The Texas House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence heard testimony Tuesday on a piece of priority legislation that would help ensure district attorneys enforce state law.
Last summer, five Texas DAs—Jose Garza (Travis County), John Creuzot (Dallas County), Joe Gonzales (Bexar County), Mark Gonzalez (Nueces County), and Brian Middleton (Fort Bend County)—announced their refusal to prosecute illegal abortions.
This was not the first time local district attorneys hand-selected which crimes to punish. In 2019, Creuzot announced he would not prosecute some “low-level” and nonviolent crimes.
For these reasons, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and House Speaker Dade Phelan (R–Beaumont) have made legislation that ensures district and county attorneys follow state law and do not make categorical determinations of which laws will be enforced, a legislative priority this session.
“Some prosecutors are bringing politics into prosecution, and the purpose of House Bill 17 is to eliminate politics from this arena when their main job is prosecution,” explained Cook.
Tammy Brown Rodriguez, director of policy for Jaco Booyens Ministries, testified for HB 17, stating, “The crime rate has been out of control. And so for us personally, our house has been broken into, our car has been stolen, our other house has been vandalized, and nothing was done because our DA in Dallas County is not doing anything.”
Rodriguez highlighted how this also affects sex crimes, as only 1 percent of sex crimes are reported, and of that 1 percent, “a very small percent are prosecuted.”
Multiple law enforcement representatives testified in support of HB 17, including Thomas Villareal, president of the Austin Police Association.
“The DA’s office is wholesale rejecting probable cause affidavits that charge people with various crimes,” said Villareal, listing charges dropped that include felony assault, family violence, aggravated assault, terroristic threat, and tampering of evidence.
Villareal said the county attorney has taken a similar stance in dismissing dozens of criminal trespass charges and “with this behavior, the county attorney’s office has essentially taken it upon itself to decriminalize these certain offenses.”
John Wilkerson of the Texas Municipal Police Association supported HB 17 but also recommended additional provisions that prohibit the prosecutor from running for office again for a period of time if convicted, provide for an expedited process since the removal process can take several years, and ensure taxpayers don’t foot the bill for the convicted prosecutor.
Both Galveston County DA Jack Roadie and Chris Gatewood of the Smith County district attorney’s office testified on the bill, raising concerns over potential abuse of the powers by citizens who are upset that a prosecutor chooses not to prosecute a certain case.
Nick Hudson of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas testified against the bill, saying they ultimately believe the removal process should happen through the voting process. However, Hudson also raised concerns over ensuring pretrial programs aren’t implicated and First Amendment rights for prosecutors.
Cook said the law will not apply retroactively to prosecutors statements made before an election, and added that the legislation is concerned with a prosecutor’s actions in deciding whether or not to prosecute a case.
Additional measures on this matter are currently moving through the legislative process.
HB 17 was left pending in committee.