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Despite Bland family's complaints, House unlikely to beef up Sandra Bland Act

The House sponsor of the Senate's Sandra Bland Act won't try to change the bill's language, after key provisions were taken out in the upper chamber.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, announces the Sandra Bland Act at a press conference at the Capitol on March 2, 2017. Those looking on behind him include state Reps. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, and Eric Johnson, D-Dallas.

After hopes that House lawmakers would add more language on police interactions to the Sandra Bland Act, the bill's sponsor said Tuesday that if it reaches the chamber's floor, he would aim to keep it unchanged from the whittled-down form that passed the Senate last week.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat, told the Tribune that the Sandra Bland Act is too sensitive a bill to sustain amendments.

Bland’s family has expressed disappointment in the version of the bill the Senate passed Thursday, calling it a missed opportunity because it didn’t address arrests. An earlier version of Senate Bill 1849 added more rules for how police conduct consent searches, mandated officers received training on understanding implicit biases and prohibited arrests for offenses that normally only warrant a ticket. Law enforcement groups pushed back hard on such provisions, and the House committee that considered Coleman's version of the bill earlier in the legislative session lacked the votes to advance the measure.

Conversely, SB 1849 sailed through the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, without language barring arrests on “fine-only” offenses, then passed the full chamber unanimously after most other law enforcement language was removed. Now, that bill is in the House.

“I believe this bill is too fragile to toss up in the air a lot,” said Coleman. “We might miss it, and it might die.”

Coleman filed the Sandra Bland Act in honor of Bland, a 28-year-old black woman from Illinois, who was found dead in the Waller County jail days after her arrest during a routine traffic stop. The arrest followed a lengthy argument between Bland and then-Department of Public Safety Trooper Brian Encinia.

Bland failed to signal a lane change. The conversation soon became heated after Bland wouldn't put out her cigarette or step out of her car as ordered. She was charged later with assaulting a public servant, but dash camera footage does not depict an attack.

Critics — Bland's family, lawmakers, law enforcement officers and activists — decried the tone of the traffic stop and the conditions of the rural jail.

The Senate bill would mandate that county jails divert people with mental health and substance abuse issues toward treatment, make it easier for defendants with a mental illness or intellectual disability to receive a personal bond and require that independent law enforcement agencies investigate jail deaths.

Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire struck several provisions from the original bill amid criticism from police groups that it would hamper law enforcement's work, including adding extra steps to legally secure a consent search.

Coleman said there may be other efforts to revive some stuck language by adding them to other bills still moving through the Legislature in the final weeks of the session.

“I just prefer not on this bill,” he said.

The fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teen near Dallas last month has reignited discussion surrounding potential legislation on police interactions. The Texas Legislative Black Caucus publicly called for state leaders to help pass laws to improve encounters and increase accountability. In a statement, House Speaker Joe Straus invited conversation on the issues, and spokesman Jason Embry said Tuesday that Straus has been working closely with caucus members on the Bland bill.

After receiving the bill from the Senate, Straus sent it to the chamber’s Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Monday afternoon, a different committee than the one that heard Coleman’s version. The speaker picked the “committee where its chances of passage would be highest,” Embry told the Tribune.

The tactic worked — SB 1849 passed out of committee at breakneck speed on Monday. After being referred to committee around mid-afternoon, state Rep. Joe Moody, chairman of the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, added the bill to that evening’s meeting and passed it out on a 4-3 vote at around 6:30 p.m. State Rep. Todd Hunter was the lone Republican who joined the committee’s three Democrats in voting for the bill.

“When you get to the end of session and you’re trying to get legislation to the finish line, every single hour that you delay can be the death of the bill, especially now. We have deadlines that are looming in the very near future,” Moody, an El Paso Democrat, told the Tribune after the vote.

Now, the bill will be sent to the House Calendar’s Committee, which has until Sunday to refer it to the full House for consideration.

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Courts Criminal justice 85th Legislative Session Sandra Bland