Sandra Bland’s unnecessary arrest and her untimely death in the Waller County Jail sent shockwaves throughout Texas, the United States, and the world. Now Texas House County Affairs Committee Chairman Garnet Coleman has filed HB 2702, dubbed the “Sandra Bland Act,” designed to prevent similar tragedies in the future. The bill addresses many different aspects of what happened to Ms. Bland.
First, Texas law currently allows police officers to arrest people for “Class C” misdemeanors so petty that the maximum punishment is only a fine, not jail time. So arresting people for Class C offenses and taking them to jail by definition punishes the driver – before a prosecutor or judge has ever seen the case – more harshly than the maximum penalty prescribed by law. HB 2702 would eliminate most arrests for non-jailable offenses. That change alone would have saved Sandra Bland’s life.
It turns out, there are many more such arrests than anyone previously understood before Ms. Bland’s death brought the issue to light. An analysis of all arrests in Harris County over a 16-week period by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition found that 11 percent of all arrests were for Class C misdemeanors. This takes officers off the street for hours at a time and incurs extra jail and court costs that could be avoided if these arrests were limited or eliminated.
If this change in the law had been in effect, Sandra Bland would have finished her cigarette, been given a ticket, and gone on her way, grumpy but alive. That’s what should have happened.
Jail reforms could prevent deaths
HB 2702 would also implement reforms in Texas county jails based on the settlement agreement between Bland’s family and the Waller County Jail. It would create an independent ombudsman to monitor treatment of county jail inmates and create new procedures for complaint processes and reporting about complaints and alleged misconduct. These changes will hold local jails accountable and provide smaller jails with resources and technical assistance to improve their practices.
Other parts of the bill also draw directly from Bland’s story. The presumption that nonviolent misdemeanor defendants will receive personal bonds unless a magistrate finds “good cause” for detention would have likely ensured she didn’t spend the weekend in jail for want of $500. In addition, the bill would create a “County Inmate Safety Fund to help pay for reforms at county jails with an inmate populations of 96 or fewer.
Diversion, protections, for mentally ill, substance abusers
The legislation also requires counties to make accommodations for addicted and mentally ill defendants, providing additional access to treatment services.
Under the bill, substance abuse would be added to the list of treatment services eligible for Department of State Health Services grant money that already supports public and private sector efforts to tackle homelessness and mental illness locally.
Counties would be required to develop a plan for how local mental health authorities, law enforcement groups and other community organizations will work with people experiencing homelessness, mental health crises and/or substance abuse. And police should “make a ‘good-faith effort’ to divert people to treatment — instead of arresting them — if they are experiencing a mental crisis or substance abuse,”
Bi-partisan coalition for reform
The following organizations support this proposal: NAACP, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Faith in Texas, Texans for Accountable Government (TAG), ACLU of Texas, the Austin Justice Coalition, Next Generation Action Network, Black Lives Matter – Houston, and Just Liberty.
Eliminate “pretext stops”
A pretext stop is when law enforcement wishes to question or search an individual they suspect may be involved in more serious crime but pull them over ostensibly for a traffic stop as a pretext for an investigation for which they don’t actually have a legal basis to justify their actions. Sometimes, if drivers refuse a search or don’t answer questions to their satisfaction, the driver may be arrested.
Under HB 2702, law enforcement would be prohibited from arresting someone for a misdemeanor that is “punishable by a fine only.”
Officers would be prohibited from conducting a “roadside investigation” during a stop for a crime other than the traffic violation, unless they believe that another crime has been committed based upon a “preponderance of the evidence” — an even higher standard than “reasonable suspicion” that essentially means “more likely than not.”
Similarly, officers would be prohibited from conducting an investigation into a crime other than the traffic violation after a driver has refused to “consent to be searched,” unless the officer has suspicion based on “preponderance of the evidence.”
Putting teeth in racial profiling law
Under HB 2702, law enforcement agencies would be required to provide a complaints process for all tickets, citations and warnings.
They also must review data on stops to determine if there are racial disparities between drivers who are stopped and/or searched. The statutory definition of “racial profiling” – which is so narrow that it is impossible to conclude under it that anyone has ever been profiled – will be changed to match standards regarding employment discrimination to determine whether significant disparities exist.
Officers found to be profiling drivers would be required to go to counseling and training. If that officer is later found to be profiling again, they must be suspended “for not less than six months” and be required to go through counseling and retraining.
Now is the time for action
The Legislature shouldn’t wait for more controversial deaths, protests, and turmoil before acting to address obvious problems that cost Sandra Bland her life. HB 2702 represents an aggressive antidote to a sick system., focusing on flaws in the law which have created injustice instead of focusing on accusations of individual racism. Let’s take this opportunity to raise the terms of debate and show the rest of the country that these issues can be confronted in a reasoned, bipartisan fashion. Tell your lawmakers to support HB 2044 today.