Texting Ban Among More Than 650 New Texas Laws That Take Effect Today

MATT DOTRAY

Texans will soon reap what state lawmakers sowed.

Elected officials in the Legislature passed about 1,200 pieces of legislation out of the 10,000-plus filed for consideration in the regular legislative session that went from mid-January until the end of May. The bulk of those were congratulatory or memorial measures.

But there were some policy changes, and many of those new laws go into effect Friday.

As is usually the case, some of the more highly discussed and controversial law changes had to do with public safety. Hearings and protests on the so-called sanctuary cities bill regarding immigration status lasted days. Since its passage, the state’s largest cities have added their names to a lawsuit claiming it violates the U.S. Constitution by threatening equal protection and guaranteed free speech.

The law is still on track to going into effect this week unless a federal judge halts it.

Other laws set to begin have to do with texting while driving, allowing the open carry of large bladed weapons, new mental health procedures at jails and new steps to help indigent citizens deal with minor offenses. Here in Lubbock, public safety officials are gearing up for enforcement.

Texting and driving (HB 62)

The push for a statewide texting and driving ban has been an ongoing battle for nearly a decade, and this year it was approved by both chambers and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The bill bans drivers from texting while a vehicle is moving and makes doing so a misdemeanor offense punishable by a fine of up to $99 on the first offense and up to $200 for repeat offenders. The law only addressees "reading, writing or sending electronic messages." So there’s going to be a learning curve for police, because certain defenses such as using the phone for a map, for music or for anything other than texting could be used.

Lubbock police Assistant Chief Neal Barron, who oversees patrol, said the best thing that could come out of this law is voluntary compliance. That’s what he’s hoping for. But of course 100 percent compliance isn’t going to happen, so Barron said his patrol officers will be looking for clear violations.

"We’ll direct our officers to look for obvious violations," he said. "Violations that they’re willing to enforce, that they can be willing to go to court on and testify and say, ‘I know this person was texting.’ That’s the guidelines we’ll give our officers, to look for obvious violations. … When this goes into effect, officers will be watching for that and we’ll be looking at ways for officers to be able to articulate that they in fact saw someone texting."

Barron said something that gets overlooked in this law is that punishment can be made after the fact. The new law says if an accident caused by texting results in serious injury to another person, the driver who was texting can be charged with a class A misdemeanor, a fine of up to $4,000, and possible jail time not to exceed one year.

Barron believes this bill will make Lubbock’s streets safer.

"If you can’t see the dangers of texting and driving, then you must not have been watching the news," he said. "There’s been so many accidents caused by that. Texting and driving is a dangerous thing. When you’re in control of a 3,000-pound automobile going 50 mph, texting is not something you want to do."

The bill, authored by Midland Republican Rep. Tom Craddick, had a group of passionate supporters, including the nearby family of Alex Brown.

On the morning of Nov. 10, 2009, Brown, a 17-year-old high school student from Terry County, was texting her friends while driving to school. She lost control of her Chevrolet truck and the crash cost her life, her mother, Jeanne Brown, recalled in a public hearing at the Texas Capitol in 2013.

Jeanne Brown, has been pushing for this bill every step of the way. The bill has now been dubbed the Alex Brown Memorial Act.

Sanctuary cities (SB 4)

Senate Bill 4, authored by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, and known as the sanctuary cities bill, will punish local entities that don’t honor requests from federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement to hand over immigrants by withholding state funding and potentially handing out civil fines. It also punishes cities and counties that have policies preventing officers from asking about immigration status.

The bill got more strict as debate went along, and what ended up being approved also says local peace officers can question the immigration status of people they detain, not just arrest, as the bill previously stated.

Opponents argue this turns the proposal into a "show me your papers" bill.

Both Lubbock police and the Lubbock County Sheriff’s Office have said they’re already in compliance with SB 4, although that was before the stricter language was added. The Lubbock Police Department’s current policy states officers may not arrest an immigrant not here legally on any charge for which they would not normally arrest any other suspect. The current policy says officers may not detain or arrest a person solely on suspicion of being in the country illegally and may not detain them longer than any other suspect.

A-J Media was told the city attorney’s office was reviewing LPD’s current policy to make sure it aligns with SB 4. LPD deferred comments to the city attorney’s office, and the city attorney’s office deferred comments to the police.

Large knives (HB 1935)

It’s not getting the same chatter as gun laws, but starting next month citizens can openly carry large knives.

State Rep. John Frullo, R-Lubbock, championed a bill that got passed allowing citizens to openly carry large knives in most areas of the state. The bill allows individuals to now carry knifes with blades longer than 5 ½ inches, except in certain areas like schools, hospitals and places of worship.

Swords, machetes, Bowie knives and sabers will now be perfectly fine to tote around.

Barron said seeing large knives is rare, but LPD does come across them once in a while. He said most of the time officers come across them in homes or vehicles, and Barron said we’ll just have to see how many now go out in public.

Misdemeanor fines (HB 351)

State lawmakers passed a law aimed at keeping low-income individuals who commit minor offenses out of jail — trying to prevent what’s often referred to as debtors prisons.

The new law gives judges more leeway in issuing fines and costs, and even the ability to substitute community service for legal fees.

Municipal Judge Jorge Hernandez said when defendants who receive misdemeanors for things like parking or speeding fail to appear in court, they’re automatically slapped with warrants. But Hernandez said this law lets courts give additional notice by telephone or email. Judges are also given the freedom to evaluate a person’s ability to pay fines and discretion to allow offenders to pay fines in increments or through community service, or waived.

Hernandez said it allows the court to give citizens more opportunities to take care of the matter without the risk of arrest.

Sandra Bland Act

Lawmakers approved a bill in response to the death of Sandra Bland, who was found dead in a county jail after being held there following a routine traffic stop.

Lawmakers passed a watered down version of what was originally discussed. The bill that goes into effect Friday mandates that county jails divert people with mental health and substance abuse issues toward treatment and mandates that independent investigations be had if a person dies in custody. The Sandra Bland Act also makes it easier for defendants to receive a personal bond if they have a mental illness or intellectual disability.

Lubbock County Sheriff Kelly Rowe has long said mental health is the biggest issue facing jails. He said this law will most impact small, rural counties that will be receiving some funding from the state to better manage mental health.

"Here in Lubbock, we’re more than covered," Rowe said. "I have 24-hour medical, all your large jails do. We’ve got multiple people on 24 hours a day seven days a week. If we’ve got an inmate in crisis or if we’ve got an inmate with medical issues, someone is treating them right now. When you go to your small jurisdiction, they may be relying simply on an ER or maybe they get a nurse to come once a day."

The large majority of jails in the state are in these small jurisdictions. Rowe said the state has dedicated about $25 million for better mental health practices in these small jails, and if it’s distributed well, Rowe believes it could be a step in the right direction.

Rowe said officers in Lubbock will be required to fill out additional reporting, and independent investigators will be new, but he said staff is already trained to divert inmates with mental illnesses.

Ten other new Texas laws beginning Friday:

n (HB 25) — Eliminates straight-ticket party voting when casting an election ballot.

n (HB 29) — Allows state lottery winners who win more than $1 million to remain anonymous and prohibits the release of all personal information to the public.

n (HB 1424) — Prohibits drones and other small aircraft from flying over correction facilities like jails and prisons, and sports venues such as stadiums or facilities with more than 30,000 seats.

n (SB 693) — Mandates that a school bus be equipped with a three-point seat belt for every passenger. The bill only applies to buses that are 2018-and-newer models.

n (SB 16) — Reduces the first-time fee for a license to carry from $140 to $40 and the annual renewal fee from $70 to $40.

n (HB 810) — Allows patients with a severe chronic disease to use stem cell treatment.

n (SB 179) — Mandates that schools adopt policies related to cyberbullying and requires that schools report offenses. This law also created a new definition of cyberbullying.

n (HB 478) — If a person enters into a motor vehicle to remove a vulnerable individual, such as a child, that person is immune from civil liability for damage that may occur from entry.

n (HB 214) — Requires the Supreme Court of Texas and the Court of Criminal Appeals to have audio and video recordings of oral arguments and public meetings available — if funds are made available.

n (HB 1099) — Says landlords cannot prohibit a tenant’s right to call police or emergency assistance.

Source : http://www.lubbockonline.com/news/2017-08-25/put-down-phone-texting-while-driving-ban-among-new-texas-laws

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