Bad Bills

Numbers Game
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Little Brother’s Watching, Too

House Bill 357 Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Tomball)

It’s the new brand of openness in government-making more details about what you do openly available to more of the government.

House Bill 357, by Tomball Republican Rep. Debbie Riddle, would loosen restrictions on the use of pen registers, devices that track what numbers are dialed from a particular phone. Pen registers, and similar devices covered by the bill, help police figure out where a suspect might be headed, or at least who they’ve been talking to, and are used primarily in murder, kidnapping, and drug investigations. Currently, only Department of Public Safety officers have access to them. If local police want a pen register on a suspect’s phone, they ask for help from DPS, which then has to work with a district attorney to get a court order before using the register. Under the bill, a local police department could save time, and DPS resources, by obtaining the court order themselves.

The bill would allow officers chosen by local police chiefs to get access to pen registers, and allow assistant district attorneys and anyone “acting on the prosecutor’s behalf” to ask a judge for a court order.

“It allows us to do everything DPS can do,” says Jim Jones, one of the Houston police officers who approached Riddle about the bill. Having to go through DPS to get the pen register, he says, ends up costing valuable time when police are tracking down a murderer.

Critics say the danger of losing a suspect while waiting for DPS is overblown; the real risk is in handing out new surveillance authority to police agencies that don’t have DPS’s accountability and oversight standards.

“No one has any story about, ‘There was a ticking bomb, and we had to pen register someone,’” says Scott Henson, who publishes the criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast. “Most of this will ultimately be used in drug war scenarios.”

Only police departments in a city larger than 500,000 people are covered in the bill (today, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, El Paso and San Antonio would qualify), but Henson says that even large city police departments aren’t necessarily equipped to ensure the pen registers are used appropriately. He notes that the largest city in Texas, Houston, couldn’t manage its crime lab and protect the rights of suspects.

The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee doesn’t share those concerns. Far from raising questions about individual privacy at the bill’s March hearing, representatives were more interested in why everyone can’t get pen registers. “Why is it only cities with 500,000?” asked Rep. Paula Pierson, an Arlington Democrat. “Arlington’s just under 500, and that’s where I’m from. If it’s good, I’d like it to come to my district.” Rep. Juan Escobar, a Kingsville Democrat, asked why the bill didn’t include local police in border cities, “where you have a lot of people bringing in drugs and other kinds of things from foreign countries.”

Because pen registers record only phone numbers, and not what’s said during a call, courts have ruled that their use doesn’t constitute a violation of Fourth Amendment search and seizure protections. Riddle says there’s no danger of privacy rights being abused. “I’ve got a grandchild, and I think it’s important that we do all we can to give law enforcement everything they need,” she says.

The bill and its Senate companion, SB 823 by Houston Democrat John Whitmire, have both passed out of committees, and were, at press time, awaiting consideration in the full House and Senate.

Persecution Complex

House Bill 3678 Rep. Charlie Howard (R-Sugar Land)

Stoning. Burning at the stake. Crucifixion. Candy canes? It’s open season on Christians in public schools, several students and parents testified before the House State Affairs committee on April 12. The martyrdom isn’t on the scale of lions in a coliseum, but a sense of persecution pervades nonetheless. Teachers are forbidding the distribution of the aforementioned candy canes, Christmas parties are termed holiday gatherings, and Easter discussions are limited to chocolate eggs and furry bunnies. So Republican Rep. Charlie Howard of Sugar Land has authored a “religious viewpoint nondiscrimination act” in the form of House Bill 3678.

Critics charge that, perversely, Howard’s bill, rather than ensure the freedom of religious expression, will force the views of the majority-Christian in most places in Texas-on to all students. “It’s not that we oppose religious expression,” says Will Harrell, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, who testified against the bill. “We just oppose a situation where kids particularly might feel discriminated against because of their own religious beliefs or compelled to engage in religious activities.”

The bill states that “students may organize prayer groups, religious clubs, ‘see you at the pole’ gatherings, or other religious clubs before, during, and after school to the same extent that students are permitted to organize other noncurricular student activities and groups.” It lays out a “model policy” districts can adopt by which schools select student leaders to speak at events like sports games, assemblies and daily announcements. The school will provide a disclaimer should the student express a religious viewpoint that “does not reflect the endorsement” of the district.

“It sets up a situation where a kid with official recognition at an official school function delivers a religious speech,” Harrell said in an interview. “The clear intent is to advance religious speech in schools.”

That may be of little concern to Christians in Texas. “We think that Christian students are the least likely to suffer from any form of restraint on speech than any other students in the state,” Harrell said. The kids who testified to religious discrimination against Christians in schools were a “limited sample from one district in the state of Texas,” he said.

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, testified that training teachers and school administrators on First Amendment and religious-freedom issues would be more helpful than adding a new law. “If we really want to prevent the inappropriate silencing of student expression of faith … we need to help our schools navigate the delicate balance between a student’s right to express their faith and other students’ right not to have any single faith promoted over all others, especially with our kids and in our public schools,” she said.

The ACLU’s Harrell said he defends a student’s right to choose a religious topic for a homework assignment, as well as the right to pray in school, though not in the way set out by the bill. “Let’s just be honest. As long as there are exams, there will be prayers in school,” he said.

When prey is abundant, vultures will gorge themselves until they can barely move and their stomachs bulge. Observer writers are almost finished feasting on bad legislation for the session. With all the opportunity available, we should be almost catatonic, yet there is still room for a bit more. Send us your suggestions at [email protected]