Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Keller PD arrest puts a family face on 64k Class C arrests at Texas traffic stops

Out of Keller, TX comes the Lone Star State's latest police misconduct case with bystander video gone viral. Cops used a Class C arrest over a "wide right turn" to search Dillon Puente's vehicle when he refused consent, then used excessive force against his father, Marco, in retaliation for recording the incident. They arrested Dad on a phony obstructing the roadway charge. See WFAA-TV's coverage. and a New York Times story about the family's lawsuit.

The Texas Legislature bears as much responsibility for this episode as the officer. The US Supreme Court ruled 20 years ago in Atwater v. City of Lago Vista (a seat belt violation case) that whether officers could arrest for Class Cs is a legislative decision, and that state lawmakers would need to change the statute to forbid it. State Rep. Senfronia Thompson has filed legislation to restrict such arrests in HB 830 and as part of a larger omnibus "George Floyd Act," which is HB 88

Legislation to restrict the practice passed in 2001 (immediately after Atwater) but was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry at the behest of police unions. In 2003, Perry vetoed another bill which would have required law enforcement agencies to have written policies stating when their officers could arrest for Class C misdemeanors. Since then, it's become common for police to arrest for Class Cs when drivers refuse consent to search. It's considered one of the "tools in the toolbox," as the practice was described after Sandra Bland's high-profile arrest (over her alleged failure to signal a lane change) and death.

At one time, police claimed these were rare occurrences and officers were only arresting dangerous people. Now, thanks to the Sandra Bland Act passed in 2017, we know that's not true. Today, law enforcement annually reports data on how many people are arrested for Class C misdemeanors to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. (See here.) 

It's a big number. Police officers arrested people at traffic stops for Class C misdemeanors - either traffic violations or local, municipal ordinances - 64,100 times in calendar year 2019. And to be clear, if the person was arrested for more a serious offense, it's reported in a separate category. (The 64,100 number comes from adding together columns GS and GY.) 

When Texas Appleseed analyzed jail bookings at eleven large counties in 2019, they similarly found many more Class C arrests than anyone expected. This problem has been hidden in plain sight, but no one could document it until data began to be collected under the Sandra Bland Act.

This use of Class C arrests to get around the Fourth Amendment results in millions in jail expenses, hundreds of thousands of wasted officer hours, and tens of thousands of Texans being taken to jail over petty bullshit.

The Keller case puts a face to the Class-C arrest issue in the same way Sandra Bland's did, but this isn't so much about individual drivers' personalities as it is the government's policies.

The officer who arrested Dillon Puente and used unnecessary force against his father deserved the demotion he received, but mainly for how he treated Dad while he was filming. The reality is, the son's arrest, as unfair and inappropriate as it may seem, for the most part comports with state law and represents the system working as it was designed. Now that those design flaws have become apparent, and have been documented both via anecdotes like this one as well as statewide data, it's time for the system to change.

MORE: Your correspondent was quoted in this WFAA story about the case.


gary said...

I don't know how the Keller Police Chief could have watched the video and not ordered the arrest of the officers. I'll write my state representative and urge ending the police authority to arrest for Class C. Unfortunately, knowing who my representative is, I doubt he'll be open to the idea.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

State senator, too. Can't hurt! :)