Saturday, April 17, 2021

#txlege bill eliminating Class-C arrests for traffic offenses moving forward with bipartisan support

The death of Daunte Wright traffic enforcement by police back in the spotlight, raising the profile of the issue just as HB 830 (Thompson) passed out of committee at the Texas Legislature this week. Next week will be dominated by debate over the budget, but HB 830 could hit the House floor as early as the week after.

The committee substitute to the bill would ban arrests for Class C traffic violations in Texas, but not other Class Cs. Looking at recent cases, the bill would affect Dillon Puente in Keller but not Rodney Reese in Plano. There are a variety of reasons for that and I'd prefer all Class C arrests were banned. But in 2020, traffic violations accounted for 95% of arrests for Class Cs at traffic stops, so the bill as it stands would have a large impact.

These low level arrests take up a huge proportion of law enforcement's time and resources. In Texas in 2019, police arrested some ~45,000 people for marijuana, plus another ~137,000 at traffic stops alone for Class C misdemeanors (64K), and warrants for debt (73K). Those low-level categories made up more than a quarter of all arrests statewide that year (total arrests was 689,109, says DPS).

Every such arrest risks the bad outcomes witnessed in cases ranging from Daunte Wright to Philando Castile to Sandra Bland. Eliminating tens of thousands such arrests could definitely save lives.

We're kind of headed in that direction, anyway. Notably, Texas has radically reduced traffic enforcement over the last decade with no notable change in road-death rates. So we're already trending in the direction of fewer traffic stops. Eliminating Class C traffic arrests further minimizes the risk of harm at traffic stops, making it more likely driver and officer alike will end encounters safely and go on their way.

Make me Philosopher King and I'd probably take traffic enforcement completely out of law enforcement's hands except for a tiny handful of exceptional circumstances. The reason cops do it in the first place is the supposed risks, but those are far overstated, as Jordan Blair Woods, who analyzed detailed data of police violence at traffic stops in Florida, articulated in this interview:

the danger narrative about traffic stops that is commonly perpetuated in courts and law enforcement circles isn’t supported by empirical research. What I found is that overall, violence against officers during traffic stops was fairly infrequent and the incidents that did happen were generally low-risk and didn’t involve weapons.

Using my most conservative estimates, I found that the rate for felonious killing of an officer during routine traffic stops was 1 in every 6.5 million stops. The rate for an assault resulting in serious injury to an officer was 1 in every 361,111 stops. The rate for assault against an officer, whether it results in injury or not, was 1 in every 6,959 stops. The least conservative estimates suggest that the rates are much less: 1 in every 27.6 million stops for a killing, 1 in every 1.53 million stops involving an assault that results in serious injury to an officer, and 1 in every 29,550 stops for an assault against an officer, whether it resulted in officer injury or not.

The bottom line is the idea that routine traffic stops are these exceptionally dangerous events for police didn’t pan out with my results.

Moreover, many of the risks at traffic stops arise from the nature of American policing and its routine overreaction to the mildest resistance and focus on arrests for warrants. If unarmed civilian bureaucrats performed that role, maybe it could be done with less risk to everyone.

Grits recognizes, though, that's not happening anytime soon. As my father likes to say, "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride."

In the meantime, limiting arrests limits the number of times police forcibly detain someone and should reduce resulting police violence. If more than a quarter of 2019 arrests in Texas were for marijuana, Class C misdemeanors, and outstanding debt (warrants), those arrests conceivably could be eliminated. And many "small government" conservatives would be on board with the idea, just as HB 830 has both Republican and Democratic authors.

Finally, readers may recall that eliminating Class C arrests was one of the areas of agreement between the Democratic and Republican Party platforms in Texas on criminal-justice reform, a recollection that gives me the opportunity to bring back this short video with one of my favorite jingles: 


Anonymous said...

Grits - “There are a variety of reasons for that and I'd prefer all Class C arrests were banned.”

Couple of scenarios...

So cite and release for public intoxication and the cited person ultimately either gets behind the wheel and crashes or is run over by walking into traffic an hour or two later? Who is the family and media going to blame?

Similarly a traffic stop for someone who lacks both a drivers license and identification card so that person isn’t fully identified...cite and release? Only to be never heard from again? Or have the vehicle of the unlicensed/no ID card driver (reported stolen hours later) be used in an aggravated robbery/vehicle fire?

State Rep. James White said...

Gritsforbreakfast said...

You do recognize, 6:59, that the bill now only forbids Class C arrests for traffic. And the law already requires ppl to sign a ticket or face arrest, even for speeding where arrests are already technically forbidden. We can debate things that aren't being proposed, but it seems kind of pointless.

Anonymous said...

Grits - you said “I’d prefer all..”. “All” being the key word.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@7:18, I also said that's NOT what the bill did. Why not talk about what's being proposed instead of nitpick with stuff that's not?

Anonymous said...

If only there was a way to write laws with rational exceptions in them for scenarios just like this...

Or, imagine this... A policeman during the course of citing an unidentied person in an unidentied vehicle, or who is demonstrably impaired in public uses all their "training and experience" to find some other "probable cause" to detain them. Do you suppose there are cops out there who would do that?

Anonymous said...

Has Grits done any research on how many traffic stops result in arrests being made for outstanding felony warrants? In the Wright case, he was being arrested for outstanding felony warrants. How about people being stopped complying with reasonable requests from law enforcement instead of jeopardizing their life and the lives of law enforcement by deciding to fight or just take off. I would say some common sense should be applied to this but apparently common sense and liberalism don’t mix.

Chris H said...

Isn't "pedestrian in the roadway" under Chapter 552 of the Transportation Code? That would presumably cover Rodney Reese.