Today, Texas Sen. Konni Burton filed a bill that would prohibit law enforcement from arresting a person whose offense is a crime punishable only by fine.
Texas law currently gives police officers discretion to make an arrest for almost any violation, including those that don’t carry jail time. Oddly, the only offenses which aren’t punishable by arrest are speeding and having an open container.
This breadth of discretion allows for gross abuses of arrest, as has been seen in many past instances like the Gail Atwater case. Atwater was arrested for failing to wear a seatbelt and ultimately lost after challenging the case all the way to the Supreme Court.
The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition recently completed a study where they reviewed all Harris County arrests occurring within a 16-week period from July 13, 2016 to October 5, 2016.
They found a total of 23,578 people were arrested during that period, with 11% of those arrests stemming from fine-only offenses, or class C misdemeanors and below.
Of that 11% – or 2,567 people – 30% (763 people) were arrested for a single Class C Misdemeanor, mostly one single traffic violation. The other 1,804 people were arrested for combinations of multiple fine-only offenses such as driving with an expired registration, failed inspection, or some other traffic offense.
Among the cases where people were arrested for a single traffic violation, TCJC found that speeding was the most common offense (even though arrests for speeding are prohibited).
While most of the offenses found in this study were Class C Misdemeanors, many were in fact unclassified offenses with the only set penalty being a fine. These include contributing to truancy and failing to wear a seatbelt.
Considering that this study was only one county over a 16-week span, one can only imagine what results a statewide study would produce.
Burton’s bill, SB 271, not only prohibits the arrests for fine-only crimes, but requires officers to disclose that upon issuing the citation. The bill says that the officer must tell the person during the traffic stop that their offense is a misdemeanor punishable by fine only, and that an officer may not arrest a person solely on the basis of that offense.
Other than making the system a little more just, the bill’s disclosure requirement increases transparency for many people who otherwise may not know their rights.