Showing posts with label Sandra Bland. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sandra Bland. Show all posts

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.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

TX county jails seek to avoid, fail to cooperate with investigations into medical deaths, says Jail Standards Commission's Sunset 'self evaluation'

Grits took time this morning to read through the Texas Commission on Jail Standards' self evaluation created as part of the "Sunset" process, through which the Texas Legislature evaluates agencies' functions every few years. For my own purposes, I took a few notes. Here are the highlights:

For starters, jail capacity in Texas has increased more than five-fold over the last 36 years, during which time the state's population didn't quite double: "From 1983 to date, the number of county jail beds has increased from 19,000 to 96,578." About 2/3 of those beds are full at any point in time.

Evading death investigations through creative, post-hoc dismissals
TCJS identified a recurring pattern where some counties claim someone who died in their custody had been released in order to avoid an outside investigation. The problem arises when:
the county claims they have released from custody because a judge has dismissed the charges. While the inmate technically may no longer be in custody, there is a very real possibility that the events that contributed to their death occurred while they were in custody and preceded their PR Bond or transfer to the hospital. By not reporting the death, the jail avoids the required criminal investigation. This could be viewed as circumventing the intent of the legislature and existing statutes.
The agency has requested an Attorney General's opinion to clarify the issue, but that "does not guarantee a solution."

'Several times per year' jails seek to conceal medical records from TCJS death investigators
Some local jails, particularly those who contract out medical care, have sought to prevent TCJS from accessing inmate medical records as part of death investigations. Because part of their role is determining whether jail staff followed physician's orders, this would keep them from providing meaningful oversight in such cases. From the report:
Several times per year, the agency will encounter opposition when requesting inmate medical records. This most often occurs when dealing with a facility that utilizes a contract medical provider. Other situations in which this has been an issue is when a facility is using a contract provider for mental health services. When this occurs, the provider most often cites HIPAA as the reason for their reluctance or refusal to provide access. In other cases, the provider will claim that the creation of these records are “proprietary” and not subject to disclosure. When either of these situations is encountered, it slows down the process of trying to determine if there were any violations of minimum standards in an extremely important area. Failure to provide adequate healthcare can have dire consequences, up to and including death. Unfortunately, we have determined on several occasions that jails have failed to follow physician’s orders, and being able to identify and correct this issue is extremely important. Current state law and the federal act regarding disclosure of medical records provides an exemption that we have been able to utilize in the past when this issue arises. However, there is still opposition as entities misinterpret (intentionally or due to lack of knowledge) this exemption and slow down the resolution of complaints and investigations. (emphasis added)
Dealing with rulebreakers more quickly
The agency tends to focus on administering technical assistance to jails that violate rules as opposed to using punishments to provide incentives. "Over the past decade, the agency has expanded the amount of technical assistance provided to jails to reduce potential areas of non‐compliance. This approach has been well received by county officials and has allowed staff to focus on larger issues while correcting minor ones at the time of inspection." (See here for examples of inspection reports.) But as a result of recent legislation, counties will be expected to regain compliance more quickly following rules violations:
When first created, the agency’s enabling statute allowed a county up to one year to regain compliance. This provision has recently come under criticism as being too long. One of the bills from the 86th Legislative session now requires facilities that are operated by a private vendor and fail an inspection to appear before our board at the next regularly scheduled meeting. These meetings take place on a quarterly basis, which significantly reduces the amount of time we would expect a facility to remain in non‐compliance.
How other states handle jail oversight
The report includes an excellent, three-page table (pp. 6-8 in the paginated document; pp. 8-10 of the pdf) describing how other states handle oversight of local jails. It's a very nice little compendium of the agencies, enabling statutes, and basic jail oversight functions across states.

Agency as 'referee'
State government regulates jail conditions, but local Sheriffs operate the jails and county commissioners courts provide their funding. This disconnect among responsibilities can inject the jail standards commission into local political fights:
County jails are rarely a priority for local government but represent one of the largest liabilities for them. This can create friction at the local level and prevent effective and constructive communication between the sheriff, who is responsible for the jail’s operation, and the Commissioner’s court, which is responsible for funding it. These are local issues created by local decisions, but they directly impact the effectiveness of the program. With a goal of having all jails operate in compliance, the agency is sometimes placed in the unenviable position of referee in our attempts to meet our goal.
Training new Sheriffs a particular problem
From the agency's perspective, every newly elected Sheriff amounts to a role of the dice. They all run on a "keep us safe" political platform that pretends they're out leading posses chasing bad guys and barely mentions the jail management function which, for most of them, is the most significant and time consuming part of their job. From the report:
Every four years, there is approximately 33% turnover of the sheriffs from the previous cycle who are taking office for the first time. Depending upon their background and previous experience, their understanding of jail operations and the role of the agency varies greatly. Early outreach and education occasionally alleviate some of the issues but not always and not with all the issues.
Shift to electronic reporting despite county opposition
The agency will finally stop receiving paper reports that have to be re-typed into spreadsheets and have counties begin providing statutorily required data electronically.
With the passage of HB3440 (86R) by Caprigilone, over the next two‐year cycle, the agency will be phasing in electronic reporting. This will consist of counties submitting to the agency each month a “locked” excel spreadsheet containing the statutorily mandated data. Prior attempts had been met with resistance from counties, but it is no longer feasible or even responsible to have one FTE assigned to nothing but data entry in 2019. By having the counties submit this data electronically, the FTE previously assigned will now perform quality control checks and simply import the data into the agency database. From there, the data can be used to run multiple reports that we are required to create. It is anticipated that the FTE previously assigned can now assist with other duties and functions of the agency as assigned.
Disconnected county computer networks prevent real-time data analysis
The agency is frustrated that legislators expect them to be more closely tracking data from local jails than they are technically able to at the moment, not just because of statutory reasons but because of technical issues related to linking disparate computer networks:
Efforts to educate members of the legislature about our ability to carry out certain tasks they would like accomplished are sometimes met with “dismissiveness.” Most of this is related to data collection and information submitted by the counties. At this time, there is no central database or portal into which counties can enter and submit information “real time.” The monthly population reports are simply a snap‐shot of the inmate population on the first of the month. The other reports required by statute are daily counts but deal with specific segments of the inmate population not the entire population. Part of the issue with this inability to tie the 240 county jails into a network is that each county has purchased or developed their own software with varying levels of compatibility and capability.
Low jailer pay degrades professionalism
The report directly linked a lack of professionalism among county jail guards to low pay.
With each county jail owned, funded, and operated by local government, they are the ones that decide how much to allocate for jail staff salaries. In an overwhelming majority of counties, the starting pay is a major drawback and jails have a difficult time recruiting and retaining qualified staff. This is an underlying factor in almost every instance of non‐compliance and makes it difficult for Jail Administrators to manage and operate a jail. This results in a wide range of professionalism amongst the jails that we regulate. This in turn requires agency staff to provide additional technical assistance to county jails to assist them in operating safe and secure facilities.
How 'jails have become mental hospitals, and jailers have become social workers'
The agency suggests additional training for local jailers on mental health, especially in rural counties, but they recognize the mental-health problem is bigger, more structural, and fundamentally budget-based than a training-only response can solve:
One area that we are exploring for possible expansion is mental health training. Interaction with an individual with mental illness is challenging even in the best of circumstances. Once a person with a mental illness enters the criminal justice system, that challenge is exacerbated by a factor that is simply hard to quantify. With insufficient mental health providers to service the general public, the need in jails is even greater. With an estimated 30% of the inmate population either diagnosed or exhibiting signs of mental illness, the demand far exceeds supply. By default, the result is that our county jails have become mental hospitals, and jailers have become social workers. Neither the facilities nor the staff that operate them are properly equipped to handle this continuing issue, and no long‐term solution is in sight.
"Difficult and unpopular would be the two most accurate words to describe any possible solution" to overuse of jails for mental health purposes, the report opined.

Administering "Prisoner Safety Fund" now a key agency function
In addition to its traditional functions, the agency now lists as one of its six key functions the administration of the "Prisoner Safety Fund," which state Rep. Garnet Coleman created under the Sandra Bland Act in 2017. That fund had its authority expanded earlier this year. Here's what it does:
Prisoner Safety Fund. The 85th Legislature created the Prisoner Safety Fund as part of SB1849(85R). The original purpose of the fund was to assist counties that operate a jail with a capacity of 96 beds or less with meeting the technology requirements set forth in the bill. There were two areas specifically targeted. The first was the ability to verify observation checks of the inmates by staff in high‐risk areas by an electronic means. This can be accomplished via camera or electronic sensor. The second was the provision to allow access to mental health services 24 hours a day via tele‐mental health services. The 86th Legislature amended the criteria in HB4468(86R) and increased the number of counties eligible to those that operate a facility with a capacity of 288 beds or less.
So the Legislature has created a fund specifically to prevent jail suicides and facilitate provision of mental health services. That could afford some interesting opportunities going forward, although each new funding battle will be a struggle. Certainly the problem hasn't been solved yet, as an AP report emphasized recently. See a detailed discussion of the (relatively modest) grant program beginning on page 71 of the pdf.) Most of the money in the fund has not been spent yet.

Records maintained by the Jail Commission
For those seeking records from the agency, here's a good description of what they have:
The Assistant Director authenticates the reports and data submitted. The following is authenticated to ensure accurate reporting of measures:
(1) Agency Calendar. Each entry is  required to have an associated memorandum prepared by the staff member involved in the activity. The staff member submits these memorandums to the Assistant Director, who reviews each entry on the calendar to ensure that a memorandum is available.  
(2) Inspector Activity Log. Each inspector is required to submit a monthly activity report. The Assistant Director compiles these reports into the Inspector Activity Log and verifies them for accuracy by reviewing a master log maintained by the Assistant Director. Any discrepancies are checked against the county’s inspection files, which are maintained in the agency file room. 
(3) Planning and Construction Log. The planner submits a log. Any activity that is designated as a key measure is reviewed by the Assistant Director to verify that the activity is denoted on the calendar or monthly activity report and that a memorandum is available. 
The Planning and Construction Log is maintained by the Planning and Construction Division and provided to the Assistant Director no later than the fifth day of the following month. The Planning and Construction Division notes the following:
  1. Technical Assistance provided to counties on site. 
  2. Occupancy Inspections conducted (pass or fail should be noted).
  3. Special Inspections conducted. 
  4. Training Attended/Conducted. 
Memorandums are submitted in order to document activities designated as key measures.
On pages 16-17 of the pdf is a list of all the datasets maintained by the agency. (Many of these are available on their website.)

Also, some researchers may find it useful to see the information commissioners are given at their meetings:
For each Commission meeting, a reference book is created that includes information on any issue that comes before them. In addition, this book contains current financial statements, copies of any audits or reviews that are periodically conducted by outside entities, and a listing of staff activities during the previous three months. There is also a section that contains the compliance status of all jails under our purview, number of complaints received against jails under our purview, population trends, and construction projects.
Forgotten history
Texas law has mandated safe and suitable jails since the 1920s, but the state didn't begin inspecting jails until 1969. That year, the federal court intervened in "almost 20" local Texas jails because of poor conditions. The Legislature changed the law to allow inspections. (Really, they removed a prohibition on inspections.) After that, "inspections were conducted of all 254 county jails, [and] all but six were found to be in violation of state law."

In 1974,  a survey revealed that 68 percent of jails did not provide 24-hour supervision; 121 left prisoners alone at night; 40 percent "slept prisoners on the floor."

The Legislature formally established the commission in 1975. By 1978, "The Commission became mired in controversy regarding funding, conflict of interest, and agency abolishment." However, 1979 witnessed, "Acceptance of Texas Minimum Jail Standards by Federal Courts and drastic reduction in federal court intervention. The Commission issued the first notices of non‐compliance [later that year], marking the beginning of enforcement efforts."

Inmates from outside Texas
A few county jails house contract prisoners from other states, in particular, "New Mexico, Arkansas and Idaho." New Mexico and Arkansas Grits can perhaps understand as a function of convenience,  proximity, and the logic of rural resources. The Idaho inmates, though, constitute their own mostly forgotten story; they're housed in a privately run facility down in Eagle Pass and the contract has caused lots of problems.

In addition, a few counties contract with private-prison companies to manage immigration-and-other-federal cases:
several federal agencies such as the Bureau of Prisons, Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the United States Marshal’s Service, all contract for bed space that falls under the Commission’s regulatory authority and is subject to inspection. Included in this number are seven (7) privately operated facilities and the companies that operate them through inter‐governmental agreements between county and municipal governments.
Inmate and family complaint procedures
Starting at the bottom of page 47 of the pdf is a detailed discussions of procedures related to inmate an family complaints which may be useful to those who, you know, want to complain. However, one can't file a complaint with TCJS before first going through the local jail's grievance process. They're an oversight agency, not the first point of contact. (If you're going through this process, Grits would recommend contacting Diana Claitor at the Texas Jail Project, who has forgotten more about the subject of jail-grievance processes than Grits has ever known.)

AG punted authority to approve contract-inmate schemes to TCJS
Here's a weird tidbit about jail construction/finance I didn't know. Grits has covered numerous Texas county jails seeking to expand to house immigration detainees and other contract prisoners. But I was unaware that, in the early '90s, the Attorney General's Public Finance Division struggled with this question of
whether the financing of jails or detention facilities of substantial capacity intended to house inmates of governmental entities other than or in addition to those of the sponsoring entity meets the public purpose requirement for the issuance of bonds and other securities.
They decided to punt the issue to TCJS, requiring that the executive director provide a formal letter recommending construction. The commission grants these "if appropriate," but the report doesn't say how appropriateness is judged. It'd be an interesting project to gather all of these through open records to figure out how often speculative contract jails have been recommended and on what basis.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

How confused Texas Democrats killed #SandraBland legislation, twice; or, how police kill a civil-rights bill when legislators overwhelmingly support it

The death of HB 2754 (White) limiting arrests for Class C misdemeanors was the strangest bill ride in which Grits has ever participated. Readers will recall that this provision was stripped out of the Sandra Bland Act in 2017, so reformers came back this year for another bite at the apple. The bill has overwhelming support in the Texas House, but now it's dead.

Let's try to unpack what happened:

In essence, Democrats killed the bill twice: first because they didn't understand the legislation (or why current law allowed Sandra Bland to be pulled from her car), and then because a bunch of them left work before the big vote on Friday, so the rules couldn't be suspended to reverse the error.

For bill author James White, a Republican, it's evidence that no good deed goes unpunished. His HB 2754 was narrowed in committee to the Sandra-Bland language because Rep. Senfronia Thompson's HB 482 couldn't get out of the Homeland Security and Public Safety committee. Advocates believed they could count to a majority, but Democratic Homeland Chairman Poncho Nevarez wouldn't give Thompson's bill a vote. So, essentially similar language was substituted into White's HB 2754, which had been referred to Chairwoman Nicole Collier's Criminal Jurisprudence committee. Again, the bill had the votes, so she brought it up and voted it out. The bill found sufficient support to make it through Calendars and landed on the House floor with plenty of time to pass.

First Kill
Before the second reading vote on the House floor, Chairman Nevarez brought White an amendment from the police unions to let officers arrest if the offender failed to present identification. White declined to add it, and Nevarez did not press the matter. On the morning of third reading, however, the police unions brought the amendment to White directly. He added it under his own name on 3rd reading, and the bill passed the House 126-20, with Nevarez "absent."

Because it did not change current practice (officers currently ask for identification at traffic stops in order to write you a ticket and HB 2754 would not have changed that), the amendment was not clearly substantive. Instead, it was a "poison pill" designed by the police unions to change the conversation from overreaching police power to verification of identity at traffic stops - an issue covered by different laws not altered by HB 2754, poorly understood by most of the membership, and likely to gin up dissension. It worked.

After the bill passed, Democrat Shawn Thierry complained to White about the amendment, and in a rare move, he agreed to bring the bill back up and strip it off, even though HB 2754 had already passed on to the senate. Advocates had no idea he was planning to do this. And thus the bill came back up late Wednesday night after it had already passed in the lower chamber.

However, once the bill was brought back up and the amendment was off, Thierry began nitpicking at the rest of the bill in ways that fundamentally failed to comprehend either current law or the effects of the legislation. Currently, police can arrest absolutely anyone for any Class C charge and no other reason; the bill limited this power. But Thierry appeared to believe the bill expanded police authority rather than limiting it. 

Thierry dug in on an open-ended clause in the new limitations that would let police arrest if they had probable cause to believe someone wouldn't show up in court. This was compromise language demanded by law enforcement; certainly it was broader than Grits would prefer, and was the most open-ended exception. But requiring cops to have "probable cause" to believe someone won't show up is an improvement over giving them wholesale authority to arrest without any such justification. Taken as a whole, the measure limited arrest authority compared to current law. Thierry mistakenly believed it gave police new arrest powers.

Then, Nevarez, along with his roommate, Terry Canales, a criminal-defense attorney, stridently doubled down on Thierry's confused interpretation. Another Democrat even accused White of promoting racial profiling! In reality, the opposite is true: when policies compliant with HB 2754 were installed at Austin PD, Class-C arrests declined by nearly two thirds and racial disparities lessened.

House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairwoman Nicole Collier, one of a handful of Democrats who stuck with the bill, tried to help White out with questions that clarified the language. But he became frustrated and called for a vote. Confused Democrats sided with the bill critics en masse, including some who were coauthors!

And with that, a black Democrat pursuing a misguided argument killed Texas legislation which, had it been law, would have prevented Sandra Bland's arrest. Ironically, on her Twitter page, Thierry includes the following quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. in her bio: "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will." I think, at this point, we can all agree on that!

As an aside, I bet Chairman White has learned his lesson about doing Democrats favors. The Republican committee chairman tried to accommodate them - first adding the police-union change that Nevarez had requested, then pulling it off when Thierry complained. As a result, a bill Democrats should all support was killed for his trouble.

Within about 15 minutes of the vote, the Democratic caucus understood they'd screwed up big time, with Nevarez, Garnet Coleman, Harold Dutton, Joe Moody, Nicole Collier, and others coming outside to tell supporters they were going to "fix this." By the next morning, the path was clear. Chairman White agreed to accept one amendment to repair the open-ended text related to failure to appear. Democrats agreed to come back en masse to vote "yes" because the concern had been addressed. Everyone had a path forward.

Second Kill
But it was not to be. Chairman White needed yet another vote, and could have tried to get it the following day when, under the rules, he needed a simple majority. The problem was the calendar: it was the last day that House bills could be heard on "second reading." Bringing a potentially contentious bill back up - one that had already had its day - would mean killing other legislation. With 20/20 hindsight, White should have bucked protocol and done it anyway. Instead, he waited.

So the motion to reconsider wasn't heard until the day after, when it required a 2/3 vote for suspension of the rules. Democrats asked for the bill to be brought back mid-afternoon. The speaker chose to wait until regular business was complete, which frankly Grits thought was reasonable considering we were asking for what amounted to an extremely rare 5th reading vote!

About 6 p.m. Friday - not a late hour for this time of session - the Speaker recognized Garnet Coleman for his motion to reconsider. Initially the rules suspension seemed to pass. But opponents called for vote verification, and 20 Democrats who voted FOR the bill the first time and should have been there to vote for it again had already left the building. (see listing of absent members; excused and unexcused is a procedural difference.) The bill failed to get the 2/3 needed to suspend the rules by just two votes.

One absent Dem that we know of had legitimate reason not to be there: Donna Howard's husband had a medical emergency. But why would Austin's Eddie Rodriguez not show up? Members from Houston, San Antonio, and other drive-able locales went home early for the weekend instead of staying to vote.

If just two of them had cared more about preventing what happened to Sandra Bland than leaving work early to start their weekend, this bill would be on its way to becoming law.

Honestly, why bother seeking election to the Legislature if you're not going to show up on big votes to do your job?

It's possible an amendment vehicle will be found and HB 2754's provisions can be revived. At this point, the bill is supported by a wide majority of House members and opposed by only a few. Just 26 people voted against the bill on third reading, and 37 voted against the motion to reconsider.  So the votes are there if a vehicle is found.

It's easy to blame all this on legislative incompetence. Thierry's failure to understand the bill was the pivotal error that caused everything to melt down. Even if the line she complained about had not been fixed, the bill would have radically limited existing police power to arrest for Class C violations. And blowing a vote so important to core Democratic constituencies because members wanted to get home for Mother's Day weekend is about the lamest outcome possible. All of those absent members should hear about the issue during the next primary.

But at the end of the day, the "poison pill" strategy was promoted by the police unions. They're the behind-the-scenes force ultimately responsible for the loss, however satisfying it may seem to blame confused or absent legislators. That's certainly who I blame.

And that, my friends, is an example of how powerful interests can kill a bill opposed by only 37 out of 150 House members through confusion and misdirection. I've got to hand it to them; their strategy worked.

See related MSM coverage:

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.

Monday, April 15, 2019

'Thousands of Sandra Blands': Just Liberty analyzes new arrest data from Texas traffic stops

As the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee today prepares to hear HB 2754 (White), the committee substitute to which would limit most Class C misdemeanor arrests (with certain public safety exceptions), Just Liberty put out a new analysis of data titled, "Thousands of Sandra Blands: Analyzing Class-C-misdemeanor arrests and use-of-force at Texas traffic stops." 

The analysis relies on the new racial profiling reports which came out March 1st, analyzing information for Texas police departments in cities with more than 50,000 people, and sheriffs in counties with more than 100,000. Here's the table from Appendix One of the report with the underlying data.

Readers will recall that new detail about Class-C arrests, use of force, and outcomes of searches were added to the report as part of the Sandra Bland Act passed in 2017. But the provision to restrict Class C arrests was removed before the law was passed. So HB 2754 amounts to unfinished business for those concerned about what happened to Sandra Bland.

Our findings: The practice of arresting drivers for Class C misdemeanors - not warrants, and not more serious offenses - is more widespread than portrayed by law enforcement. The 96 police and sheriffs in our sample arrested people nearly 23,000 times for Class-C misdemeanors last year, with the Texas Department of Public Safety accounting for nearly 5,000 more.

While the average arrest rate at traffic stops is low - a mere 66.7 per 10,000 stops - that's about one arrest out of every 150 traffic stops. And some agencies arrest people much more often. Waco PD stood out the most, arresting people at 451.4 times per 10,000 stops, or at just more than 4.5 percent of all traffic stops in 2018.

The new reporting also included data on how often police use injury-causing force at traffic stops. After Austin PD corrected its misreported data, Houston PD stood out with the highest rate of injury-causing force among the jurisdictions in our sample, at 53.2 incidents per 10,000 stops. That's about one out of every 188 drivers pulled over by HPD.

These data represent fewer than 100 law enforcement agencies, but more than 2,000 agencies must submit racial profiling reports because they perform traffic stops in come capacity. Agencies in our dataset represent the largest jurisdictions, but not all by a longshot. If we assume that these departments plus DPS represent 60 percent of traffic stops in the state, and that the average arrest rate for the other 40 percent is the same as in this sample, then Texas law enforcement agencies arrested more than 45,000 people at traffic stops statewide last year, the report estimated.

These higher-than-previously-understood estimates are corroborated by Texas Appleseed's recent analysis of jail bookings. Examining data from eleven (11) counties, they found more than 30,000 jail bookings where Class C misdemeanors (not warrants) were the highest charge. The difference between analyzing jail bookings and racial-profiling data is that jail bookings include Class C arrests which happened anywhere. The racial profiling reports Just Liberty analyzed only consider arrests made during traffic stops. 

Taken together, these analyses demonstrate that the overall number of Class C arrests is much higher than anyone ever imagined when this topic has been discussed in the past.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Roundup: Lawsuit alleges cronyism and corruption at DPS; murder indictment of Dallas cop no aberration under outgoing DA; informant testimony makes for messy innocence claims; Pam Colloff's favorite #cjreform podcasts, and other stories

Here are a few browser-clearing odds and ends of which Grits readers should be aware:

Dallas cop indicted for Botham Jean murder
In Dallas, former DPD Officer Amber Guyger has been indicted for murder in the shooting death of her unarmed neighbor, Botham Jean. You've got to hand it to outgoing Republican DA Faith Johnson: She's been more willing to charge officers in wrongful shooting episodes than any Democratic elected prosecutor in Texas, or for that matter, as she boasted in this 13-second clip from the campaign trail, any other District Attorney in the country:

Lawsuit: DPS suffers from 'cronyism,' 'corruption'
A federal lawsuit has been filed accusing the Texas DPS under Col. Steve McCraw of "a 'good old boy' culture of cronyism and outright corruption." See initial coverage from KXAN in Austin.

Corrections Committee Interim Report out
The TX House Corrections Committee has published its Interim Report. Topics studied included responses to Hurricane Harvey, the need for specialized programming for 17-25 year olds, flaws in the state jail system, and heat litigation. More on this soon after Grits has had a chance to read it thoroughly.

Creuzot looking forward to Dallas DA stint
D Magazine published an interesting interview with Dallas DA-elect John Creuzot, for those looking for clues as to how this party hopping fixture in Dallas justice politics might operate at the helm of the DA's office. See the October Reasonably Suspicious podcast for excerpts from a debate between Creuzot and his Republican-incumbent opponent, Faith Johnson; the full 1.5 hour debate is here. Note to Judge Creuzot and other incoming elected prosecutors: Consider hiring this guy for prosecutor trainings.

Forum promotes public defender option for Travis County
A public-defender office has been proposed for Travis County. Those interested should check out this recent community forum discussing the possibility. See prior, related Grits coverage.

TDCJ troubles lead to calls for independent oversight
At the Texas Tribune, see coverage of prospects for independent oversight at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in light of recent scandals, a rise in suicides, and gross understaffing at numerous rural units. House Corrections Chairman James White doesn't sound convinced.

Recanted witness, corrupt DEA agent won't sway Harris prosecutors on innocence claims
Especially in the context of the drug war, but also high-profile murders and violent crimes, the reliance of the justice system on self-interested testimony by confidential informants is one of the most significant causes of wrongful convictions. It's also among the hardest causes to prevent, and one for which the courts are loathe to provide redress. The Houston Chronicle's Keri Blakinger describes a case in which a DEA informant, who has since recanted his testimony, accused Lamar Burks of murdering someone at a dice game. But the Harris County Conviction Integrity Unit wouldn't budge. Now, one of the agents centrally involved with the investigation has been indicted in an unrelated case in New Orleans for perjury and falsifying evidence, evincing a similar fact pattern to what Burks' attorneys allege.

In The Dark shines light on amazing, terrible case
At Pam Colloff's recommendation, I've been listening to Season 2 of the podcast, In the Dark, focused on an apparent false conviction for a quadruple murder in Mississippi. This investigative tour de force is taking the form to new levels. Awesome work, as detailed in this Longform podcast interview about how the story was put together. When I interviewed her for the August episode of Reasonably Suspicious, Pam also recommended the second season of the Missing and Murdered podcast, and the podcast After Effect from WNYC, dissecting the aftermath of a tragic SWAT team raid. Just for fun, I excerpted her recommendations into a short, 2.5 minute clip, for anyone interested:

Sandra Bland documentary premiers on HBO Monday
Last, but definitely no least, on Monday, a documentary titled, "Say Her Name: The Life and Death of Sandra Bland," premieres on HBO. Grits simultaneously cannot wait to see it and dreads the broadcast. It's such a terrible, heart breaking story! Here's a review from the SA Express News, and the trailer:

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Texas yet to 'turn the page' on police reform, and other stories

Lets's clear out Grits' browser tabs with a quick roundup of stories about policing which deserve Grits readers' attention:

Texas hasn't 'turned the page' on police reform just yet
First, The Crime Report had an interview with Texas state representative and House County Affairs Committee Chairman Garnet Coleman on passage of the Sandra Bland Act. Coleman's comments were more measured, but the story included an unfortunate headline: "How Texas turned the page on police reform." To be clear: Texas has done no such thing. Coleman's bill mainly addressed mental health issues and mandated Texas cops receive deescalation training. But Texas' big police reform bill died on the vine this year, and the most important reform elements in Coleman's bill - eliminating arrests for most Class C offenses and mandating bail for non-dangerous misdemeanants - were removed before passage. The Sandra Bland Act was significant, positive legislation and Grits doesn't want to diminish its importance, but let's please slow our roll on the whole dusting off our hands, problem-solved meme.

Austin PD crime lab blues
The Austin Monitor has a pair of stories detailing problems at Austin PD's crime lab which forced the closure of its DNA section:
Will legalized long knives change how Texas cops deal with knife wielders?
Now that Texas has legalized people carrying knives and swords of any size, perhaps the issue of how quickly police shoot knife wielding suspects will be revisited.

Public reverence for cops undermined by shoot-first ethic
This essayist in Slate makes a good point, with an homage to Dallas News columnist Steve Blow, disputing the adage that the “No. 1 duty of a police officer [should be] to go home to his or her family at the end of the shift.” Here's the money quote the writer pulled from Blow's March 2015 column.
But there’s the crux of the matter. They have willingly taken a job that involves personal risk. It also requires split-second decision making that must go beyond simple self-preservation 
If going home safely becomes the overriding priority, that can become another way of saying, “Shoot first and ask questions later.”
This modern dicta of 21st century policing ultimately undermines the public's faith in law enforcement as surely as do unfounded criticisms of racism with which police officials are so much more deeply concerned. After all, as the Slate author concluded, "The reason we revere cops isn’t their dedication to protecting their own lives. It’s their dedication to protecting ours."

More disagreement among law enforcement than portrayed
The Heritage Foundation has published an odd "special report" purporting to summarize a convening they sponsored of various law enforcement officials. However, upon looking at the stakeholders' disparate remarks appended therein, Heritage oversold any notion of consensus, and in fact revealed significant disagreement among its (one-sided) array of stakeholders. According to Heritage, "police have had few allies," and "anti-police rhetoric has left Americans, particularly those living in low-income communities and minority communities, more at risk." But they overstated the consensus. E.g., the explanatory text under a headline which read, "Allegations of 'Systemic Racism' Are False and Harmful," actually read, "Some attendees agreed that the concept of broad 'systemic racism' in law enforcement is a damaging, false narrative that undermines public support for policing. Others felt it important to acknowledge and address past wrongs and prior grievances in order to improve race relations." That range of views hardly supports the subhed! Regardless, Heritage warned darkly that "long-term declines in crime rates ... are now being threatened by some of the developments discussed in this Special Report." This deserves a more thorough vetting than Grits has time to apply at the moment, but I wanted to flag the link.

Recent policing scholarship
Here are several academic articles on policing which are getting added to Grits' to-read stack:

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Odds and ends on a rain-drenched weekend

Here are a few odds and ends to keep Grits readers occupied on a rainy weekend:

Public Safety Commission to decide on JL petition in October
Here's an update on Just Liberty's petition to DPS for rulemaking on Class C misdemeanor arrests. The Houston Chronicle also had coverage. More than 5,100 Texans have sent emails to DPS Director Steve McCraw urging support for this proposal. Go here to join them.

DA: Police must improve before I'll work with them
The Aransas County Attorney won't accept more cases from the Rockville PD until its officers are better trained about deliberately withholding evidence. Good for her! That's a new one. "According to prosecutors, the Rockville officers needs to demonstrate a commitment to truthful reporting and to correcting problematic officer behavior."

Pew: Ban the box increases discrimination against black folk
One of our contributing writers, Amanda Woog, was a big supporter of ban-the-box proposals in Austin and elsewhere, but Grits personally remained more skeptical. This commentary from the Pew Charitable Trusts explains why: the policy heightens discrimination against black people, whether or not they have a criminal record, while mostly white folks benefit. Martin Luther King, Jr. looked forward to a day when people are judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character. BTB legislation asks employers to overlook evidence of people's character (past criminal acts), leaving them only the color of the applicant's skin as a marker for such concerns. The result is a worsened pattern of discrimination, according to the best available employment studies on the topic.

On the limits of legalizing running over protesters
The Texas state rep who filed a bill limiting criminal and civil liability for drivers who run over protesters wants to distinguish his bill from what happened in Charlottesville. His legislation would not protect an intentional murder, he insisted. But in truth, the bill was a political jab at liberal protesters and, whether the specifics would apply to the driver in Virginia, the intent was unquestionably to send a message to protesters blocking streets that they deserve to die and the government shouldn't protect them or care about their fate. Walking that back in the face of an actual such incident is understandable, but Rep. Pat Fallon doth protest too much.

Greg Kelley exonerated
In the end, Greg Kelley not only had to battle the government, which had falsely convicted him of sexually assaulting a 4-year old based on a shoddy investigation by Cedar Park PD, but his own trial attorney intervening in his case against his interests. Regardless, that lawyer was found ineffective and Kelley has been freed - prosecutors now say the evidence points to an alternative suspect. As an aside, Kelley was released thanks to a 2003 statute carried by Sen. John Whitmire to allow the Tulia drug sting defendants to get out on bail while they waited for their habeas corpus writs to clear the Court of Criminal Appeals. When that passed, we thought it would for the most part only affect those Tulia defendants, but it's become a prominent and important feature of many modern, Texas exonerations.

Prison evacuations
Several thousand TDCJ inmates housed in units along the Brazos River were evacuated because of flooding, something which is becoming more or less an annual event. I haven't seen significant reporting on what happened with inmates in county jails who were housed in the hurricane's path.

Bail industry ramping up against reforms
The bail reform lawsuit in Harris County and bail-reform legislation in New Jersey are the two biggest, bleeding-edge flashpoints for the fight to reduce poverty-based incarceration. In both instances, the bail industry has emerged as a powerful and well-funded, if increasingly isolated, belligerent. They're going to try to Willie-Horton these reforms to death, so it will be more important than ever that advocates continue making the public safety case for bail reform. People who want fewer murders should be on the reformers' side.

Violent crime limits economic prospects
Check out an intriguing story by CityLab about new research showing that living around violent crime limits children's economic prospects.

Time to test income and reentry
Providing an income to ex-offenders would reduce recidivism. The barriers to testing such a strategy on a broader scale are political, but as a practical matter, " It is past time that a government or nonprofit combined a minimally conditional cash transfer with traditional reentry interventions and hire an evaluator to assess the experiment’s impact. While a man exiting prison today might receive job training and see a clinician for mental health needs, an additional cash transfer could enable him to secure a place to live, a mass transit fare, and groceries for his family. Cash—or a restricted, EBT-styled debit card—would provide for immediate needs and ease the stressful reentry process."

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Texas GOP backs Just Liberty petition for DPS rules improvements

The Republican Party of Texas yesterday published a Facebook post in support of Just Liberty's petition to the Texas Department of Public Safety, joining a bipartisan list of 16 groups backing proposed rules to limit arrests for Class C misdemeanors, infractions for which the maximum possible punishment is only a fine.

The measure being suggested to the Public Safety Commission (PSC) essentially implements a specific line item in the Republican Party platform to disallow such arrests except in instances of domestic violence. Under its new leadership, the Texas GOP has been more aggressive, beginning during the most recent special session, in actively promoting its platform policies in the political arena and encouraging GOP pols to adhere to them. So this endorsement continues that new pattern.

Sandra Bland's mother, who prominently campaigned for Hillary Clinton in last year's presidential campaign, is one of the signators on the Just Liberty petition. So the endorsement of the Texas GOP makes this a true, bipartisan affair - a zebra, nearly a unicorn, in the fractious and disjointed world of 21st century politics. Goes to show that it's possible to find bipartisan agreement if the goal is good policy instead of only scoring campaign points.

Just Liberty has been told by the DPS General Counsel's office that members of the PSC will be briefed on the proposal in executive session, so the only opportunity to address commissioners will be during the generic public-comment section at the beginning of the meeting.

As of this writing, nearly 4,500 Texans have sent emails to DPS Director Steve McCraw through Just Liberty's grassroots systems. (Go here to join them.) So the issue has hit a nerve and drawn remarkable bipartisan support, of which the backing of the Republican Party of Texas is the most prominent and notable example yet.

How exciting! Even though it didn't pass, you could tell at the Legislature this suggestion had uncommon legs and significant appeal across party lines. These developments continue to foster that impression. This is a change lots of people believe needs to happen regardless of political party.

MORE: See an update from the meeting and Houston Chronicle coverage.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Just Liberty post-session roundup podcast

Here's the latest Just Liberty podcast - this time reviewing criminal-justice reform legislation from the 85th Texas Legislature - featuring your correspondent and Texas Defender Service Executive Director Amanda Marzullo. Find a transcript of our conversation below the jump.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

A #SandraBlandAct that omits the #SandraBland story?

Our pal Fatima Mann has an essay at Tribtalk on the Sandra Bland Act (SB 1849), coming to grips with the reality that the bill "does not speak to the case of Sandra Bland" after the Texas Senate defenestrated provisions restricting arrests for non-jailable offenses. Give it a read.

Despite the notable omission of ignoring the key issues in the Sandra Bland tragedy, the bill has some good stuff in it. Indeed, if not for the heightened expectations created by attaching Bland's name to it, it would be hailed as more significant than it seems now in the context of her terrible case. Among the bill's remaining provisions:
  • Law enforcement "shall" make a "good faith effort to divert" suspects in mental health crisis or suffering from the effects of substance abuse to a treatment center.
  • Authorizes "community collaboratives" to seek grant-funded opportunities to provide services to homeless people, substance abusers, and the mentally ill.
  • Requires the Commission on Jail Standards to create rules on medication continuity requiring jail inmates' prescriptions to be reviewed by a qualified medical professional upon intake.
  • Requires TCJS to order an independent investigation by an outside law enforcement agency whenever someone dies in a Texas jail. (Between 2005 and 2015, Texas averaged 101 jail deaths per year, with a low of 83 and a high of 126, according to the Texas Justice Initiative.)
  • Orders TCJS to create a new examination for jail administrators.
  • Requires law enforcement officers to receive 40 hours of de-escalation training (some of which is great and some of which is apologia - will require oversight) and jailers must receive eight hours of mental health training.
  • Updates racial profiling data collection to include "warnings," whether physical force was used, and report whether contraband was discovered during roadside searches. (New data collection begins in 2018.)
One quibble: Grits would rather TCJS be given investigators to review the ~101 jail deaths per year themselves instead of appointing another law enforcement agency. Other local agencies won't typically have experience performing investigations in a correctional institution, which is a different kettle of fish from investigations in the free world. The reason they did it this way is to avoid a "fiscal note," but this may be something to revisit down the line when there's more black ink in the budget.

But in all, these are significant changes. Some of them, like the improvements to racial profiling data collection, have been sought unsuccessfully by advocates for many years. This explains why Ms. Mann adopted a glass-half-full attitude in assessing why this eponymic bill is worthy of support, even without addressing the issues which caused the death of its namesake:
Although the final version of the legislation, Senate Bill 1849, may not speak to Sandra’s death, it embodies her life of wanting to make a difference for people of African ancestry. She posted videos of herself speaking on issues people of the African diaspora faced in the United States. She recorded and posted herself speaking on the need for implementing policies that protect people in the community. Sandy used her voice to speak on the need for systemic change. ... 
The final version of this legislation embodies the spirit of Sandy’s life and the work she did to improve the community. Even though the bill does not address how she died, it does embody how she lived. She did not die because she had a mental health issue, she died because she should have never been detained for committing a non-jailable offense. 
Sandy spoke into her life that she would change the world. Her words inspired a bill that will create sustainable change.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Police accountability bills bottled up by House leadership, and other stories

Here are a few odds and ends that merit Grits readers attention while mine is focused elsewhere:

Tragic shooting colors legislative debates
A Balch Springs cop who shot a fleeing 15-year old with a rifle has been fired from his job and faces murder charges. See the Dallas Morning News coverage. This news spurred the black caucus in the Texas Legislature to issue a stern complaint that none of the important police accountability legislation proposed this session has received a vote on the House floor. Their frustration surely contributed in part to the death of HB 2050, which expanded secrecy provisions related to police misconduct cases.

Sandra Bland Act gutted in senate
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee this week passed out a radically stripped down version of the Sandra Bland Act, but quite frankly it's hard to get too excited about the minimalist items left in the bill. Wrote the Texas Tribune's Jonathan Silver:
Whitmire's version most notably removes language that would ban arresting people for offenses that generally only have fines as a punishment. Earlier versions of the bill also tried to make it easier for nonviolent people in jail to receive personal bonds. Whitmire said fine-only offenses would be addressed in a separate bill, as the Sandra Bland Act is "primarily a mental health, accountability" bill.
The problem with that bit of reportage is that the "separate bill" was SB 271, which had earlier that day appeared on the same agenda with the Sandra Bland Act. But Chairman Whitmire pulled that bill off the agenda hours before the hearing, much to the consternation of the bill author and supporters who believed they had sufficient bipartisan support to pass it out of committee. So Whitmire was pledging to address a problem in a bill which he had already killed just hours before. SB 271's companion, HB 574, is in the Calendars Committee and has yet to be posted for a floor vote. Unless leadership adds the bill to a Major State calendar, it's probably too late for it to be heard.

Remembering (the real) Sandra Bland
Meanwhile, as Grits has pointed out before, it's a bit anomalous to pass a "mental health accountability" bill in response to the Sandra Bland story because she was not, in fact, mentally ill.

Pensions and bill killing
Governing magazine has a nice feature on Houston billionaire John Arnold's efforts to reform public-employee pension plans. Meanwhile, the House debate over Houston pensions ramps up Monday, and every minute it goes on, legislation on the other side of that bill on the calendar dies. The lower chamber, which yesterday ended their workday at 3 p.m., has mapped out a leisurely, care-free stroll toward the Thursday deadline for the House to consider House Bills, not the frenzied pace of work one would expect as hundreds of bills approach a very final deadline. At this point, the House doesn't seem to have much appetite for passing any more legislation and everybody just seems to want it to be over.

Who can settle Harris County bail litigation?
A newly elected Democratic District Judge in Houston has asked the commissioners court whether he can settle with plaintiffs in civil rights litigation against the county's money-based bail system. The commissioners courrt replied that they don't control whether or not he settles, but his lawyer was appointed from the county attorney's office and told the judge she could not settle without permission from higher ups. It's an interesting question: If individual judges start to settle, how long can the county's oppositional approach remain viable?

Of trees, ropes, race, judges and capital punishment
A decidedly un-woke judge faces retraining for lynching suggestion.

Coda to Willingham saga: Did prosecutor commit misconduct?
Jordan Smith at the Intercept has a story from a trial in Corsicana to determine whether the prosecutor in the Todd Willingham case engaged in misconduct when he concealed a deal with a jailhouse snitch who testified against the defendant.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Paltry Grits posting rate masks busy time at #txlege

For readers disappointed with the paltry recent posting rate here on Grits, I should mention that most of my writing these days is happening on Just Liberty emails and action alerts. If you haven't signed on to our advocacy list, please do so. Otherwise, here are a few odds and ends which merit readers' attention.

Good Samaritan bill up in House committee
Rep. Ryan Guillen's Good Samaritan legislation (HB 73) is up on Monday in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, but the biggest threat to its passage remains uncertainty about Gov. Abbott, who vetoed the bill last year and is now moving the goal posts regarding his concerns. This is a major public health concern. Overdose deaths are now twice as common in Texas as murders. Go here if you'd like to send a message to Gov. Abbott asking him to support Texas' Good Samaritan legislation.

Debtors prisons and deconstruction of the administrative state
On the same Criminal Jurisprudence agenda Monday, Rep. James White has a great little bill, HB 3279, limiting various debtors-prison practices. Hope to see this one get some traction. Anyone truly concerned with "deconstruction of the administrative state" will want to begin here. See a fact sheet on the bill from Texas Appleseed and the Texas Fair Defense Project.

Sandra Bland Act, DRP, up on Tuesday
Big day in the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee Tuesday morning, with the Sandra Bland Act (HB 2702) and the most likely vehicle for Driver Responsibility Program repeal (HB 2068) both on the committee's agenda.

Halted execution implicates pair of capital bills
The Court of Criminal Appeals halted Paul Storey's execution last week in a move which implicates a couple of pieces of pending legislation. Prosecutors told the jury in the death-penalty phase of Storey's case that the victim's family wanted the death penalty, which turned out not to be true. Jurors were given faulty jury instructions which HB 3054 by Herrero/Smithee aims to fix. That bill was heard last week in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and may get a vote as early as Monday. Meanwhile, the remaining issues in Storey's case reportedly regard whether Storey's appeals attorney could have reasonably discovered the true feelings of the victim's family about the death penalty. In other words, once again the quality of direct capital appeals are being called into question, which brings us to Corrections Committee Chairman James White's HB 1676 creating a new capital public defender for direct appeals (it'll need a catchier name than that). Maybe it'll turn out Storey's attorney couldn't have known the family's views, or maybe he just didn't ask them. But minimalist investigation and slipshod work product on direct appeal, along with cost effectiveness, are exactly the recurring problems that prompted the East Texas Republican to propose this new office. The appellate process should have vetted these subjects long before now. Storey's case could be a poster child for why these bills are needed.

When innocent SWAT raid victims defend themselves
A Corpus Christi man has sued the police department after a wrong-house SWAT raid in which he shot three officers. He was jailed for two years before being acquitted by a jury. Noted the Caller Times' Krista Torralva, "Police use of no-knock raids have recently come under public scrutiny and Rosas’ case has been included in national conversations. The Washington Post and New York Times wrote about Rosas’ case after his acquittal."

The End of Local Laws
Governing magazine says Gov. Greg Abbott wants to end local laws.

Richard Dreyfuss on Kerry Cook
Actor Richard Dreyfuss discusses Kerry Max Cook with Texas Monthly's Michael Hall. Grits couldn't agree more with Dreyfuss' answer to Mike's final question.

You gotta start somewhere
The Texas Tribune has published a couple of good primers on testifying at the capitol and making your voice heard by lawmakers. Nicely done.

Progress, slow but broad
While some folks understandably express impatience at the slow pace of criminal justice reform, it's easy to underestimate how difficult it was just to stop the upward trajectory of mass incarceration and begin to turn the curve downward. Pew's Adam Gelb describes the baby-step progress made on that front at the state level.

Friday, March 03, 2017

'Sandra Bland Act' filed (updated)

Rep. Garnet Coleman unveiled his long-awaited "Sandra Bland Act" (HB 2702) yesterday at a press conference outside the Texas Supreme Court building. (I'd tweeted out a few photos of the event for Just Liberty.) See a summary of the bill's contents and initial MSM coverage:
Between this legislation and Rep. Senfronia Thompson's HB 2044, the two most significant police accountability proposals in the 21st century have been suggested this session.

MORE: It should probably be mentioned that the "Sandra Bland Act" includes reforms which don't derive specifically from her story. For example, reported the Texas Tribune, "Substance abuse would be added to the list of treatment services eligible for Department of State Health Services grant money that already supports public and private sector efforts to tackle homelessness and mental illness locally." But Sandra Bland wasn't intoxicated and didn't need drug treatment.

Similarly, "Counties would be required to develop a plan for how local mental health authorities, law enforcement groups and other community organizations will work with people experiencing homelessness, mental health crises and/or substance abuse." But there's no evidence Sandra Bland was mentally ill and her friends and family say it isn't true.

And while Grits wholeheartedly agrees that police should "make a 'good-faith effort' to divert people to treatment — instead of arresting them — if they are experiencing a mental crisis or substance abuse," that's not what was going on when Sandra Bland was arrested. There also wasn't any mental-health medication she was supposed to be taking that she didn't get, though under the bill, counties must "ensure inmates continue to receive medication they would be taking if they weren't in jail."

I support all these things, but they don't have anything to do with why Sandra Bland was arrested, incarcerated, or died in jail. It's not why her story has become a national touchstone, told and retold countless times both IRL and online, nor why activists insist people #SayHerName.

Other elements of the bill are more directly on point with Bland's story. Eliminating arrests for non-jailable offenses would have prevented the episode from ever launching in the first place; if that were the law, she'd have finished her cigarette, been given a ticket, and gone on her way, grumpy but alive.

This to me is the heart of what makes this the "Sandra Bland" Act, and it's an issue other bills have addressed as well. The reason Bland's name is known is the roadside video of her and Trooper Brian Encina. And what people saw on the video was a state trooper who expected Bland to defer and kowtow to his every whim, a woman in no mood to take crap from him, and an arrest made to punish her insolence more than to protect the public. That such an arrogant abuse of power resulted in her death is the crux of why Sandra Bland's name and image have become international icons.

Other parts of the bill also draw directly from her story. The presumption that nonviolent misdemeanor defendants will receive personal bonds unless a magistrate finds "good cause" for detention would have likely ensured she didn't spend the weekend in jail for want of $500. Requirements for deescalation training are on point, as is creation of a "County Inmate Safety Fund to help fund reforms for county jails that have inmate populations of 96 or fewer."

Grits strongly supports Coleman's bill, which includes many elements that seriously need to change. But it's not all about Sandra Bland. Indeed, it never was.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Banning arrests for Class Cs, giving drivers notice, would improve traffic-stop culture

My favorite part about SB 271 by Sen. Konni Burton, and its companion, HB 567 by Rep. James White: Not only does the bill ban arrests for non-jailable offenses, preventing episodes like Sandra Bland's tragic arrest for failure to signal a lane change, the text includes this provision requiring police officers to inform motorists of that fact:
(a) An officer who stops a motor vehicle as a result of a person's alleged commission of a misdemeanor under this subtitle that is punishable by a fine only shall promptly notify the person that:
(1) the alleged offense is a misdemeanor under this subtitle that is punishable by a fine only; and 
(2) the officer may not arrest a person solely on the basis of that offense.
(b) The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement by rule shall specify the language that is required to be included in the notification described by Subsection (a).
That will significantly alter the culture of and interactions at traffic stops between police and motorists, foregrounding motorists' rights in their conversation as opposed to only the officers' prerogative, and letting the driver know what to expect. At present, officers in many departments are trained to do the opposite: Pepper drivers with disconcerting personal questions trying to find a reason to search or arrest them. But if drivers know what they're being stopped for and that it will not result in their arrest, that will lower tensions at traffic stops and make the situation more predictable and manageable for all parties.