Border DAs Back Amped-Up Prosecution Unit

The final piece of a high-profile border security package got moving Tuesday when a House committee heard House Bill 12 by state Rep. Oscar Longoria, which would elevate the state's Border Prosecution Unit into an official statutory being.

A Texas Parks and Wildlife warden patrols the Rio Grande in July, 2014.

Dope smugglers are smart enough to know when and where local prosecutors have the resources to go after them, especially in rural areas. That’s just one of the reasons district attorneys in counties along the Texas-Mexico border say they are backing a bill that would take an existing consolidated border prosecution agency and turn it into an official state unit.

House Bill 12, by state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, would put into statute the structure and duties of the state’s current Border Prosecution Unit, which was formed in 2010 after the Legislature appropriated $2 million per year to help border district attorneys handle swelling caseloads. It is made up of 17 jurisdictions including all of the counties on the border and their surrounding areas.

In its current form, an assistant district attorney from each DAs office is assigned to handle the additional prosecutions of border crimes — smuggling, violent crimes, money laundering and gang activity associated with cartels. State grants pay for the unit, which works with the Texas Department of Public Safety and local law enforcement to investigate and prosecute cases. 

Longoria’s proposal would codify the unit’s practices and fine-tune some of its policies, including how its members elect a governing board and who has prosecuting powers in each county. It was heard before the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.

“[The bill] establishes what the unit does, how it encompasses DPS and local law enforcement, local district attorneys, within the 17 jurisdictions that they serve,” he said. “This puts more rules and protocol on how each” region operates.

Former Republican state Rep. Jose Aliseda, now district attorney for Bee, McMullen and Live Oak counties, said the bill would expand his office’s ability to prosecute people federal agencies can’t because the alleged crimes don’t qualify as federal violations.

“They figure out how to do things in small quantities and still make money,” he said. “We’re getting smugglers, we’re getting drugs, we’re getting establishments like eight-liner [gambling parlors] that are putting up cartel money to launder their money.”

The measure would give smaller, rural counties more money, and spotlight challenges they face, he said. “[Larger counties] got hundreds of prosecutors on staff; we’ve got three. And you can see that [smugglers] can figure out they can put outposts in the rural areas and get away with it.”

The measure is one of three high-profile border security bills introduced by House leadership this month. The trio also includes HB 10, by state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, which addresses human trafficking, and HB 11 by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, a sweeping measure that seeks to beef up the DPS presence on the border and study the feasibility of southbound checkpoints. Both those measures have been voted out of the Texas House. Longoria’s proposal was left pending in committee, but will likely be voted out soon because the issue is considered a priority item by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Longoria said he wanted to investigate adding more gambling offenses to the bill’s list of border crimes.

“I am a firm believer that a lot of these gambling establishments are there for the mere fact of money laundering,” he said.