Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Nuts and bolts of citations for low-level misdemeanors explained by Travis Sheriff's Office

For those who couldn't attend the event, handouts from presenters at the Bexar County symposium on jail overcrowding a couple of weeks ago in San Antonio have been posted online (see here).

A couple of different speakers in SA focused on the new authority granted to Texas police officers in 2007 to give citations instead of making arrests for certain low-level, non-violent misdemeanors - that was HB 2391, for those keeping score at home. I wanted to elaborate on their presentations so that folks in counties that have resisted using the new authority can see how it both saves money and keeps officers out on the street doing police work.

Major Scott Burroughs of the Travis County Sheriff's Office told the audience that his agency first proposed this idea in 2005. (As an aside, I've now heard about half a dozen different Sheriff's Departments and nonprofit groups claim credit for coming up with this idea - I first heard the idea from the jail administrator in Midland, Dennis McKnight who's running for Sheriff in San Antonio has long backed a similar proposal, and bill sponsor Jerry Madden told me it was former state Rep. Suzanna Hupp who brought him the bill. It always bodes well for the future of a political proposal when people argue over who gets credit for coming up with it!)

From Travis County's perspective, said Burroughs, the primary purpose of the bill was not to reduce jail crowding but to "create efficiencies for patrol officers." The TCSO's jurisdiction covers more than 900 square miles, he said, but all prisoners must be booked at a central facility in the heart of downtown. According to a handout Burroughs distributed (see his power point presentation):
  • Because of several natural barriers in Travis County such as Lake Travis and the Colorado River, some officers must travel more than 50 miles to book a prisoner.
  • Because of traffic congestion, officers often have to spend more than an hour to travel to the jail and more than an hour to return to their district after booking a prisoner.
  • Some officers were out of district for four hours or more to effect a custody arrest. Because of staff shortages, some districts were unmanned during the entire process.
  • The ability to issue field release citations cuts the time to effect an arrest to less than one hour in most instances and allows the officers to remain in their districts.
Maj. Burroughs also identified several "myths" propagated by opponents of the new law, and explained how the process in Travis County mooted their criticisms. Among these "myths":
  • "There is no mechanism for the defendant to be photographed."
  • "There is no mechanism for the defendant to be fingerprinted."
  • "There is no mechanism for processing the defendant into CJIS" (Criminal Justice Information Systems)
In opposition to this mythology, Burroughs supplied these "Facts":
The defendant is ordered to appear before a magistrate so they may receive their warnings as required by Article 15.17. The Bill further states the magistrate, except for good cause shown, will release the person on personal bond. Once the magistrate performs their duties under 15.17, the defendant should be ordered to submit to the booking or intake process as a condition of their release on personal bond. All photographs, fingerprints and information needed for CJIS reporting may be collected at this time. Article 60.08 allows 30 days for CJIS reporting in these types of cases.
So basically in these cases, after the defendant sees the Justice of the Peace, they head to the office of Pretrial Services to be interviewed for a personal bond, and processed as a "walk through" without ever taking up space in the jail. The next time you hear the argument that using this authority creates administrative headaches, be sure to explain how easily it's accomplished in Travis County.

Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation also discussed this legislation in his presentation, which was part of the panel where I presented. He pointed out that the bill allowed payment by mail if prosecutors opted not to seek jail time for these offenses. Levin also suggested that county commissioners could "designate misdemeanors that are non-jailable in that county, which also eliminates indigent defense costs." (See his power point presentation.) No county has taken advantage of that authority, yet, but it's a good idea.

I wanted to pass along this information because so many opponents of letting police use this new authority have wrongly claimed that it reduced public safety or created insurmountable administrative headaches. There have always seemed to me like very strong public safety and economic arguments for using this new authority, but clearly many in law enforcement are not yet convinced.

See prior, related Grits coverage of HB 2391:


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, in Smith County our DA doesn't want to reduce jail overcrowding. The more people has in the system, the more power he has. He probably won't seriously consider something like this unless he is forced to.

Anonymous said...

If the Smith County DA wants power, he should find a bigger County to work in!

It may take a while but he and many others will eventually have to see the advantages of this approach to law enforcement.

Anonymous said...

Dallas PD and Dallas DA are gonna give it a try -

Anonymous said...

I must be missing something. What happens when a defendant who "is ordered to appear at a J.P.court" fails to appear? How do you prove their identity if they have never given fingerprints or been photographed? Criminals are called bad guys for a reason. That is because they don't obey the law. Many people who have major felony warrants are caught because they commit a minor offense. So, you arrest a bad guy and then ask him to pretty please obey an order to go turn himself in. Do you think a bad guy is going to run turn himself in when he knows he has a felony warrant outstanding. Like it or not, this is the problem and it is why the vast majority of law enforcement rejects this scheme.

Also, Travis County talks about the distance and time it takes to travel to book someone. If this is such a problem and Travis thinks they don't need to arrest these people, then why don't they just use the age old process of "at large" filing. The defendant in an "at large" case never gets arrested until formal charges are filed in court. By that time they have a lawyer lined up and, in a minor case, get a bond and usually never see the jail for any length of time. Of course, the identity issues are still present but in typical "at large" cases the police have sufficient identifiers for the defendant. If Travis is willing to write citation and release Defendants, then filing "at large" should be no different. Get good identifiers and file at large.

Finally, if the damn case is so minor and it is so much trouble, then the officer has discretion to just let the defendant go. Happens all of the time. For example, young kids get stopped with marijuana and the cop lets them go. But, once an officer decides to arrest for an offense then people need to follow the booking process. If you want integrity in the system then there are just certain things that have to be done. Otherwise, you are going to have a lot of innocent people arrested because a criminal has stolen their identity and used it to get out of a crime by presenting false identification to the officer. Then when the criminal fails to appear in court a warrant will be issued for the innocent victim of the identity theft.

Sometimes accuracy is more important than speed and efficiency.