Saturday, March 17, 2007

Innocence, Secrecy, Guns and Justice: Senate committee hears full agenda

After spending last Tuesday on sex offenders and TYC, the Senate Criminal Jurisprudence Committee finally kicks into high gear next week with a full slate of bills that should make for a long afternoon's work. As always, I won't go through the full agenda, but wanted to highlight bills beforehand of particular interest:

Enhancements everywhere you look
Sen. Florence Shapiro has a couple of sex offender enhancement bills up that, after HB 8, make me wonder when is enough enough? Her SB 75 is the senate companion to Patrick Rose's HB 1597, which is up the same day in House Criminal Jurisprudence. I don't understand why her SB 78 is being heard - it's the companion bill to Jerry Madden's House legislation about continuous sexual abuse of a child that was amended onto Jessica's Law (HB 8) on the House floor. Her bill was the companion, so it seems redundant to hear it again - the committee just passed it last week. No fiscal note is available yet on either of these bills, but after the lowballed fiscal note on Jessica's Law, my expectation level is declining that legislators will receive accurate information from the Legislative Budget Board about the cost of increasing criminal penalties.

Compensating the Innocent
State Sen. Rodney Ellis brings forward much-needed SB 167 that removes the requirement that prosecutors agree before exonerated defendants are compensated under the state's wrongful conviction compensation statutes. Some prosecutors, notably Harris County DA Chuck Rosenthal, have refused to agree to compensation in some cases, insisting they were right and the judicial system was wrong. Ellis' bill would remove prosecutors from the process of determining compensation for exonerated defendants.

Search Warrant Affidavits Must Remain Open
Sen. Williams' SB 244 is an idea that gets trotted out by the law enforcement lobby every session - making search warrant affidavits closed records by request of the prosecutor, in this case for up to 90 days. IMO, this authority would be used more often as a PR maneuver to protect law enforcement's ass than it will to protect investigations - to put off inquiries by the media and public when something goes wrong, at least until the heat dies down. The proposed statute would let prosecutors ask for affidavits to be sealed when:
(1) public disclosure of the affidavit would jeopardize the safety of a confidential informant or adversely affect a continuing investigation; or
(2) the affidavit contains information obtained from a court-ordered wiretap that has not expired at the time the attorney representing the state requests the sealing of the affidavit.
Adding that language would be both unnecessary and harmful. Here's the deal: The crook almost always knows who ratted them out, or can figure out that they were wiretapped. What this bill does is conceal the same information from the media, from watchdog groups and interested members of the public.

Most people don't know about these obscure documents outside police, lawyers, judges, and reporters on the police beat, but search and arrest warrant affidavits often contain the most public information available about the case before it goes to trial. It's really hard to overstate how important they are to the transparency of the criminal justice system, particularly on the front end. And once a case is closed, more information becomes public only if a conviction is obtained - often this provides the only window for analyzing whether a police search is warranted or abusive.

In a way it's ironic that, on a day when Sen. Ellis brings a bill compensating the innocent, Sen. Williams' bill would further shroud criminal prosecutions behind a curtain of secrecy that could encourage the kind of corner cutting that has caused so many innocents to be convicted in this state.

Ironically, in 2005 I testified at the Lege on behalf of then House Criminal Jurisprudence Chairman Terry Keel's HB 47 that fined counties that don't make search warrant affidavits public. That bill passed the House and was heard but left pending in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee at the end of session. Williams' bill would mistakenly take this in the opposite direction, encouraging secrecy instead of enforcing openness. Texas prosecutors and police have been filling up the prisons since the founding of the Texas Republic with people convicted under current standards of openness. This is another instance of, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Guns, Cars and Employers: Where to draw the line?
Newbie Senator Glenn Hegar brings forward a bill about which I've got mixed feelings. HB 534 which would forbid employers from enforcing restrictions on handguns left in locked personal vehicles by concealed carry permit holders. I expressed my quandary about this when the companion bill came up in House Law Enforcement. At the time, I wrote this:
I'm of two minds: I generally think legal gun owners should be allowed to carry them in their vehicles, but I also don't see that the Second Amendment endorses prohibitions on employers from restricting employees in ways that wouldn't be allowable for the government. Tough call - my gut goes with the gun owners, if the weapon is safely stowed, but I find myself uncomfortable waiving traditional employer rights.
What do you think?

Don't make DPS misconduct records secret
Chairman Whitmire himself is carrying a companion bill to one heard in the House Law Enforcement Committee recently that would make officer misconduct records secret at the Department of Public Safety. With all respect to the Chairman, this is a bad bill justified by a slew of faulty premises. See Grits' discussion of HB 1422 here.

Don't endlessly strand incompetents in jail
Sen. Duncan's SB 867 is the first bill I've seen this session aimed at addressing the poor souls who are mentally ill, declared incompetent by the courts, and become stranded for months waiting for state hospital beds to open up for treatment.

While the real solutions for this problem must come through the Appropriations process, Duncan's bill would help. It lets repeat offenders past evaluations be used to save time and red tape, and dictates that the total time of confinement for such inmates including their inpatient hospital stay cannot be longer than the maximum penalty for the crime.

I'd be interested in the opinion of Advocacy Inc., who recently sued over this matter, as to whether this addresses their concerns. See prior related Grits coverage. UPDATE: I'm told to expect Sen. Duncan to lay out a substitute for this bill at the committee meeting - no word yet on what that version might look like, but I'm told it will address "more issues."

To see what other bills are up, be sure to check the agenda for Tuesday's meeting of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

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