Some bills passed by the Texas Legislature may not get used as much in the state's courts as expected because of problems with how they were written.
The Texas District & County Attorney Association, an Austin group that trains prosecutors, is raising concerns about bills involving human trafficking, sexting and domestic abuse. The flaws were discovered by the group's legislative guru, Shannon Edmonds, a widely respected legal analyst.
--Sexting bill: Prosecutors around the state have been privately expressing concern about this bill for weeks. Edmonds is advising them to largely ignore the law because of problems including vague descriptions and conflicting rules.
"It's a bill written by people who don't understand the criminal-justice system," Edmonds said. "Prosecutors and police officers are going to have to use their discretion and ignore the absurdity that was written into the law."
Among the problems with the sexting law, Edmonds said, is that it creates a Catch-22 for adults who come across any explicit photos that were involved in an incident. The law tries to block such adults from being charged with possessing child pornography if they are holding on to the material to aid in an investigation, but Edmonds said it wasn't written properly.
--Domestic orders for pets: A bill from state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, that allows domestic-abuse victims to include pets in a protective order against an abuser is "unprosecutable" in most cases, Edmonds said. A major goal of the bill is to help victims flee an abuser and trust that their pet is legally protected by the protective order. The problem is that the new law is restricted to animals that are "possessed" by the victim. Legally, if a victim leaves his or her animal while fleeing for safety, the person is no longer in possession of the animal, Edmonds said. He argues that the law should have referred to "ownership" rather than "possession."
--Human trafficking law: This measure from Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, and Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, will allow human trafficking victims to apply for protective orders against those who trafficked them and receive that order under a pseudonym to protect their privacy. The bill left out a key reference to the penal code, a single line of language that, because it's not in the new law, means that anyone violating the protective order is not committing a crime, Edmonds said. Instead, a trafficker who, say, gets too close to a victim under a protective order that draws on the new law could be charged with contempt.
Katrina Daniels, a Bexar County assistant district attorney who has worked on trafficking issues, said the new law "has no teeth to it," which could make it tougher for some victims to break free from traffickers. However, she said it is better than nothing and expects it will be fixed in the next legislative session in 2013.
--Penny theft: A penny saved may be a penny earned, but in Texas, a penny stolen is about to become a felony.
State lawmakers passed a bill this session increasing the penalties for metal theft, a crime that has become a growing problem statewide.
Under current law, it is a state jail felony to steal anything worth less than $20,000 if the item is at least 50 percent copper.
A provision of the new bill that takes effect Sept. 1 strikes out the 50 percent threshold, meaning that the theft of any item with any amount of copper could be considered a state jail felony. All pennies consist of at least 2.5 percent copper, according to the U.S. Mint.
Edmonds said he doesn't expect any prosecutor to charge someone with a state jail felony for stealing a penny. But he added that it shows how lawmakers often change current law without fully realizing the consequences.
"In their zeal to get after some of these scrap-metal scavengers, they really swung the pendulum pretty far to the other side," Edmonds said.