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Texas Legislature 2019

A measure to limit arrests for non-jailable offenses passed the House after a great struggle. It still died.

Behind closed doors, a joint Senate and House committee killed a measure that would require police officers to explain why they arrest someone for fine-only offenses, otherwise the case would be dismissed. Criminal justice reform advocates considered the issue a priority following the arrest of Sandra Bland.

State Troopers stop civilian on Congress Ave. in Austin, TX on Feb. 12, 2016.

Texas Legislature 2019

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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A committee of Texas lawmakers from both chambers killed a measure Saturday that would let judges dismiss low-level crimes if police officers didn't explain why they arrested someone for an offense that is punishable only by a fine, such as a traffic ticket.

“Pretty much, we just couldn’t get any buy in from our Senate colleagues on this,” said state Rep. James White, R-Hillister, one of the members of the bicameral committee and author of a House bill that sought to limit arrests for such crimes, which ultimately failed after a long back-and-forth.

After the fate of White's bill was decided, state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, added a more limited version of the provision as an amendment to Senate Bill 815, which was a fairly uncontroversial bill relating to the preservation of criminal records. The House approved the bill, with Moody’s amendment about Class C misdemeanor arrests, in an 81 to 52 vote. But the Senate didn't approve the change, and Moody's amendment was taken out of the bill in a compromise report proposed by a group of lawmakers from both chambers.

Moody partly blamed the amendment's downfall on the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas – one of the top police unions in the state – who he said "stabbed me in the back and waged an outrageous campaign of outright lies and character assassination." He added that "pressure from the top down" in the Senate ultimately killed the bill.

The bill, without the amendment, will go before the House and Senate for final approval Sunday before the session ends Monday.

It marks another failure for criminal justice reform advocates who worked to pass legislation this session that would limit arrests for fine-only offenses. They considered the issue a missing piece of reform following the arrest of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who was found dead by suicide in her county jail cell three days after she was arrested during a routine traffic stop. She was charged with assaulting a public servant, 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.

Moody’s amendment, reform advocates said, was a “baby step” in their ultimate goal of restricting arrests during fine-only offenses. People cannot be sentenced to jail time for such offenses, so advocates argue that someone should not have to sit in jail before they’re convicted. Both the 2018 Republican and Democratic platforms have called to end the practice.

However, police unions like CLEAT lambasted Moody’s amendment because they say it would limit, or at least discourage, officers from arresting people in dangerous situations. Such arrests are rare, they say, but officers sometimes must use them to keep the public safe. Donald Baker, secretary of the Austin Police Association, asserted that more serious cases — like groping or voyeurism — may require an arrest.

“If you had somebody outside your window … you don’t want the officer to show up, sign citation, and then leave,” Baker said.

Criminal justice reform advocates, including Moody, have said that police unions spread misinformation about the amendment since its passage. The bill did not actually limit a police officer’s ability to arrest someone, Moody said. If there was a safety concern, like in a voyeurism case, he said the officer could still arrest the person — they would just have to say why they did so.

Moody added that in the negotiations process, he suggested changing the amendment so it would just apply to traffic tickets. But he said CLEAT would still not sign on.

CLEAT did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Jolie McCullough contributed to this story.

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