the task force commander's perception is that President Bush's Byrne grant budget cuts are a response to high-profile drug task force scandals. He may be right.

There's also a sidebar detailing annual amounts of Byrne grant funding in Texas since the program's inception:


Federal Byrne grants for multijurisdictional task forces in Texas:

1987: $10.6 million
1988: $2.3 million
1989: $6.5 million
1990: $23.9 million
1991: $25.6 million
1992: $25.5 million
1993: $25.7 million
1994: $21.9 million
1995: $27.9 million
1996: $29.6 million
1997: $31.3 million
1998: $32.1 million
1999: $32.4 million
2000: $31.6 million
2001: $31.7 million
2002: $31.8 million
2003: $32.2 million
2004: $31.6 million
2005: $22.7 million
2006: Proposed $0

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Cops say written consent okay

Corpus Christi police say they don't oppose a requirement for written consent to conduct no-cause searches of vehicles at traffic stops that's currently making its way through the Texas Legislature. Reported the Caller Times:

Police Cmdr. Bryan Smith said many officers already use written consent because it makes their cases against criminals stronger.

Cmdr. Mike Walsh, who is in charge of the department's Criminal Investigation Division and Family Violence Unit, said his detectives usually only deal with written consent for that reason.

"(The verbal consent) is mostly in situations like traffic stops," Walsh said. "Where an officer has a sense something is wrong maybe a sixth sense."

Walsh, like Smith, said he didn't believe having to have written consent to search someone's car would have a significant impact on the department.

In Austin when a requirement for written consent was implemented, the number of people consenting to searches at traffic stops declined by 63%. UPDATE (5-16) The Star Telegram covered this story today.

You can't win 'em all

I've been writing recently about good criminal justice bills still moving in the Texas Legislature. But a lot of good legislation has also stalled out in the process. Here's a few bills I strongly supported that appear to be in trouble as the session grinds toward its conclusion:

Banning red light tickets based on traffic cameras
(HB 259 by Elkins): After passing the House by an overwhelming vote, this legislation on Thursday failed on a record vote to bring it up on the Senate floor. Sixteen senators supported the legislation, but 21 were needed. Look for House sponsors now to find transportation bills from the Senate where the same item may show up as a floor amendment. Certainly the bill sponsors aren't giving up, and it wouldn't be a shock to see the item resurrected.

Restructuring low-level marijuana sentences
(HB 254 by Dutton): This legislation passed in committee unanimously but did not make it onto the House floor by the Thursday deadline. The Calendars committee clearly didn't want to subject the members to a vote on marijuana penalties. If the legislation is to go any further in 2007, it will need the permission of Chairman Woolley and company. The bill got as far as it did this round because it's one of the lynchpin reforms needed to free up county jail space for more serious offenders. But those arguments were mostly being made by advocates, not jailers. In 2007, it would be a lot more effective if county sheriffs and commissioners courts were backing the idea themselves - this time they just stayed neutral, many of them hoping the bill would pass but afraid of the political consequences of supporting it. Now that conservative House members like Terry Keel, Mary Denny and Debbie Riddle have gone on the record in favor, maybe that will free up the politics a little on this subject to let institutional interests support the idea. Folks who support restructuring marijuana sentences should be demanding their local county officials go on record in support between now and 2007, with the 2006 elections offering a good opportunity to get folks on the record. That's the missing piece, IMO, that's needed to propel this good idea forward.

Creating a Defense for Medical Marijuana
Use (HB 658 by Naishtat): Despite support from 75% of Texans and the strongest grass roots effort in memory to pass it, this bill unhappily never made it out of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. Very disappointing that such broad support didn't translate into more traction, especially since the same committee liked HB 254 (above). The latter bill, though, had enormous fiscal implications in its favor, whereas sympathy for suffering patients, while compelling for some, doesn't have the same legislative oomph.

Opt-out for RFIDs in student IDs
(HB 2953 by Kolkhorst): Schools that want to electronically track students with RFID devices weren't pleased to see this legislation scheduled for debate on the House floor on the final day, but they just didn't get to it on the calendar. The same language was amended to House Bill 2, Texas' school finance legislation, but the American Electronics Association wants to strip out the language to let schools mandate RFID use for students. Hopefully Kolkhorst's colleagues will help her protect the amendment.

Disclosing snitch rewards
(HB 3151 by Escobar): Defendants in cases involving snitches must wait a little longer for the Legislature to require their verbal deals be disclosed to defense counsel. HB 3151 passed out of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, but never made it to the House floor.

Meanwhile, two good bills in the Senate are still technically alive, but on life support:

Local opt-in for needle exchange
(SB 127/HB 2005): Legislation allowing local governments to operate needle exchange programs, which prevent the spread of disease, got further this session than ever before in the Senate. It cleared committee and actually made it to the Senate floor, where it won seventeen votes on second reading but did not clear a procedural hurdle to make it to final passage. The bill has been waiting for weeks to finally clear the Senate. It's been on the Intent calendar every day, which means it's eligible to be brought up and voted on if the sponsor can get 20 other senators to agree, but Sen. Lindsay appears to be just a few votes short.

Strengthening Vienna Convention rights
(SB 603): This bipartisan legislation passed out of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee a month ago, but never made it onto the Senate floor. If it passed, judges who suspected a defendant was a foreign citizen must inform them of their right to notify the consulate from their home country. I'd been thinking the bill was dead, but just noticed it was placed again on the Senate Intent calendar for Monday. The Senate's deadlines are later than the House's, so theoretically it still has a chance, but it'd better move quick.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Tulia to Hearne

This editorial from the Waco Herald Tribune connects all the dots:
This week a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of seven defendants was settled by Robertson County, ending an episode that has proved to be a community's shame.

As was the case in the Panhandle town of Tulia, the word of an unreliable informant was used to arrest blacks in a sting based on bogus evidence.

These incidents have shed light on a monstrosity called the Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program which awards drug task forces money based on how many people they haul in. Indeed, it amounts to a de facto quota system.

The Bush administration, to its credit, has nearly zeroed-out the $600 million program in its current budget.

Meanwhile, Texas lawmakers have addressed another menace, the regional task forces behind such overzealous enforcement, in this case the seven-county AgriPlex Drug Task Force.

A few days ago the Texas House voted to abolish the state's regional drug task forces.
Today, HB 1239, which as originally passed out of the House would have abolished drug task forces in their current form, was assigned to a conference committee, having successfully passed out of the Senate. Given that bill-sponsor and conference committee Chair Terri Hodge's attentions are justifiably elsewhere for the moment, there's no telling how quickly an agreement might be reached. The House and Senate bills are quite different, since the Senate substituted a completely new version that Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa negotiated with the Governor. That revised legislation disappointingly allows Byrne-grant funded drug task forces to continue functioning, but it also tightens up the statutory authority of the Texas Department of Public Safety to exercise meaningful oversight over these rogue entities. The old version, word had it, was veto bait. Stay tuned to see what the conference committee comes up with.

Spokesmodel makes good

The Texas House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring my boss, Will Harrell, on his fifth anniversary as ACLU of Texas Executive Director? Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, filed the resolution. Still, how'd that thing get through?

Prosecutors' counsel-waiver requests banned as midnight nears

As the clock ticked toward the end of the final day Texas House bills could be considered on "second reading" on the House floor, HB 3152 by Escobar banning prosecutors from requesting waivers of counsel from defendants passed on a voice vote.

A defeat for the 'lock-em-up league'

Texas' probation system is one step closer to a major overhaul.

Legislation strengthening the probation system passed last night on second reading
in the Texas House after an acriminious debate. See the Statesman's coverage, and the Startlegram's here. Representatives Dan Gattis and Terry Keel, both former assistant district attorneys, tried to kill the bill after Keel successfully convinced the bill sponsor to accept a couple of weakening amendments. You don't see that much; typically bill sponsors accept amendments in exchange for support of the bill.

Keel and Gattis played off one another, lamenting the terrible crimes people commit for which they might receive only five years probation. Both men held the bills would cause the prison population to increase because prosecutors would be less likely to recommend probation under the shorter terms. (It'll be interesting to compare
that learned prediction to reality down the line if this bill passes; all the experts say otherwise.)

Rep. Pat Haggerty, though, countered the pair with a scoffing defense, declaring that if Mr. Gattis was only getting probation for people who committed kidnapping, it's no wonder he's a 'former' prosecutor. That remark broke up a lot of the tension. Then Haggerty explained to the chamber the reality of Texas' probation system: right now, nobody is watching Texas probationers. Texas employs 3,000 people to monitor 450,000 probationers, so as Haggerty put it, they "show up once a month and pee in a cup," and that's about all the supervision that's going on.

Chairman Ray Allen pointed out that when probationers don't show up for meetings, currently there's not even enough manpower to go out and look for them. As a result, at the moment 16,000 Texas probationers are absconders, and no one knows where they are. Strengthening the probation system was the number one recommendation of interim studies in both the House and the Senate over the last three sessions, Allen said. The issue has been studied enough, he argued, and now it's time to act.

Rep. Glen Hegar deserves credit, too, for his defense of the bill against what were truly eleventh hour attacks. He pointed out that out of 22 million Texans, none of them, including the prosecutors now criticizing the bill, showed up to testify against it in committee. He also spoke knowledgably about the special sanctions court in Fort Bend County, which he represents. Many of the reforms in HB 2193 were modeled after that court and others like it.

House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden wound up with 90 votes for a stronger probation system, receiving fairly broad bipartisan support. Here are the 'yes' votes for strengthening probation:

Allen, Ray(R); Alonzo(D); Anchia(D); Bailey(D); Brown, Fred(R); Burnam(D); Callegari(R); Campbell(R); Casteel(R); Castro(D); Chavez(D); Coleman(D); Cook, Byron(R); Corte(R); Crownover(R); Davis, John(R); Davis, Yvonne(D); Dawson(R); Denny(R); Deshotel(D); Driver(R); Dukes(D); Dutton(D); Eiland(D); Farrar(D); Flores(D); Geren(R); Giddings(D); Gonzales(D); Gonzalez Toureilles(D); Goodman(R); Goolsby(R); Griggs(R); Grusendorf(R); Guillen(D); Haggerty(R); Hamric(R); Hardcastle(R); Hartnett(R); Hegar(R); Herrero(D); Hill(R); Hochberg(D); Hughes(R); Hunter(R); Isett(R); Jackson, Jim(R); Jones, Delwin(R); Jones, Jesse(D); Laney(D); Leibowitz(D); Luna(D); Madden(R); Martinez(D); Martinez Fischer(D); McCall(R); McClendon(D); McReynolds(D); Menendez(D); Moreno, Paul(D); Morrison(R); Mowery(R); Naishtat(D); Noriega(D); Oliveira(D); Olivo(D); Orr(R); Pickett(D); Puente(D); Quintanilla(D); Raymond(D); Reyna(R); Ritter(D); Rodriguez(D); Seaman(R); Smith, Todd(R); Smithee(R); Solis(D); Solomons(R); Strama(D); Swinford(R); Thompson(D); Truitt(R); Turner(D); Uresti(D); Veasey(D); Villarreal(D); Vo(D); West, Buddy(R); Wong(R)

In the end, 48 representatives, including nine Democrats, voted to keep the status quo, meaning more prisons and, by extension, higher taxes. They were:

Anderson(R); Baxter(R); Berman(R); Blake(R); Bohac(R); Bonnen(R); Branch(R); Brown, Betty(R); Chisum(R); Cook, Robby(D); Crabb(R); Delisi(R); Dunnam(D); Eissler(R); Elkins(R); Escobar(D); Farabee(D); Flynn(R); Frost(D); Gallego(D); Gattis(R); Hamilton(R); Harper-Brown(R); Hilderbran(R); Homer(D); Hopson(D); Howard(R); Hupp(R); Keel(R); Keffer, Bill(R); Keffer, Jim(R); Krusee(R); Kuempel(R); Laubenberg(R); Merritt(R); Nixon(R); Otto(R); Paxton(R); Phillips(R); Riddle(R); Rose(D); Smith, Wayne(R); Straus(R); Talton(R); Taylor(R); Van Arsdale(R); Woolley(R); Zedler(R)

Call them the "lock-em up league." For the first time in recent memory, though, they found themselves in the minority last night. At least this once, arguments for more and more prison spending did not hold sway. Many kudos and great thanks to Reps Madden, Haggerty, Allen, Hegar, and all those who voted for stronger probation. If your representative voted right, be sure and drop them a thank you note. If your member voted against stronger probation, tell them you disapprove. (Go here to find out who represents you and how to contact them.)