Laws let Texans donate to fund testing of sexual assault kits

Two laws enacted by the 85th Legislature this year allow Texans who are obtaining a driver’s license or registering a vehicle to contribute money for the testing of evidence from sexual assaults or other sex crimes. By early 2018, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles expects to have the system available for vehicle registrations and the Department of Public Safety (DPS) plans to begin collecting donations during the driver’s license application process.

HB 1729 by Neave allows those applying for a new or renewed driver’s license or identification card to contribute $1 or more to the grant program. HB 4102 by Neave allows those registering or renewing a registration for a vehicle to contribute any amount. The Legislature may appropriate donated funds only for an evidence-testing grant program established by the Office of the Governor’s criminal justice division. The governor’s office will distribute the funds to law enforcement agencies and counties for testing at an accredited crime laboratory.

Supporters of creating the donation-funded grant program said it would allow Texans to help address the need for funding to increase the number of evidence kits tested. They said the testing could help find and stop sexual offenders and would add to state and local efforts. Critics of the new laws said that testing evidence from sex crimes is a state and local government responsibility and should not depend on donations. Others raised concerns that expanding the donation options on driver’s licenses and vehicle registration renewals could reduce donations to programs that already receive them.

The fiscal 2018-19 budget appropriates to the evidence-testing grant program an estimated $1.1 million each fiscal year to implement the two new laws. The actual amount the program receives will depend on donations and could be more or less than the estimated appropriation. The current budget also appropriates $4.2 million in general revenue to DPS to test sexual assault kits that are backlogged from investigations occurring after August 2011. In 2013 and 2015, the Legislature appropriated funds specifically to test backlogged sexual assault kits from investigations occurring before August 2011. DPS is working with local law enforcement to address the approximately 1,800 of those kits that remain untested.

No statewide count is available of the number of untested kits from crime investigations after August 2011. The kits are dispersed among 10 DPS labs and six other labs, most of which are affiliated with a major city or large county. On average and on any given day, DPS labs have about 3,000 to 4,000 untested kits, according to DPS, and the cost to test a kit varies but averages about $1,000.

The option to donate for sexual assault evidence testing will be part of the license and registration renewal processes that already allow Texans to make donations to certain causes. Texans obtaining a driver’s license can donate to support Texas veterans, an organ donor registry, or blindness education, screening, and treatment. Vehicle registration renewal forms include options to donate to Texas veterans, an organ donor registry, Texas parks, and the Special Olympics. The same legislation that authorized the donation program for the evidence testing also added an option on vehicle registrations to donate to a fund to end homelessness.

The 85th Legislature also enacted HB 281 by Howard, which created a statewide electronic tracking system for evidence in sex crimes. The tracking system will allow sexual assault survivors and those involved in handling the evidence to track the status and location of evidence.

by Kellie A. Dworaczyk

Posted in Criminal Justice, Public Safety | Tagged , ,

Texas paves the way for automated vehicles

With the enactment earlier this year of SB 2205 by Hancock and HB 1791 by Pickett, Texas joined 20 other states that expressly regulate automated vehicles. Until then, Texas law had not addressed automated vehicles directly, leaving it ambiguous how certain laws referencing vehicle operators applied.

Federal governance is limited to non-regulatory guidance, although the U.S. House of Representatives in September passed a bill, currently pending in the Senate, that would require federal rules on safety and data security and would preempt state regulations on automated vehicle design.

All vehicles generally are classified into one of five or six levels of automation, from level zero, which includes vehicles without features such as cruise control or traction control, to levels four or five, which allow for no human involvement beyond instructing the car where to go.

HB 1791, effective May 18, removed barriers to the use of connected braking systems, also known as truck platooning, which falls into levels one and two of automation. Trucks form platoons by falling into a line on a highway. Connected braking technology then electronically coordinates with the truck in the front of the line to change the speed of the trucks in the platoon, enabling the safe following distance to be reduced and increasing fuel economy as the trucks draft behind one another.

A more broadly applicable bill on automated driving systems, SB 2205, effective Sept. 1, explicitly allows vehicles with the highest level of automation to use highways with or without a human driver if the car is compliant with traffic laws and with insurance and registration requirements and if it can record certain data, including location, velocity, and braking and steering performance. Vehicles at the highest level of automation are, for the most part, governed exclusively by SB 2205 and exempt from certain other laws, including local laws specific to automated vehicles.

Under the new bill, the owner of an automated driving system is responsible for violations of any traffic laws, whether or not the owner was physically present in the vehicle at the time of the violation.

Supporters of SB 2205 say the bill provides manufacturers the regulatory certainty needed to test automated vehicles on Texas roads and preserves public safety. They say it will help manufacturers develop the technology with a full understanding of regulatory obligations while avoiding onerous or detrimental requirements that would inhibit the technology as it develops. Automated vehicles have proven thus far to be safer than traditional cars and should become even safer as the technology evolves.

Critics of SB 2205 say the bill leaves many questions unanswered and should have been more expansive to provide clarity to state agencies, insurance companies, and regulators. While the bill clarifies that the driver of the vehicle is considered to be the owner of the automated driving system, it also should have addressed civil liability and data security. For instance, it could have increased the required liability limit for insurance coverage on automated vehicles beyond that required of ordinary cars or implemented penalties for hacking automated vehicles with the intent to harm.

by Anthony Severin

Posted in Transportation | Tagged , ,

Voting procedures from 2016 in effect for November elections

The state’s voter identification policies used in the 2016 presidential election will remain in effect for the Nov. 7 election, based on a federal appeals court ruling in September that said it would minimize confusion among voters and election officials.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling said the temporary policies will stay in effect until the court can hear oral arguments on a new law enacted this year by the 85th Legislature, SB 5 by Huffman. Continue reading

Posted in General Government | Tagged ,

New Texas law affects property damage lawsuits

Recent flooding and property damage caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston and other Gulf Coast communities have drawn public attention to the potential impact of HB 1774 by G. Bonnen, a new law that revises state statutes governing lawsuits on weather-related property insurance claims. The bill took effect September 1, shortly after the hurricane made landfall, and affects property damage claims and lawsuits filed after that date.

The bill establishes a new requirement for a person or company with property insurance to give an insurance carrier at least 61 days’ notice before filing a lawsuit against the carrier for a natural disaster-related property damage claim. Continue reading

Posted in Insurance, Regulation and Licensing | Tagged , , , ,

New state laws allow for changes to driver’s license appearance

The photograph on a Texas driver’s license no longer has to be in color under a new law enacted this year by the 85th Texas Legislature. HB 1345 by Dale, which made the change, applies to a license issued or renewed on or after September 1, 2017. The Department of Public Safety (DPS) has not stated whether it will change photographs on driver’s licenses, only that the new law will allow the department to explore all options when the next contracting opportunity arises. Continue reading

Posted in Public Safety, Transportation | Tagged , , , ,