Texas Legislature 2019

Advocates say a Texas House bill could prevent arrests like Sandra Bland's, but multiple attempts to pass it failed

A measure to limit arrests for misdemeanors that only result in fines initially got House approval. Then it failed on a subsequent vote amid what some say was confusion over what the bill would do. Lawmakers tried to revive it Friday evening — after several lawmakers had left the chamber — but that attempt also failed.

Sandra Bland.
Sandra Bland.  Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

The 86th Legislature runs from Jan. 8 to May 27. From the state budget to health care to education policy — and the politics behind it all — we focus on what Texans need to know about the biennial legislative session.

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Criminal justice advocates have been pushing for years to pass a bill that they say could have prevented the arrest of Sandra Bland, who was found dead in a Texas county jail cell after a routine traffic stop.

But a measure that would have limited the misdemeanor offenses for which someone can be arrested — including traffic infractions that are only punishable by fines — appeared dead this week in the Texas House, after an attempt to revive it on Friday failed.

Bolstered by Supreme Court precedent from decades ago, Texas cops can legally arrest people for misdemeanors that are punishable with only a fine, like most traffic violations. House Bill 2754 would limit that practice, so cops could only arrest people for specific fine-only misdemeanors including public intoxication, assault or voyeurism.

In July 2015, a Texas state trooper stopped Bland, a 28-year-old black woman from Illinois, for not using her turn signal when changing lanes while she was driving in Prairie View. Their conversation became heated after she refused to put out her cigarette, and the trooper then threatened to drag her out of her car and tase her. She was charged with assaulting a public servant. Three days after the stop, she died by suicide in the Waller County Jail. But dashboard camera footage did not depict her assaulting the trooper, who was later fired and indicted for perjury. That charge was dropped after he agreed to give up his license and never work as an officer again.

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Her family has called to reopen the case after cellphone footage of the arrest, recorded by Bland, surfaced earlier this week. The video depicted the trooper shouting, "Get out of the car, I will light you up" as he pointed a stun gun at her.

“If this bill was in statute today, what happened to that young lady probably wouldn’t have happened,” said state Rep. James White, the bill’s author.

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The bill cleared the lower chamber late Wednesday, but it was revisited later that night — and Democratic representatives successfully blocked the bill's passage. Criminal justice reform advocates say the representatives were "confused" about what the members were voting on, but some of the representatives said the bill's language was too broad.

"The bill had language in it that actually was the opposite of what the bill was supposed to accomplish," said Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, on Twitter. "The broad catchall allowed the officer to arrest regardless anytime he 'believes' you might not come to court."

"Sandra Bland would’ve still been arrested with that language," she added.

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White, a Hillister Republican, wanted the bill reconsidered on Wednesday so he could withdraw a provision that worried some Democrats. The amendment, favored by a law enforcement group, would’ve allowed officers to arrest someone if they couldn't provide appropriate identification, a practice that White and criminal justice reformers said is acceptable under current law.

Democratic representatives like Thierry railed against the measure because of the exceptions it provided for law enforcement officers, who could arrest someone if they had a reason to believe the offender wouldn’t show up in court or would cause a “clear and immediate danger” to themselves or others. The bill would also require law enforcement agencies to make a written policy for how they issue citations for misdemeanors that are only punishable by fine — and such policies must include a process to verify the person’s identity.

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“This represents a complete departure from where the law is today,” said Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston.

But criminal justice reform advocates felt that some Democratic representatives had misunderstood the bill. They said many of the provisions that the representatives rebuked are already legal, and while the bill didn’t ban all arrests for fine-only offenses, they believe it would be a huge improvement compared to current practice.

“It wasn’t expanding police power at all — it was only limiting it," said Scott Henson, the policy director for criminal justice reform group Just Liberty.

Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, tried to revive the bill on Friday and add an amendment to remove "nebulous language" that concerned Democratic colleagues. His motion to suspend the rules so the bill could be reconsidered initially seemed to pass — until members' votes were verified. His attempt actually failed in a 70-37 vote that didn't meet the two-thirds threshold needed to reconsider the bill. Several representatives who were initially recorded as voting were not actually present in the chamber Friday evening.

Coleman said he asked House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, earlier in the day to recognize him to make the motion, but Bonnen did not do so until the end of the day, after many of the legislators had already left.

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"This is how you kill a bill without looking like you did it," said Coleman. "I can’t say he said 'kill it,’ but he made it harder to pass."

Bonnen denied that he played a role in the latest failure to pass the bill and said he has no position on its policy.

Bonnen said in a statement on Saturday that he never discussed the timing of Coleman's motion. He also said it was unclear why Coleman didn't try to reconsider the matter a day before. House proceedings were paused for several minutes to give Coleman a chance to revisit the bill on Thursday morning — when a simple majority of representatives would have been enough for the matter to be reconsidered — but Coleman didn't take the opportunity.

“My goal from day one of my Speakership has been to apply the adopted Rules of the House in a fair and impartial manner — which is exactly what was done with regard to this matter," Bonnen said.

Coleman said he did not make the motion on Thursday morning — when chamber rules required a lower threshold — because White, one of HB 2754's authors, disapproved at the time. White said he didn’t want to take lawmakers' focus off of other legislation. Scores of other bills were hours away from a key deadline Thursday to get House approval before the end of the legislative session.

Criminal justice advocates say that police unions, like the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, may have contributed to the bill's downfall by pushing for "poison pill" amendments and urging legislators to vote against it. While advocates say HB 2754 is dead, there may be other ways to advance the measure this session like tacking it on as an amendment to another bill.

"We’re not finished with this thing yet," White said. "We got some other plays out there."

Both the 2018 Texas Democratic and Republican party platforms called to end jail time for these fine-only offenses. Criminal justice reformers have railed against the practice as an unfair and costly waste of time. However, law enforcement officials have said arrests for fine-only misdemeanors are rare, and they argue that such arrests are an important tool to maintain public safety.

In 2017, criminal justice reformers pushed to pass the Sandra Bland Act that required police departments to report arrests for Class C misdemeanors, which are offenses that are only punishable with a fine. This new data, analyzed by Just Liberty, revealed that there were nearly 23,000 arrests for Class C misdemeanors last year in a sample of large cities and counties. A similar report found that in 11 Texas counties —which represent 38% of the state population — more than 30,000 people were booked into jails for such offenses.

State Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, filed a similar bill in the upper chamber, but the bill still hasn’t received a hearing with less than three weeks until the end of session.