After years of failed attempts, Texas lawmakers are again trying to curb petty arrests that disproportionately target people of color.
Update: On Monday, Marco Puente agreed to a $200,000 settlement in his lawsuit against two police officers with the City of Keller.
On a broiling August day last year, Dillon Puente drove through the Fort Worth suburb of Keller to take his car to a mechanic. The high temperature that day was above 100 degrees and Puente’s air conditioning wasn’t working, so he kept the windows down to stay cool. After he made a right turn onto Main Street, he saw lights from a police car flashing behind him. He pulled over on a side street, near his grandparents’ house. When Blake Shimanek, a white officer, approached his Honda Civic, 22-year-old Puente was scared. He’d seen videos and news stories of cops killing people of color during traffic stops. Puente rolled his window three-quarters of the way up, hoping it would keep him safe.
Shimanek radioed for backup as he approached the vehicle. Puente remembers Shimanek’s hand on his holster. The reason he stopped Dillon, he said, was a wide right turn. Then, “Any reason why you’re rolling your window up when I walked up to this car?”
“No sir,” Puente replied.
Shimanek ordered him to leave his car. Puente stepped out with his hands above his head. “Don’t move, do you understand?” Shimanek said as he ordered Puente to face the car and put his hands behind his back. Puente was still. “Why are you acting so suspicious?”
“Because I’m scared.” Shimanek cinched a handcuff around Puente’s left wrist.
Marco Puente, Dillon’s father, happened across the scene soon after. Marco was on his way to the repair shop to give his son a ride home when he saw him on the side of the road in handcuffs. Marco pulled his truck to the side of the street and began recording the arrest on his cell phone. Shimanek threatened to arrest Marco multiple times, and just a few minutes later, he grabbed Marco’s phone, pinned him to the ground and ordered another cop three times to pepper spray him.
The officers arrested the father and son and booked them into Tarrant County Jail. Marco was later released and the two charges against him were dropped. Dillon had to pay more than $350 in fines and fees before he could leave.
Dillon could be taken to jail for a “wide right turn” because Texas law allows police to arrest people for most Class C misdemeanors, or low-level offenses such as traffic stops that are punishable only with a fine. And data suggests he’s one of thousands of Texans jailed every year for such minor offenses. An analysis of Texas arrest data conducted by Austin criminal justice advocacy group Just Liberty revealed that in 2018, nearly 23,000 such arrests occurred in large cities and counties. A similar report found that in 11 of Texas’ counties, representing 38 percent of the state’s population, more than 30,000 people were jailed for fine-only misdemeanors in 2017. And while other states have outlawed the practice, it’s alive and well in Texas.
Now, lawmakers are again tackling the problem of fine-only arrests in the 2021 legislative session that began this month.The Democrat-led effort has powerful legislators behind it, but they have their work cut out for them: In past years, a combination of pro-police lobbying and intra-party division crashed similar legislation. Will this be the year a solution is finally reached?
Police only began reporting the numbers of such arrests three years ago as part of a requirement of the Sandra Bland Act, which was passed by the Texas Legislature in 2017. Sandra Bland was arrested for kicking a Texas state trooper during a traffic stop where he threatened to tase her and drag her out of the car. Three days later, Bland died by suicide in a Waller County jail cell. Some activists say that she would never have died or been arrested if the Legislature banned arrests for fine-only misdemeanor arrests. She was initially pulled over for a Class C misdemeanor: not using her turning signal when changing lanes.
Criminal justice reform advocates say police use fine-only misdemeanor arrests to punish people who tick them off—for “contempt of cop” as Scott Henson, policy director for Just Liberty, puts it. Sometimes cops lean on such arrests to get around the Fourth Amendment, which requires a warrant or a person’s permission to search their vehicle. In Dillon’s case, the officers had neither, but they still searched the vehicle, according to a lawsuit filed by the Marco. They found nothing illegal. Meanwhile, reports have found police departments around the state disproportionately stop and search people of color.
Following the deaths of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of law enforcement last year, Texas legislators are considering policing reforms with a new urgency. Houston state Representative Senfronia Thompson and Dallas state Senator Royce West, both Black Democrats, filed the George Floyd Act, which includes a ban on chokeholds and would bar arrests for most fine-only offenses. Thompson also filed a similar, separate bill to mostly ban such arrests.
Advocates say that compared to other, more ambitious police reforms proposed this session, ending the practice of fine-only arrests is low-hanging fruit that could serve as something of a bellwether for more sweeping criminal justice reforms. Such arrests perpetuate a system of mass incarceration while costing those involved hefty booking fees, lost work, even their lives, in the case of Bland. Data also indicates that being jailed once increases the likelihood that a person will be jailed again. “This is the tip of the spear,” says Henson. “If we succeed, this is going to be the piece that succeeds first. … If we can’t get this done, it’s likely that there’s not much they can get done this session.”
The issue of arrests for fine-only offenses has been hotly contested for a decade. In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state lawmakers have to change existing statute to forbid the practice. While Texas legislators approved a bill to limit such arrests that year, then-Governor Rick Perry vetoed it. In the 2019 legislative session, a bill to limit such arrests died on the state House floor despite broad Democratic support and a spot in the Texas Republican Party platform. Pundits chalk up the bill’s failure last year to Democratic infighting, confusion, and “idiocy,” especially given the final blow that killed it: not enough Democrats were there to approve the bill.
Unsurprisingly, police unions emerged as an enemy of reform legislation. Activists say Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas (CLEAT), one of the top police unions in the state, lobbied intensely against the measure by pushing for “poison pill” amendments and urging legislators to vote against it. Charlie Wilkinson, CLEAT’s executive director, says he approved of the bill, but he opposed legislation “every time something came up without our amendments.” This session, Wilkinson says he will support reform legislation so long as it includes exceptions such as allowing police to arrest people who don’t provide ID.
Many police unions also claim that arrests for fine-only misdemeanors are an important tool in fighting crime, especially when an arrested person is a threat to public safety. They give public intoxication as an example. Police also defend such arrests in cases where a person refuses to come to court, sign their citation, or can’t properly be identified, so the cop can charge the right person with the crime.
Ray Hunt, executive director of Houston’s police union, says some people lie about their identity during traffic stops, and wholly banning fine-only misdemeanor arrests—without exceptions in place—would incentivize this practice. “Word is going to get out…every bad guy is going to start giving false information,” he says.
“It’s just a red herring….a smoke screen,” Henson of Just Liberty says of police unions’ concerns surrounding IDs. Thompson and West’s bills wouldn’t change existing law that requires an individual to identify themselves or sign their citation, he says.
Some large cities in Texas already have limits on fine-only misdemeanor arrests. The Houston Police Department doesn’t generally allow such arrests without supervisor approval, and it’s common practice in the Dallas Police Department to only conduct those arrests if a person is being charged for three different violations. Hunt suggests that Houston’s policy should be adopted at the state level.
In December, Marco Puente filed a lawsuit against the Keller police officers who arrested him; Dillon will soon join the suit. The police unlawfully arrested him for recording and used excessive force against him, it alleges. “Will the Legislature wake up and change the law?” says Scott Palmer, Marco’s attorney. “Maybe this is the case that springboards it.”
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