May-June 2012

What law have you run across that you can’t believe is on the books? Or what law do you wish were on the books?

K. Sunshine Stanek

Assistant Criminal ­District Attorney in Lubbock County

Ahhhhhhhhhh, September in Lubbock, Texas. The sunny skies, warm winds, cool starry evenings, and smell of corn dogs wafting through the air. That’s right:  September means South Plains Fair Days in Lubbock County. For two solid weeks there are hundreds of thousands of fried items sold, baked goods and animals judged, games played and rides ridden. Downtown business people eat their lunches at the fair for days on end and families are entertained long into the dark of night.                     And with the fair coming to town, so come the carnival ride workers, more commonly referred to as the carnies. These are the men and women who bring the rides to town, assemble, operate, and then disassemble them when the fair ends, presumably moving on to the next town’s fair. These folks are responsible for the safety of the children who ride these rides because not only do they set up the rides, but they also take the tickets from the kids and place small children on the rides, adjusting seat belts, straps, and door handles.

    Apparently the legislature recognized the significance of this job, most likely as it relates to children’s safety, and enacted Penal Code §49.065, Assembling or Operating an Amusement Ride While Intoxicated. Along with the job description of a carnie comes a large amount of downtime on the job, where some employees may choose to imbibe in the occasional beverage. And some have even become legally intoxicated and continued to attempt to perform their job duties. Although we don’t see these cases very often, they are very popular when they are presented to our office. You can imagine the unique facts and colorful witnesses that surround these cases, based on the environment they arise out of—the South Plains Fair. Apparently drunk carnies and children on amusement park rides do not mix. If they do, law enforcement will rely on 49.065. One of my all-time favorite laws.

Sara Ruth Spector, Assistant District Attorney in Medina County

Criminalizing the forced ingestion of illegal drugs by a fetus is a law that many prosecutors, Child Protective Services (CPS), and law enforcement officers wish were on the books in Texas. Many states have prosecuted mothers for giving birth to babies with drugs in their system, including Tennessee, Florida, Alabama, Wisconsin, and South Carolina. To my understanding, there has been no U.S. Supreme Court ruling on this issue.

    Texas Penal Code §22.12 states that the statutes of injury to a child and endangering a child do not apply if committed against an unborn child and if the conduct is committed by the mother of an unborn child.

    As a former CPS prosecutor and as a current criminal prosecutor, it is my opinion that Texas needs to follow suit with other states and allow criminal prosecution of mothers and fathers who expose their unborn children to illegal drugs. I have personally witnessed a newborn baby on a breathing machine in intensive care detoxing from meth. No baby should start his or her life in this manner.

Brent Robbins, Investigator in the Denton County Criminal District Attorney’s Office

Transportation Code §547.501(c) says, “A motor vehicle operator shall use a horn to provide audible warning only when necessary to ensure safe operation.” When I was a cop on the street, we called this law Unnecessary Use of Horn. Honk your horn to “say hi” to your friends? Violation! Honk your horn simply because you’re frustrated from sitting in traffic? Violation! Honk your horn for any reason other than to “ensure safe operation?” Violation!

    Feather-legged chicken excrement? Perhaps. But sometimes, “feather legged” stops yield unexpected results. Once, at 1:30 in the morning, I had just finished issuing a citation to a driver on the highway. As I turned to go back to my patrol car, a vehicle blew past me, just feet away (this was years before the “move over” law existed) and blasted the horn. Scared me to death. Once my heart started beating again, I decided I was going to stop the vehicle and give the driver a piece of my mind.

    After I made the traffic stop and approached the vehicle, I was overcome by the odor of burning marijuana. I questioned the driver, asking him why he honked at me. He told me that he was “just saying hi” because he “loves the police.” Well, the odor of burning marijuana gave me probable cause to search the vehicle, and I found nearly 5 pounds of marijuana in the trunk. He didn’t “love the police” as much when I placed him under arrest.

Justin Jones, Assistant Criminal ­District Attorney in ­Denton County

I have never seen one filed, but I always wonder about Parks and Wildlife Code §61.023—Applying Contraceptives to Wildlife Resources: “No person may intentionally apply contraceptives to any vertebrate wildlife resource unless that person first obtains written authorization from the department.” Need I say more? Although its purpose is well-intended, it certainly brings to mind some interesting visuals.

Rickie Cayton, Assistant Criminal ­District Attorney in ­Lubbock County

If you’ve never prosecuted a commercial collector of wildlife for violating the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department’s (TPWD) non-game permit statutes, you’re missing out! A couple of years ago, I learned more about ornate box turtles and commercial non-game permit violations than I ever thought possible.

    In case you weren’t aware (I wasn’t!), the TPWD classifies animal species and regulates their commercial use. It strictly controls commercial collectors of wildlife through licensure requirements and regulation of collections and sales to protect the state’s ecosystem and potentially endangered species. Certain violations of the non-game permit statutes are criminal offenses.

    In my case, a local pet-store owner had committed several violations over a period of years, and the TPWD had been tracking him for some time. Each time they’d attempted to pull his license, he was able to weasel out of it. This time, we charged him for acquiring milksnakes from people who didn’t hold valid non-game permits and acquiring ornate box turtles (a prohibited species), both Class C misdemeanor offenses. Suffice it to say, when I explained the nature of the State’s case to the 20 veniremen sitting there in that tiny Justice of the Peace courtroom, I got some surprised looks. I knew it would be an uphill battle to get six West Texas jurors to care about a handful of non-game animals, and it turns out I had underestimated just how tough it would be.

    Ultimately, after deliberating for 20 minutes, the jury walked my defendant. Even though the defense ridiculed us for standing up for the “Ace Ventura” investigation, I’m glad I did. Prosecuting this case taught me about the amount of work the TPWD puts into protecting our state’s wildlife and how much effort our local game wardens put into doing their job. Every time I go into a pet store, I think about my turtle case. It was definitely the oddest case I’ve prosecuted, but it was well worth the learning experience.