Recent Changes in Texas Criminal Law

By Cole Fulks

The 82nd Texas Legislature convened in January 2011, and began making changes to various Texas laws. Those changes became effective September 1, 2011. Some of those changes include:

House Bill (H.B.) 351 and Senate Bill (S.B.) 462 made changes to the process of expunging (sealing) criminal records. Expunging the record happens when an individual is accused of or charged with a crime but ultimately not convicted of that crime. Reasons for this range from the charges never being brought after arrest or the case being dismissed to the accused individual being found not guilty at trial. The new law reduces the waiting period previously required before expunging that person’s record. Now, instead of waiting until the statute of limitations (deadline) on the offense alleged has expired, applicants now only have to wait six months to a year for most offenses, or three years if the offense was a felony, before requesting that their criminal record be expunged. In some instances, there is no waiting period at all.

The state legislature in 2011 examined the tragic reality of human smuggling and trafficking in Texas. H.B. 260 created a separate office for human smuggling and made it a felony crime. H.B. 3000 created an offense for multiple instances of trafficking, and H.B. 2329 gave victims of human trafficking the right to ask for protective orders.

Identity theft, a growing problem in the age of cashless transactions, received legislative attention as well. H.B. 1215 now makes it easier to prosecute people for the use of credit/debit card “skimming” machines or telephoto lenses used to illegally obtain financial information.

Drug dealers have increasingly turned to the manufacture of cocaine, LSD and methamphetamine-like substances derived from chemicals commonly used in the making of bath salts. Texas law now prohibits the possession of bath salts or chemicals related to the making of bath salts, and makes possession of them a felony crime. Possession or manufacture of marijuana-like substances, known as “Spice” or “K-2,” is now also a felony crime in Texas under S.B. 331.

One of the unfortunate realities of underage drinking is fatal alcohol poisoning. H.B. 3474 and S.B. 1331 addressed the issue, providing immunity from criminal prosecution for minors seeking emergency medical help and for persons summoning emergency medical help for potential alcohol overdose situations, if the overdosing minor remains on-scene and co-operates with offered medical assistance and law enforcement investigation. S.B. 407 created a new offense of “sexting” for minors (the sending/receiving of sexually explicit images by mobile telephones). Provisions were added for frequent offenders, as well.

In other areas of interest, laws pertaining to cockfighting received legislative attention, by the passing H.B. 1043 and creating of a separate offense (as opposed to the existing offense of cruelty to animals) so that now the practice can be prosecuted as a felony crime.

Texas also made some changes in the laws involving recreational boating, fishing and hunting. H.B. 1806 now makes it a crime for someone to alter the length or weight of a fish to affect the outcome of a fishing tournament. This misdemeanor crime can become a felony if the tournament prize exceeds a value of $10,000. Boaters are now allowed under H.B. 25 to carry a weapon, including a firearm, on a personal watercraft as long as the weapon is hidden from plain view and the person carrying the weapon is not engaged in a crime, a member of a gang or is otherwise not prohibited from having a firearm. This new law also makes it clear that it is legal to carry weapons while hunting, fishing or engaging in other similar sports, or when traveling to where the event will be taking place.