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.


Anonymous said...

Whatever happened to the Just Liberty requests to email my legislators in Texas when votes like this were upcoming? You'd link and I could type short email that would be sent to my legislators. Were these found to be a waste of time? Too costly in some way?

Anonymous said...

If anyone thinks that police unions are above corruption, just look at HPOU (Houston) and their leader.

It's always amazed me how republicans chant about "right-to-work" and much other anti-union rhetoric, however give police unions just about anything that they want.

That has to stop.

I doubt any police officer could give anyone including our legislators a logical reason (key word here "logical") for jailing anyone for a fine only offense. One the down side, this legislation would give incentives to bad cops to "upcharge" offenses in order to jail a suspect.

Anonymous said...

One very good reason is that the Judge, who ordered the fine paid, has issued a warrant for failure to pay, or because the defendant never showed up for court on the ticket in the first place.

Unless the fine can be enforced with a hammer, it is soon learned there is no reason to pay the fine.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@11:34, you misunderstand the bill. These are not arrests for outstanding warrants. These are people pulled over and arrested for a Class C, usually the underlying traffic offense.