Starting next year, the Harris County District Attorney's Office no longer will file state jail felony charges against suspects found with only a trace — less than a hundreth of a gram — of illegal drugs, District Attorney Pat Lykos said Tuesday.
Instead, people found with crack pipes with nothing more than residue inside or other drug paraphernalia, would face a ticket for a class C misdemeanor, which carries a maximum fine of $500.
Not surprisingly, the pending change was hailed by defense lawyers, but criticized by police officers.
“It ties the hands of the officers who are making crack pipe cases against burglars and thieves,” said Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union. “A crack pipe is not used for anything but smoking crack by a crack head. Crack heads, by and large, are also thieves and burglars. They're out there committing crimes.”
A Houston Police Department spokesman said Chief Harold Hurtt declined to comment on the change, citing ongoing discussions between Hurtt and the district attorney's office.
But Blankinship said the district attorney's office is trying to restrict the volume of cases rather than deal with them.
“When they get to a certain caseload, we're supposed to stop?” he asked. “Stop arresting people who are violating the law? How much sense does that make?”
Lykos said there were several reasons to change the policy, including the inability of defense experts to re-test drug residue that is destroyed when it is analyzed. To be tested twice, there has to be more than a hundredth of a gram, she said.
A packet of sugar generally weighs a gram. Half a grain of rice weighs about one-hundredth of gram.
Lykos said the move “gives us more of an ability to focus on the violent offenses and the complex offenses. When you have finite resources, you have to make decisions, and this decision is a plus all around.”
She said she did not have figures for how many cases may be affected, because cases are filed as possession of less than a gram.
Of more than 46,000 felony cases filed last year, almost 30 percent, 13,713, were for possession of less than a gram of drugs.
She said that while having a crack pipe will be only a ticketable offense, police still will be able to search suspects and cars if they find one. She noted that other counties, including Travis and Bexar, have similar policies. In Fort Worth, she said, the minimum is twice as large — .02 of a gram.
Lykos said the policy may help reduce jail overcrowding, an an idea “cautiously” embraced by Sheriff Adrian Garcia.
“The sheriff is cautiously in support of the policy,” said Alan Bernstein, director of public affairs for the Harris County Sheriff's Office.
He said as many as 750 of the 11,000 people in jail could be affected, but it was impossible to know Tuesday whether each inmate was facing other charges or other possible charges that were not filed in lieu of the state jail felony that was filed.
“So, if they're in here on other charges, they would be here anyway,” Bernstein said.
Lykos said it would affect cases that include cocaine, crack, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs.
The change was praised by defense attorneys.
“It's a smart move and it's an efficient move and it lets us get down to the business of handling criminal cases of a more serious magnitude,” said Nicole Deborde, president-elect of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.
By BRIAN ROGERS
December 8, 2009