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At Texas Capitol, Sandra Bland's Legacy Looms

Texas State Capitol
Christopher Connelly
The Texas Capitol building

Four years after Sandra Bland died in a Waller County jail, her name is still reverberating in the Texas legislature.

Newly released video of Bland’s arrest for a traffic violation from Bland’s arrest – taken by Bland herself – has stoked new interest in her case. A Houston representative has called for a hearing re-examining the case before the legislative session ends. At the same time, Texas lawmakers are sparring over whether legislation could prevent cases like Bland’s in the future.

House Bill 2754 would, with some exceptions, bar law enforcement officers from arresting an individual stopped for a Class C misdemeanor, the most minor category of crimes under Texas law. Class C misdemeanors carry no jail time and a fine of no more than $500. Most traffic violations fall into this category.

Bland was pulled over in 2015 in Prairie View for failing to signal a lane change, a Class C misdemeanor. After a contentious exchange, a state trooper arrested Bland. After she was unable to meet a $5,000 bond, she hanged herself in her jail cell three days later. The state trooper was stripped of his policing license.

While statistically rare, Class C arrests are common enough that a recent analysis found tens of thousands of Texans were arrested last year after being stopped for Class C offenses. Austin expanded its cite-and-release policy last year, which appears to have significantly reduced the number of people arrested for low-level offenses.

A legislative solution, reconsideration

“What this bill is trying to do is to limit arrests and detention on fine-only class C misdemeanors,” said Rep. James White, a Republican who sponsored the bill.

On Wednesday afternoon, lawmakers in the Texas House gave final approval to a HB 2754 by a wide margin. Normally, at that point, the bill would move on to the Senate for consideration, but the finality of its approval didn't last long.

"If the procedures were followed that afternoon in Prairie View, Sandra Bland would not have been in the Waller County jail, and she would not have passed away in the Waller County jail."

Rep. Shawn Thierry, a Houston Democrat, says she and some other Democrats grew concerned by some of the exceptions in the bill that would, under certain circumstances, allow officers to still make Class C arrests.

So HB 2754 was “reconsidered,” in parliamentary parlance -- it was given a kind of do-over vote. And the vote did not go the same way.

“Even though we’re passing this law where they’re not supposed to arrest you for a Class C misdemeanor, we’re undoing it if an officer feels like you won’t show up in court,” Thierry recalls thinking when she read the bill.

Thierry brought her concerns to White. The two offer differing accounts of their conversation, but both left frustrated, and afterward White asked for his bill to be reconsidered by the House, five hours after it had won final passage.

A second vote

White dropped one exception Thierry objected to as worryingly vague. But Thierry and several of her Democratic peers pointed to another exception, which allowed officers to arrest someone who had committed a Class C misdemeanor if they had “probable cause to believe that ... the offender will not appear in court in accordance with the citation.”

“There’s nothing in the bill, no parameters or metrics, to know whether somebody is going to show up, and there’s no way in life to determine that,” she argued on the floor. “I don’t know if I can look at any representative in here and know whether he or she is coming to court.”

Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, said people of color in Texas had experienced enough of “driving while black and the ramifications of SB4,” a bill that required local officials to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. He believed the exemption would be a loophole for racial profiling.

“Those things are what concern us, and we feel that what’s going to happen is the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve,” Gutierrez said.

White, who is black, says the concerns that ultimately tanked his bill are overwrought, and that there are no limits on Class C arrests currently. He dismisses concerns that police officers will abuse the exemption allowing them to arrest people they don’t think will come to court.

“If they’re given a citation, and they rip it apart, and throw it back at the officer, that is probable cause enough that they aren’t intending to show up for the citation,” he told KERA.

On the floor, he mentioned Bland.

“If the procedures were followed that afternoon in Prairie View, Sandra Bland would not have been in the Waller County jail, and she would not have passed away in the Waller County jail,” White told his colleagues.

Still, in the end, he wasn’t able to convince his House colleagues to stick with the bill. It was voted down, 88-55.

The possibility of a third vote

The bill may not be totally finished, though.

Lawmakers are considering giving the legislation a third “final” House vote. It’d have to happen by the end of the day on Friday, though. That’s the deadline for House bills to pass out of the House and move onto the Senate.

Derek Cohen, who heads the Center for Effective Justice at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, says watching the fight on the House floor Wednesday night was confusing.

“A lot of the allegations about what the bill would supposedly do, the hypotheticals, they were things that could happen today,” he said.

Cohen acknowledges that the legislation, as it is written, could leave some room for abuse by unethical police officers. But under the current law that allows arrest for nearly every Class C infraction, “that window is wide open.”’

By the end of the day Thursday, advocates for criminal justice reform took to social media to push for HB2754 to be brought back.

Doug Deason, a donor to Republican politicians and criminal justice reform efforts, called on Republicans to support the measure.

Scott Henson, the director of the advocacy group Just Liberty who writes a widely read criminal justice blog, tweeted the prospect that the legislation could make it through the Senate, if House lawmakers could get it over the finish line for a second time.

Advocates have already watched legislation to stop Class C misdemeanor arrests go down before. Similar language was originally included in the 2017 Sandra Bland Act, an omnibus bill intended to address issues that contributed to Bland’s death. But it was taken out before the legislation passed amid opposition from law enforcement.

Since then, activists across the political spectrum have called for curtailing law enforcement’s ability to arrest and detain people for committing low-level crimes. Both the state Republican and Democratic parties said as much in their party platforms last year.

Update: Friday, May 10 at 9:00 PM

Lawmakers hoping to breathe life back into legislation to limit the ability for police officers to arrest people for Class C misdemeanors were unable to rally the necessary votes to bring House Bill 2754 up for a third so-called “final” vote in the House. A motion on the House floor to bring reopen discussion on the bill fell short.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.