Over the past two legislative sessions, several bills have been filed by Republicans and Democrats alike addressing the United States Supreme Court decision in Atwater v. Lago Vista (2001). The Court’s decision in this case affirmed that a custodial arrest for any offense, even a fine-only offense, is not a violation of the 4th Amendment. The offense in this particular case was a violation of seat belt laws which resulted in a custodial arrest. The tragic fate of Sandra Bland during a traffic stop 14 years later has prompted calls for a remedy.
During the 85th Legislature, a complete package addressing both the law enforcement and jail issues surrounding Ms. Bland’s death were filed. Unfortunately, the law enforcement component—arguably the only element that could have guaranteed Ms. Bland’s death could have been avoided—was stripped from the bill before final passage. The legislation still managed to enact certain best practices in short-term custody and pretrial detention but did not completely address the ambit of the problem it originally sought to solve.
Class C misdemeanors represent the lowest tier of criminal offense in Texas. These minor offenses include traffic violations, possessing an open container of alcohol, and low-level gambling. Categorically, those guilty of these offenses are eligible to receive a fine of no greater than $500 and up to 180 days of deferred disposition. Should the violator be eligible to have their disposition deferred, satisfactorily meeting the conditions set forth by the court will result in the offense being thrown out. None of these low-level offenses are alone eligible for one day of sentenced jail time.