When the House committee appointments came out last week, lawmakers found that there was a new committee, which came as a surprise even to its appointed members. House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, had designated a House Select Committee on Criminal Procedure Reform.
The Code of Criminal Procedure governs criminal law in Texas and includes statutes on arrests, warrants, trials and appeals. First written in 1856, it was revised in its entirety in 1965. Numerous groups, including prosecutors and defense lawyers, agree the code could be better organized, and they say it will be a massive job.
“It’s behind my desk now,” Allen Place, a senior lobbyist with the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said of the code. “Eight or nine big volumes. It’s lengthy.”
“This vital statute has not been rewritten since 1965,” reads Straus' proclamation accompanying the appointments. “As a result, it has become overcrowded, disorganized, and difficult to navigate, such that there is a pressing need to consider rewriting and reorganizing it.”
Place added that legislators started looking at revisions in 1961, and it took four years and two sessions to pass those revisions through the Legislature. Every two years since then, the code as been amended, leading to what both prosecutors and defense lawyers say can be a confusing document.
The committee, chaired by Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, is tasked with making recommendations on revising and reorganizing the code. Other committee members include Reps. Stefani Carter, R-Dallas; Abel Herrero, D-Robstown; Joe Moody, D-El Paso; and Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound.
Riddle said she did not know why she was appointed as chairwoman of the committee. “I was caught by surprise,” she said, adding that she was "grateful and quite honored." Herrero said he too is excited to be involved, but did not know about the committee until he was officially a member.
Riddle said that she expects the process of rewriting and reorganizing the code to take two years.
“I think it'll be a good makeup of people who care vastly about criminal procedure,” added Carter, a former prosecutor.
In 1996, then-Gov. George W. Bush appointed a committee to rewrite the code, which included judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers. The bill carrying the changes, SB 1608, was filed in 1997 but was never heard in committee. “That effort died for lack of interest among legislators,” says an internal update to the Texas District and Country Attorneys Association on legislative action. According to the update, the organization was not approached before the current committee was appointed, but is eager to be involved.
The Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association confirmed that it was not approached, either, and will be ready to work on the project.
This time around, the senators usually involved in criminal justice reform did not know about the House committee until the announcement came out. “I don't think anyone on the Senate side knew about it at all,” said state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, a former judge and prosecutor. “I think it would require all the stakeholders' input. I'm sure the Senate would like to weigh in.”
“That's strictly House internal politics,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. “This ain’t in my top 200 things to worry about.”