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Bad Bills

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THE “I’M NOT THAT UGLY” ACT

House Bill 478

Joe Heflin, D-Crosbyton

Rep. Joe Heflin is tired of his opponents being mean to him during campaigns. So he’s authored a bill to make picking on him a civil offense punishable by fines up to $4,000.

The first provision of Heflin’s proposal requires that groups making political robocalls identify themselves. During his last campaign, Heflin says a group telling “blatant lies” about him-accusing him of draft-dodging, among other unsavory things-made anonymous robocalls twice a day for 14 days. Bad stuff. But as Rep. Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, pointed out during a committee hearing on the bill, it probably wouldn’t do much to curb malicious robocalling. “There’s nothing to prevent them from complying with this legislation by saying ‘Paid for by Texans for Good Governance,'” Bonnen said. “I just don’t know how much we’ve accomplished there.”

The bill’s second-and more problematic-provision prohibits groups from publishing “altered or distorted” photos of their political targets that “a reasonable person would find to be unflattering or uncomplimentary.”

“Everyone’s had their photos distorted,” Heflin says. “It just gets to be an irritation, because they always get me in my favorite shirt. Just ruined that shirt for me.”

This part of the bill is worded so broadly that almost any photo could violate the act. “If [a candidate] just didn’t like the picture, then it would be the basis for liability,” says Laura Prather of the Texas Press Association. “You can turn around and use this as a big club over your opponent’s head.”

What’s more, Prather says, the distorted-photos provision could constitute prior restraint of the press, which violates the First Amendment.

Heflin says he might be taking it all a little too personally. “This whole bill may just be me vetting [sic] and fuming and fussing a little bit,” he says. “But these are real, real issues.”

The House Elections Committee left the bill pending after the hearing in late March.

WRONG TO REMAIN SILENT

Senate Bill 1175

Dan Patrick, R-Houston

In these dire times for the magazine industry, Sen. Dan Patrick appears determined to keep Bad Bills in business. His latest takes a swipe at Texans’ constitutional rights by making it a crime to refuse to identify oneself to a peace officer.

Patrick views the bill as a way to clean up a gap in the law. “Currently,” he says, “it is illegal for a person who is arrested or lawfully detained to falsely identify themselves to a peace officer. It is also illegal for a person who is arrested to intentionally refuse to identify themselves to a peace officer. However, it is not illegal for a person who is lawfully detained”-but not arrested-“to intentionally refuse to identify themselves.”

Under Patrick’s bill, refusing to give your name and information to a cop would be a crime.

“We think that we’re talking about much more than a cleanup bill,” said Laura Martin of the ACLU of Texas in a Senate hearing. “We believe police already have adequate power to detain individuals if they have reasonable suspicion and make an arrest if they have probable cause of any illegal activity.”

In fairness, Patrick appears to be backed up by 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of Nevada, which found that making individuals identify themselves did not violate their Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure, nor their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Covering the Hiibel case for Slate.com, Dahlia Lithwick summed up the majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy: “Suspicious people have fewer rights, just because they are so darned suspicious.”

Kennedy argued that the Fifth Amendment did not apply because simply revealing one’s name is not incriminating. In his dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens countered, “The Court reasons that we should not assume that the disclosure of petitioner’s name would be used to incriminate him or that it would furnish a link in a chain of evidence needed to prosecute him. But why else would an officer ask for it?”

Patrick says his bill would save time and resources because stubborn detainees would be given a ticket and be on their way rather than taken the police station for identification, as the law currently allows.

In committee hearings, Sen. Juan Hinojosa, a Corpus Christi Democrat, posed an amusing logic puzzle: “How do you write a ticket if the person doesn’t identify themselves?”

Quibbles notwithstanding, Patrick’s bill, weakly amended to emphasize that a lawful detention is one made by a “reasonable” officer, passed the Senate by a vote of 24-6.