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HB 30, the “Dead Suspects” Loophole Reform Bill, Finally Goes to Gov. Abbott for Action

Last week when TAB recounted some of the more significant Open Government legislative wins in the regular session that had just ended, we noted the passage of HB 30 by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, which addresses the so-called “dead suspects loophole” in the Texas Public Information Act that has stymied Texas families and newsrooms for years. 

Under current law, police, sheriff’s offices, constables and even the Texas Department of Public Safety can shield a wide variety of investigatory information in “open” cases or those that never result in a conviction or deferred adjudication. Frustratingly, it also means that investigatory information related to incident in which the suspect or suspects died is often not released, even for in custody deaths, hence the “dead suspects loophole” moniker.  

For example, because the Uvalde school shooting suspect was killed by authorities, the case will not result in a conviction, and the loophole is still being used to prevent release of information related to this criminal case

In its “as filed” form, HB 30 would have allowed access to many types of law enforcement-related information that would have helped hold accountable this governmental function that taxpayers fund.  The bill was heavily edited, however, as it moved through the House and Senate, and the “as passed” bill addresses just information related to cases in which the suspect or suspects died or were incapacitated, or each other person mentioned in the information consents to release.

As the TABulletin was emailed last Wednesday, TAB noticed that HB 30 had not actually made it to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk for action, as all the other nearly 1,300 bills passed by the Legislature in the regular session had.  It had been signed by House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, as required by the Texas Constitution, but not by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, R-Houston.  

TAB sounded the alarm to other Open Government groups that something was amiss and missing, namely, HB 30.  The regular session was over, but TAB’s Newsroom Legislative Committee and the TAB staff were still on the job. A small flurry of reporting ensued.

TAB Newsroom Legislative Committee member Josh Hinkle of KXAN-TV Austin dogged HB 30’s paper trail in the House and the Senate. Texas House chief clerk Stephen Brown told KXAN that “HB 30 was among 61 pieces of legislation in ‘Batch Number 37’ to be sent to the Senate from the House.”

The Senate claimed the bill never got to the upper chamber for signature by Patrick. Senate Journal Clerk Lourdes Litchfield told KXAN in an email “It seems that HB 30 was left in the possession of the House when the Senate adjourned Sine Die on Monday. For this reason, it was not signed in the presence of the Senate.”

House Clerk Brown provided the station “a copy of the acknowledgement of receipt for a replacement bill sent to and signed by Senate Secretary Patsy Spaw on May 30.” The Senate briefly gaveled into session Friday as part of the current special session, but Lt. Gov. Patrick did not sign the replacement HB 30 in the presence of the chamber.  

On Tuesday, towards the end of a Patrick news conference on property taxes, KEYE-TV Austin reporter Michael Adkison asked about HB 30. Adkison’s boss is news director Rob Cartwright, another member of the TAB Newsroom Legislative Committee.

Patrick said he pulled the bill from a stack on the dais last week after learning that HB 30 was involved in tit-for-tat bill brinksmanship between the two chambers on the final Sunday of the regular session. “Always intended to sign it,” he said. 

On Tuesday, Patrick signed the bill and HB 30 finally went to Gov. Abbott for action, more than a week after the regular session ended.  Abbott has until June 18 to sign, veto or let HB 30 become law without his signature.

TAB is appreciative of the reporting on the mystery of HB 30 by Texas newsrooms. It clearly served as a reminder that action still needed to be taken.  

It is important for newsrooms to report on stories like this to help their communities understand the legislative process and the unanticipated and unseen forces that can derail even a well-intentioned bill that has cleared every step of legislative procedure.

Questions? Contact TAB’s Michael Schneider or call (512) 322-9944.

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