Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has stopped prosecuting thousands of so-called trace drug cases, which typically stem from glass pipes seized from users containing little more than residue of crack cocaine, officials said Thursday.
The recent change means it is not prosecuted at all, unless there are extenuating circumstances said Tom Berg, First Assistant District Attorney. Houston police officials have given the new policy their approval, but with an important caveat.
“We want to go after people who are a real danger to the community, violent against people, violent against property,” Berg said. “It’s a smarter practice that everybody agreed to go forward on without a great deal of controversy.”
Berg said several factors combined to push the policy change, including limited resources, a raft of exonerations in recent years because of erroneous field tests and the rise of lethal drugs. He singled out fentanyl, a chemical which is 100 times more powerful than heroin and is used to cheaply spike more expensive drugs.
“Fentanyl and carfentanil – horrible substances – potentially fatal substances on contact,” he said. “Inadvertent contact, in the context of trying to scrape up some crud out of carpet in a car, could have catastrophic effects on the officers. They could be inhaling it without knowing it.”
The change is being eyed with cautious optimism by police representatives who had previously argued against the change.
“We’re not opposed to it as long as the DA is going to hammer hard these (burglary of motor vehicle) suspects who are crackheads anyway,” said Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers Union. “These are the ‘trace case’ people, that’s who they are. They’re the people who are breaking into cars to steal change.”
The police union has argued that arresting people for drug possession because of residue on paraphernalia keeps them from burglarizing cars, homes and businesses.
In the past, much less than a gram of the illegal drug – often just scrapings – could be prosecuted as a felony adding 2,000 to 4,000 people a year to Houston’s crowded dockets.
Hunt said the district attorney’s office promised to vigorously prosecute car burglars in exchange for police support of the policy.
“If we start getting cases where we have BMV (burglary of a motor vehicle) suspects and it’s a crackhead with a pipe on them and that person gets one or two days in jail, then it’s a serious problem and they’re not living up to the deal,” Hunt said.
This was indeed a campaign promise of Ogg’s, and it had been the policy under Pat Lykos, before Devon Anderson put a stop to it. Getting buy in from the police union, however tentatively, is a big deal since they were a big part of the reason why it was so contentious under Lykos. Refocusing on property crimes is also a good move, as those offenses are seldom punished now and affect a lot of people in a tangible way. All in all, a big win. Let’s hope the follow-through is as successful. The Press has more.