AUSTIN (KXAN) – Lawmakers in the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee discussed a bill Tuesday that could reform the state’s gang database system, a law enforcement tool used to catalog dangerous street gang members. But critics say the database can target the wrong people and violate their rights.

Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint, authored House Bill 230. She told the committee it is a “simple” bill that requires notifying people if they’ve been placed in the gang database, provides a way for people to get removed if they’ve been wrongfully included and requires audits.

“We do want to support the work of our law enforcement agencies, but we just want there to be reasonable guardrails on this very important tool,” Gonzalez said at the hearing.

Several people spoke briefly in support of the legislation, and nobody spoke against it.

Michelle Farris, a representative of the Texas Department of Public Safety who spoke on the bill as a resource witness, said there are roughly 70,000 people in the database now.

DPS operates the gang database, but the information is fed in and maintained by law enforcement agencies across the state, according to a 2021 audit of the system commonly called TxGANG.

Farris acknowledged people can be put in the database without committing a crime, and information is shared with federal authorities.

Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, expressed concern about how people could be included in the database without their knowledge.

“This thing is scary. It really is,” Canales said.

Canales, an attorney, also said criteria for including someone in the database could be based on hearsay.

“We’re putting people on a database – and this isn’t just any database, it’s a secret database – and then what happens to that person?” Canales said. “What happens if you’re on that database and are charged with a crime? Well, now I’ve got to go disprove this thing. And so now that could affect potential plea offers, it could potentially affect probation. It could be an enhancement. It could be a whole bunch of things.”

A few members of motorcycle clubs testified in favor of the bill. They said they, or others in their clubs, had been erroneously placed in the gang database, and it impacted their lives.

HB 230, what would it do?

Gonzalez’s bill would require law enforcement to notify people by certified mail if they’ve been put in the gang database within 60 days of their inclusion, and the letter would include a description of the process for getting removed. The legislation would also bar a person’s placement in the gang database to be used in determining employment eligibility, limit their Texas or U.S. constitutional rights, or impede their ability to get a state or federal license, permit or benefit.

The bill would also require a yearly state audit of the database and removal of information that has remained beyond 10 years that doesn’t have sufficient evidence to remain valid.

Gonzalez filed similar legislation in 2021. That bill passed the House but died in the Senate. That year Gonzalez included a budget rider to pay for an audit of the gang database system, she said.

That state audit was released last September and found “6,829 records were not validated within the last five years or did not include the information that’s needed to determine whether the record was validated as per federal regulations,” she said.

“Thousands of Texans are wrongfully still on this database or were when we did this audit.”

Gonzalez’s bill was left pending, and KXAN will continue following this legislation.