Criminal Justice Reformers Set Sights on State Convention

June 08, 2018 by

With their annual gathering a week away, delegates to the Republican Party of Texas’ Convention are increasingly hopeful to see a package of criminal justice reform related planks added to the party platform.

The proposals address a wide range of issues like; the increased militarization of police, civil asset forfeiture; and everything in between.

One of the first proposals relates to cell phone data privacy, an issue we’ve covered here before.

The proposed data privacy plank relates to law enforcement’s use of devices to intercept and analyze cell phone data without a warrant. Local law enforcement agencies use “stingray” devices, and other similar equipment, which act as cell towers and intercept communication.

Houston Police Department has been utilizing electronic surveillance technology for at least ten years. The first time it drew concern was in 2015 when the department asked for more money for an updated device. A number of states have passed legislation requiring law enforcement to obtain a warrant before using communication interceptors, but Texas isn’t one of them.

The plank proposal calls on the legislature to prohibit the use of these devices without a warrant that’s based on probable cause. The proposal does make the exception, however, for immediate and life-threatening situations.

Abolishing the Texas Driver Responsibly Program (DRP) is also up for consideration.

DRP has essentially grown into a tax on the poor. The program requires drivers with certain motor vehicle violations to pay a double penalty of surcharges as well as additional fines, fees, and taxes. The penalty for failing to maintain payments is a suspended license. “The Driver Responsibly Program has resulted in more than 1.2 million Texans having their licenses suspended due to drivers’ inability to pay the surcharge,” reads the proposal. DRP opponents have long argued that the program places an unjust burden on low-income Texans.

Police militarization, like cell phone interceptors, is another issue that has drawn the ire of Texas Republicans.

Across Texas, local police departments are stockpiling military-grade weapons through the Department of Defense’s 1033 program. Through 1033, military vehicles, equipment, and weaponry are handed down from the federal government to local law enforcement agencies.

The proposed plank calls for more transparency by increasing reporting requirements on supplies that are provided to Texas law agencies through this program.

Abolishing civil asset forfeiture (CAF) is, of course, another issue that delegates hope to get into the party platform.

CAF is something we’ve talked about countless times at Restore Justice, and amounts to no more than government theft. Without having to accuse a person of committing a crime, law enforcement in Texas can seize cash and other assets and begin the forfeiture process in a civil court. For the Texans, and others, who have been ensnarled in a civil asset forfeiture battle it can take years to resolve and can be a costly, unjust fight.

Lastly, banning arrests for non-jailable offenses came up last legislative session and while it did not make it into law, delegates are hoping it makes it into the platform.

In Texas, police can arrest lawbreakers for virtually any crime except having an open container and speeding. Not at the same time, of course. This means that arrests can be made for anything from turning without signaling to having a broken taillight. As a matter of fact, a study done by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition found that of the arrests they studied in Harris County, 11% were due to Class C Misdemeanors, or violations that do not carry jail time as a penalty.

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About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.