By now, the story of Sandra Bland’s arrest and death inside a small Texas jail last year is well known nationwide. What people may not remember, however, is that Bland’s initial crime — the offense that prompted Bland’s arrest, incarceration, and in-custody death — was failing to signal a lane change.
Under Texas law, law enforcement officers are allowed to make arrests for misdemeanors that are punishable by a fine only, such as failing to wear a seatbelt or use a turn signal. In fact, currently speeding and having an open container are the only traffic violations in which a police officer cannot make an arrest. Police officers are allowed to use their discretion in deciding whether or not to make a roadside arrest and take a motorist to jail.
Texas Sen. Konni Burton hopes to change that. This week, Burton (R- Colleyville) filed Senate Bill 271 (85R SB 271), which would eliminate most arrests for Class C misdemeanors, including traffic violations that are punishable by a fine only. (Officers would still arrest for public intoxication and would have discretion to arrest for Class C offenses involving minors and alcohol.)
The Texas Legislature has taken up this issue before. In 2001, they passed SB 730 barring arrests for most traffic violations and, in 2003, they passed SB 1597 to force police departments to set policies on whether or not arrests should be made for fine-only crimes. Former Gov. Rick Perry vetoed them both.
The past legislation was prompted by another high-profile case involving a Central Texas soccer mom who was arrested during a traffic stop after an officer saw she and her two children were not wearing seatbelts. In 1997, Gail Atwater, a resident of Lago Vista, was arrested, handcuffed and taken to jail for the offenses. She had allowed her kids out of their seatbelts to look for a toy on the way home from soccer practice.
Although she never contested the violation, Atwater took issue with the fact that she was actually arrested for it instead of just being issued a citation. She sued the city of Lago Vista and the officer, saying the arrest violated her constitution rights due to the fact that she was arrested for a crime that carries no jail time. The case made it all the way up the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that it is lawful under the Fourth Amendment for law enforcement to arrest a person who has been arrested for a routine traffic violation.
The Atwater case is different than Bland, who was found hanging in jail three days after she was pulled over in Prairie View for the lane change and then arrested after getting into a confrontation with an officer. Despite their differences, both cases illustrate the potential for the over-criminalization of traffic violations in Texas.
Burton’s Bill not only prohibits the arrests for fine-only crimes but also requires officers to tell motorists during the traffic stop that the offense is a misdemeanor punishable by only a fine and that the officer may not arrest a person solely on the basis of that offense. The Bill is already garnering support, including from Just Liberty, a bipartisan organization dedicated to criminal justice reform.
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