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Unions Alarmingly Misrepresent SB 815

| May 23, 2019

When the legislature creates a criminal statute that is punishable by a fine alone, meaning that incarceration is not a potential consequence even if the offender is found guilty of the alleged conduct, the legislature is making the statute’s intended use clear.  

It would shock Texans if certain offenses were manipulated as a “tool” for law enforcement to use when they are unable to prove or identify other crimes. Statutes in our penal code and the penalties they carry are generally in proportion to the harm the offense presents to public safety or quality of life.

Contrary to this notion, some labor unions would have you believe that certain laws were not considered well enough by those we elected, that the penalties are insufficient, and that apparently police officers should be able to decide the appropriate punishment, rather than a judge.

“The false narrative by anti-police activists claiming that officers are abusing discretion when it comes to fine only offenses is (sic) not supported by the evidence. Officers conducted 4.6 million traffic stops last year and less than half of one percent of those were arrested,” a letter from the police union CLEAT says.

Claiming that only 23,000 Texans were arrested for a simple traffic ticket alone should not put Texans at ease.  In the case of an arrest for a fines-only offense, the arrest is the punishment.  Our system of justice is not designed this way. 

All police actions take place prior to a person’s conviction, when they are still presumed innocent.  Punishment takes place after a conviction, through courts and corrections, not through our police officers.  Police authority, given its necessity and the sensitive nature of its intrusive force, should always be thoughtfully considered. 

Here, the union is attempting to dictate to the legislature just how much freedom the public should enjoy.  Scaring the public into giving up some of their freedom is unconscionable.

SB 815 as amended includes every reasonable exemption that addresses all legitimate law enforcement interests.  It does not “decriminalize” anything.  It does not limit an officer’s arrest authority, though it does establish a judicial backstop if that authority is misused, not unlike the Exclusionary Rule that every officer is intimately familiar with. 

If the officer is unable to determine a person’s identification, or believes that simply citing and releasing the person will lead to an ongoing breach of the peace, or if the person refuses to sign the citation, or if the person is a danger to themselves or the public, they can still arrest them.  Articulating why they chose to arrest instead of cite and release is not a difficult task. Officers already do this in every arrest report they write.

“Officers will be hesitant because they will now be open to liability and legal exposure for false arrest.  We believe this will also lead to officers being attacked and physically injured,” the letter quotes CLEAT president Todd Harrison as saying. 

Officers are open to liability for a false arrest in all jurisdictions. But attacks on police are rarely, if ever, predicated on the offender’s understanding that the officer has decided not to arrest them.

 Harrison goes on to say “The irrational, emotional argument for this legislation is based on the unfortunate suicide of a citizen suffering from mental illness in a county jail.”  This is true, Sandra Bland was in that county jail because she was arrested for not using her turn signal, which makes our point.  We will agree to disagree that the argument was irrational, but we can agree that for many it was an emotional one.

The core issue is personal liberty and justice, not a single incident, or even 23,000 of them per year as Mr. Wilkison admits. Texans must have faith that their sons or daughters, wives or husbands, mothers or fathers will be treated in the manner with which the law was meant to operate and not subject to a police officer’s discretion on just how much liberty they deserve or what the officer feels is a reasonable pre-trial punishment

The Texas Legislature should not put our officers in that role.  Let them be the revered public guardians that they are, members of our community and representatives of a just and righteous government.  SB 815 is a major step toward that ideal.

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Randy Petersen spent 21 years as a police officer working in the patrol, investigations, training, and administrative divisions.  He retired as a patrol watch commander in 2014 and became the director of a police academy here in Texas.  He is currently the Senior Researcher for the policing initiative at Texas Public Policy Foundation.

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