Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Bill aims to close 'dead suspect loophole' to TX Public Information Act

For 25 years in Texas, from 1971 to 1996, police files on closed criminal cases were open records, whether or not anyone was ultimately convicted. But in 1996, the Texas Supreme Court eviscerated what was then the Texas Open Records Act when it came to law enforcement records, ruling in a case styled Holmes v. Morales that police case files are closed unless they resulted in a conviction or deferred adjudication. Then, the following year, the Legislature codified the restrictive court ruling rather than re-install the older, stronger standard that governed police records for a quarter century.

Tomorrow in the House State Affairs Committee, Speaker Pro Tempore Joe Moody will present a bill, HB 147, to open records in a subset of cases closed without a conviction: incidents where the defendant dies, either killed by police, committing suicide, or via other means. At Reason magazine, C.J. Ciaramella dubbed this the "Dead Suspect Loophole" to the Texas Public Information Act. Local media in Austin have highlighted several cases matching this profile.

Grits agrees that closed information about deceased suspects is an important aspect of the problem. However, framing it that way understates the size of the loophole. Problems with the law-enforcement exception to Texas Public Information Act go much deeper than that, and the Legislature should address them. I'm certainly glad this aspect is being highlighted, but Grits wishes the bill went farther.

The ill-considered codification of Holmes v. Morales was the issue which first inspired Grits to begin showing up at the capitol more than two decades ago, as fate would have it. Past legislative efforts to revisit the topic never got off the ground. So I'm happy to see it being addressed now, even in part.

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