A police stop for a traffic violation or other minor infraction can have major consequences. Texas attempted to address the severity of this problem with a 2017 law prohibiting imprisonment for convictions of minor offenses. But application of this law presents a bizarre situation where individuals arrested for those crimes may face more punishment than those who plead or are found guilty.
Sandra Bland Act
The Sandra Bland Act, named for a woman who took her own life in a county jail after an arrest, prohibits incarceration of anyone convicted of a Class C misdemeanor. However, its implementation has criminal defense consequences because individuals arrested for these crimes may be imprisoned even before they are ever found guilty.
In 2015, Ms. Bland was stopped by police for failure to signal a lane change as she was driving to a grocery store. According to cellphone and dashcam footage, the police officer asked her to stop lighting her cigarette. When she refused, he threatened to drag her out of her vehicle and light her up. He arrested her for assaulting a police officer and claimed that he believed his safety was threatened.
A Class C misdemeanor has the lowest criminal offense classification in Texas. It includes minor traffic violations, unlawful gambling and having an open container of alcohol.
This new law eliminated jail time for Class C misdemeanor convictions. A $500 fine is now the maximum penalty for these offenses. That law also raised standards for state jails and improved early identification and screening of individuals with intellectual disabilities and mental health needs.
However, the Sarah Bland Act did not prohibit arrests for Class C misdemeanors. Legislation introduced in 2019 and 2021 prohibiting these arrests was also unsuccessful. This presents the odd situation where someone suspected of a Class C misdemeanor can face more punishment than someone who is convicted.
There are tens of thousands of Class C misdemeanor arrests each year in this state, according to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. From 2016 to 2020, in fact, Texas spent more than $21 million jailing individuals suspected of these offenses.
Additionally, arresting and jailing individuals for traffic offenses and other minor crimes reduces public safety. The time and resources spent on these arrests takes away from resources needed to respond to serious criminal activity.
Individuals stopped or suspected of offenses should take that situation very seriously. Attorneys can assist them and help protect their rights.