Controversial Texas police videos raise question: Should police be able to arrest for fine-only offenses?

Controversial Texas police videos raise question: Should police be able to arrest for fine-only offenses?

Police groups oppose limiting the discretion of officers to make those types of arrests.

Once Puente was in custody, Shimanek then had the legal right to search his car. Body cam video shows the officer found nothing illegal inside the car.

His father, who was also across the street recording on a cell phone, was pepper sprayed and arrested in an incident sparking national outrage.

But what happened that day raises another question: Should lawmakers strictly limit when police can make arrests for Class C misdemeanor offenses, which are punishable only by a fine?

“It's a classic case study for exactly why that legislation is needed,” said Scott Henson, a police reform advocate who writes the Grits for Breakfast blog, focusing on police and criminal justice issues.

“The legislature has said the maximum penalty for a Class C is a fine, not jail time," he added, "and so by arresting you and taking you to jail you’re actually being punished to a greater degree than the legislature has said is the maximum punishment if you’re found guilty in a court of law.”

Already there are several traffic offenses –speeding, texting and driving and having an open container -- for which officers generally cannot arrest a person.

“Removing discretion from an officer is taking away a tool from them that could potentially curb a future incident from occurring,” said Jennifer Szimanski, a CLEAT spokeswoman. “We feel like discretion is a powerful tool.”

For decades, Henson and other police reform advocates have been pushing to strictly curtail arrests for most fine-only offenses. They argue that arresting for Class C offenses has a disproportionate impact on minorities and the working poor, and often times it’s used as a way to be able to search someone’s vehicle if they won’t consent to a search.

Bland was pulled over by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper for failing to signal, an offense punishable only by a fine. During the stop, he threatened to “light” her up with a Taser when she questioned she was being arrested.

Her death led to the 2017 passage of the Sandra Bland Act, which among other thing mandated that police departments report Class C misdemeanor arrests.  A provision that would have limited such arrests was stripped out.

Henson says the data gathered as a result of the act shows that very rarely do Class C arrests lead to something more serious.

Texas Appleseed, a social justice nonprofit, released a study last year looking at jail booking records from 12 of the state’s largest counties in 2017. It found more than 30,000 people were booked into Texas jails solely for Class C misdemeanors.

“We want to make sure that we're judiciously and prudently using the resources of the state to detain folks,” he said. “Anytime you’re arrested, any time you’re confined, that is most expansive form of government coercion. That is a limitation on your freedom and whenever we decide to do that I think it should be of proportionate concern.”