AUSTIN (KXAN) — The so-called “dead suspect loophole” will remain in the Texas Public Information Act, after state lawmakers removed an effort to close it from a major open records bill in the final days of this legislative session.
For two years, KXAN has investigated this transparency issue. Current law allows police agencies to withhold information like video and other records from the public in criminal cases when the suspect has not been convicted or adjudicated. That includes cases when a suspect has died in custody, as that person will never go through the court process – allowing police to keep related records secret permanently.
Sources who dealt with the conference committee for Senate Bill 944 said Gov. Greg Abbott’s office indicated he would only sign the bill if that law enforcement amendment was stripped from it. The “dead suspect” measure has met opposition throughout the session from the state’s largest police union – the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas — primarily due to a section that aimed to make allegations of misconduct against police related to in-custody death cases public — even if the allegations are not sustained.
Just a day before lawmakers took the measure out, CLEAT wrote a letter to the governor’s office, saying: “We heard there was a clear promise of a veto if the Moody amendment remained in place. All of you find yourselves with a great deal of power.”
Rep. Joe Moody, the El Paso lawmaker behind the measure, said he chose to pull it from SB 944 because “it wouldn’t have made it through the remainder of the process… and would’ve taken (the) bill down with it.”
“Those are supposed to be public records, and the people deserve the truth – good, bad or ugly – about situations where their government is involved in a death,” Moody wrote in a open letter over the weekend. “A deliberate disinformation campaign by the very people fighting transparency made it impossible to advance this legislation.”
This marks the second session Moody has proposed such legislation. Open records advocates, families of the deceased and their attorneys have supported it, but this session drew particular concern from the law enforcement community and its lobbyists. Moody – a former prosecutor – has yet to say if he plans to file the bill again if he retains his office for the next regular session in 2021, but he closes his letter: “I look forward to fighting for truth in the future.”
SB 944, without the “dead suspect” amendment, is now being finalized in both chambers and is expected to be sent to the governor’s desk for his signature soon. The session ends Monday.