Proposed bills could harshen penalties, update statutes

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Texans could have to watch out for 116 new criminal offenses, depending on the success of bills in the Texas State House of Representatives.

Each session, lawmakers propose dozens of pieces of legislation aimed at criminalizing new offenses in the state, as well as legislation that adjusts the punishments for existing crimes.

“Some new laws are always necessary to keep up with changes in technology, drug formulas, public opinion and many other variables,” said criminology professor Mark Warr.

The proposed legislation may create multiple new felonies and misdemeanors. There are currently 2,383 felonies on the books, and 59 of those passed in 2009.

“Criminalizing too many forms of behavior inhibits effective law enforcement, and unenforced laws can create disrespect for the law and law enforcement,” Warr said.

When the Legislature passes law, UT Police Department is subject to uphold those laws, said Assistant Chief of Police Terry McMahan. After UTPD makes an arrest, that person goes through the court system, which decides the type of punishment, McMahan said.

Some of the proposed laws this session include criminalizing the formerly caffeinated malt beverage Four Loko, harshening the punishment for graffiti offenders, repealing the law stating that homosexuality is an offense and creating strict punishments for pet thefts.

HB 882 — Criminalizing Four Lokos
Four Loko fans will need to invest in an alternative if a law passes deeming the controversial beverages illegal this session.

Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, proposed the bill.

A person may not manufacture, import, sell or possess for the purpose of sale a malt beverage that contains caffeine, according to the bill. The bill did not specify what charges a person could
incur.

McMahan said UTPD would deal with the criminalization of Four Loko much the same way as they deal with alcohol
on campus.

“I’m sure if they were to pass a law that criminalized them, then I’m guessing those companies would be shut down because it would be hard to produce them and sell them,” McMahan said.

The passage of the bill will result in an official ban of caffeinated alcoholic drinks in this state, as well as the potential to face criminal charges. The beverage as sold currently contains no caffeine.

HB 38 — Graffiti
Graffiti artists on campus could face felony charges or have their driver’s license suspended if they continue to decorate the campus with their artwork.

The bill proposed by Rep. Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio, could make the act a felony if a person marks a school, an institution of higher education, a place of worship or human burial, a public monument, a government building or a community center that provides medical, social or educational programs, according to the bill.

“Our constituents are sick and tired of having graffiti,” Menendez said. “We’ve tried to attack this issue from every single angle, and we think that we may have one approach that will possibly impact those young people where it hurts them the most — the driver’s license.”

If the legislation passes, individuals who are caught doing graffiti could have their license suspended for up to two years.

At UT, graffiti is a near daily occurrence. There were about eight incidences within the past seven days, according to Campus Watch, a report compiled by University police.

HB 604 — Homosexuality Repeal
A state representative is asking other lawmakers to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that criminal penalties under state sodomy laws are unconstitutional.

The bill proposed by Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, could also revise statewide sex education curriculum to remove mandatory references to gay and lesbian relationships as “not an acceptable lifestyle.”

Almost a decade ago, the Supreme Court in the case Lawrence v. Texas declared it was unconstitutional for homosexuality to be subject to criminal charges. Texas has yet to update its laws to reflect the decision, and “homosexual conduct” is still considered a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500.

“Whether one agrees or disagrees with the substance of Justice [Anthony] Kennedy’s opinion, it diminishes the sanctity of Texas laws when legislators fail to clean up our statutes to reflect the court’s rulings on the U.S. Constitution,” according to a statement released by Farrar in January.

HB 1102 — Theft of Pets
Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-San Benito, proposed a bill that could create a range of punishments for the theft of a pet, depending on the purchase price.

According to the bill, a pet is defined as, “a domesticated animal owned by a person other than the actor.” The term includes a dog, cat, rodent, fish, reptile or bird, but not a livestock animal or wildlife resource.

Penalties range from a Class C misdemeanor if the pet cost its owner less than $50, to a third-degree felony if the pet cost more than $1,500 but less than $20,000. If the stolen property is $200,000 or more, it is a first-degree felony.