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No charges files in Capitol date rape drug incident

A not very satisfying resolution.

The Texas Department of Public Safety and Travis County District Attorney’s Office said Thursday “that there is not enough evidence to support” an allegation that a lobbyist used a date rape drug on a Capitol staffer and that “no crime occurred in this instance.”

“DPS has conducted a thorough investigation following allegations of drugging of a Capitol staffer by a lobbyist,” the joint statement said. “Together, we have concluded that … criminal charges are not appropriate.”

The statement did not name the lobbyist, and officials have not offered further details — including the names of anyone allegedly involved — since DPS confirmed it was investigating the allegation, as first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

Earlier this week though, after DPS confirmed it was investigating the allegation, Bill Miller, a co-founder of the prominent Austin-based HillCo Partners, told The Texas Tribune that one of its employees was “a person of interest” in the investigation.

In a statement after Thursday’s news, Miller said that neither the firm nor the employee “had absolutely anything to do with the” allegation and said “DPS found we are completely clear of any and all wrongdoing.”

“The announcement today confirms our own internal investigation into the issue,” Miller said. “We commend law enforcement for a forceful and swift investigation into this serious matter.

After news of the investigation surfaced Saturday, state lawmakers, staffers and other Capitol observers expressed outrage, with many House members declaring that they planned to ban from their offices any lobbyist or lobby firm associated with the accusation. By Sunday, Buddy Jones, another co-founder of HillCo told state lawmakers in an email that the group had hired outside legal counsel and “a respected former law enforcement official” to launch an investigation into the matter.

Meanwhile, Austin lawyers David and Perry Minton, who said earlier this week they were representing a person” purportedly being looked into” for the investigation, said in a statement Thursday that the allegation was “100% false.”

“It is our opinion that the individual or individuals involved in this outrages and immoral scheme [of making the allegation] should be held accountable by their employers and then prosecuted by our new district attorney,” the two said.

See here and here for the background. You can see the full statement here. Saying there’s not enough evidence to support the allegations is not the same as saying that nothing bad happened – to say “no crime occurred” is a tautology, since that is exactly what it means to not bring charges. We have due process for a reason, and this is the result. Maybe nothing did happen, or at least nothing that was ill-intentioned. Maybe it was too late for a drug test to render a judgment, since rohypnol metabolizes quickly. Maybe this was just another powerful guy getting away with it. We’ll never know for sure. If the lobbyist in question, whose name has been released by one right wing website, is innocent then this really sucks for him, since this incident will always follow him around. It’s going to suck even more for the woman who made the allegation, especially if it was true.

Putting all that aside, and putting aside the bills that have been filed to try to do something about sexual harassment and sexual assault at the Capitol, the one thing that seems clear is that little to nothing will change from a cultural perspective. Women aren’t going to be any more respected or valued at the Capitol, and the men who have been at the forefront of creating the hostile environment they work in – as well as the men and women who enable that environment – will not be held accountable. It’s aggravating, and I say that as a dude who has never been in a remotely similar position. My thoughts are with the woman who made the report, and with everyone who has ever gone through something like that. The Chron has more.

More on the Capitol date rape drug allegation

Good for Speaker Dade Phelan for forthrightly calling this out, but the underlying issue is a matter of culture, it’s been this way for a long, long time, and it’s going to be a slog to change it.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan in a speech to colleagues Monday called for reforms to some of the chamber’s policies relating to sexual harassment training and reporting, days after an allegation came to light that a lobbyist used a date rape drug on a Capitol staffer.

“These allegations shake our Capitol family to its core,” the first-term Republican speaker said soon after the House gaveled in, “and I am disgusted that this sort of predatory behavior is still taking place in and around our Capitol.”

On Saturday, the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed it had opened an investigation into a complaint made recently by a Capitol staffer. Officials though have so far declined to comment on further details, including the names of anyone allegedly involved. The news was first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

News of the allegation prompted state lawmakers, staffers and other Capitol observers to denounce the alleged incident, with some House members declaring on social media they were banning from their Capitol offices any lobbyist or lobby firm associated with the accusation.

By Sunday, HillCo Partners, a prominent Austin-based lobby firm, told state lawmakers in an email that it had launched an internal investigation into the matter, with one co-founder of the firm later telling The Texas Tribune that HillCo had been “tipped off” that one of its employees “is a person of interest” in the investigation.

Phelan said he was directing the House General Investigating Committee to establish an email hotline for staffers in House offices to submit reports or complaints of harassment in the workplace.

The speaker also said he had directed the House Administration Committee to change the chamber’s required sexual harassment prevention training to be completed in-person rather than virtually.

See here for the background. Again, I commend Speaker Phelan for taking this seriously – we’ve all seen plenty of examples of people in similar positions of leadership who have done much worse. But let’s be honest, there’s only so much that an email hotline and in-person sexual harassment prevention training can do. The problem is cultural, it’s deeply rooted, it’s not tied to a party or ideology, and it adapts to changing circumstances. It’s going to take the collective action of the entire Capitol community to make this stop – not just not tolerating the behaviors that have existed for decades, but calling them out and imposing consequences, even on friends and ideological allies. I don’t have to tell you that this won’t be easy – just look at how the “Me Too” movement has played out in society at large – and it won’t be quick. It’s just that there’s no other choice.

I’m going to end with a few more tweets, and the hope that the staffer who was victimized by this predator finds the justice she deserves. There’s video of Rep. Phelan’s speech at KVUE, and the Chron and Reform Austin have more.

UPDATE: Welp…

Whoever was at the center of this was always going to defend himself. This tells me that his defense will be quite vigorous. It could get a lot more contentious from here.

DPS investigating allegation that a lobbyist drugged a female Capitol staffer

That’s the headline on this story, and it’s disturbing.

Texas Department of Public Safety investigators are looking into an allegation from at least one female Capitol staffer who believes a lobbyist used a date-rape drug on her during a meeting downtown, an agency spokesman told the American-Statesman Saturday.

Officials recently received a complaint from an alleged victim, prompting the investigation, DPS spokesman Travis Considine said. He would not identify the lobbyist and was unable to say when and where the incident happened.

No charges have been filed and no arrests have been made.

Authorities also said they were not prepared to disclose where in the Capitol the alleged victim worked or for which member to protect her identity.

[…]

The allegation is reminiscent of 2017 media reports of sexual misconduct in the Capitol that went back years and led to lawmakers overhauling procedures for sexual harassment reporting in 2019.

The rules, which do not apply to lobbyists, require House members and staffers to take training on identifying and responding to such misconduct, and made the chamber’s general investigating committee the main body to vet allegations.

Obviously, there’s a lot we don’t know. There’s a good chance this won’t ever lead to an arrest, in which case we may never know any more than what we know now. What we do know is that the state Capitol has long been a hostile and dangerous place for women. (I presume that is also the case for nonbinary and gender non-conforming people, we just have less reporting on it.) A lot of the focus has been on the alleged behavior of some legislators, but it’s clear that lobbyists are a big part of the problem, too. Maybe this will lead to some names being named, or for the harassment rules to be extended to include lobbyists. For sure, there is much that needs to be done to make the Capitol environment safer, and all of it starts with regulating, punishing, and just generally not tolerating the offensive, harassing, dangerous behavior – committed overwhelmingly by men – that has been excused and ignored for so long. But even before that, we have to own up to the fact that there’s a problem first.

I’m going to end with a few words from the women who feel the threat of all this every session. We must do better.

UPDATE:

Make of that what you will.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story, with further comment from HillCo Partners.

State Capitol closed again

At least through Inauguration Day, which is to say Wednesday.

The Texas Department of Public Safety abruptly announced the closure of the state Capitol Friday evening after uncovering new intelligence that intensified security concerns and prompted the agency to ramp up security further.

The closure affects the building and the Capitol grounds, which only reopened to the public this month after being closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and damage that officials said protestors did to state property during protests in May and June.

The closure begins Saturday and continues through Wednesday.

In a statement, DPS Director Col. Steve McCraw said that “the Texas Department of Public Safety is aware of armed protests planned at the Texas State Capitol and violent extremists who may seek to exploit constitutionally protected events. As a result, DPS has deployed additional personnel and resources to the Capitol and are working closely with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Austin Police Department to monitor events and to enforce the rule of law.”

Authorities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia were bracing Friday for what law enforcement said could be violent protests this weekend through Wednesday’s inauguration of Joe Biden. The caution stems from intelligence gained after the deadly pro-Donald Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Earlier this week, McCraw told state senators that authorities are monitoring multiple sects that could threaten Capitol security in coming days but stressed that the agency stood ready to neutralize any possible attack.

He said the groups have different political ideologies with 200 to 600 members each, according to three senators who attended the briefings. The senators did not want to comment publicly because DPS deemed the information confidential and said that releasing it could jeopardize safety.

McCraw said officials have ample troopers and other officers to respond should one of the groups travel to Austin to protest or riot. Their bigger concern, however, is that if the groups consolidate and mobilize together, that would pose a greater risk and prompt officials to call in reinforcements, the senators said.

We all know what this is about. I just hope it turns out to be a lot more talk than action. But whatever happens or doesn’t happen between now and January 20, the long-term threat isn’t going away and needs to be taken very seriously. The Chron has more.

A closer look at the Aguirre/Hotze debacle

This WaPo story was pointed out in the comments here, and it’s worth your time to read. I should note that while the Houston Chronicle has not (at least so far) identified the air conditioning repairman that Aguirre attacked, this story did identify and talk to him. For now, I’m going to stick to the Chron’s style guide, so where the WaPo story includes his name, I’m going to put “[the ACRM]” in my excerpt, to stand for “the air conditioning repairman”.

The episode illustrates the extreme and sometimes dangerous tactics that a set of conservative groups have employed in an effort to substantiate President Trump’s unproven allegations of widespread voting fraud in the election. Theories about truckloads of missing mail-in ballots, manipulated voting machines and illegal mail-in ballot collections have abounded in far-right circles, despite a lack of credible evidence, leading to threats of violence against election workers and officials.

Many of the fraud allegations have come in the form of lawsuits that have been rejected by state and federal judges across the country.

The overall effort in Houston stands out because it relied on an expensive, around-the-clock surveillance operation that, for reasons so far unknown publicly, targeted a civilian — authorities called him “an innocent and ordinary air conditioner repairman” — with no apparent role in government or election administration. The operation was also financed by a newly formed nonprofit group run by a well-known GOP donor in Texas and prominent former party officials in Harris County, the state’s most populous county, corporation records show.

The nonprofit group, the Liberty Center for God and Country, paid 20 private investigators close to $300,000 to conduct a six-week probe of alleged illegal ballot retrievals in Houston leading up to the election, the group has said. None of its allegations of fraud have been substantiated.

The group’s president, Steven F. Hotze, did not respond to an interview request.

Aguirre declined to say why the operation focused on [the ACRM].

“I’m not trying my case in the paper,” Aguirre, who was released on $30,000 bail, told The Post in a brief phone interview on Dec. 16. “I don’t care about public opinion. I’m trying my case against these corrupt sons of [expletives].”

The origins of Aguirre’s election fraud investigation date to the formation of the Liberty Center for God and Country in late August.

[…]

Hotze’s nonprofit group was created “for the purpose of ensuring election integrity primarily,” said Jared Woodfill, Hotze’s personal lawyer and the former executive director of the Harris County Republican Party, the county that includes Houston. Woodfill is listed on state incorporation records as a director of the nonprofit group, along with Jeffrey Yates, the former longtime chairman of the county’s Republican Party. Yates did not respond to phone messages.

“The socialist Democrat leadership in Harris County has developed a massive ballot by mail vote harvesting scheme to steal the general election,” a now-deleted fundraising page for the group alleged. “We are working with a group of private investigators who have uncovered this massive election fraud scheme.”

The group raised nearly $70,000 through a GoFundMe page from Oct. 10 through last week. Hotze has said publicly that he donated $75,000 to the probe and that an unnamed individual had donated another $125,000.

Hotze turned to Aguirre to assemble a team of 20 private investigators, according to Aguirre’s attorney, Terry Yates, who is not related to Jeffrey Yates.

“Mark would say he’s the guy who was in charge,” Terry Yates told The Post.

I’m not going to try to guess what might be going on in Steven Hotze’s whack-a-mole brain, but I do want to understand why these jokers came to focus on this one poor guy. There had to be some reason for it, however irrational and ultimately wrong-headed. If nothing else, the attorney that eventually files a massive lawsuit against Hotze for the pain and suffering our ACRM endured will want to know the full story.

In September, Aguirre wrote an affidavit for a lawsuit brought by Hotze and the Harris County GOP before the Texas Supreme Court seeking to curtail early and mail-in voting. The affidavit alleged Democrats had devised a scheme to submit as many as 700,000 fraudulent ballots in Harris County. The Texas Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit on Oct. 7.

Nevertheless, law enforcement officials in Harris County began looking into the claims in the affidavit. The affidavit did not mention [the ACRM], but described what it contended was a broader ballot-harvesting effort directed by local Democratic officials.

Four investigators from the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office, which is responsible for investigating voter integrity issues, were assigned to the investigation, an official said.

“We looked into the allegations,” said Constable Alan Rosen, who said investigators conducted interviews with various people but got no cooperation from Aguirre and other private investigators. “We wanted to investigate their side of the story and they wouldn’t talk to us.”

“No proof was ever substantiated,” according to Rosen.

As the Nov. 3 Election Day neared, Aguirre and other unidentified private investigators began to monitor [the ACRM] more closely, court records show. By mid-October, they had devised a plan to carry out extensive monitoring that kept eyes on the air conditioning repairman day and night, court records show.

Beginning around Oct. 15, the investigators started “24 hour surveillance” on [the ACRM]’s mobile home, a police affidavit states. They set up a “command post” nearby, renting two hotel rooms for four days in a Marriott hotel, according to the affidavit. As they watched [the ACRM], Aguirre unsuccessfully tried to convince law enforcement authorities at the state level that he was on to something big, according to several law enforcement agencies and court records.

On Oct. 16, Aguirre called a member of the state attorney general’s election task force, Lt. Wayne Rubio, to request that Rubio order a traffic stop of [the ACRM]’s vehicle, court records show. Rubio declined. Aguirre “seemed upset that the Department of Public Safety could not stop and detain an individual based solely on [Aguirre]’s uncorroborated accusations,” Rubio later told police, according to the affidavit.

Aguirre told Rubio that he would make the traffic stop and execute a “citizen’s arrest,” the affidavit states. Rubio did not respond to interview requests, and the Attorney General’s Office declined to comment.

Aguirre also contacted Jason Taylor, a regional director at a separate statewide law enforcement agency — the Texas Department of Public Safety — the agency said in a statement to The Post. That contact came a day before Aguirre is accused of ramming [the ACRM].

“Mr. Aguirre brought up the allegations of election fraud during a phone call on Oct. 18, 2020, with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Regional Director,” a spokesman wrote. “Based on that call, the matter was then discussed with the (DPS) Texas Ranger Division. The decision was then made to refer Mr. Aguirre to the Office of the Texas Attorney General.”

Aguirre later told police he was frustrated that he had “not received any help” from law enforcement agencies, according to the police affidavit.

So many questions here. What evidence did Aguirre present to DPS and the AG task force? Clearly, it was pitiful, because had there been anything at all to the juicy allegation of Democrats engaging in massive fraud, these guys would have been all over it, but that’s not the whole picture. The bigger question is, should Aguirre’s delusions have given these guys cause to worry about his actions and the potential danger to the ACRM? Did they take his threat of a “citizen’s arrest” seriously, and if not why not? Imagine for a minute if our ACRM had had a concealed carry license, and had made the determination when he saw Aguirre approach him that his life was in danger (which, as it happens, it was) and he needed to defend himself. Or instead imagine if Aguirre had gotten jumpy and made the same decision for himself. This “citizen’s arrest” could very well have had a body count, which is why I ask, should the law enforcement officers that Aguirre complained were unwilling to help him have taken action against him instead? It’s more grist for our ACRM’s future attorney, I suppose.

Police later reviewed grand jury subpoena records from Aguirre’s bank, the police affidavit states, and saw wire transfers of nearly $270,000 to his account from the Liberty Center for God and Country with payments of $25,000 each wired on Sept. 22 and Oct. 9, and $211,400 deposited the day after the alleged assault.

Houston police declined an interview request and said they would not answer specific questions about the case because the department’s investigation is ongoing.

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office, which charged Aguirre after a grand jury indictment, also declined to answer questions. “This is an active, ongoing investigation,” spokesman Michael Kolenc wrote in an email.

As I said before, I really hope that this ongoing investigation includes Hotze and the malevolent organization he spawned to finance this travesty. I sure won’t be surprised to learn that they were not scrupulous in following the law prior to Aguirre’s attack on the ACRM. Don’t be afraid to go where the evidence leads.

More on DPS and data protection

A followup from the DMN about that data breach involving every drivers license number you’ve ever had.

Some other states do not sell [drivers’ license] data, but Texas does. State lawmakers could change the law in their 2021 session.

I first reported this in 2015 when I learned that several state government departments sell information to outsiders. In an open records request that year, I learned that in 2014 the Department of Motor Vehicles earned $2.4 million in sales.

This year, CBS 11/KTVT reporter Brian New updated those numbers. DMV made more than $3 million in 2019 selling drivers’ names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and VIN information, he reported.

[…]

The buyers are data-mining companies, insurance companies, banks, police departments, car dealers, toll companies, school districts, corporations, private investigators, tax-collecting law firms, tow truck companies and electricity companies, to name a few.

Follow this — the biggest loophole. In Texas, it’s against the law for companies who buy the information to use it to sell to us. So to get around that some companies sell the lists to other marketing companies, which go ahead and use the information to sell — and annoy us.

Because our information isn’t sold directly to marketers, the state doesn’t have to give us a privacy statement when we buy a car or apply for a driver’s license. We don’t get to opt out, as residents of California are now allowed to do.

State lawmakers could fix this, giving us privacy statements and allowing us to opt out of the information sold. Or they could go one better and prohibit the sale of the databases entirely. Other states do.

If you bring this up, state departments other than DMV complain loudly about how these are open records that often can help consumers. (For example, your car is towed, and the towing company can figure out who it belongs to). Besides, selling our data makes a lot of money for the general fund.

One way to see how loosey-goosey Texas is with our information is on the paid subscription lookup site, PublicData.com.

Years ago, there were multiple states listed where you could quickly look up a person’s driver’s license information. Now there’s only Florida and Texas. The other 48 now have higher standards of privacy.

Same goes for vehicle information. Only five states are listed for searching, but four are marked “[OLD].” The fifth is up to date and active. That’s us.

If you get unwanted spam email, postal mail or phone calls and wonder how they got your information, often enough it’s because of our state’s lax laws. Thank you state leaders.

When it comes to cheap and easy data distribution that violates our privacy, we’re number one. Hoo-ray for Texas.

See here for the background. California has a data privacy law that is modeled on the European GDPR scheme. I work with GDPR quite a bit, and it gives people a lot of control over their data while putting some real teeth into enforcement. One of the main ways that GDPR works is that it requires notifications to affected individuals when their personal data is stolen, deleted, or otherwise inappropriately accessed. That’s a lot better than what we have now.

There’s some federal data privacy legislation out there, which largely has the support of the big players like Facebook and Google, which on the one hand means it has a chance to pass but on the other hand means it’s not anything those companies consider to be bad for their business models. I’d rather see something more stringent than that – to me, GDPR is a starting point. We’re not going to get anything like that in Texas, I feel confident saying that. But feel free to call your State Rep and State Senator and tell them that you would like to have the ability to opt out of having your drivers license data sold by DPS. The amount the state takes in for these sales is pennies compared to the state budget. We can very easily do with less of that.

UPDATE: This Slate story about the need for a federal data privacy law is a good read, and addresses the ways we can learn from GDPR for an American version of that law.

DPS needs to do better with data protection

Oops.

You’ve been hacked. We’ve all been hacked.

No one else has said it, but The Watchdog will. This is likely the largest and one of the more significant data breaches ever to hit Texans.

About 27.7 million Texas driver’s license holders are affected.

If you haven’t heard about this, that’s part of the problem. It’s almost like no one wants you to know.

Why 27.7 million affected licenses when Texas’ total population is around 28 million? Because the number includes former state residents and dead people who were issued licenses before February 2019. So, it includes just about everybody who held a Texas license going back an unknown amount of years. It doesn’t include children.

The Watchdog has the story.

Yes, the information involved here is already available on a paid data site such as PublicData.com, although that site is not always current. But there you have to look up each individual. With this breach, all the information is already bundled and in one place.

What do the crooks have? Your license information (name, address, DL number), the color, model, year and VIN of your vehicle and the lender to whom you make car payments.

I’ll show you how this happened, what crooks can do with the information and how you can be prepared.

The culprit here is a company you probably never heard of — Vertafore of Denver, which, like many companies, buys data from state governments. Vertafore works with the insurance industry to concoct ratings that help agents, brokers and others.

“As a result of human error,” Vertafore says in a news release, “three data files were inadvertently stored in an unsecured external storage service that appears to have been accessed without authorization.”

Someone found the information and grabbed the files before Vertafore realized it, the company says.

The FBI and state law enforcement are investigating.

It appears to The Watchdog that although this data breach began in March and continued to August, our Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, which stores vehicle information, and the Texas Department of Public Safety, which handles licenses, probably didn’t know about the hack until recently because their own databases were not compromised.

There’s more and you should read the rest, including the bit about some likely ways that the attacker could use this information. It could have been worse – no Social Security numbers were stolen, apparently – but it’s still not great, and the complete ignorance about the theft by DPS and DMV is not great at all. Putting my cybersecurity hat on for a moment, DPS and DMV need to do a thorough audit of the security policies and processes used by everyone that has access to their data, because those are clear points of vulnerability. It doesn’t matter how sound DPS and DMV’s own security practices are if their business partners are lax.

(This would a fine opportunity for a member of the Legislature to file a bill that mandates minimum standards for third parties that handle personal data, and for the state agencies that do business with them to proactively ensure they are doing it right.)

The other thing DPS and DMV – and any other state agency that handles personal data – need to do is to subscribe to a service that scans the Internet for data of theirs that may have been stolen. (Experian either does this themselves or subscribes to someone who does, which is how they knew about it before it was officially announced.) It’s an article of faith in the cybersecurity world that security incidents and data breaches are going to happen, so a top priority has to be to detect them as quickly as possible so the loss can be minimized and the damage can be remediated. The history of most large scale cyber incidents is that the attackers had been operating inside the victimized firm for months, sometimes more than a year, before their activities were discovered.

There’s not a whole lot more info about this out there – ZDNet and Insurance Journal add a little more, but that’s really about it. I do hope the state demands a full report from Vertafore, and learns lessons from it. Next time it could be more serious than this.

Hey, look, it’s online voter registration!

And they said it couldn’t be done.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

When Jarrod Stringer updated his driver’s license address in 2014, the Texas Department of Public Safety website asked if he wanted to register to vote. He clicked yes and thought he was registered. That fall, when he went to vote in San Antonio, he was denied. According to the system, he had never registered. It was past the registration deadline, so he couldn’t vote.

That kicked off a six-year legal battle that included two lawsuits for the right for Texans to register to vote online while updating their licenses.

“It’s traumatic when you can’t vote,” Stringer said. “It’s implicitly saying, ‘You don’t have a voice. You can’t participate in change.’”

On Wednesday, Stringer won that “mind-boggling” fight with the state of Texas two weeks before the deadline to register to vote in 2020. Acting on a federal judge’s orders, the state updated its online systems to allow people to add their names to the voter rolls when they update their licenses.

While it’s a limited step — the online option is still only available to people updating their licenses — the change marks the first time Texans have been able to register to vote online, which advocates say could significantly increase turnout both this year and for future elections.

Mimi Marziani, the president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which brought forward the lawsuits, said the change specifically helps marginalized Texans, who most often move.

“This is absolutely a victory for voting rights for all Texans,” Marziani said. “It’s a particular victory for younger Texans, poorer Texans and Texans of color.”

[…]

Previously, Texans like Stringer who tried to register while using the state’s online license portal were directed to a blank registration form they had to fill out, print and send to their county registrar. The state was forced to change that system after U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled last month that DPS is “legally obligated” to allow voters to simultaneously register to vote with every license renewal or change-of-address application. Garcia had ordered the state to set up a “fully operable” online system by Wednesday.

“The Secretary of State and Texas Department of Public Safety are in compliance with the court’s order,” said Kayleigh Date, a spokesperson for the Office of the Attorney General, in a statement.

See here for the background. My guess is that the total number of people who will register for this election via this method will be countable on one’s fingers, but that’s not the point. The point, as Marziani rightly says, is that this shows how easily the state of Texas could have done this, and how easily it could be adapted for general purposes as soon as the law allows it. Given the challenges that voter registrars have faced in these COVID times, that’s a big deal. It’s still going to take a Democratic trifecta to happen, but once we get there the rest will be easy. The Chron has more.

Plaintiffs prevail again in Motor Voter Lawsuit 2.0

Same result as before, this time without the technicality that got the first try thrown out on appeal.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A persistent Texas voter, twice thwarted when he tried registering to vote while renewing his driver’s license online, has for the second time convinced a federal judge that the state is violating federal law.

In a 68-page ruling Friday, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio found that Texas continues to violate the federal National Voter Registration Act by not allowing residents to register to vote when they update their driver’s license information online.

Garcia found that DPS is “legally obligated” to allow voters to simultaneously register to vote with every license renewal or change-of-address application, and ordered the state to set up a “fully operable” online system by Sept. 23. The Texas attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the state is likely to appeal the ruling.

It’s the second time Garcia has sided with the voter, former English professor Jarrod Stringer. Garcia’s first ruling was overturned on appeal on a technicality.

The National Voter Registration Act requires states to let residents complete their voter registration applications when they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses. But Texas officials have staunchly opposed any form of online registration.

The Texas Department of Public Safety follows federal law when residents visit a driver’s license office in person. But Texans who try to register while using the state’s online portal are instead directed to a blank registration form they must fill out, print and send to their county registrar.

“DPS encourages Texans to use its online services to renew their driver’s license and change their address because it is easier and more convenient,” Garcia wrote. “It cannot, at the same time, deny simultaneous voter registration applications when those online services are used.”

Garcia has said this before. In 2018, he ordered the state to implement what would be its first system for online voter registration. A federal appeals court overturned that order in late 2019 because Stringer and his two co-plaintiffs had ultimately reregistered to vote, and the court decided the case was moot because they were no longer being harmed.

[…]

On Friday, Garcia found that Texas had “offered no factual or legal argument that would justify denying the simultaneous voter registration to which Mr. Stringer is legally entitled.”

“As Defendants have admitted, there are no technological barriers to compliance and corrective measures would not be costly,” Garcia wrote. “Uncontested expert testimony shows that a compliant DPS system would very likely lead to great efficiency, less human error, a massive saving in costs, and increased voter registration.

See here, here, and here for the background. This is another Democracy Docket case, and you can see their case files here. This will of course be appealed, and it will be interesting to see if the Fifth Circuit finds another reason to overturn or not. This ruling has basically no effect on 2020, as no one other than the plaintiffs in this lawsuit are going to get registered because of it, but longer term it could be quite large, as this would represent an entry point for online voter registration in Texas. You know and I know that it is unbelievably ridiculous that in the year 2020, when literally everything is done online, that the state of Texas requires a piece of paper to register to vote, but here we are. Obviously, a full solution needs to come from the Legislature, but if one has not arrived by the time this case is fully resolved (assuming this ruling is upheld), the state is going to have to explain why this special case of online voter registration is acceptable while all others are not. Good luck with that. Anyway, it’s a small step forward, and a welcome one. The Chron has more.

Abbott imposes travel restrictions

Where we are now.

Now please pull over

Gov. Greg Abbott is tightening travel to Texas by ordering some motorists from Louisiana to self-quarantine for two weeks.

The new travel restrictions come as Louisiana’s status as a novel coronavirus hotspot grew Sunday to more than 3,500 positive cases statewide. Abbott said drivers with commercial, medical, emergency response, military or critical infrastructure purposes for entering Texas would be exempted.

State troopers will enforce the order at checkpoints at major roadways along the border. Those asked to quarantine will be asked to provide an address for where they plan to hold up in Texas, either for two weeks or until their return to Louisiana, whichever is comes first.

A provision in the order allows for DPS special agents to check on those under quarantine to make sure they’re complying. Violators could be subject to either a $1,000 find or 180 days in jail, according to the four-page document. Another rule states that if a driver is showing symptoms associated with COVID-19, such as fever, coughing or shortness of breath, a trooper will follow them to their destination.

The Texas order follows suit from Florida, whose governor on Friday required drivers from Louisiana to also quarantine upon entering their state. Motorists from Louisiana would have to cross both Alabama and Mississippi to make it to Florida.

The Louisiana border is 113 miles from Houston along I-10.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he urged travelers returning to Texas to do the same more than three weeks ago, regardless of where they had been.

“If you leave Texas and come back to Texas, you should self-quarantine,” Turner said at a news conference. “Nobody should be traveling unless you absolutely have to.”

I get it, it’s a rational move to make, though there’s not much in the way of enforcement behind this, so it’s more suggestion than requirement. A perfectly reasonable suggestion, as long as we keep in mind that that’s what it is.

It’s even harder to prosecute pot cases now

Such a shame.

What if lawmakers writing one of the most consequential laws to come out of last year’s legislative session, legalizing hemp in Texas, forgot to include a small, but crucial detail that could get your marijuana possession charges dropped?

That’s what happened last week, after a Brazos County court judge concluded the new law omitted a date typically included in state crime legislation. As a result, misdemeanor charges against a Texas A&M University student arrested on the day of his 2018 college graduation were summarily tossed.

The decision is the latest stumbling block that Texas’s nine-month-old hemp law has presented for police and prosecutors committed to pursuing low-level marijuana possession cases. Although the decision does not bind other judges, attorneys said the successful tactic had the potential to change the course of hundreds of pending cases across the state.

[…]

New state crime laws always include a clear dividing line, typically written as a date, said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for Texas District and County Attorneys Association. Before the date, the old law applies; after, the new law does.

Yet the hemp bill, which was passed through the Agriculture and Livestock Committee instead of the regular criminal justice panels, neglected to specify when the new pot definition started. A little-known provision of Texas law says that without clear transition instructions, if a new law lowers the penalty for a crime it can be applied retroactively.

The district and county attorneys association noted the missing language early on. “The law went into effect on June 10, 2019, but it is unclear whether it applies to previously-filed marijuana cases pending on that date,” it warned In a June letter to member prosecutors.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville, did not return a call to his office seeking comment on the AWOL date.

Criminal defense attorneys noticed it, too, and began seeking cases to test if the new law could also be used to challenge older possession charges.

Long story short, they found a defendant in College Station who wanted to have his day in court, and their argument that the new law applied resulted in the dismissal of the case because the cops hadn’t tested the pot they said they found. Testing is another problem for prosecutors, and the DPS has said they don’t have enough money to handle the demand from the locals, leaving them in limbo. Which is fine by me. Let’s keep this natural experiment going and see for ourselves once and for all how little there is to fear from not being hardasses about weed.

How should we police the police?

This article raises a number of interesting questions.

Kim Ogg

A quarter of the 60-plus law enforcement agencies operating in Harris County have refused to sign agreements to help local prosecutors track problem cops.

Under those agreements, all signed since District Attorney Kim Ogg took office three years ago, 46 agencies have promised to voluntarily turn over information about potentially untrustworthy or unreliable officers. But 17 other agencies declined to sign, a move that forces prosecutors to spend time getting the information through subpoenas and can potentially drag out the resolution of cases.

The Houston Police Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety and Metro Transit Police are among those that signed memoranda of understanding, but all of the county agencies — including all eight constable precincts and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office — declined to sign.

“Based on the County Attorney’s advice, the sheriff’s office has joined with other Harris County law enforcement agencies that are unable to sign the district attorney’s proposed memorandum of understanding at this time,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said in a statement to the Houston Chronicle, adding that his agency still “fully cooperates” with prosecutors by “providing all legally required information concerning all pending cases being prosecuted.”

A county attorney’s office spokesman declined to explain why lawyers told agencies not to sign the agreement, saying the office was “not comfortable” commenting on legal advice given to clients.

To Ogg, that’s all far from ideal: Without an agreement in place, her office must send out subpoena orders to make sure agencies turn over everything.

“It’s a great deal of added work,” Ogg said. “I just don’t think this (agreement) is anything that law enforcement agencies should fear.”

Long-time local defense lawyer Patrick McCann agreed that it was a “pretty fair point” that issuing added subpoenas could be a significant burden for prosecutors, and raised concerns about some agencies’ refusal to enter an agreement.

“It is absolutely indicative of the culture of hiding the ball,” he said.

[…]

The three-page agreement asks agencies to tell the DA’s office whenever a potential police witness is charged with or investigated for a crime, relieved of duty or suspended for misconduct allegations, taken off casework, determined to be untruthful through an administrative investigation, or found guilty of misconduct that could call into question their integrity. Getting agencies to sign the agreement, Ogg said, would reduce work time for prosecutors and ensure that they get all the information they need to turn over to the defense.

“We rely upon the agencies to give us the information that we would need to comply with disclosure (requirements),” Ogg said, “and instead of just blindly relying, we’ve asked them to sign written memorandums of agreement.”

To defense lawyers like McCann, the efforts to create a database and get law enforcement on board seem “laudable,” but he pointed out that ultimately it’s up to the DA’s office as to whether or when to turn that material over. “They’re still trying to keep a stranglehold on the information,” he said, “and they’re terrible about timeliness.”

So first and foremost, why is it that the County Attorney advised the Sheriff and the Constables not to sign this MOU? I would definitely have asked this question when I was doing County Attorney interviews if I had known about this. This arrangement has been in place for five years, though it started with just an informal agreement with HPD. Similar formal agreements exist around the country. It’s certainly possible there have been problems with these things in other places, but what about this particular MOU is troubling to the County Attorney? Surely there’s a way to resolve this. I’d like to understand more about this.

The information gathered via this agreement is compiled into a database, which is not publicly disclosed by Ogg. I can understand that – there are privacy concerns, the unions would surely put up a fight, and the possibility exists that a cop could get on this list as a form of retaliation by their department. One might also argue that a cop should be eligible to come off that list after a certain period of good behavior, and that a cop might have some process to challenge their placement on that list. I also understand the argument for making it public. There’s an awful lot of secrecy that surrounds law enforcement agencies, and if we’ve learned one thing in recent years it’s that such secrecy is toxic. I got an email from a person at The Justice Collaborative a little while ago, sending me their documentation about where Kim Ogg and the two main challengers stand on a variety of issues. They had all been sent a questionnaire, and I was given the responses sent by Audia Jones and Carvana Cloud; Ogg did not respond but where her position was known via public statement or her past record, it was noted. The issue of maintaining a disclosure database and making it public was included in the questionnaire – Jones supported having a public list, Cloud said she would not make it public, matching Ogg’s position. I don’t know enough right now to know how I feel about this, but I wanted to share that much with you.

Anyway. Having this arrangement is a good thing. Getting all 63 law enforcement agencies for Harris County on board should be a priority, with the non-participating agencies made known. Whatever is preventing the HCSO and the Constables from joining needs to be resolved. That can and should be a job for all of the relevant elected officials.

The next round in the Motor Voter 2.0 lawsuit

Score one for the plaintiffs.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Finding Texas in violation of federal law, a U.S. judge gave civil rights lawyers a small win Thursday — fueling hopes of a wider victory in a continuing fight over the state’s online voter registration practices.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia said the 1993 National Voter Registration Act requires that Texans be able to register to vote at the same time they go online to renew or update a driver’s license.

Visitors to the Department of Public Safety website, however, must click through to another website, download a form, print it out, fill it in and mail it to their county registrar — extra steps that violate the federal law’s “motor voter” provision designed to encourage voter participation, Garcia said in a written order.

“Congress lifted these burdens to make voter registration easier, not more confusing and difficult,” he wrote.

Noting that Monday is the deadline to register to vote in the March 3 primaries, Garcia limited the scope of his order. He required state officials to update the voter registrations of three Texans who sued over the motor voter law, using the information already provided to DPS when they renewed their driver’s licenses.

Longer-term solutions remain under consideration and will be ruled on in the future, the judge said.

See here for the background. An earlier storylaid out the arguments.

Pressing for speedy action with a key voting deadline only days away, civil rights lawyers returned to federal court Tuesday to argue that Texas continues to violate a U.S. law designed to make voter registration easier.

Under the “motor voter” provision of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, Texans who renew their driver’s license online must be allowed to simultaneously register to vote or update their registration with a new address, Beth Stevens with the Texas Civil Rights Project argued.

For years, however, Texas has required potential voters to take extra steps in violation of the law, Stevens said, urging U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia to take action against the state.

“It will refuse to comply with federal law until it is forced to do so, Texas voters be damned,” Stevens said during a 2½-hour hearing in Garcia’s San Antonio courtroom.

Under the state system, Stevens estimated, more than 735 Texans lost the right to vote in 2018.

[…]

The Texas Civil Rights Project recently filed a new lawsuit with three voters who had moved, renewed their driver’s license online but are still registered to vote at their old address. Two nonprofits, MOVE Texas and the League of Women Voters of Texas, also joined the newest lawsuit, arguing that they have standing because they are forced to spend time and money signing up voters who should have been able to update their registrations on the DPS website.

Stevens said the new lawsuit still seeks to require simultaneous voter registration, but she asked Garcia to issue an order no later than Friday to require state officials to let the three plaintiffs register to vote using the information already provided to DPS to renew their driver’s licenses.

Monday is the last day to register to vote in the March 3 Texas primaries, she noted.

The state argues that nothing is stopping these three people from registering by other means. That’s true, but also not the point. The point is that the law says that they are supposed to be registered this way. In the initial lawsuit, the Fifth Circuit said the plaintiffs didn’t have standing because by the time the lawsuit was filed they had been registered and thus there was no injury claim to remediate. If that’s the case, then the state is arguing that the plaintiffs should invalidate their own case. As we now see, that didn’t work. I would expect the court to rule in the plaintiffs’ favor on the larger question at some future date, and from there we’ll see if the Fifth Circuit admits that they fixed the problem with the first lawsuit or finds some other pretext to throw out this one. In the meantime, kudos to all for a job well done. A press release from the Texas Civil Rights Project is here, and from the TDP is here.

“Motor voter” lawsuit 2.0

Try, try again, this time hopefully addressing the cause of the Fifth Court of Appeals’ rejection of the first lawsuit.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The first time former English professor Jarrod Stringer was told he couldn’t vote in a Texas election, he sued. A federal appeals court tossed his case on a technicality, but one of the judges ended up admonishing state officials to not let it happen again.

Yet it did, and now Stringer and other frustrated Texans are taking the state back to federal court.

In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in San Antonio, they are arguing anew that the state continues to disenfranchise an unknown number of voters by violating the motor voter law, a federal requirement that people be allowed to complete voter registration when they get a driver’s license. Stringer is the lead plaintiff in the second legal chapter of a fight over Texas’ resistance to online voter registration.

The state allows driver’s licenses applicants to complete their voter registration when they physically appear at a Texas Department of Public Safety office, but does not allow the same result when residents update or renew licenses online. At least 1.5 million Texans use the state’s online driver’s license portal a year, according to Stringer’s lawyers, though it’s unclear how many also attempt to re-register.

Stringer first encountered the prohibition after moving back to his hometown of San Antonio in 2014. He updated his driver’s license and mistakenly thought he had re-registered to vote at the same time. But after standing in line at an early voting polling place set up on the University of Texas at San Antonio campus, he discovered he was not on the voter roll.

“Having the option to vote was something that I have taken seriously,” Stringer said in an interview. “Voting is just a fundamental act of expression of citizenship.”

[…]

In their new lawsuit, Stringer, two other voters, along with two nonprofits that work to register Texans to vote, have revived the arguments from the first lawsuit, pressing virtually the same legal claims that prompted Garcia’s initial favorable ruling.

This time, to avoid the legal pitfall over standing to sue, Stringer and the other voters in the case are filing their legal challenge while remaining off the voter rolls in the counties where they now live, and Stringer has noted that he has plans to move in 2020 — a point at which he will again run into the limitations of the online DPS system.

But while they’re working to address the issues found by the 5th Circuit last year, the Texas Civil Rights Project doesn’t plan to ask the plaintiffs to sit out the upcoming election. With the three individual voters in the case expected to reregister before the Feb. 3 deadline for the March primaries, the lawsuit could ultimately serve as a test case of what sacrifices a voter must make at the ballot box to challenge a system that they see as impeding their access to it.

In the interest of not quoting the whole story I cut out a bunch in the middle that recapped the first lawsuit and why it was dismissed – you can read this post for my own link-filled “previously on…” segment. This story reminded me that the Fifth Circuit wasn’t necessarily hostile to the first lawsuit, perhaps just overly pedantic. If that’s the case, and this isn’t a “Lucy and Charlie Brown and the football” situation, then maybe we can get a different result. There’s every reason to believe that the district court will rule in favor of the plaintiffs again. The question is what happens after that. With any luck, we’ll find out soon.

Another voter registration lawsuit filed

This time, the point of contention is electronic signatures.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a federal lawsuit filed Monday in San Antonio, the Texas Democratic Party and the campaign arms for Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate allege that Texas is violating the U.S. Constitution and federal and state law by rejecting voter registration applications without an original signature.

The legal challenge springs from a 2018 electoral kerfuffle over the Texas secretary of state’s rejection of more than 2,400 registration applications filled out by voters using Vote.org, a website run by a California nonprofit. That online application asked Texans to provide personal information and a picture of their signature to auto-populate a paper voter registration form that was then mailed to county registrars.

Days before a registration deadline that year, the secretary of state’s office indicated that applications submitted through the website should be considered invalid because they included electronic signatures, not physical ones.

In the lawsuit, the Democrats argue the secretary of state’s signature requirements are unconstitutional and impose “an arbitrary requirement that limits access to the franchise.” While the state allows eligible Texans to submit registration applications in person, by mail or by fax, Texas law “makes no reference” to requiring an original signature, they argue in the legal challenge.

[…]

In suing the state, the Democrats pointed out that the secretary of state does allow for one kind of electronic signatures — those submitted on voter registration applications received through the Texas Department of Public Safety. That agency allows Texans obtaining or renewing a driver’s license in person to enter their signatures on electronic keypads, which then may be used to populate voter registration applications. (Texas has been wrapped up in separate litigation for more than a year over claims it is violating federal law by not allowing voters who deal with their driver’s licenses online to reregister to vote.)

Bolstered by Republicans’ narrowing margins of victory and polls showing that Texas might be at least slipping from the GOP, Democrats have signaled they see voting rights litigation — and the voters that might be helped through it — as part of their long-term strategy in the state.

See here for more on that “motor voter” lawsuit, which like all good things went to the Fifth Circuit to die. This same Democratic coalition has also filed a lawsuit over the law banning temporary voting locations, one of two such suits in the courts. You know my feeling about pursuing voting rights litigation in this climate, with the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS standing in the way, but I do agree that pursuing these cases anyway sends a strong signal to voters about who stands for making it easier for them to vote. And honestly, who has not electronically signed dozens of documents by now? One of the original (and silly) arguments for voter ID was that if you have to show a drivers license to rent a movie from Blockbuster (this is a truly old-school argument), there’s nothing wrong with having to show your drivers license to vote. Well, I’ve electronically signed documents at bounce house and indoor skydiving places affirming that I forsake my right to sue them if me or my kids wind up getting maimed by their services. If that’s legally binding, then an electronic signature on a voter registration form should be plenty good enough for the Texas Secretary of State. See the TDP press release for more.

Marijuana arrests stay down

We really should view this as the new normal, and not a problem to be “fixed”.

It’s been more than six months since Texas lawmakers legalized hemp and unintentionally disrupted marijuana prosecution across the state.

Since then, the number of low-level pot cases filed by prosecutors has plummeted. Some law enforcement agencies that still pursue charges are spending significantly more money at private labs to ensure that substances they suspect are illegal marijuana aren’t actually hemp.

The Texas Department of Public Safety and local government crime labs expect to roll out a long-awaited testing method to distinguish between the two in the next month or so. But that’s only for seized plant material. There’s still no timeline for when they will be able to tell if vape pen liquid or edible products contain marijuana or hemp. And DPS said even when its testing is ready, it doesn’t have the resources to analyze substances in the tens of thousands of misdemeanor marijuana arrests made each year — testing it didn’t have to do before hemp was legalized.

“If law enforcement agencies and prosecutors asked for all of those to be tested when these new procedures become available … DPS would start with such a huge backlog that it would likely never get caught up,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. “One decision for prosecutors and law enforcement agencies and the labs is: How do they triage these cases to focus on the most important ones?”

[…]

In 2018, Texas prosecutors filed about 5,900 new misdemeanor marijuana possession cases a month, according to data from the Texas Office of Court Administration. The first five months of 2019 saw an average of more than 5,600 new cases filed a month. But since June, when the hemp law was enacted, the number of cases has been slashed by more than half. In November, less than 2,000 new cases were filed, according to the court data.

For those who support marijuana legalization, that change is welcome, adding to an already growing effort in some of the state’s most populated counties to divert pot smokers from criminal prosecution or not arrest them at all.

“It means that there are fewer Texans that are getting slapped with a criminal record for marijuana possession, something that is already legal in other states,” said Katharine Harris, a drug policy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

See here for the background. There’s no serious argument to be made that the drop in marijuana arrests has had any negative effect on public safety, but it has had the positive effect of keeping thousands of basically harmless people out of the criminal justice system. The main problem with the new status quo is that the reduction in prosecutions is completely ad hoc and not systemic. Whether one gets arrested and jailed or warned and released is entirely a function of where you are and which law enforcement agency is dealing with you. The Lege in 2021 needs to look at what has happened since this inadvertent loosening of marijuana laws and make it a real, permanent thing. We’ve already seem that nothing bad will come of it. Grits and the Current have more.

Fifth Circuit overturns “motor voter” lawsuit verdict

Bummer. Totally expected and completely on brand for the Fifth Circuit, but a bummer nonetheless.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A federal appeals court has overturned a previous ruling that could have opened the door to online voter registration in Texas.

In a Wednesday court order, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal district judge’s ruling that Texas was violating federal law by failing to register residents to vote when they updated their driver’s licenses online. The panel of three federal judges that considered the case did not clear the state of wrongdoing but instead determined that the three Texas voters who had brought the lawsuit did not have standing to sue.

The case revolved around a portion of federal law, often called the motor voter law, that was designed to ease the voter registration process by requiring states to give residents the opportunity to register to vote at the same time they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses.

The legal dispute came after three Texas voters who moved from one county to another were unable to reregister to vote when they updated their driver’s licenses through the state’s online portal. Although the state follows the law for individuals who renew their driver’s licenses in person, Texas does not allow for online voter registration.

[…]

Two of the voters who sued the state believed they had registered and didn’t discover they were not on the voter rolls until they tried to vote in 2014. They were allowed to cast provisional ballots, but their votes were not counted. The third voter also believed he was registered to vote and only discovered he wasn’t when he sought help from county officials to determine his polling location for a 2015 election.

But the 5th Circuit sided with the state’s argument that the voters could not take the issue on in court because they had since successfully registered to vote and were no longer harmed by the state’s practice.

The federal appeals court found that [District Court Judge Orlando] Garcia erred when he reasoned that court-ordered compliance with federal law was needed to “prevent repetition of the same injury” to the three voters and others because the state’s challengers had not sufficiently proved the online system would continue to be a problem for them in the future.

I have a lot of links for this. The lawsuit in question was filed in 2016, and the initial ruling came two years later. Judge Garcia ordered the state to come up with a fix, which could have led to a partial implementation of online voter registration to comply. (Note how the main opposition to this, in mid-2018, came from the Harris County Clerk’s office. Elections matter, y’all.) The state said “nah, we’re good, no fixes needed or offered”, appealed the ruling, asked for an emergency stay of the order, which they received, thus putting everything on ice. And now here we are.

The fact that this was overturned on grounds of standing rather than on the merits suggests that maybe another go at this might be successful, if the right plaintiffs can be found. Which is still kind of ridiculous, since the claim wasn’t that people couldn’t get registered at all but that the state wasn’t following federal law and thus made it more of a pain to register and more likely that people would honestly think they had had their registration updated when they hadn’t. One of the plaintiffs was denied the opportunity to vote in the 2014 election, which sure seems to me to be a legitimate harm for a court to address. I’m not sure what a “correct” plaintiff looks like in this context. Be that as it may, it took over three years to get from the original filing to this ruling, and with no guarantee that a second try would work, or would succeed at SCOTUS even if it got past the Fifth Circuit, this is once again something that’s just gonna have to be solved by winning elections and passing laws, and in this case maybe also installing a DPS director that cares about complying with federal law. I wish it didn’t have to be this hard to secure basic rights and services from our state government, but it is, and we’re the only ones who are going to be able to do something about it. The Texas Signal has more.

State Rep. Poncho Nevarez busted for cocaine possession

It’s been a week, hasn’t it? I have three things to say about this.

Rep. Poncho Nevarez

Authorities issued a warrant Thursday for the arrest of state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, an Eagle Pass Democrat, on felony drug possession charges. A state special investigator claims in the warrant, which was obtained by The Texas Tribune, that Nevárez was caught on surveillance footage in September dropping an envelope with cocaine as he was leaving the Austin airport.

A magistrate judge in Travis County signed the warrant Thursday afternoon. Nevárez faces a charge of third-degree felony possession of a controlled substance, which carries a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison.

Neither Nevárez’s office nor the Travis County District Attorney’s Office immediately responded to a request for comment.

Thursday’s news came hours after an affidavit detailing the allegations, filed Oct. 29 in Travis County court by the Texas Department of Public Safety, was revealed and later obtained by the Tribune and other news outlets. The affidavit was attached to a warrant seeking to conduct a test to determine whether Nevárez’s DNA was on the envelope. The document says that the envelope had Nevárez’s official House seal and held “four small clear baggies” containing a substance found to include cocaine.

Nevárez, who chairs the House Homeland Security & Public Safety Committee, announced last week he was retiring from the lower chamber. And in a statement to the Tribune Thursday morning before the warrant was issued, Nevárez confirmed that the “news is true” — and that the events detailed in the affidavit prompted his decision to not seek reelection.

“I do not have anyone to blame but myself,” he said, noting that he plans to seek treatment. “I accept this because it is true and it will help me get better.”

1. Nevarez had previously announced he was not running for re-election, which I think we can all agree is for the best. Sometimes, regardless of other considerations, stepping back in order to get one’s life together is the stronger course of action.

2. And I really do hope he gets his life back together. Addiction is a terrible thing, and it has real costs not just on the addict but on the addict’s family and friends. Even if I am grossly overstating the issue here – I am making some big assumptions – I stand by the main point about the personal cost to all involved.

3. I hope we take this as an opportunity to further reflect on how the criminal justice system handles drug usage and possession. I would not advocate for decriminalization of cocaine, but I would hope we would all by now recognize that a ten-year jail sentence for possessing a small amount of it is ridiculous and serves no worthwhile purpose. It’s needlessly punitive, exorbitantly expensive, and surely does not have a positive effect on addiction and drug abuse. And we should reflect on the fact that while someone like Rep. Nevarez is unlikely to spend much if any time in jail, many many people in Texas and around the country are not so fortunate. Our drug laws are harmful and woefully out of date. We really should do something about that. If Rep. Nevarez’s situation helps even one legislator realize that, then at least one good thing will come out of this.

Harris County’s gun surrender program

Just common sense.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County officials on Tuesday announced four measures aimed at curbing gun violence, which County Judge Lina Hidalgo said are necessary because the state and federal governments have missed opportunities to prevent shootings.

Hidalgo secured unanimous approval from Commissioners Court to expand a gun surrender program to all 22 of the county’s felony courts.

Additionally, county officials unveiled a streamlined system of reporting criminal convictions to the Texas Department of Public Safety, a new health department task force focused on violence prevention and a free gun lock program.

“We know the vast majority of Americans want common-sense gun reforms, and it’s an issue where we’re not just going to roll over,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve spent the last few months scouring what we can do within the framework that exists.”

[…]

The surrender program, which debuted in the 280th family court in December 2018, requires defendants charged with domestic violence offenses to give up their weapons to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office until their legal cases are resolved. To date, deputies have seized 25 guns under 10 protective orders.

Speeding up the reporting of convictions is one of the gun violence mitigation ideas Greg Abbott had in the wake of the El Paso murders. The surrender program for domestic violence offenders is just a recognition of the correlation between gun violence and domestic violence. Anyone who opposes these simple, broadly-supported, sensible solutions – a group that apparently includes one of the Republican candidates in HD148 – has no interest in reducing gun violence. Anyone who doesn’t support these proposals is part of the problem.

No charges against Bonnen

No surprise.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen will not be criminally prosecuted for the things he said during a secretly recorded June meeting with a hardline conservative activist, the district attorney in his hometown announced Thursday.

“As repugnant as Speaker Bonnen’s actions and statements are,” Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne said in a statement, “I do not believe there is sufficient evidence from the June 12, 2019 meeting to warrant a criminal prosecution of Speaker Bonnen for Bribery or Solicitation of a Gift by a Public Servant, therefore no criminal charges will be brought.”

[…]

A spokesperson for Bonnen said Yenne’s decision “deflates Michael Quinn Sullivan’s entire reason for going public three months ago — that, according to him, the Speaker solicited a bribe and broke the law.”

“Unfortunately, we now live in a political climate where one is guilty until proven innocent, and not only has that thrown the ability of Republicans to hold onto our House majority into jeopardy, it sets a dangerous precedent moving forward,” Cait Meisenheimer, the speaker’s press secretary, said in a statement. “While justice prevailed today, unfortunately, the damage has been done.”

See here, here, and here for the background. This was the conclusion of the Texas Rangers investigation – their report was submitted to DA Yenne earlier this week, according to the story. There wasn’t anything in the tape to suggest criminal activity, just deep stupidity, for which Bonnen will leave the Legislature and Yenne chewed him out. All things considered, I’ve got no gripes about how this turned out.

So are there any legal consequences to the Bonnen tape?

Probably not, but maybe a little. Does that help?

It was, according to his critics, “hurtful,” “vindictive” and “unbefitting of the high office he holds.” But was House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s June 12 meeting with conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan illegal?

In June, when Bonnen met with the hard-charging Tea Party activist, he asked Sullivan to stay out of, and get into, certain electoral battles — “help us out, and maybe kill off one or two or three [moderate Republican House lawmakers] that are never going to help” — and in return offered Sullivan media credentials for the news arm of his organization — “If we can make this work, I’ll put your guys on the floor next session.”

During that meeting — a recording of which was released to the public Tuesday — Bonnen seemed to blur the line between the official and the political. It prompted the Texas House General Investigating Committee, which has subpoena power, to request a probe by the state’s elite investigative unit, the Texas Rangers.

With that investigation ongoing and little word from Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne, who is expected to make the decision on whether to bring a criminal charge, there’s been ample room for speculation — which only escalated after the secret recording was made public Tuesday morning. In Capitol circles, the rule is generally: Don’t offer official tit for political tat. But whether the smudging of those boundaries constitutes criminal activity is a case-by-case consideration, a decision ultimately made by a prosecutor and, if it gets that far, a jury.

“With just the information we know at this time, it’s not clear that a crime was committed,” said Buck Wood, an Austin ethics lawyer who helped rewrite the state’s restrictions in the 1970s after a major political scandal. “But it’s also not clear that a crime wasn’t committed.”

See here for the background. Long story short, while the DPS is still doing its investigation, it seems unlikely that any criminal charges will ever result. The law in question is narrowly tailored to be about personal financial gain, and it would take a pretty broad reading of it to try to get an indictment. Unless there’s new evidence to uncover, I don’t see any danger for the Speaker here.

What about a civil case, though?

Democrats were in court in Travis County Tuesday pressing forward with their lawsuit arguing that Sullivan’s recording revealed serious violations of Texas campaign finance law. The party, along with state Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos, D-Richardson, sued Sullivan in August, demanding the release of the full recording of the meeting.

The lawsuit was also filed against an “unknown political committee” that the lawsuit said includes Bonnen and Burrows. But the two lawmakers are not named defendants. At the hearing, attorney Chad Dunn argued for the Democratic Party that the newly released recording confirms there was discussion in the Capitol about political spending and requested the release of more documents about the meeting.

He said if the judge orders the information released, the party will use those documents to decide if Bonnen and Burrows should also be named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Under Texas election law, a political contribution can’t be made or authorized inside the Capitol. A violation of the law could result in up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. In civil court, it could mean having to pay back targeted candidates or opposing PACs. Dunn said the recording contains “a whole lot of authorizing.”

“If we live in a state of laws, there’s not going to be private conversations with the Speaker in the people’s Capitol authorizing illegal political contributions and expenditures,” he said.

Roark said in the August memo to the Texas Rangers that there was no political contribution authorized at the June meeting, so the law was not applicable in this case.

See here for the background. I don’t have enough information to make a reasoned guess about this one. I will say, one thing the next Lege could do is review the existing laws on what constitutes bribery and political contributions, to see if they could be improved. That would never get through Dan Patrick’s Senate, but as was the case with ethics-related bills last session, it would still be worth the effort. Would be more likely to happen with a different Speaker, that much is for sure.

The Bonnen tape is out

It’s a doozy.

During a June conversation at the Texas Capitol, Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen urged hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan to target members of their own party in the 2020 primaries and suggested he could get Sullivan’s group media access to the House floor, according to a secret recording of the conversation released Tuesday.

Bonnen could also be heard speaking disparagingly about multiple Democrats, calling one House member “vile” and suggesting that another’s “wife’s gonna be really pissed when she learns he’s gay.”

The 64-minute recording of Sullivan’s June meeting with Bonnen and another top House Republican, then-GOP caucus chair Dustin Burrows, was posted on Sullivan’s website and the website of WBAP, a talk radio station in Dallas on which Sullivan appeared Tuesday morning. The recording largely aligned with Sullivan’s initial description of that June 12 meeting — and with what certain Republicans who listened to the audio before it was public had described.

While its release prompted immediate outcry from Democrats and silence from Republicans, Bonnen said in a statement that the audio makes clear he did nothing criminally wrong in the conversation, adding that the “House can finally move on.”

Roughly nine minutes into the recording, after discussing Sullivan’s recent trip to Europe, Bonnen tells Sullivan he’s “trying to win in 2020 in November.”

“Is there any way that for 2020 we sort of say … let’s not spend millions of dollars fighting in primaries when we need to spend millions of dollars trying to win in November,” Bonnen says. “I wanted to see if we could try and figure that out. … If you need some primaries to fight in — I will leave and Dustin will tell you some we’d love if you fought in. Not that you need our permission.”

Roughly five minutes later, the speaker said, “Let me tell you what I can do for you. Real quick, you need to hear what I want to do for you.”

“I don’t need anything,” Sullivan responded.

[…]

Before Bonnen made his offer, he also disparaged a number of House Democrats. The speaker said state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, a Houston Democrat, “makes my skin crawl” and is “a piece of shit.” Bonnen, after saying he’s”begging this is all confidential,” then recounted a meeting with the freshman, after which he asked his chief of staff, Gavin Massingill, what he thought about the new House member.

“Massingill said it best,” Bonnen recalled. “Well, his wife’s gonna be really pissed when she learns he’s gay.”

The room dissolved in laughter before Bonnen turned to discuss other members of the lower chamber’s minority party.

“We’ve got Michelle Beckley, who’s vile,” he said, referring to the freshman Democrat from Carrollton who unseated a Republican in 2018. He exhorted Sullivan to help target these Democrats in competitive districts.

See here for the previous update. I kind of don’t think there’s going to be any “moving on”, except in the sense that no Democrat has any reason to support Bonnen’s re-election as Speaker now. All well and good if Dems take the House in 2020, and still theoretically possible even if they come up a member or two short. Remember, Bonnen was also targeting ten of his fellow Republicans, who may well want to keep their own options open. It’s hard to imagine a Republican in a Republican-majority House backing a Democrat for Speaker, but at this point I think we can all agree that crazier things have happened.

By the way, in regard to those ten targeted Republicans, the Rick Casey theory that they were in Bonnen’s crosshairs because they opposed a bill to ban local government entities from hiring lobbyists sure looks on the money given this quote from the tape: “My goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.” Quite the sentiment, no?

Anyway, there’s plenty more out there. The Signal has some clips, the Trib – which is all over this – has choice excerpts, and other outlets like the Chron, the Observer, Texas Monthly, and the Dallas Observer are going to town. If that’s still not enough, go search the #txlege hashtag on Twitter. On a side note, the TDP claimed victory in their lawsuit now that the tape has been released, but there was still a court hearing about it. All that’s left – before the next election, anyway – is for the DPS to finish their investigation. Hope this helps with evidence collection, guys.

How’s that investigation into the Bonnen-MQS kerfuffle going?

About how you’d expect.

Found on the Twitters

If recent history is any indication, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has little to fear from a Texas Rangers investigation into allegations he offered a bribe to a conservative activist.

Investigators who have delved into accusations of impropriety against the state’s most powerful politicians over a 15-year period delivered just five cases that led to convictions. The Rangers inherited the public integrity caseload in 2015 and have yet to secure a conviction of a lawmaker at any level, records reviewed by Hearst Newspapers show.

Experts say these cases are difficult to prove, often caught in the gap between suspicious behavior and violations of law.

“Is this really a corrupt move or was this just some stupid thing that a politician did, or a cop did, or just a normal citizen did? Usually it’s pretty clear,” said Johnny Sutton, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas from 2001 to 2009. “That’s why we tend to look for the real bribes, the cash-in-the-pocket type of activities, which there’s plenty of, even to this day here in Texas.”

[…]

Investigators for the Rangers’ Public Integrity Unit will have to unearth facts to help a committee of lawmakers — and possibly a prosecutor — decide whether Bonnen offered a bribe or committed offenses such as official misconduct or retaliation. But that could be a difficult case to make.

Bonnen says he has no control over whether any group receives press credentials, which guarantee access to the House floor and lawmakers while they debate and vote on bills. The Texas Scorecard, which is affiliated with Empower Texans, has been denied the credentials in the past because Empower Texans makes millions of dollars in political donations, and House rules forbid interest groups from having them. But the credentials also seem to have little, if any, monetary value — one of several potential sticking points in the investigation.

Without having heard the tape, it’s difficult to determine exactly what Bonnen said and what the understanding was, said Buck Wood, a prominent ethics lawyer of more than 50 years. But investigators don’t need a “magic word” from Bonnen to determine whether the offer constitutes a bribe or threat, he said.

“All you have to do is ask someone to do something and, ‘If you do that, I will do something for you,’” said Wood. “You don’t have to say, ‘By the way, I want to give you a bribe.’”

See here and here for the background. The rest of the story goes into the long and often unsuccessful history of pursuing prosecutions against politician peccadilloes, the transfer of the responsibility for such prosecutions from the Travis County DA to local DAs with unfunded assistance from DPS, and so forth. In short, don’t expect much (or for it to happen soon), and never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. That said, with the pending release of the tape, we may at least get a bit more clarity than we have now. The Texas Standard has more.

On Abbott, Austin, and homelessness

What Chris Hooks says.

On Wednesday, the governor plunged headfirst into a political controversy that has dominated discussion in the city since June. Back then, the city council partially neutered several ordinances that essentially made being homeless in the city a crime by allowing cops to ticket people for sitting or lying on sidewalks or camping in public places. As a result, homeless people became more visible on the city streets, to the consternation of downtown residents and business owners.

This has led to a tremendous improvement in the quality of life of many homeless people. The old rules meant they were pushed to unsafe places to sleep and live, where they were vulnerable to being raped, robbed, and assaulted. Many were ticketed or arrested dozens of times, inhibiting their ability to get off the streets. At the same time, it’s deeply unpleasant to bear witness to extreme poverty and desperation, and some downtown residents have spoken about dirty streets and feeling unsafe.

[…]

The letter is deeply strange. It consists of two parts: why Abbott is acting, and what he’ll do. The first bit contains a declaration that “as the Governor of Texas, I have the responsibility to protect the health and safety of all Texans, including Austin residents.” That’s a big responsibility, one that makes Abbott sound a bit like the All-father, and it might sound strange to you if you’ve come to think of the governorship as a traditionally ornamental sinecure where people earn a paycheck while they wait to run for president.

The line is footnoted, which looks good and proper, but when you follow the footnote it goes to the section of the Texas Constitution that basically just says there is a governor, and that he’s the head of the executive branch of state government. Presumably the fellows who wrote the 1876 constitution, ex-Confederates scalded by their hatred of Reconstruction-era activist governors, didn’t plan to give future governors the power to supervise “the health and safety of all Texans,” but who can say? They’re all dead and were mostly jerks anyway.

The second part lays out what the governor might do to Austin, and by what powers. The most alarming is the declaration that the Department of Public Safety “has the authority to act” to “enforce the state law prohibiting criminal trespassing. If necessary, DPS will add troops in Austin areas that pose greater threats.” It would be a significant overstatement to call this martial law, but the prospect of the governor deploying a surge of state troopers to Austin streets to selectively enforce laws is—well, bizarre, and a little unsettling. Other Texas cities should take note.

There’s more, so go read the rest, and see here for the origin story. It’s hard to see this as anything but a bit of chest-thumping in Austin’s direction, an easy target for Abbott and unlike the gun issue, one where his preferred way forward (at least rhetorically) is clear. And as Nancy LeTourneau notes, it’s a way for Abbott to hug Donald Trump, with liberal cities and homeless people as the victims. In other words, par for the course for our weak and feckless governor. Grits for Breakfast has more.

MQS says he will release the Bonnen tape

Well, well, well.

Hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan said Thursday he will release a secret recording of his controversial meeting with House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and another top GOP member next week.

“I have been given the green light to do so by my legal team,” Sullivan wrote in his morning “Texas Minute” email to subscribers. “Later today I will announce that the audio will be released next week.”

Sullivan could share the recording ahead of an already-scheduled House GOP caucus meeting on Oct. 18, which will mark the first official Republican gathering since the head of Empower Texans accused the speaker of planning to politically target members from his own party. That allegation has, for the past couple of months, thrown the 150-member House into turmoil.

[…]

In August, at the request of a House committee, the Texas Rangers Public Integrity Unit launched an investigation to look into the allegations surrounding that June 12 meeting. It’s been unclear when that investigation could wrap up. Earlier this week, the Rangers were hand-delivering letters to House offices at the Capitol requesting members to provide “any testimony, recordings, documents, records, or other information relevant” to the investigation by Oct. 17.

Before then, on Oct. 15, Sullivan is scheduled to appear in a Travis County court as part of a lawsuit spearheaded by the Texas Democratic Party, which has sued over the recording. A couple of days later, the House Republican Caucus will be in Austin for its annual retreat, which was on the books before Sullivan’s allegations first surfaced.

See here for more on that Travis County court action, and here for previous blogging on this saga. It has always been my belief that MQS would release the tape when and if he decided it was better for him to have it out there than to have people continue to speculate about it. I still believe that, and while it’s possible that the court could have forced him to turn it over, that hasn’t happened yet, and he’s not known for walking away from a fight. So we’ll see what this means. The Texas Signal has more.

DPS’ intel gathering

Should be interesting. And necessary.

State and federal officials in Texas have started monitoring racist and incendiary rhetoric online, such as that alleged to have been used by the suspect in the El Paso mass shooting, in the hopes of preventing violent attacks in the future.

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told a select House committee on mass violence prevention Tuesday that officials at so-called fusion centers — multi-agency intelligence centers throughout the state — had not previously done that work, in part because of the public’s concerns about privacy.

“We know that if we can proactively find those individuals before an event, we have a better chance of getting an opportunity to prevent it from happening,” McCraw said. “It takes professional analysts around-the-clock to do it.”

[…]

Though the online hate monitoring still is in beginning phases, McCraw said officials will be tracking groups from neo-Nazis to incels — self-described involuntary celibates known to commit acts of violence.

Law enforcement is also infiltrating online forums like 8chan where the suspect in the El Paso slaughter allegedly posted a manifesto prior to the attack.

“All of those groups, obviously when there’s individuals that start talking about something that raises a concern, a threat, we should be able to move on it,” McCraw said.

McCraw said the centers will need more resources in the future to not only identify such individuals but also follow up and vet them.

This is what a responsible law enforcement agency should be doing. The threat is real, and the best defense is knowledge of what’s happening. Obviously, any time law enforcement gets involved in intelligence gathering there is the potential for innocent people to be put under suspicion, especially people of color. There will be pressure to view things through a political lens, which in this state is more likely to be bad for those who lean progressive. Strong oversight from the Lege is needed, but we should be prepared for negative effects regardless. Be that as it may, this is still necessary. I hope DPS is up to the task.

MQS-Bonnen secret meeting investigation update

Noted for the record.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

The top prosecutor in House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s home district has joined the probe into Bonnen’s secret meeting with a conservative political activist, in which the activist alleges he was offered an illegal quid pro quo.

Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne said Tuesday that she asked the Texas Rangers Public Integrity Unit to investigate the meeting on Aug. 13, one day after the House General Investigating Committee made the same request.

“Upon completion of the investigation by the Public Integrity Unit, the investigation will be expeditiously reviewed to determine whether any laws were violated,” Yenne said.

Yenne is the top prosecutor in Bonnen’s county of residence, so under a law passed in 2015, the investigation would ultimately have been referred to her for review if the Rangers had reasonable suspicion that Bonnen had committed a crime.

[…]

Earlier Tuesday, the Department of Public Safety, the agency that houses the Rangers, said investigators were “gathering evidence related to the meeting, to include a copy of the recording.”

“To protect the integrity of the investigation, no additional information will be provided, and we request additional questions be referred to the Brazoria County District Attorney,” the agency said in a statement.

Prior to 2015, investigations into public corruption by state lawmakers were conducted by the Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit. But that year, state lawmakers changed the law to put the Texas Rangers in charge of those investigations. If the Rangers find reasonable suspicion that a crime occurred, they refer the case to “the appropriate prosecutor of the county in which venue is proper,” usually a lawmaker’s county of residence.

See here for the background. I have a hard time imagining criminal charges coming out of this, and even if they somehow did (if a grand jury gets empaneled, then maybe) I can’t see this ever going to trial. I mean, we may never see Ken Paxton go to trial, and that was a long time ago with a much clearer crime. I also still think the Republican vendetta against the Public Integrity Unit in the Travis County DA’s office will come back to bite them one way or another, some day. We’ll see how this one goes.

Our first look at how Engage Texas will operate

Interesting move.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

As people filed in and out of the massive driver license office in Southwest Houston on Tuesday morning, two workers at a tent affiliated with a conservative advocacy group asked if the passersby would sign a petition or register to vote.

A follow-up question as two women filled out the forms: Are you conservative or liberal?

“Conservative means you believe in less government and less taxes,” one of the workers – wearing a lime green T-shirt with the group’s name, Engage Texas — asked them. “Liberal means you believe in more government and more taxes.”

State Rep. Chris Turner, who leads the Democratic Caucus in the Texas House, said he witnessed something similar Monday outside Department of Public Safety driver license offices in Fort Worth and in Hurst, a suburb of Dallas, where people who signed a petition to ‘ban late-term abortion’ were asked to register to vote.

“The taxpayers of Texas have a right to expect that their hard-earned dollars are not subsidizing political activity, as is the case here,” Turner wrote Tuesday in a letter to DPS. “And Texans who are trying to renew their driver licenses, already forced to wait hours – sometimes outside in the heat – are enduring enough already without having to deal with political operatives while stuck in line.”

But DPS said in a statement that public spaces outside driver license offices are available for “political speech,” and it appears that Engage Texas is just beginning to ramp up its efforts to register voters ahead of the 2020 elections in which the GOP faces more competitive races than it has in over a decade.

[…]

Texas Democratic Party spokesman Abhi Rahman said the difference between Engage Texas’ voter drive and those organized by Democratic and other groups is the use of a petition or other questions to gauge a person’s political interests.

“If you’re going to be there and register voters, that’s fine,” Rahman said. “But if you’re only registering conservative voters and you’re making them do a political test … that’s where the problem is.”

Chris Davis, elections administrator in Williamson County — where Turner said Engage Texas representatives told him the group was also posted — said he wasn’t aware of any part of the law that explicitly prohibits deputy voter registrars from screening for political affiliation before registering a voter.

But Davis said he believes they have an obligation to register anyone who would like to be registered.

“Their primary charge, as I see it, is to register folks, regardless of stripe, race, creed,” Davis said. “And I wouldn’t look kindly on anyone that is trying to determine a potential voter’s leanings or proclivities as it relates to their politics or stances or beliefs before they issue out an application.”

See here and here for the background. This appears to be legal, though apparently something no one had known would be allowed by DPS before now. Let’s be honest, if any Democratic-aligned group had tried something like this – not just operating on state property, but also overtly excluding people they don’t want to register – as recently as last year, Republicans everywhere would have had a capital-F freakout. I’m trying to come up with non-hyperbolic examples of reactions they would have had, and I can’t. Everything up to and including calling out the National Guard to arrest the registrars and defend DPS parking lots from them would have been possible. Now? Desperate times, I guess. But if that’s what they want

Legislation can’t be filed to stop what Engage Texas is doing until the Texas House and Senate’s 2021 session. In the meantime, Turner says, he expects a bevy of groups to take advantage of DPS’ hospitality.

“If this is DPS’ policy, and they say it is, I think it’s going to be a free-for-all out there now that this is well-known,” Turner says.

I approve that message. The DMN and the Texas Signal have more.

We have a new SOS

Yippie.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

After losing his last chief election officer over a botched review of the state’s voter rolls, Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday appointed a new secretary of state: Ruth Ruggero Hughs.

Ruggero Hughs is moving from the Texas Workforce Commission, which she has chaired since August 2018. She joins the secretary of state’s office nearly three months after Democratic senators blocked the confirmation of her predecessor, David Whitley, who questioned the voter registration of thousands of naturalized citizens.

Whitley resigned on May 27, lacking enough votes in the Texas Senate to keep the job after he oversaw an effort to scour the voter rolls for supposed noncitizens. The review instead threatened the voting rights of tens of thousands of voters of color, landed the state in federal court and prompted a congressional inquiry into voting rights violations.

[…]

Ruggero Hughs is likely to face a challenge in repairing the secretary of state’s relationship with the hundreds of local officials it depends on to run elections. Some county officials have said they’re still waiting for an explanation from the secretary of state’s office on how they got the review so wrong.

I wouldn’t hold my breath on that. Abbott took his sweet time naming a replacement, because he’s Greg Abbott and he does what he wants. Whether Ruggero Hughs winds up being a better SOS than David Whitley was isn’t a high bar to clear, but the real question is whether she’ll be Abbott’s flunky or an honest broker. We’ll have to wait and see, and keep a very close eye on her in the meantime. Because the Lege is not in session, she’ll get to serve until 2021, at which point she’ll need to have won over at least a couple of Dems if she wants to stay in that job. The Chron has more.

Did the Lege sort of decriminalize marijuana?

Well, sort of.

Because of a new state law, prosecutors across Texas have dropped hundreds of low-level marijuana charges and have indicated they won’t pursue new ones without further testing.

But the law didn’t decriminalize small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption. It legalized hemp and hemp-derived products, like CBD oil.

An unintended side effect of the law is that it has made it difficult for law enforcement to tell if a substance is marijuana or hemp, according to prosecutors. Among other provisions, House Bill 1325 changed the definition of marijuana from certain parts of the cannabis plant to those parts that contain a higher level of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that produces a high. It’s a difference numerous district attorneys, the state’s prosecutor’s association and state crime labs say they don’t have the resources to detect, weakening marijuana cases where defendants could claim the substance is instead hemp.

“The distinction between marijuana and hemp requires proof of the THC concentration of a specific product or contraband, and for now, that evidence can come only from a laboratory capable of determining that type of potency — a category which apparently excludes most, if not all, of the crime labs in Texas right now,” stated an advisory released by the Texas District and County Attorneys Association last month.

A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety, which runs more than a dozen state crime labs to conduct forensic testing, including drugs, for local agencies said it does not have equipment, procedures or resources to determine the amount of THC in a substance. Some involved in the hemp legislation have countered that there is already available equipment to test suspected drugs, even if it isn’t in most crime labs.

Still, top prosecutors from across the state and political spectrum — from Harris to Tarrant counties — have dismissed hundreds of pending marijuana charges since the law was signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and immediately went into effect on June 10. They have also signaled they won’t pursue any new charges without testing a substance to indicate if there is more than 0.3% of THC, the now-legal limit to distinguish between hemp and marijuana.

“In order to follow the Law as now enacted by the Texas Legislature and the Office of the Governor, the jurisdictions … will not accept criminal charges for Misdemeanor Possession of Marijuana (4 oz. and under) without a lab test result proving that the evidence seized has a THC concentration over .3%,” wrote the district attorneys from Harris, Fort Bend, Bexar and Nueces counties in a new joint policy released Wednesday morning.

So basically, some counties are now refusing to accept low-level pot cases out of concern that they would not be able to prove them at this time; Harris County is one of them. Others will carry on as usual and see what happens, while DPS is now pushing to get the lab equipment they would need to adjust to this change. I think in the end that the prosecutors will figure out how to adjust to this, and at some point the lab equipment will catch up, so in a few months things will return more or less to normal. I mean, I’d be happy if they all just decided this was a better state of affairs and adopted the stance that this change was permanent. But that’s not going to happen.

Worrying about the expanded school marshal program

This just seems like such a bad idea.

Would a teacher who volunteered to do double duty as a school marshal in Texas act any braver [than a professional law enforcement officer]? Some might. Maybe most would. Would those who decide not to engage a shooter be subject to arrest?

The bill Abbott signed June 6 removed the 200-per-student cap on the number of marshals a school may have. It was part of a legislative package he sought after the May 18, 2018 mass shooting at Santa Fe High School that left eight students and two teachers dead.

A separate, more expansive bill includes a number of school safety measures, including requirements that all teachers have access to a telephone or another electronic communication device, that school districts routinely hold drills to prepare students and personnel for an emergency, and that a statewide consortium be created to provide more children with mental health services.

While those programs appear laudable, expanding the school marshal program could lead to disastrous results. “There’s so much potential for mistakes to be made, for unintended injuries to occur,” Gyl Switzer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense, told the editorial board. “A marshal’s gun could be dropped. A student could try to take a marshal’s gun. And what kind of guns are we talking about?”

Texas’ school marshal program, which began six years ago, was modeled after the federal air marshal program. Only certain school officials, local law enforcement, and the Texas Department of Public Safety are supposed to know who the anonymous volunteer marshals are until they are called into action. That, too, is a problem, said Switzer.

“My children went to a large school where not even all the teachers knew each other. If an incident occurs at a large school, an armed marshal might be mistaken for a bad actor,” she said.

Studies showing black students are disproportionately targeted for discipline are also a concern, the gun control advocate said: “I worry about what might happen if an armed school marshal makes an assumption about a kid because of how he looks.”

The less than 40 certified school marshals in Texas in 2018 rose to nearly 200 after the Santa Fe shooting. That number is expected to grow now that the program has been expanded. Any teacher or other school staffer can volunteer to be a marshal and keep a gun in a safe place on campus for use when it’s deemed necessary.

[…]

Asking teachers, coaches, office staff, and counselors to be prepared to safeguard students in an emergency is reasonable. Asking them to take on the role of an armed protector is not.

See here for further information. I basically agree with everything this author says. It’s just a matter of time before there’s an incident, whether due to mishap, carelessness, mistaken identity, incompetence, or bad intent. The odds of that happening are so much greater than a volunteer marshal stopping an actual shooter. What do you think will happen when such an incident does occur?

It was Abbott all along

Who was behind that botched voter purge that caused now-former Secretary of State David Whitley to not get confirmed by the Senate? Greg Abbott, that’s who.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Two top officials at the Department of Public Safety named Gov. Greg Abbott’s office as a driving force in the state’s program to purge nearly 100,000 suspected non-U.S. citizens from Texas’ voter rolls, emails made public Tuesday show.

Abbott’s office, however, on Tuesday denied it had any contact with the agency before the launch of the effort in late January.

[…]

The emails were made public Tuesday by the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center, which represented plaintiffs who sued the state.

In an August 2018 email, John Crawford, a top official of the driver license division at the Texas Department of Public Safety, told employees that DPS had previously turned over records to compare with state voter rolls, and “we have an urgent request from the governor’s office to do it again.”

That same day, the director of the driver license division, Amanda Arriaga, wrote in a separate email that “the Governor is interested in getting this information as soon as possible.”

In a statement, Abbott denied talking to the Department of Public Safety about the issue until March of this year.

“Neither the Governor, nor the Governor’s office gave a directive to initiate this process,” said Abbott spokesman John Wittman. “No one speaks for the Governor’s office, but the Governor’s office.”

Sure is amazing what you can find out when public records are made public, isn’t it? There’s a reason why Ken Paxton is fighting the release of other SOS files so hard. Abbott’s flunky can claim that the DPS spokesperson doesn’t speak for Abbott, but I think we all know she didn’t make that rationale up on her own. Glen Maxey was right: A scheme like this doesn’t come out of nowhere. One way or another, it comes from the boss. We just now have some documentation to back that up. The Statesman and Think Progress have more.

UPDATE: Ross Ramsey weighs in.

Senate approves one medical marijuana bill

A pleasant surprise.

Rep. Stephanie Klick

Marijuana advocates were handed an unlikely victory Wednesday after the Texas Senate advanced a bill greatly expanding the list of debilitating medical conditions that can legally be treated by cannabis oil in the state.

Although the upper chamber’s leadership once opposed bills that would relax the state’s pot policies, the Senate unanimously voted in favor of a bill by state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, that expands the state’s Compassionate Use Program, which currently allows the sale of cannabis oil only to people with intractable epilepsy who meet certain requirements.

The bill now heads back to the Texas House, where lawmakers can either approve the Senate changes or opt to iron out their differences in a conference committee before lawmakers adjourn in five days. Klick did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether she’d accept the Senate changes to her bill.

The version of the bill approved by the Senate would expand the list of conditions that qualify for the medicine to include all forms of epilepsy; seizure disorders; multiple sclerosis; spasticity; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS; terminal cancer; autism and incurable neurodegenerative diseases. The bill also axes a requirement in current statute that says those wanting access to the medicine need the approval of two licensed neurologists, rather than one.

“This bill is about compassion,” said state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, the Senate sponsor of the bill. “For patients participating in the [Compassionate Use Program], they have had a remarkable and life-altering change because of this. That’s compassion.”

Under Campbell’s version of the bill, the Texas Department on Public Safety would still have oversight of the Compassionate Use Program. Her revised bill also keeps intact the 0.5% cap on the amount of the psychoactive element in marijuana, known as THC, that medical cannabis products are legally allowed to contain. Campbell’s version also axes a provision in Klick’s bill that calls for a research program to assess how effective cannabis is as a medical treatment option for various conditions.

See here for the background. For whatever the reason, Dan Patrick decided to cooperate and play nice, and so here we are. It’s not much, and it brings us no closer to the criminal justice reform part of this, but it’s a step forward, and the more of those the better. The House still needs to approve the Senate changes, and Greg Abbott still needs to sign it, but I feel good about this one going the distance.

The Sandra Bland cellphone video

Wow.

Sandra Bland

New cellphone footage from the now infamous traffic stop of Sandra Bland shows her perspective when a Texas state trooper points a Taser and yells, “I will light you up!”

Bland, 28, was found dead three days later in her Waller County jail cell near Houston. Her death was ruled a suicide.

The new video — released as part of a WFAA-TV exclusive in partnership with the Investigative Network — fuels the Bland family’s suspicions that Texas officials withheld evidence in her controversial arrest and, later, her death.

Until now, the trooper’s dashcam footage was believed to be the only full recording of the July 2015 traffic stop, which ended in Bland’s arrest. The trooper claimed he feared for his safety during the stop.

The 39-second cellphone video shot by Bland remained in the hands of investigators until the Investigative Network obtained the video once the criminal investigation closed.

Bland’s family members said they never saw the video before and are calling for Texas officials to reexamine the criminal case against the trooper who arrested Bland, which sparked outrage across the country.

“Open up the case, period,” Bland’s sister Shante Needham said when shown the video.

Read the rest, and read this interview with Sharon Cooper, also a sister of Sandra Bland. It doesn’t look like there will be any reopening of the case, but for sure we need to know why this video hadn’t come to light before now. It’s hard to accept official explanations of tragedies like this when that explanation suddenly changes a couple of years later. We have to know that we have all the available information, and that there are no more surprises lurking in an evidence box somewhere.