88th LegislatureCriminal JusticeBills Filed to ‘Rein In Rogue District Attorneys’ in Texas Legislature

District attorneys choosing not to enforce certain laws has been a thorn in the Legislature's side of late.
January 19, 2023
In his victory speech on the first day of the Legislative session, Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) said that “rogue district attorneys” who refuse to prosecute certain criminal offenses must be “rein[ed] in.” Legislation filed this week provides an initial glimpse at Texas Republicans’ plan to do that.

Carte blanche public pronouncements by district attorneys that laws we have on the books will be ignored renders the authority of the Legislature to determine what is and isn’t a crime, moot,” state Rep. David Cook (R-Mansfield) said in a statement provided to The Texan. “It is my intention to rein in renegade district attorneys and ensure the rule of law is respected in Texas.”

Cook’s House Bill (HB) 1350 — with an identical version filed in the Senate by Sen. Tan Parker (R-Flower Mound) — would forbid district or county attorneys with criminal jurisdiction to “adopt or enforce a policy under which the prosecuting attorney prohibits or materially limits the enforcement of any criminal offense … [or] as demonstrated by pattern or practice, prohibit or materially limit the enforcement of any criminal offense.”

Enforcement of the law would be granted to the Office of the Attorney General, and violators may face civil penalties up to $1,500 for an initial offense and then up to $25,500 for ensuing ones. Offending prosecutors may also be removed from office and their replacement would be appointed by the governor.

The AG is the state’s ‘top cop’ and is best equipped to pursue these cases in district court,” Cook said.

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Parker told The Texan in a statement, “We have witnessed district attorneys in Texas willfully disregard their most fundamental responsibilities, putting the public’s safety at risk.”

“Our government was built on the principle of separation of powers. It is the job of the legislature to enact and repeal the laws on the books, based on feedback from our constituents. However, an increasing number of district attorneys in this state are taking it upon themselves to legislate from their desks- turning prosecutorial discretion into prosecutorial legislation — ignoring entire classes of crime, often times against the wishes of the people living in their own communities who are left facing the consequences of their inaction.”

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, triggering Texas’ Human Life Protection Act that makes abortion a criminal offense, five county district attorneys doubled down on their previous commitments of refusal to enforce the new abortion laws.

Those officials were José Garza of Travis County, John Creuzot of Dallas County, Joe Gonzales of Bexar County, Mark Gonzalez of Nueces County, and Brian Middleton of Fort Bend County.

Creuzot had employed a prosecutorial approach to petty theft similar to San Francisco, a city that drew the national spotlight for its selective law enforcement. Starting in 2019, Creuzot’s office declined to prosecute thefts of items worth less than $750 unless the theft was for “economic gain,” meaning the goods were re-sold for individual profit. Creuzot’s office discontinued the strategy three years later.

Since May 2021, Garza’s office has operated under relaxed guidelines concerning sentencing for defendants deemed indigent. Judges make decisions on bail amounts and sentence lengths, but the district attorney’s office makes recommendations on who to sentence in the first place.

Multiple counties across the state have chosen not to prosecute or enforce marijuana possession laws.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said a year ago that her office “will not prosecute” the application of gender modification medication or procedures on minors as “child abuse,” breaking with a Texas Attorney General opinion released last February.

Cook added, “Rather than adopt politically-motivated virtue signaling and blanket immunity for criminals, district attorneys have a duty to evaluate the merits of each alleged crime on a case-by-case basis to ensure the public safety of Texans.”

District attorneys have thus become a focal point of the Legislature; more fuel was added to that fire last year when a Court of Criminal Appeals opinion decided that only county district attorneys, not the attorney general, may prosecute instances of voter fraud.

Various bills have already been filed to reverse that holding in statute. It’s part of the broader picture of increased state oversight in local prosecutorial decisions.

Bail reform — restricting local officials’ ability to establish lax bail policy for violent offenders — is a related topic that the legislators are keen on enacting after coming up short on a constitutional amendment in 2021.

The Legislature convened last week but cannot vote on bills until after 60 days into session.


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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.