Today, let’s do a post-mortem on important legislation concerning whether you can be arrested and hauled to jail for a traffic ticket or other minor offense.
It was an effort that had among the oddest rides of the legislative session that ended Monday. The fate of this legislation wasn’t decided until Sunday evening, the last day it could have been handled. And it died as a direct result of a heated-rhetoric battle between lawmakers and law enforcers.
Space limitations prohibit me from detailing here the up-and-down ride of this topic during the 140 days of lawmaking. I’ve detailed it in previous columns, including the bipartisan agreement that there’s a problem here that needs to be addressed.
Class C misdemeanors are the lowest offenses. They include traffic tickets. You cannot serve jail time for a Class C misdemeanor conviction. But you can serve jail time if arrested for a Class C misdemeanor offense. The numbers show 4.6 million annual stops for Class C misdemeanors in Texas. About 23,000 result in arrests.
State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, mounted a session-long effort to place limits on those arrests. His final effort, temporarily successful, came as an amendment on a far less consequential bill concerning criminal case record keeping. The amendment, approved by the House, said in cases with an arrest for an offense punishable by fine only, the case would be dismissed unless the arresting officer can show the arrest was necessary because of “a clear and present danger to public safety.” It also would allow the arrest of people who refuse to sign a citation promising to pay the fine or show up in court.
In winning House OK of the amendment, Moody mentioned Sandra Bland, whose 2015 death in a Waller County jail was ruled a suicide. She was jailed after being stopped for failure to signal a lane change, a Class C misdemeanor.
“Whatever we think of how everyone involved in that case behaved,” Moody told the House, “the fact is that Sandra Bland would be alive today if the system hadn’t allowed her ticket to become an arrest.”
The amendment won approval over objections from Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, who’s a former Fort Worth cop. King acknowledged there are “way, way, way too many people sitting in jails today on Class C misdemeanors” but said Moody’s amendment was an overreach and that the “vast, vast, vast majority” of those people were arrested for unpaid traffic fines. King suggested lowering the cost of traffic tickets.
He also said “there are just times people need to go to jail” because they could be a danger to themselves or others.
The Moody amendment, which does not bar such arrests, went on the bill and the Senate rejected it. The amendment was removed by the House and Senate conferees. On Saturday, the Senate, with no discussion, unanimously approved the conference committee report without the Moody amendment.
When the bill hit the House floor Sunday evening, there was plenty of discussion, much of it targeting the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, which fought Moody all session.
“Changes will dramatically affect public safety,” CLEAT had said in a statement, claiming the Moody amendment “will severely limit the ability of officers to do their duty and protect the public.”
CLEAT President Todd Harrison, an Austin Police Department sergeant, said in the statement that the Moody amendment would expose cops to “liability and legal exposure for false arrest. We believe that this will also lead to officers being attacked and getting physically injured.”
And Harrison rejected the link to the Bland case: “The irrational, emotional argument for this legislation is based on the unfortunate suicide of a citizen suffering from mental illness in a county jail.”
Sunday evening, Moody, not wanting to kill the bill on which the House approved his amendment, reluctantly asked colleagues to approve the measure without his amendment. But Moody and others were not shy in criticizing CLEAT’s efforts. The word “misinformation” came up several times. Moody said “lies destroyed” his effort. And he continued to insist the amendment “didn’t limit discretion to arrest at all.”
“It just said that an officer who arrested someone for something like a traffic ticket had to provide a reason it was an arrest instead of a ticket. That’s it,” he said. “I can’t imagine any ordinary Texan disagrees with that in the least. But, to some, it’s apparently treasonous.”
He also said he’d been willing to talk with CLEAT “to address what I thought were imagined concerns.” But he said CLEAT declined. The House approved the bill 102-39, sending it to Gov. Greg Abbott without the Moody amendment.
CLEAT was elated.
“Breaking: Officer Class C Discretion, Employment Files Saved. CLEAT VICTORY!” it said in a statement that also mentioned an unrelated legislative outcome.
“The majority of the House of Representatives engaged in an open war against their hometown heroes,” Harrison said in the statement. “There was no lack of leadership. The leadership led the House in direct attacks sponsored by police hate groups against our professionalism, officer discretion and our reputations.”
CLEAT pulled no punches in criticizing the somewhat-counterintuitive coalition that backed Moody’s session-long effort.
“The Republican Party of Texas and the powerful Texas Public Policy Foundation with its Right On Crime Initiative joined with anti-police groups Just Liberty, Austin Justice Coalition and other black lives matter groups to attack front-line officers and their rarely used discretion to arrest for Class C offenses,” CLEAT said. “These battles are not over. We can expect to see them again and again. Those who hate law enforcement and the men and women who run toward danger to protect others have turned toward attacking those who advocate for those officers. They have declared open warfare on police unions and more specifically, CLEAT. We will not waiver in defense of our members.”
This has a to-be-continued feel to it. Moody, a persistent fellow, told House members they can count on that.
KEN HERMAN is a featured columnist for the Austin American-Statesman.