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Texting-while-driving ban starts today, among dozens of new Texas laws

From staff and wire reports
Sept. 1, 2017 at 12:07 a.m.
Updated Sept. 1, 2017 at 11:29 a.m.

Texting while driving in Texas now comes with a fine of $25 to $99 for a first offense.

This story has been corrected.

More than two dozen new laws take effect today that will affect East Texans, such as Texas becoming the 47th state to implement a ban on texting while driving.

Motorists will not be allowed to "read, write, or send an electronic message while operating a motor vehicle unless the vehicle is stopped."

Drivers still can talk on their phones while driving as long as they are not in a school zone.

If cited and found guilty, the offense comes with a fine of $25 to $99 for a first offense. The law, however, allows a driver to use a phone to control a car's stereo system and to access a GPS app.

There are other new state laws, particularly regarding mental health, that will have big effects on Gregg County and the sheriff's office, Sheriff Maxey Cerliano said.

Ride-sharing returns

Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing companies stopped operating in some major Texas cities, including Austin and Houston, this past year as city officials mandated the businesses fingerprint drivers before they are allowed to pick up customers.

No more.

The new law, which went into effect immediately in May, bans cities from enforcing similar measures on ride-sharing companies.

It also calls for drivers to submit electronic receipts to passengers, provide "all necessary information to the consumer before each ride" and enforces a "zero-tolerance intoxication standard for drivers."

City spokesman Shawn Hara said that means companies such as Uber won't have to notify the city or seek a municipal permit to operate in Longview.

Lyft has been the only ride-sharing service in Longview since the City Council adopted ordinance changes in late 2016.

Law enforcement

One of the most controversial measures approved by lawmakers is a statewide ban on so-called sanctuary cities, a vague term used to describe jurisdictions that do not fully comply with requests from federal immigration authorities in all cases.

The new law, known as Senate Bill 4, will permit local law officers to inquire about the immigration status of people they legally detain or arrest.

However, a federal judge on Wednesday halted major provisions of the law, including the part of the bill that required jail officials to honor all federal immigration detainers, and another that prohibits "a pattern or practice that 'materially limits' the enforcement of immigration laws."

Cerliano said what will affect his department significantly is the Sandra Bland Act, which seeks to address the circumstances that led to the death of Bland, a woman who was found dead in July 2015 in a county jail days after being arrested during a routine traffic stop.

According to the Texas Tribune, the Sandra Bland Act mandates that county jails divert people with mental health and substance abuse issues toward treatment, makes it easier for defendants to receive a personal bond if they have a mental illness or intellectual disability and requires that independent law enforcement agencies investigate jail deaths.

Cerliano said it will require more training for his officers — those working in the jail, for courthouse security and on patrol.

"We will be required to report other things such as assaults in the jail," the sheriff said. "There's a whole list of what they call major or critical incidents that we will be required to report on that previously we had not."

Additional training requirements will have a financial impact on the county, he said.

"There will be additional training hours added to the basic jail academy that requires additional mental health training, and then ... all of our deputies that are assigned to jailhouse security and any deputy that may work courthouse security or provide security for the court, which would include the constable and justice of the peace courts will have to attend a mandated training class," Cerliano said.

"And right now, we believe that class is going to be either 16 or 24 hours, and everybody that provides court security will be mandated to take those classes," he said.

The cost of covering those shifts emptied by training will affect payroll, too, he said.

No straight-ticket voting

Beginning in 2020, voters no longer will be allowed to cast their ballot for an entire slate of Republican or Democratic candidates after the Legislature outlawed what's known as straight-ticket voting in elections.

People will have to vote for each candidate individually as they work their way down the ballot.

"There's a lot of uncertainty over whether the change will give an advantage to Republicans or Democrats," said LeTourneau University assistant professor of political science John Barrett.

"What's for certain, however, is that straight-ticket voting makes it easier and faster to vote," Barrett said. "When it stops in 2020, you're going to see significant drop-off in the down-ballot races. At the same time, it won't be so easy for candidates in down-ballot races ride on someone else's coattails. That can make the down-ballot races a little more competitive.

"If you can get your supporters to the polls," he said, "you have a better chance of winning even if the political tide is moving against your party."

Open carry of swords, machetes in public

People can carry bowie knives, swords and spears in public under a law that goes into effect today.

Before, people could carry knives no more than 5.5 inches long.

While it will be OK to carry the larger weapons in public, the big blades are illegal to take into bars that derive most of their income from alcohol sales, along with schools, colleges, sporting events, polling places, race parks, correctional facilities, health care and nursing facilities, amusement parks and places of worship.

People younger than 18 are barred from carrying long knives in public unless they are under the supervision of a parent.

Amnesty in sex assaults

Under a new law that passed with broad bipartisan support, students who witness and report a sexual assault while they are involved in illegal activity, such as drinking, would be given amnesty.

Higher ed assaults

Another law aimed at tamping down college rape will allow students and college employees to submit electronic and anonymous reports of sexual assaults to their institutions.

Cheaper to legally carry

The fees for carrying a gun in Texas become cheaper today. The law lowers fees for a first-time license to carry a handgun to $40 from $140. The renewal fee also is reduced to $40 from $70. The National Rifle Association says Texas' fees will be the lowest in the nation.

David's Law

In an attempt to counter school bullying, a new state law will make it a Class A misdemeanor to harass someone younger than 18 through text messages, social media, websites or other electronic venues with the intent to cause them to harm themselves and commit suicide.

The law — which increases the penalty from what had been a Class B misdemeanor — also allows people to obtain temporary restraining orders against social media accounts used to harass or bully children.

'Second chances' for non-violent offenders

People convicted of one low-level offense — which might include a DWI with a blood alcohol level less than 0.14 or nonviolent Class C misdemeanors — will be allowed to request an order of nondisclosure from a court after they pay restitution and serve their sentence.

Generally, such an order would seal their criminal records from public view, but the new law will allow law enforcement agencies and a few others to view the records when necessary.

LeTourneau University criminal justice professor Mark Moland said about the law, "A conviction can haunt an individual for a lifetime. The 'second chances' law will free first-time offenders to live a normal life after serving their sentence."

A DWI offender would not qualify for the nondisclosure option if he or she had a prior DWI conviction, had a blood alcohol level above 0.14, has not fully paid court fines or had struck a pedestrian or a vehicle with someone inside.

He or she also must complete a six-month ignition interlock program or wait five years after finishing their conviction term.

Voter ID changes

Don't have a form of photo identification acceptable at the polls under Texas' voter ID law? Lawmakers made some important changes that could help.

Effective today, voters will be able to cast their ballots if they show some other documentation with their name and home address, such as a bank statement or utility bill, and if they also sign an affidavit attesting to having a "reasonable impediment" to obtaining a valid photo ID.

Incognito lottery winners

If you're lucky enough to win $1 million or more playing the Texas Lottery, you will be able to request that your personal information be barred from disclosure to the media.

Free pre-K for fallen or injured officers' children

Young children of peace officers, firefighters and emergency medical first responders who were seriously injured or killed in the line of duty can attend state-funded prekindergarten for free.

This past year, the governor recognized 57 such officers were seriously hurt or killed.

Civil protections for good Samaritans

A new law offers new legal protections for people trying to rescue a child, elderly or disabled person locked in a vehicle.

Under state law, "good Samaritans" already are protected from criminal charges if they break into a vehicle to rescue someone inside, but they can still face civil liability.

A new law protects good Samaritans from civil lawsuits if they break in a vehicle or trailer if they have reason to belief the person is in imminent harm, has first notified law enforcement or 911, uses no more force than is necessary and remains with the individual in a safe location.

No more suspensions for young students

Schools can no longer suspend students below third grade. In place of in-school or out-of-school suspensions, school districts must instead find alternative age-appropriate disciplinary plans that are research based and provide models for positive behavior for students.

Exceptions include students who bring a weapon, certain drugs or alcohol to school.

More time for mail-in military votes

Military personnel and their families overseas will have more time to cast their ballots by mail. The law allows those votes to be counted if they arrive no later than six days after the date of the election. If that date falls on a weekend or holiday, then the deadline is extended to the next regular business day.

More help spotting human trafficking

Public junior colleges and career schools and colleges offering commercial driver's license training must include training on how to recognize and prevent human trafficking.

Kilgore College spokesman Chris Craddock said the college will make the training part of curriculum for commercial driver's license classes.

Fetal remains

Texas lawmakers passed a bill that would require the burial of fetal remains, such as from abortions or miscarriages. While patients will not be required to decide how they want the remains handled, their doctors will have to make arrangements to store and ensure the tissue is disposed of in accordance to the law. Opponents argue the law could increase the price of women's healthcare. Though this law goes into effect today, the issue of fetal burial is on pause and tied up in the courts.

More background checks for college referees

Sport officials registered with the University Interscholastic League will have to undergo criminal background checks every three years. Previously, the officials had to submit to one criminal background check.

Grace periods for students without lunch money

Parents will have more time to settle up their children's school lunch debt before the cafeteria worker stops serving hot lunches.

The law creates a grace period for students who show up without money to continue eating hot lunches before they are "lunch shamed" by being given cold sandwiches.

Aid for relatives caring for abused children

In an effort to fix the state's crippled foster care system, the state will now pay $350 a month to families caring for abused or neglected children to whom they are related. The state previously had paid families $1,000 initially and $500 a year.

Be careful where you fly your drone

Unmanned aircraft such as drones might be fun for an open field, but the state has banned their operation over correctional and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities and large sports venues. Exceptions include unmanned aircraft authorized by a law enforcement agency or with the permission of the operator of the sports venue.

Attacking law officers is now a hate crime

Someone who attacks a person they know to be a law enforcement officer could be found guilty of a hate crime. The same goes if someone damages a law enforcement officers' property.

The change puts crimes against law enforcement in the same category as crimes based on a person's race, color, disability, religion, national origin, age, gender or sexual preference.

Alternative path to a diploma

High school seniors who fail one or two end-of-course exams required for graduation could get their diploma, anyway. Lawmakers extended a 2015 law that allows individual graduation committees to weigh whether the student should graduate based on factors such as grades in relevant subjects, attendance and other measures. The Legislature voted to give the program a two-year pass by letting it continue until Sept. 1, 2019.

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