Bills that some legislators say could possibly have prevented the arrest of Sandra Bland are making headway in the Legislature this week.
On Tuesday, the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety heard public testimony on both HB567 and HB574, two bills that would eliminate the authority of police officers to arrest people on offenses that are punishable by fines only — including minor traffic offenses such as speeding and, as in Sandra Bland's case, failure to use a turn signal.
A state trooper pulled Bland over in July 2015 when she changed lanes without signaling. After taking her information and returning to her window to hand over the traffic ticket, the trooper told Bland she seemed irritated — then ordered her out of the car when she refused to put out her cigarette. Instead of just sending Bland on her way with the citation, the trooper yanked her out of the car and arrested her.
Bland was charged with resisting arrest — arrest for failure to use a turn signal being the underlying charge. Yet if the officer had no authority to arrest her for the minor traffic offense to begin with, then Bland likely could not have been hauled off to the Waller County Jail, where she committed suicide just three days later.
“We believe [eliminating Class C arrests] will make stops safer for both drivers and police officers,” said Kathy Mitchell, who works with both the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and JustLiberty, a relatively new nonprofit that has staunchly pushed for the elimination of Class C arrests. “We believe solemnly that there is no path to training every Texan in the state who drives to not respond with disbelief when they are being arrested for a traffic ticket. And no amount of training among officers is going to get them to use a non-escalating tactic when they feel that people are pulling back. So instead, we believe it's critical to have this bright-line rule to just give the person a traffic ticket and send them on their way.”
JustLiberty, which testified at Tuesday's hearing, began pooling data from the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition on Class C arrests in Harris County last July, taken straight from the Harris County Sheriff's Office's daily booking reports. The results were surprising, Mitchell said: Of all bookings into the Harris County Jail between July 12 and October 10, 2016, 10 percent were for exclusively Class C, non-jailable offenses. That's 2,735 people. (The Harris County Sheriff's Office was unable to immediately confirm the data; our records request is pending.)
According to the data the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition provided to the Houston Press,425 people were booked on a single Class C charge, including speeding, seatbelt infractions, driving without insurance or a license, failure to pay a toll and failure to stop. Another 444 were booked on non-traffic Class C offenses, including possessing drug paraphernalia, public intoxication (which is the only offense that would remain arrestable under each proposed bill) and truancy — yes, skipping school. There were 37 people — likely 17- or 18-year-olds in high school — booked into jail for playing hooky over that three-month period. The remainder of those booked, 1,705, were booked on multiple Class C offenses stemming from the same incident or traffic stop.
Mitchell said Harris County was not picked for the data scrape because it is among the worst offenders but only because it had good record keeping. The data did not allow JustLiberty to follow arrestees all the way through the criminal justice system to see how long they sat in jail waiting to see a judge. But in at least some cases, arrestees are too poor to even pay the meager bail amount for a Class C offense. Sheriff's Office spokesman Ryan Sullivan said there were currently six such people sitting in Harris County Jail on Class C misdemeanors.
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Houston Police Officers' Union President Ray Hunt said the labor group opposes the bills to end Class C arrests. Problems arise, he said, when someone does not have any identification and gives false information to the police officer, causing police to issue a citation for the wrong person. While Hunt said it does not happen frequently, he said officers usually decide to arrest the person unless he can prove his identity through other means. He said Class C arrests are also used in the event that a person needs to be taken into the station for questioning about a different incident.
Still, Hunt said HPD officers are not allowed to arrest someone for Class C offenses unless they have approval from supervisors, and he would support efforts to at least make it more difficult for cops to do it.
“I would have no problem at all with some level of scrutiny to make sure police officers aren't willy-nilly putting people in jail for a Class C,” he said. “We rarely ever make a Class C arrest. To put people in jail is a very cumbersome process. It's not a good part of your day to have to put someone in jail.”
The bills have received immense bipartisan support. HB567 was authored by Republican State Representative James White, while HB574 was filed by Democratic State Representative Senfronia Thompson of Houston. Her bill also includes a requirement that police officers notify drivers of this new law and the fact that they can't be arrested when they are pulled over. A companion bill that mirrors Thompson's was filed in the Senate by Republican Senator Konni Burton.