With more than 800 new state laws taking effect at the start of September, the legal age for tobacco and vaping products rises from 18 to 21, gun rights continue to expand, children’s lemonade stands get support and hundreds of thousands of Texans will get their driver’s licenses back.
The Texas Legislature also created dozens of new crimes and added harsher penalties to old ones, acted to reduce a shameful backlog of untested rape evidence and made it legal to carry brass knuckles and key chains designed to enhance the power of a punch.
Of local interest, restaurants across Texas can follow Austin’s lead by offering dog-friendly outdoor seating, and those so inclined can pay extra for a “Keep Austin Weird” specialty license plate.
A total of 820 new laws take effect with the start of the state fiscal year on Sunday. More than 470 have already taken effect since the Texas House and Senate left Austin in May.
Many of the new laws focus on crime and punishment.
“By our count, they created about 50 new crimes this session,” said Shannon Edmonds with the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, which works to keep prosecutors up to date on legislative changes.
That’s a little higher than average, but not by much, he said.
Personal appeals matter
Inspired by a Dallas mother and daughter, Senate Bill 1259 creates a new sexual assault category for fertility specialists who use “human reproductive material” from a donor not chosen by the patient.
Eve Wiley told a Senate committee in April that after learning she had been conceived using sperm from an anonymous donor, she tracked down Donor 106 and established a father-daughter relationship, calling him Dad and inviting him to officiate her wedding.
Wiley said health problems with her 4-year-old son led to DNA testing and, eventually, the shocking discovery that her mother’s fertility doctor was also her biological father.
“I had to be the one to tell my mother that this is what happened, and then I had to call the man who I had called Dad for the last 13 years and tell him he is not my biological father,” Wiley, sitting beside her mother, Martha Williams, told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee in April.
“Then we found out this was not a crime,” she said, her voice breaking.
The fertility fraud bill passed unanimously in both chambers.
Another personal story prompted the Legislature to allow capital murder charges for victims under age 15, up from age 10, making the defendant eligible for a life sentence without parole or, if other aggravating factors are present, for the death penalty.
SB 719 also was known as Lauren’s Law for Lauren Landavazo, who was 13 when she was shot and killed while walking home from school in Wichita Falls in 2016. Her killer will be eligible for parole in 30 years.
At a Capitol hearing on the bill, Vern Landavazo got lawmakers’ attention when he spoke about the “daughter I waited my whole adult life for” with her photo draped over the front of the witness table.
“To not be able to protect her, I can’t describe that feeling,” he said.
Likewise, appeals from the father of Philip Wood, a UT track athlete who was killed by a hit-and-run driver about a month before he was to graduate in 2014, led to the passage of a law that requires at least 120 days in jail if probation is granted to a defendant convicted of leaving the scene of a fatal accident.
Wood told lawmakers that he felt compelled to support House Bill 2502 after the man who killed his only son served almost no jail time. “I hope it makes things better for other families in the future,” he said.
New Texas crimes
Mail theft is now a state crime, mirroring a federal statute to give local prosecutors a chance to pursue charges ranging from a misdemeanor if mail is taken from fewer than 10 addresses to a felony if more than 30 addresses are involved — with even harsher penalties for identity theft or if elderly Texans or people with disabilities are targeted.
In an attempt to counter the growing problem of theft by “porch pirates,” HB 37 also expands the definition of mail to include packages dropped off by a delivery service or left out for pickup.
Another modern menace, credit card skimmers secretly installed inside gas station pumps, gets attention from HB 2625 by creating a new crime, fraudulent use or possession of credit card information, to help prosecutors go after skimmers found with multiple account numbers. The law also bumps up the available punishment — up to two years in jail for possessing fewer than five stolen accounts, rising to up to 99 years or life in prison for 50 or more stolen numbers.
In addition, HB 2945 requires merchants who discover a skimmer to immediately disable the gas pump, notify law enforcement and cooperate with investigators.
Other new laws include:
• Two laws target telemarketer fraud, with HB 1992 making it illegal to spoof caller ID by using misleading information and HB 101 creating a new crime — false caller identification information — for misrepresenting a caller’s name or phone number with the intent to “defraud or cause harm.”
• Sexting without the recipient’s consent is now a Class C misdemeanor under HB 2789, providing a maximum fine of $500 for the offense of unlawful electronic transmission of sexually explicit visual material. The bill was backed by Austin-based Bumble, the female-focused dating app.
Several lawyers across Texas say they’re ready to challenge the law as a violation of First Amendment speech protections, and Edmonds said he doesn’t expect the law to get much use because “it’s pretty patently unconstitutional.”
• SB 194, creating the new crime of indecent assault, takes full effect after portions took effect in June, bringing up to one year in jail for groping and unwanted sexual contact.
• SB 751 prohibits “deep fake” videos that use technology to alter footage — often by placing specific people in falsified situations — to influence voters or hurt a candidate if published within 30 days of an election.
• The crime of operating a stash house, established by HB 2613, is designed to make it easier to prosecute those whose property — anything from a building to tents, vehicles and boats — is knowingly used for human trafficking, human smuggling or prostitution.
HB 902 adds assault of a pregnant woman to a list of crimes that carry an enhanced penalty, a third-degree felony instead of a misdemeanor, if the attacker knew the victim was pregnant.
“That may get used frequently,” Edmonds said. “It’s almost always family violence related, so that’s where that is coming from.”
Prosecutors are also expected to make use of HB 667, which increases the penalty for sexual assault involving incestuous relationships to five to 99 years in prison, up from the current two to 20 years.
“So many cases involve familial relations — stepfathers, uncles, cousins. I think you will see that have an impact,” Edmonds said.
Efforts to address the growing problem of human trafficking included HB 2758, barring courts from offering probation for aggravated promotion of prostitution and continuous trafficking of persons.
Other laws created a new felony, online promotion of prostitution, and increased penalties for promoting prostitution.
And, motivated by Hurricane Harvey, there are tougher penalties for crimes committed in a disaster or evacuation area, including arson, burglary of vehicles and criminal trespass.
No longer a weapon
Knuckles were outlawed in Texas decades ago, when they were considered a weapon of choice for gangs, “but in the real world, knuckles aren’t a problem,” said Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso.
A real problem, he told lawmakers during a March hearing at the Capitol, are the criminal charges being filed against people like Kyli Phillips of Dallas, who faced up to a year in jail for having a cat-shaped key chain that could be held with its hard plastic ears jutting forward.
“Law-abiding people continue to be arrested” for owning legitimate self-defense tools and novelty items like key chains when it’s legal to carry knives, guns and pepper spray, Moody said.
HB 446 removes knuckles from the state’s list of prohibited weapons. It also removes “clubs” from the list of weapons that are illegal to carry, allowing nightsticks, tomahawks and similar items.
What remains prohibited? Explosive weapons and improvised explosive devices, machine guns, short-barrel firearms, armor-piercing ammunition, zip guns, tire-deflation devices and firearm silencers except as allowed under federal law.
Guns in Texas
A shooting rampage by a Santa Fe High School student that left 10 dead was on lawmakers’ minds last session, prompting numerous efforts to improve school safety, including money for mental health care and training to help teachers and staff identify dangers.
In addition, lawmakers removed limits on the number of armed marshals, state-trained teachers and administrators allowed to bring a gun to campus.
Since the session ended, a gunman killed 22 at an El Paso Walmart, strengthening calls for gun limits and promising to spark debate when the Legislature returns in 2021.
Meantime, the GOP-led Legislature continued its march toward expanding gun rights.
Democratic efforts that went nowhere last session included bills to outlaw guns made on 3D printers, strengthen pre-purchase background checks, allow public universities to opt out of campus carry and beef up penalties if children are allowed to gain access to a gun.
About a dozen Republican-drafted bills to expand gun rights made it to the finish line, however, including legislation removing houses of worship from the list of sites where guns are illegal, though churches and synagogues can post signs barring weapons if desired.
Other changes will let school employees store guns in locked vehicles on campus parking lots, ban property associations from enforcing restrictive covenants that limit firearm ownership, and allow gun owners to carry a weapon without a license to carry for seven days after a disaster declaration.
After several failed attempts earlier this decade, the Legislature finally killed the Driver Responsibility Program, which added extra fees for driving offenses but had the unintended consequence of sending low-income Texans into a spiraling cycle of debt.
More than 1.4 million Texans have had their driver’s licenses suspended for failure to pay the fees, assessed over three years for offenses such as driving while intoxicated ($1,000 a year) and driving without insurance or a valid license (a $250 annual surcharge).
As of Sept. 1, all unpaid fees are waived and driving privileges are restored for those who lost their license solely for lack of payment under the program. Licenses that expired within the past two years can be renewed online, and those affected by the change should have received a letter explaining their options from the Department of Public Safety.
In addition, under HB 2048, DPS will no longer assess points for moving violations under the program. Current points also are removed from driving records. Under the program, a $100 fee was assessed for six points, plus $25 for each additional point.
The law requires proof of a current CPR certification issued by “the American Heart Association, the American Red Cross, or another nationally recognized association.”
Reacting to a chronic backlog of untested evidence from sexual assaults across Texas, HB 8sets tighter deadlines to collect and test rape kits and begins the 10-year statute of limitations from the time evidence is tested.
“That rape kit contains more than just evidence. That rape kit contains the hope that justice will prevail,” said Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, author of the bill. “That rape kit contains the key to the prevention of future offenses.”
The bill, dubbed the Lavinia Masters Act, was named for a Dallas girl who was raped at 13 but waited more than 20 years for her rape kit to be tested, blocking its use by prosecutors.
Under HB 8, investigators have 30 days to send evidence to a crime lab, which has 90 days to complete its analysis, but only if sufficient resources and personnel are available. To help with that, the Legislature devoted $50 million to improving outdated technology and addressing a lack of qualified testers over the next two years.
Tobacco, abortion, more
• SB 21 makes it illegal to buy, use or possess tobacco and vaping products for those under age 21. Violations could bring a $100 fine, although members of the military who are at least 18 years old are exempted from the new age limit.
Texas becomes the 15th state to raise the legal age to 21, with similar laws in three additional states taking effect by Dec. 1, according to the Tobacco 21 advocacy group.
• One new abortion regulation blocks cities and counties from contracts with abortion providers or affiliates, a rule intended to starve Planned Parenthood of government funding. Another law requires abortion doctors to provide medical care to babies born alive during an abortion, an extremely rare event, particularly in Texas, which outlaws abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, before the age of viability outside the womb.
• HB 3582 allows people charged with a first driving while intoxicated offense to receive deferred adjudication, a form of probation. The change is meant to give defendants an incentive to get court-ordered treatment instead of pleading guilty and getting a quick sentence, raising the odds of future bouts of drinking and driving.
• Coercing a student to consume alcohol or take drugs to the point of intoxication is added to the definition of hazing, a crime under state law, under SB 38.
• Finally, children across Texas are free to operate the occasional lemonade stand. HB 234blocks property associations and local governments from outlawing the stands or requiring the kids to get a permit.
On final passage, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick summed it up this way: “To think that anyone would deny them that privilege and that we have to come here and pass a bill is kind of ludicrous.”
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