Harold Dutton

Photo Credit: Melanie Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

The House gave preliminary approval Wednesday to a statewide ban on texting while driving.

HB 80 was approved with a 102–40 vote. The bill would ban text-based communication while driving in the state. If the ban passes, Texas would be the joining 45 other states that have already implemented some form of a texting ban.

“I think that we need a flat policy across the state that tells where we are,” Rep. Tom Craddick (R-Midland) said in an interview with The Daily Texan. “A lot of people who go to different towns don’t know what the regulations are. If you have one bill that regulates across the state, people will know what the law is and what to abide by.”

Exceptions to the bill include typing to make a phone call, using GPS systems and replying to emergency texts, among other situations.

“You’ve got to be realistic and there are certain situations, like emergency situations, where you’ve got to give people the flexibility,” Craddick said.

At the bill’s second reading, Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston) said he is concerned about how a statewide texting ban would be enforced. He said he thinks officers would have a difficult time identifying when a person is texting on their phone rather than holding it or performing another action, such as making a call.

Dutton said the bill creates potential for probable cause and filed an amendment that would prevent officers from pulling over a person solely based on the belief that the individual is texting. The amendment ultimately failed in a 73–66 vote.

“Just because I hold my cell phone in my hand, doesn’t suggest that I am texting,” Craddick said.

In total, six amendments out of 14 were passed. The amendments passed included increased signage, including state entrance signs, highway rest stops and state highway maps, as well as the ability to text when stopped.

According to the Texas Department of Transportation, about 40 cities have banned texting while driving in some form, with Austin being the first in 2009. In January 2015, Austin implemented a hands-free ordinance that prohibits the use of any handheld device while driving.

Austin Police Department Lt. Robert Richman said he thinks the texting ban could be implemented statewide and increase driver safety, but the state could also look into adopting a hands-free ordinance. He said APD experienced challenges with the texting ban before Austin’s switch to a hands-free ordinance.

“I think it’s very possible that it can be implemented on a statewide scale,” Richman said. “When we first started the texting ban, the texting ban had some limitations when it came to enforcement. Enforcement was very, very difficult, almost impossible, for us to do.”

The City’s ordinance is not enforced on campus, but the state’s would be if it were to pass, according to Cindy Posey, UTPD spokeswoman.

“State law enforcement authorities generally do not enforce city ordinances,” Posey said in an email. “However, UTPD enforces any state law related to distracted driving. If the state were to pass a law specifically prohibiting texting while driving, then yes, UTPD would enforce.” 

Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) has an identical bill filed in the Senate. HB 80 is scheduled for a third reading in the House on Thursday, when it may receive final approval and be sent to the Senate.

When Austin police chief Art Acevedo visited The Dudley & Bob Morning Show on KLBJ in December, it seemed like an ordinary PR appearance — that is, until the last few minutes of the interview.

After the show hosts made a couple of jokes about marijuana use, Art Acevedo interrupted to say, “You know, what you do in your home and the privacy of your home is great. We could care less, as long as you’re not selling the stuff and growing it for everybody else.” He quickly added, “Just don’t drive. Don’t drive, that’s all I ask.”

The discussion about marijuana that followed was brief but full of other surprising comments: Acevedo admitted that he hoped to smoke weed before he died, then made a few digs at the Williamson County’s police department, which is known for its aggressive drug enforcement practices. “What a price to pay to get a little bit of dope,” the police chief said, “to be doing body cavity searches every time you stop somebody for a misdemeanor.”

The nonchalant comments came soon after Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana use and, closer to home, Texas state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, filed HB 184. The bill seeks to make possession of marijuana, one ounce or less, a class C misdemeanor, the equivalent of a traffic ticket, rather than a class B misdemeanor, the equivalent of a DWI. Two months later in early January, Texas state Rep. Elliott Naishtat (a Democrat who represents many students living near UT’s campus) and Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, filed HB 594, a bill to allow doctors to legally recommend marijuana as a medical treatment and to legalize marijuana possession by those patients. Although the purchase and distribution of the drug would still be illegal, the bill would allow individuals suffering from Parkinson’s disease, cancer or MS to avoid jail time for eating pot brownies at their physician’s suggestion.

Revisions to both state and federal drug laws are long overdue: Prisons are overflowing with nonviolent offenders, more police departments are refusing to make possession arrests and almost half of the United States have legalized or decriminalized clinical use of marijuana. Harsh penalties for smoking weed put otherwise employable Texas citizens in expensive prisons for victimless, nonviolent crimes. The effects of jail time are far-reaching: Former inmates have a harder time finding well-paying jobs after a drug charge, which translates into more families in poverty and relying on social services.

The conversation on drug policies is changing. HB 184 and HB 594 offer Texas the a chance to be a part of that change, but the opportunity for bipartisan collaboration on reforming dated, expensive policies could easily be wasted. Both Rep. Dutton and Rep. Naishtat have introduced similar bills in prior legislative sessions, but if history bears out, neither HB 184 nor HB 594 will make it out of committee.

Although Gov. Rick Perry supports states’ rights to determine the legality of marijuana, he ignores Texas citizens’ demands to fix a broken system. The 2011 Texas Lyceum Poll — administered before Washington’s and Colorado’s drug laws passed — revealed that one-third of Texas voters supported legalizing marijuana, a measure far more controversial than decriminalization. If we can’t have immediate reform, we at least deserve a serious, well-informed discussion on the social, economic and psychological consequences of criminalizing a plant.

Buckley Rue, president of the UT chapter of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, helps organize students to fight against restrictive laws on controlled substances. The religious studies senior said, “I think [the bills] are a powerful steps in the right direction. The bills don’t even need to get passed. Persistence is what’s going to win in the end.”

Persistence worked for Washington and Colorado, and hopefully persistence will work for decriminalization here. Until then, federal, state and local governments will continue to pour billions of dollars annually into a war against our own citizens that cannot be won. I hope our legislators will realize, as our police chief does, what Texas law sacrifices in the name of a little bit of dope.

San Luis is a Plan II, Women’s and Gender Studies and English senior from Buda.

Small amounts of marijuana possession could become comparable to a traffic violation if a bill filed in the Texas House of Representatives passes.

Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, has filed a bill that would make possession of one ounce or less of marijuana a Class C misdemeanor, comparable to a traffic ticket. Currently, any amount less than two ounces is a Class B misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000.

A similar bill filed by Dutton makes possession of one gram or less of certain controlled substances a Class A misdemeanor instead of a state jail felony. Drugs under this category include cocaine, ecstasy, LSD and heroin. Under the current law, any amount less than two grams is a state jail felony, punishable by six to 24 months in state jail and a fine of up to $10,000. Offenders with certain previous convictions would not be subject to either of these bills.

Multiple attempts to reach Dutton were unsuccessful.

Buckley Rue, religious studies junior and UT’s Students for a Sensible Drug Policy president, said the bills are a small but significant step in the right direction. He said it is an issue of fairness to those arrested for minor drug possession violations.

“Drug usage, particularly marijuana, transcends color and creed, leaving people of all varieties to contemplate the day they might be arrested for some petty possession, which affects no one but the person getting arrested,” Rue said. “How many innocent teens must be plagued with a drug record for the rest of their life for having perhaps a gram of a substance with a lower death rate than caffeine or aspirin?”

Sociology professor William Kelly said he agrees with Dutton’s bill.

“It does not make sense to jail folks for possession of marijuana,” Kelly said. “Decriminalization of possession of marijuana is rational and appropriate.”

Dutton filed two similar bills during the last legislative session, both of which failed to make it out of the criminal jurisprudence committee.

Printed on Friday, December 7, 2012 as: Bills could loosen marijuana laws