In Texas, a relatively petty offense may begin a frightful journey through the criminal justice system. State lawmakers are seeking to eliminate arrests for fine-only offenses. These prosecutions have required people to mount a criminal defense for a comparatively minor infraction.
State law allows police to arrest people for most class c misdemeanors or low- level offenses such as a traffic stops. One recent case involved an arrest for a wide right turn.
Thousands of Texans are incarcerated each year for these minor offenses. Almost 23,000 of these arrests occurred in large cities and counties in the state, according to an analysis of state arrest data by the Austin criminal justice advocacy group Just Liberty. In 11 counties representing 38 percent of Texas’ population, over 30,000 people were jailed for fine-only misdemeanors in 2017.
Police began reporting these figures three years ago under the 2017 Sandra Bland Act. Sandra Bland was stopped by a Texas state trooper who pulled her over for not using her turn signals when changing lanes, a class c misdemeanor. She was arrested for kicking the trooper after he threaten to tase her and puller her out of her vehicle. Three days later, she died by suicide in the Waller County jail.
Criminal justice reform advocates claim that police use fine-only misdemeanor arrests to punish people who anger them. Polices sometimes use these arrests to circumvent search and seizure requirements for a warrant or a person’s permission to search a vehicle. Arrests for minor offenses, according to advocates, continue a system of mass incarceration while defendants must pay expensive booking fees and lose wages.
In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that laws must be changed to prevent this practice. Other states have outlawed this.
The Texas governor vetoed a bill that would have stopped this practice that year. Despite broad support, a similar bill did not pass the state legislature in its 2019 session because of mishaps.
The Houston police department typically requires supervisor approval before these arrests may be made. The Dallas police department allows them only if the person is being charged for three different violations.
The measure was reintroduced in the 2021 legislative session. Police unions have lobbied against similar proposals or introduced poison pill measures, such as exceptions for failure to show identification, which torpedo the measures. Police also claim these arrests are important for fighting crime and assuring that people come to court or are properly identified.
An attorney can help protect your rights in these cases. They can also challenge evidence and unfair conduct.