Pubdate: Wed, 9 Dec 2009
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2009 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Brian Rogers
Bookmark: (Paraphernalia)


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.
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