We live in strange political times. We are so used to politicians not keeping the promises made during campaigns that we seemingly do not know what to do when a politician actually keeps a campaign promise. On the national level, President Donald Trump is keeping many of his campaign promises and Democrats and the media are going ape-processed-hay over it. In Harris County, new District Attorney Kim Ogg is keeping a campaign promise and Republicans are going bonkers while the media cheers her on.
In the off chance you don’t know what I’m talking about:
New policy to decriminalize marijuana in Harris County will save time, money, DA’s office says
Houston and Harris County are poised to decriminalize low-level possession of marijuana in a sweeping move that puts the area at the forefront of efforts in Texas to halt minor drug arrests that clog jails and courts.
District Attorney Kim Ogg announced the new policy Thursday with Mayor Sylvester Turner, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez.
The policy, set to begin March 1, means that misdemeanor offenders with less than four ounces of marijuana will not be arrested, ticketed or required to appear in court if they agree to take a four-hour drug education class, officials said.
This policy was a huge issue in the November election and you would have had to intentionally ignore Ogg’s commitment to this policy if you followed the campaign between Ogg and Devon Anderson and didn’t know about it. From Ogg’s campaign website:
Under Texas law, District Attorneys have the discretion to determine which criminal cases should be prosecuted criminally and which should not. Ogg believes the residents of Harris County will be better served by redirecting tax dollars toward the prosecution of violent criminals, not the prosecution of misdemeanor marijuana cases. On average, about 12,000 Houstonians are convicted annually of misdemeanor marijuana possession, and the cost to arrest, jail, and prosecute them exceeds $10 million.
Ogg’s marijuana platform reflects common sense drug prosecution policies that mirror the concerns of ordinary citizens who are tired of hearing that the police and prosecutors don’t have the time to investigate and prosecute home burglaries, or the resources to test backlogged rape kits. Ogg’s plan is to increase public safety by keeping law enforcement on the street instead of wasting time arresting those in possession of small amounts of marijuana.
“Gangs and organized crime groups are running rampant in Harris County, and I want law enforcement to have the time and money necessary to dismantle those operations. Every time they arrest someone in possession of marijuana, police are off the streets for an average of four hours.” — Kim Ogg
Unfortunately Ogg made a strategic error in her rollout by not including a single Republican in her press conference. Many Republicans have been on the front lines of this issue and are responsible for the 2007 change in state law that underpins her new policy. It would have been wise to include them and perhaps some of the histrionics would have been lessened. But she didn’t, so here we go.
Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon was the first Republican to lash out at Ogg with this press release. In it, Ligon says:
“Despite a rise in violent crime rates in Harris County, Ms. Ogg chooses to focus her attention on the issue of legalization of marijuana,” Ligon said. “I hope it’s a mistake in judgment on her part and not a sign of things to come. I respect the jurisdictional differences between Montgomery County and Harris County, and I hope she does too.
Well, not to bring up the obvious here Mr. Ligon but you have pretty much stated the reason that Ogg is implementing this policy. You know, to focus on violent crime? Good luck to you folks up in Montgomery County if this guy is the best you got. Sheesh.
Obviously our local Republican media types have to have their say on it.
Harris County officials’ move to decriminalize low-level possession of marijuana to unclog jails and courts drew immediate blowback from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, while other lawmakers said they support it.
Through a spokesman, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick blasted Ogg’s proposal as akin to Houston becoming a sanctuary city on low-level drug crimes.
“The lieutenant governor has said repeatedly regarding sanctuary cities that he does not believe that law enforcement has the discretion to choose what laws to enforce and what laws to ignore,” said Patrick press secretary Alejandro Garcia. “That is his position regarding DA Ogg’s proposal.”
Houston state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who chair of the Republican Caucus in the GOP-controlled Senate, disagrees. And while the caucus has not taken a vote on Ogg’s plan, “I can strongly suggest that the support is there to continue the penalities that are in effect now,” he said.
“This issue is absolutely partisan: A Republican DA in Montgomery County says it’s wrong and the Democratic DA in Harris County says is right,” Bettencourt said. “There’s obviously an element in the state that thinks this is a good idea, and an element that does not.”
Before you call Lt. Gov. Patrick names, you should know that he is consistent on this and is really the only one currently in the state government that can righteously oppose it. Texas HB-2391 passed in the 80th legislative session. The House passed it 132-0. The Senate passed it 29-1. Governor Perry signed it. Guess who that one Nay vote was? That’s right. So he gets a pass on this one.
As for Bettencourt, I guess he’s already forgotten that the Republicans in Harris County supported Ogg, as I noted here. This should not be a partisan issue.
While I like the policy at first glance, I do have a few questions. The biggest question has to do with the law that underpins the policy. Here is the Enrolled Bill Summary:
House Bill 2391 amends the Code of Criminal Procedure to authorize a peace officer to issue a citation to appear before a magistrate at a later time, in lieu of requiring an immediate appearance, to a person who is charged with certain Class A or Class B misdemeanors, if the person resides in the county where the offense occurred. The bill requires the magistrate to issue a warrant for the person’s arrest if the person fails to appear as required by the citation.
HB2391 doesn’t come close to allowing Ogg to implement the policy as written. Since I’m not an attorney, I can’t say whether or not the policy will pass legal muster and can only hope that the attorneys in the office that helped her write it have other laws and opinions that support it. Click here to read the ‘official’ draft released the day before the press conference. It is interesting to see that Steve Clappart is the author, I thought he was an investigator. (Update: I’m told that Clapper Jr. works in IT).
It’s interesting that most of the police forces in the area have not signed on. Note that the bill gives the officer the authority to issue a citation but doesn’t require it. The officer still has the option to arrest someone that is violating the law. What happens if an officer in Pasadena arrests a person with an ounce of marijuana instead of writing a citation? Does the suspect have to sit in the Pasadena city jail while the officer argues with the DA’s intake attorney?
Also, the bill specifically says that in order for the officer to issue a citation instead of arresting the suspect, the suspect must live in the county in which he is detained. What happens if a Montgomery County resident steps over the line and gets busted in Harris County?
Until the legislature legalizes marijuana once and for all, we are going to have a hodgepodge of enforcement activities around the state and that should not be the way state law is enforced.