September 8, 2008

From the desk of Rep. Allen Vaught

Representative Vaught listens to testimony from Mr. Shannon Edmonds of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association
Criminal Jurisprudence Interim Committee Work
During the months the legislature is not is session, the standing committees of the Texas House of Representatives meet to discuss interim charges. Interim charges provide an opportunity for the committees to hold hearings, study issues confronting the state, and ultimately make recommendations for action.

I currently serve as the Vice Chairman of the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence. This committee holds jurisdiction over matters pertaining to criminal law, probation and parole, as well as criminal procedure in the courts, and revisions to the Texas Penal Code.

Recently, the committee held a two-day hearing at Eastfield College to examine four interim charges. The topics discussed included problems with the current deferred adjudication system, dual trials for capitol murder defendants, adding salvia divinorum to the Controlled Substance Act, and examining the criminal trespass statute.

Deferred Adjudication
Challenges have developed with Texas’ the system of deferred adjudication. Currently, a defendant may enter into a plea-bargain agreement with a criminal court in which formal judgment is withheld or “deferred,” pending the outcome of a probationary period.

At times this means that despite having met all conditions imposed by the court, a non-violent offender who never again crosses the law may continue to have his personal life impacted in the form of difficulty obtaining a job or even visiting his own child at school.

Conversely, there is no restriction on deferred adjudication being offered to a murder defendant. Presently, the crimes expressly exempted from deferred adjudication are limited. The intent and parameters of deferred adjudication need to be clarified to be consistent with our expectations of justice.

Testimony was provided by Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, Harris County District Attorney Kevin Keating, along with representatives from the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, the Texas District and County Attorney’s Association, and the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. The committee also heard from numerous individuals whose lives have been impacted by their decision to take a plea of deferred adjudication.

This is a complicated issue that requires a cautious approach when determining how best to uphold the law while not continuing to punish people beyond what is deserved.

Dual Trials for Capital Murder Defendants
Dual trials gained attention when Governor Perry commuted the sentence of Kenneth Foster last year. Foster, though not convicted of murder, was the driver in a robbery during which a murder occurred. Testimony at the hearing indicated a consensus that capital murder defendants need to be afforded the option of having their trials split.

Salvia Divinorum
Salvia divinorum, a plant from the mint family, is an herb that may be legally sold in Texas. In its description of the substance, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) characterizes the plant as having hallucinogenic effects.

Currently, the DEA is studying the appropriateness and effectiveness of adding Salvia divinorum and Salvinorin A to the Federal Controlled Substances Act. About twelve states limit the possession or distribution of Salvia divinorum in some form, with several others considering adding restrictions to their laws.

Two bills were introduced in the Texas legislature last session that would limit the sale of Salvia to minors and add it to the state's controlled substances list. Neither bill completed the legislative process to become law.

The committee heard testimony from members of the public who expressed concern that the use of this drug is beginning to be more prevalent among teenagers. Some would like this substance regulated by the state and considered a controlled substance. Others prefer to not put the herb on the controlled substances list and simply prohibit that sale to minors.

Criminal Trespass
Several bills related to criminal trespass passed the legislature last session. The legislation ranged in scope from clarifying enforcement issues to changing the severity of penalties. Governor Perry subsequently vetoed these bills, reasoning that the legislation was redundant.

In light of the governor’s opinion, one proposal made to the committee suggested rewriting the criminal trespass statute. A complete revision is touted to provide a statute that is easily understood and consistent for both enforcement and punishment purposes.

During the last hearing, the committee listened to testimony from the Texas Association of Campground Owners and the police chief of New Braunfels who were advocating for passage of legislation dealing with the trespass issue.

Next Step
The hearing process for interim charges is complete for the Criminal Jurisprudence committee. The committee will now develop its report to the legislature summarizing the testimony and making recommendations for action during the upcoming session.

As always, please feel free to contact my district office at 214-370-8305 with any questions regarding these or other state issues.