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Another Schwertner update

The investigation is happening.

Sen. Charles Schwertner

The University of Texas on Monday acknowledged it has received a complaint about state Sen. Charles Schwertner from a student, and that it has collected evidence as part of an investigation into him, marking the first official acknowledgement of the school’s inquiry into whether Schwertner sent a sexually explicit photo and message to a graduate student he met this summer.

The American-Statesman reported two weeks ago that the school was investigating the allegation against the Georgetown Republican, and that it was considering banning him from campus if the allegation was proven true. The newspaper cited three senior UT officials with knowledge of the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity, because they were not authorized to discuss the situation.

A university spokesman at the time declined to answer questions about the investigation, saying UT does not confirm or comment on ongoing investigations. Monday’s confirmation came in a letter from the university to the Texas attorney general’s office that seeks permission to withhold records that the Statesman requested two weeks ago.

[…]

Schwertner, who could not immediately be reached for comment Monday afternoon, has maintained that he did not send the message and image, though he hasn’t provided an explanation for what happened. He has not denied that the image and the message were sent to the student, nor has he explained how they could have been sent if not by him.

His lawyers’ statement last week included results from a polygraph test that appeared to show Schwertner was not lying when he said he did not send the message and image. However, the test left several significant questions unasked, including whether the image sent to the student was of Schwertner, and whether Schwertner knew who sent the image and message.

See here for the previous update. Schwertner’s attorneys had said there was an investigation, now we know that UT has confirmed that, and we know some more of the background. AG Ken Paxton will issue an opinion about what information UT is required to turn over to the Statesman about it all – my guess is he’ll say that most of what UT has is protected – and at some point we’ll know the results of this investigation. I would guess that everyone involved would rather have this wrapped up sooner and not later.

As for what Schwertner has and has not denied: Like I said before, it’s a pretty straightforward matter to determine whether or not a message was sent from a given phone. Even if stuff had been deleted, service provider records and basic forensic tools would provide the answer. The bigger question is, if Schwertner himself did not send the messages, who did? One presumes only so many people have access to his phone. Yes, his phone could have been hacked, but that’s harder to do than you might think, and anyone who wanted to break into his phone would probably want to steal information from it, not use it as a front for forwarding sexy pictures. Be that as it may, as before a competent IT security professional would be able to suss that out. I don’t want to speculate ahead of the evidence so I’ll leave it here. Let’s just say I’m eagerly awaiting the outcome of this investigation. Also, too, Meg Walsh.

Halfway through the session

The House is doing House things, and that’s fine.

Rep. Joe Straus

Brushing aside concerns that they are not moving swiftly enough to enact Gov. Greg Abbott’s 20-point agenda, Texas House members opened the second half of the special session Wednesday with a flurry of activity Wednesday.

“We made good progress, and we’re only half the way through,” House Speaker Joe Straus told the American-Statesman.

“I’ve been spending my time, the first half of the 30-day session, trying to get the House in a place to consider the items that the governor has placed on the agenda,” said Straus, a San Antonio Republican. “We work more slowly than the Senate does because we listen to people and we try to get the details right. And so the House committees have been meeting and have shown some good progress, moving many of the items that are on the call.”

[…]

Straus has indicated he opposes a measure — favored by Patrick — that would pre-empt schools and local jurisdictions from making their own transgender friendly bathroom rules.

But, its sponsor, Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, said he considered that bill an “outlier” — the only one he knows of that Straus explicitly opposes, “and so it’s not surprising to me that that has not moved expeditiously.”

Simmons said there had been an effort to discourage members to sign on to his bill and so he only had about 50 members willing to do so, far fewer than in the regular session.

Of his other bill on school choice for special needs students — also part of Abbott’s agenda — Simmons said, “I’m not sure it will get voted out of committee.” He said he holds out a faint hope that it might advance if there is some “grand bargain” on education.

“The governor wants school finance and we’re going to do that; we’re going to pass our plan on Friday,” said Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, chairman of the Public Education Committee. “I think it’s very clear that the House has not agreed on the voucher issue, but we have a solution to help special needs students.”

“The House is doing what it should do, which is being deliberative, thoughtful and being sure that legislation that we would pass is sound policy that would benefit the citizens of the state of Texas,” said Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, chairman of the State Affairs Committee. “The House is not built for speed.”

“This is the House,” said Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, who chairs the House Republican Caucus Policy Committee. “We will use all 30 days. There’s plenty of time.”

Goldman said it looks like the bill he is carrying for the governor to pre-empt local cellphone ordinances is unlikely to make it out of committee.

“Nothing nefarious,” he said; there’s just too much opposition from local police and elected officials who hold great sway with House members.

Imagine that, listening to stakeholders. Who knew? The House will pass more bills, some of which will be amenable to the Senate and some of which will not. Expect to see a lot of gamesmanship, passive aggressiveness, and the occasional bit of decent policymaking, though that latter item is strictly optional.

Abbott signs texting while driving ban

That’s the good news. The bad news is that being Greg Abbott, he wants to make it worse.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday signed into law a bill that creates a statewide ban on texting while driving.

The measure, authored by state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, goes into effect Sept. 1. This is the fourth session in a row Craddick has tried to pass such a ban.

“By enacting this public safety legislation, the governor is saving lives by deterring this dangerous and deadly behavior,” Craddick said in a statement. “For a long time, Texas has needed this law to prevent the loss of life in unnecessary and preventable crashes and we finally have it.”

[…]

The governor announced that he had signed the bill at a press conference Tuesday, when he also announced a series of priorities for a special legislative session to start July 18. Among those priorities is further work on the ban, which Abbott said “did not fully achieve my goals.”

“I was not satisfied with the law as it was written,” Abbott said Tuesday. “Now that Texas does have a statewide ban on texting and driving, I am calling for legislation that fully pre-empts cities and counties from any regulation of mobile devices in vehicles. We don’t need a patchwork quilt of regulations that dictate driving practices in Texas.”

The law includes a provision to pre-empt local ordinances that govern a driver’s ability to “read, write, or send an electronic message.” But Abbott said Tuesday he hopes for broader legislation that fully pre-empts local governments from passing “any regulation of mobile devices in vehicles.” A broader pre-emption measure would impact dozens of cities — including Austin, San Antonio and El Paso — that currently operate under stricter mobile regulations.

And so the war on local control continues apace. Quite a few of the special session agenda items are about adding limits or requirements on what cities can and cannot do. As I saw noted on Facebook, Abbott doesn’t just want to be Governor of Texas, he wants to be Mayor of Texas as well. And you know what? I think we should embrace that and take him seriously. We should all call Greg Abbott’s office every time we see an unfilled pothole, an illegal trash dump, a stray animal, a blinking traffic light, a downed branch blocking a road…you get the idea. If Greg Abbott wants to run the cities’ businesses, then let him have all the responsibility for fixing the cities’ problems. This isn’t a joke, by the way. It’s resistance, and the more of it we can do, the better. Who’s with me on this? The Chron has more.

Texting while driving ban passes the Senate

We’ll see if this one gets signed into law.

Rep. Tom Craddick

Legislation that would create a statewide texting-while-driving ban overcame a last-ditch attempt in the Senate on Friday to gut the bill. The bill’s author, state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, said he will concur with the changes the Senate made. The measure will then head to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.

State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, filed an amendment that would’ve outlined an offense as both having been committed in the presence of an officer and having required evidence the driver was not paying attention. The current version of the bill requires either threshold rather than both.

In laying out his amendment, Taylor said that given the list of exceptions to the law that would permit drivers to use their phone — such as operating a navigational tool, reading what the driver believes to be an emergency message, and playing music — requiring more evidence is warranted.

Taylor held up his cell phone and asked his fellow members, “What am I doing? I’m actually looking at [navigational app] Waze, looking for the quickest way out of here,” he joked. “Now I’m searching the greatest hits of the 60’s. These are all things that are legal. So I have issue with that.”

Several Republican and Democratic members rose to say his change would make the law unenforceable.

“It won’t stop all behavior, but I believe when something is against the law, people will hesitate,” said state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. “And if this law saves one life, then we’ve accomplished what we set out to accomplish.”

The amendment ultimately failed with a 12-19 vote.

After amendments, state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, the bill’s Senate sponsor, took the floor.

“I have waited 10 years to make this motion: I move final passage of HB 62,” the Laredo Democrat said.

Without any further discussion, House Bill 62 passed the Senate on a 23-8 vote.

See here for the background. For what it’s worth, Sen. Huffman’s argument about the Taylor amendment – I can’t quite tell if she’s arguing for it or against it, not that it really matters – is my view of texting-while-driving bans as a whole. The act of making it illegal will almost certainly cause a significant number of people who are now texting and otherwise fooling around on their phones while driving – and in my observation there’s a lot of those people out there – to stop doing it, just because it is illegal. That to me makes it worthwhile. I strongly suspect that recent massive fatal crash that occurred while one driver was busy texting helped move a few votes. As the story notes, a Craddick texting ban bill was vetoed in 2011 by Rick Perry. Craddick says that Greg Abbott’s office has assured him this one will be signed. We’ll know within the next three weeks or so. The Chron has more.

This could be the session that a statewide texting-while-driving ban passes

I haven’t followed the progress of the filed-every-session statewide-band-on-texting-while-driving bill, but recent tragic events have put a spotlight on it and raised the probability of it actually becoming law.

Rep. Tom Craddick

Texas is one of four states that do not have a statewide ban on texting and driving. That distinction has drawn renewed attention in recent days following an accident in West Texas in which a truck driver who was texting and driving crashed into a church bus and killed 13 senior citizens.

State Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, author of the texting ban bill that recently passed the House, said about the accident: “It’s a tragic situation. It’s a wasted situation.”

Craddick, who has pushed for the ban for four sessions in a row, offered condolences to the victims, their families and the church in a statement last week.

“No message or e-mail is important enough to risk injury or death while driving on our Texas roadways,” Craddick said.

If Texas had passed a texting-while-driving ban when Craddick first filed a bill creating one in 2011, Texas would have been the ninth state to pass such a law, he said. If House Bill 62 passes this session, it will be the 47th.

In 2015 and 2013, Craddick’s proposal passed the House but died in the Senate. In 2011, it traveled through both chambers only to be vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry, who said it would “micromanage the behavior of adults.”

In the 2015 session, a group of conservative senators helped kill the proposal, arguing that it could lead to unreasonable searches by police, among other concerns.

This year, both Craddick and the measure’s most vocal advocate in the Senate, Judith Zaffirini, are hopeful the measure will draw enough support in the upper chamber and Gov. Greg Abbott will sign it.

The fatal crash in question was horrible and the sort of thing that will make it difficult for someone who doesn’t like texting bans to stick to their principles. (Though some people still stand firm.) That said, the story notes that several former foes of this bill have changed their minds or at least softened their opposition over time, so perhaps Craddick’s bill had a better chance this session than I expected. I also have to think that with all of the anti-local control fervor swirling around the Capitol, the old argument that a statewide ban is a “nanny state” thing has perhaps lost some of its appeal. Funny how these things go.

One more point:

Craddick pointed to research from Alva Ferdinand, an associate professor in health policy and management at Texas A&M, who has said a statewide ban could prevent 90 deaths a year. The most effective way to curb deaths related to people texting-and-driving is to make it illegal, he said, comparing the move to the law that people in cars wear seat belts.

“No one ever thought seat belts would go into effect and now it’s just standard use to buckle up. Only once it became law did most people start to buckle up,” Craddick said.

As it happens, Texans are pretty good about buckling up, so there may be something to this. I have always believed that banning texting while driving will reduce the number of people who do it for the simple reason that a lot of us are rule-followers, and if something is illegal that’s a sufficient reason for us to not do it. Combine that with the relentless messaging campaign against texting while driving, and over time I think it will largely cease to be a problem. I’ll be very interested to see if there’s an immediate effect that can be detected if the Craddick/Zaffirini bill gets enacted.

Texting while driving ban bills filed again

We’ll see if this gets a different result.

Drivers know the risks, and in more than 95 Texas counties they live under local cell phone ordinances that ban texting while driving. But the Lone Star State remains one of four states in the country without a statewide ban on the practice.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, hopes to change that with Senate Bill 31, which would make it illegal to text unless the vehicle is stopped. Lawmakers have shot down similar attempts by Zaffirini for four sessions in a row, but she hopes the fifth time’s a charm as lawmakers head back to Austin in January.

“All we can do is try,” she said. “It’s so important because more and more Texans have become aware about the danger that’s posed by texting while driving.”

Zaffirini’s legislation mirrors efforts by Rep. Tom Craddick, the Republican former House speaker from Midland, who filed anti-texting legislation in the last three legislative sessions. He filed his fourth attempt on the first day of bill filing last week. Once again, Zaffirini and Craddick are naming their legislation after Alex Brown, a West Texas high school student who was killed in a crash while texting and driving in 2009.

It will be an uphill climb, however. The legislation was approved by the House in 2015 and 2013but halted by the Senate. Zaffirini was just one senator short of passing the bill through the Senate in 2015. It passed both chambers in 2011, but was vetoed by then-Gov. Rick Perry.

But that veto was unusual, Craddick said, because Perry was in the midst of his first presidential bid. Perry called the anti-texting bill “a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults.”

Craddick is hopeful it won’t be vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott if it passes both chambers during the 85th Legislature. He said he’s also heard positive remarks made by Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in Midland.

“(Abbott) has been pretty positive to people that have talked to him about it. I feel like he’ll sign it,” Craddick said. “(Patrick) said he thought the Senate would pass it, too.”

That would be a shift from earlier remarks made by Abbott, who said he opposed the legislationin 2014 and would veto any texting while driving legislation that made it to his desk. After the legislation made it through the House in 2015, Abbott promised to give it the “deep consideration it deserves.”

[…]

AT&T, which has been a big supporter of Craddick’s legislation, released a study that found that the four states without a statewide ban “have a roughly 17 percent higher rate of texting while driving than the 46 states with statewide bans.”

Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute released similar studies on the state impact of texting while driving. College Station, where the university is located, recently passed its own ordinance that banned the use of a wireless device while driving.

Alva Ferdinand, a faculty member at Texas A&M’s school of public health, led a 2015 study that found a seven percent reduction in crash-related hospitalization in states that have enacted texting while driving bans. An earlier study by Ferdinand found that texting bans led to a 3 percent reduction in traffic fatalities among all age groups.

See here for a bit of background. On the one hand, Craddick’s optimism aside, Abbott has previously expressed opposition to a statewide ban, and I can’t imagine this will be any kind of priority for leadership. On the other hand, this did make it to the Governor’s desk once, and passed the House two other times, so the support is there, and if it does get to Abbott’s desk he may not feel compelled to veto it. I wouldn’t bet on this passing, but it has a chance, and that’s more than you can say for most bills.

It’s bill-filing season

And they’re off.

Today is the first day of early filing in the Texas Legislature. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate may begin filing the bills that will be discussed when the legislature convenes in January 10, 2017. So how does that work and what does it mean?

For the most part bills are numbered in the order they are filed. However House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 1 are reserved for the Appropriations Bill (the state’s budget) and the first several bills in each chamber are reserved for the Speaker’s priorities and the Lt. Governor’s priorities, respectively. Last session it was the first 40 bills in the House, so the first bill filed on early filing day was HB 41, and the first 20 bills in the Senate, so the first bill filed was SB 21.

There’s no real particular legislative advantage to filing on the first day. Once the session gets going and bills sent to committees they are typically referred in batches of a couple hundred. The House and Senate will send the few hundred bills filed today to committee in the first couple of days of referral and the dozen or so bills filed tomorrow will follow them the same day or the next. Since the chairs of committees have almost complete discretion about when to schedule bills for hearings, a bill filed today could easily be heard in committee after a bill filed tomorrow or three months from now – or not at all.

So why bother to traipse up to Austin to file a bill the first day?

The bills filed today aren’t an indication of what’s most likely to pass next session, but they are an indication of what will be the major topics of conversation. Today’s bills represent the top priorities for lawmakers – and, since every media outlet that covers the lege will run a “what got filed on the first day of early filing” article they are more so the top priorities of the lawmakers who really know how to capture the media’s attention.

That’s from Daniel Williams’ blog, and he has several other posts devoted to first-day filings. Daniel knows legislative procedures like Scott Hochberg knows school finance, so do yourself a favor and read his blog.

The Trib has a good rundown on what has been filed so far. There are actually a fair number that run the gamut from “not bad” to “really good”, though take heed of Daniel’s advice about how little Day One means. There’s also some demagoguery, and more than a few bills making a repeat attempt at passage, including such things as a statewide ban on texting while driving and a bill to authorize online voter registration. New hot topics include a bill to life the cap on special education enrollment, and a bill to authorize and regulate ride-sharing at the state level. There were more than one of those bills; the one that I’d keep an eye on is SB176 by Sen. Schwertner, who has been talking about this since the Austin rideshare referendum. His press release on the bill, which covers the basics of it, has some bombast over that referendum and a bit of BS about how local regulations of rideshare companies were restricting competition, but the bill itself seems reasonable enough. It’s not too hard to see the writing on the wall for this one, and all things considered this approach seems to be workable. Ask me again after it comes out of committee.

Anyway. There’s plenty more out there, and this is of course just day one. In the end, thousands of bills will be filed, and the vast majority of them will die a quiet death. There will be plenty to keep an eye on between now and sine die. The Chron, the Trib, Trail Blazers, Dallas Transportation, the Current, the Austin Chronicle, the Rivard Report, and Out in SA have more.

Rideshare robocall lawsuit filed

This ought to be interesting.

Uber

Ride-hailing company Uber was hit with a class-action lawsuit on Wednesday over “robo-text messages” the company has been sending Austin customers seeking their support for a controversial referendum on the ballot Saturday.

The suit, filed in federal court, claims Uber violated the federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act by sending “thousands of unwanted text messages” to Uber users in the city without prior consent.

“Uber has violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act … by robo-texting thousands of unwanted text messages to the cell phones of thousands of Uber users in Austin, Texas – all without the prior express consent of those receiving Uber’s text messages – as part of a political campaign by Uber to oppose mandates from the City of Austin which impose various background check procedures for Uber drivers,” argues the lawsuit filed by Melissa Cubria in the U.S. District Court for the Western District.

[…]

On Wednesday, Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice, a group against the proposed ordinance, called for an investigation into the “questionable election activities” by Uber and Lyft.

“Uber and Lyft’s $8.8 million and growing in corporate spending as of Tuesday is a testament to how far these corporations are willing to go to rule Austin and overturn Austin’s public safety rules,” said Laura Morrison, a former Austin City Council member, during a Wednesday press conference. “It is obscene to see unprecedented corporate millions poured into a political campaign in an attempt to deceive and manipulate the people of Austin.”

Austin political consultant Mark Littlefield also spoke at the conference on the ad campaign, pointing specifically to the frequent texts sent by both Uber and Lyft.

Cubria’s lawsuit contends that the Telephone Consumer Protection Act does not include restrictions on live, manual communications — only generated messages.

“It’s absurd to imagine that Uber paid individual, living persons to manually type and then manually send thousands (and perhaps tens of thousands) of individual text messages in support of a political campaign underway in Austin, Texas,” the lawsuit reads.

I’ve seen some screenshots of these texts from folks on Facebook. Maybe some were sent by actual people and not an automated process, but who knows? I can’t wait to see how this one plays out.

Bike safety is also car safety

It’s been two years since bicyclist Chelsea Norman was killed by drunk hit-and-run driver Margaret Mayer. The city has taken numerous steps to help make the streets safer for bicyclists. How are we doing on that?

“I personally don’t feel that the streets are any safer,” said Hector Garcia, who helps organize cycling events around Houston.

Up-to-date, verifiable counts for cyclist fatalities can be tough to obtain, but online databases and Houston Chronicle archives show that nine bicyclists were killed this year through Nov. 29 in the Houston area, excluding crashes in rural areas of counties adjacent to Harris County. That compares to 14 in 2014.

Even with the likely decline, however, cyclists say more must be done to reduce accident rates, especially inside Houston’s city limits.

[…]

Outreach to local politicians, meanwhile, has increased since Norman’s death, said Michael Payne, executive director of BikeHouston. To some extent, the advocacy group’s growth can be traced to the attention Norman’s death and others received in 2013.

“Cities and conditions change when people get involved,” Payne said. “Cycling, civil rights, you pick the issue. Houston has the cyclists. For too long we were a highly-fragmented group. United, we are getting recognition and a seat at the table.”

The city, with some prodding by Payne and others, is developing a bike master plan. That in itself is progress, Payne said.

“The city must set goals on how it wants to evolves and come up with a plan to get there,” he said.

Change will be gradual. Bike lanes and other features would commonly be added as streets are repaired or redesigned, meaning it could be years before new infrastructure is in place. Designs for improvements to Alabama and T. C. Jester incorporate bike amenities.

Payne says progress since Norman’s death has been limited.

“While not strictly a failure, I would have liked to have seen the city council and the mayor take a more aggressive stand on issues like distracted driving, speeding and DUI,” Payne said.

Recall that Mayer and Norman’s collision had fatal consequences, based on the investigation and trial, because Mayer had been drinking, not because Norman was on a bike.

“These are behaviors which are killing very large numbers of Houstonians, mainly people in cars, and we know that we can make improvements here with a bit of courage,” Payne said.

That’s something that I think tends to get overlooked in the often-polarizing discussion about bike safety in Houston: A lot of the things we could do to make the roads safer for pedestrians and bicyclists would also make them safer for cars and their occupants. That’s largely because the vast, overwhelming majority of accidents are caused by drivers. As this recent NHTSA press release notes, “NHTSA research shows that in an estimated 94 percent of crashes, the critical cause is a human factor. In contrast, vehicle-related factors are the critical reason in about 2 percent of crashes.” (See this Reuters story and this Ars Technica story, which is where I found that NHTSA link, for more on that.) Anything we can do to reduce the likelihood of drivers doing the sorts of things they do that lead to accidents makes us all safer. That includes things like Complete Streets, texting while driving bans, continued education and outreach about drunk driving, actually enforcing existing ordinances like the Safe Passing law, and more. We all know you can’t fix stupid, but you can mitigate against it.

Mayor will seek texting-while-driving ban

One more agenda item before it’s all over.

It’s not the first time Houston officials have broached the issue; Mayor Annise Parker has long lobbied to impose a Texaswide texting-while-driving ban. But months after another legislative session with no action, term-limited Parker said she would ask council members to consider a local ban before she leaves office at the end of the year.

The danger of using cell phones while driving is well documented, increasing crash risks by more than 23 percent, according to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. In 46 states and the District of Columbia, texting while driving is already banned. Though Texas is one of the few states without such a law, 40 cities including San Antonio and Austin have already opted to enact a local ban.

The city’s public safety committee considered those statistics and two proposed laws Thursday: the first a citywide ban on texting while driving and the second an effort to enforce the existing state ban on texting and cellular phone use in school zones by posting signs. Parker has faced some criticism in recent months because the city has not installed school zone signs, citing costs, and had issued no citations as of September.

“We ought to ban it citywide, that would certainly be my preference,” Parker said earlier this fall. “But I don’t know where the council is on this, and it is certainly a big policy initiative. I think we should have banned it statewide, so of course I’m supporting it here.”

Posting citywide signage is also significantly cheaper than doing so in school zones, according to Jeffrey Weatherford, deputy public works director. There are nearly 8,000 school-zone entry points, costing between $1 million and $1.4 million to appropriately alert drivers. State law prohibits handheld cell phone use in school zones, but the city has not installed the warning signs to enforce that ban.

But if the city were to opt for a Houstonwide ban, they would need to mark just 44 entry points with two signs, costing about $55,000.

While the Parker administration directed the public works department to study the cost of a texting ban, Weatherford said he would recommend City Council take up a prohibition that covers all cellular phone use while driving.

See here for more on the school zone issue. This is not the first time the subject of texting while driving has come up in Houston. There are questions about how effective such bans are, how they can be reasonably enforced, and whether they just provide another pretext for police officers to pull people over, but no one doubts that texting while driving is a dumb and dangerous thing to do. My thinking is that there are people who will do a given thing when it is legal but who will stop doing it if it becomes illegal, so passing the law against it will reduce the number of people who do it even if enforcement is next to impossible. As such, I support texting-while-driving bans. I suspect the votes will be there on Council to do it, so we’ll see what the recommended ordinance looks like.

Metro once again considers advertising

And I once again say go for it.

HoustonMetro

Thursday, Metropolitan Transit Authority board members will consider researching options for putting ads inside buses and trains, as well as text-based ads for those who use the system’s next-bus texting service. Metro board member Diann Lewter said the discussion is preliminary, but she and others want to gauge their options.

Lewter said advertising on the buses’ exteriors would not be considered. Previously, the notion of draping buses in ads rankled some, especially Scenic Houston, the group responsible for curtailing billboards in the city.

Metro uses the space above seats on many buses for promotional messages now, but it could sell some of the space to advertisers.

“We want to know what the market for that is, if there’s a market,” Lewter said.

[…]

Board members stressed they were proceeding with caution. Any policy would have to include strict provisions to avoid less-than-desirable ads without infringing on free speech rights. Massage parlors, for example, could pose a challenge, board member Jim Robinson said. Officials would also consider how much revenue ads might generate.

The complications are slightly less onerous for the agency’s next-bus texting system. The service, which allows riders to text Metro and receive a reply with information on when the next bus arrives, was contracted to a vendor. Part of that agreement allowed Metro to add advertisements, pending board approval, which would enable the vendor to recoup some of the money.

The plan isn’t for Metro to start spamming people, transit agency CEO Tom Lambert said. Instead, the ads would likely accompany the bus arrival information.

The last time this came up was almost three years ago, so no one can accuse Metro of recklessly charging ahead on this. As you know, I’m a longtime advocate of Metro selling ad space, so I’m hoping that this is finally the time when the move forward on it. The amount of money at stake isn’t huge – the figure cited in the Chron story from 2012 in the quoted section above was $10 million per year in an annual budget of $300 million – but it ain’t nothing, either. I bet that kind of extra revenue could help speed up the process of installing bus shelters, and maybe pay to make an existing bus line or two higher frequency. Who knows? All I know is that I’ve considered this to be a worthwhile idea for years now, and I hope this is the moment when Metro finally takes it.

On cellphones and school zones

I guess I need to talk about this.

Six years ago, state lawmakers hoping to protect students banned drivers from texting and talking on hand-held cellphones in school zones.

The ban, however, has never been enforced in Houston. City and school district officials have opted not to install the warning signs needed to issue tickets, citing a lack of funds.

The city puts the cost at roughly $2.34 million for about 7,800 signs. Based on estimates from the Texas Department of Transportation, however, the price tag should be significantly lower.

Houston lags behind the state’s other major cities and several of its neighbors, including Bellaire, Conroe and West University Place, which installed the signs years ago and enforce the law. With school back in session after summer break, police in some jurisdictions have started issuing tickets for a seventh straight school year.

[…]

About two years ago, Mock said, the city clarified that HISD could take on the task. HISD, however, hasn’t budgeted funding, either. Mock estimated that the district would need about 2,000 signs to cover all the school zones.

Price estimates differ. Using the city’s figures of about $300 each, including anti-graffiti coating and mounts, the HISD signs would cost about $600,000.

The Texas Department of Transportation estimates the tab at $100 each, assuming the cellphone notice can be added to an existing school zone sign. The price tag for installing independent signs is $450 to $600.

In Dallas, spokesman Richard Hill said the city’s public works department funded the installation of more than 2,360 signs in 2010. He said the material cost was less than $22,700 – or about $10 each.

“The cost has been the concern,” said Janice Evans, spokeswoman for Mayor Parker, who was unavailable for comment.

Let’s put the cost question aside for a moment. If this law was passed in 2009, then it took effect in September of 2009, in the latter days of the Bill White administration at a time when he was gearing up to run statewide, and at a time when Annise Parker was in the midst of a hot Mayoral race. I follow this stuff pretty closely as you know, and I have no memory of this bill passing. My guess is that no one in either the outgoing White administration or the incoming Parker administration had this on their to-do list, and it fell through the cracks. Had there not been a story in the Chronicle calling attention to it, my guess is no one would have realized it was on the books and that the city was not in compliance. These things happen. The people who are now making a fuss about it could have been making a fuss about it a week or a month or a year or five ago, they just didn’t know it was there to be fussed about. I say all this not to make excuses – surely this should be done now that we all know about it – but to suggest that we try to maintain a little perspective.

HISD’s Mock said the law would not be easy to enforce – officers have to catch drivers typing or holding their phones to their ears – but he still wants the signs up.

“It would be helpful – not so much because that allows you to write citations … really just to create awareness,” Mock said.

That’s pretty much the debate over banning texting while driving in a nutshell. The vast majority of people who text while driving are never going to get caught at it, but the act of making something illegal, and publicizing that it’s illegal will cause some number of people – probably a lot of them – who currently engage in it to stop doing it. You may not write a lot of tickets for texting while driving, but you’ll make it less common, and that will have a beneficial effect.

Houston City Councilman C.O. “Brad” Bradford, a former Houston police chief, said the signs should be funded.

“What is a child’s life worth?” he asked. “We do a lot of things at City Hall that cost a lot more money. We have a $5 billion operating budget, and to say we cannot find money to erect signs in school zones to help protect children, that’s unconscionable.”

All due respect, but you can use this exact line of reasoning to justify any individual expenditure. Budgets always involve choices, and different choices can always be made. I’m always amused to hear self-styled budget hawks talk like this. Their priorities are obvious and self-explanatory. It’s those other priorities that need to be scrutinized and justified.

The Conroe department, which monitors about 20 school zones, issued 14 cellphone citations last year, [Sgt. Robert Engel of the Conroe Police Department] said.

In Spring Branch ISD, the ban applies only to a handful of schools that fall outside the Houston city limits. In those areas, the local villages have installed the signs, according to school district police Chief Charles Brawner.

The Hedwig Village Police Department, for example, has issued 741 citations for school zone cellphone use since 2009, according to Police Chief David Gott. He said he was surprised by the large number – more than 100 a year on average – but his staff spot-checked the data for accuracy.

“It’s important for people to pay attention in school zones,” Gott said. “It can be very dangerous.”

Bellaire, which has schools in HISD, has issued about 100 citations in six years.

Auto collisions involving distracted drivers – whether on a cellphone or fumbling with the radio – result in roughly 424,000 injuries nationwide annually, according to the latest federal data from 2013. More than 3,150 were killed that year.

My guess is that the Hedqig Village PD doesn’t have a whole lot else to do during the day. A ban on texting while driving is right in their wheelhouse.

Getting back to the matter of cost:

“It comes down to the cost of installing the signs – who bears that cost and whether there’s enough of a benefit to make it worthwhile,” Parker said. “Clearly if it saved one child’s life, it would be a worthwhile investment.

“But we don’t believe that putting up a bunch of signs stops anybody from doing anything. Because if they don’t already know it’s dangerous to do … I don’t think there’s any education we can do to stop people from being stupid. It’s an enforcement issue.”

Houston school board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones said Wednesday that she planned to discuss the issue with her fellow trustees.

“I would like to see there be some cooperation between the school district and the city,” she said. “The safety of our students should be a collaboration between the two entities.”

Marney Sims, general counsel for Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, said she was surprised to find out that the district’s three schools under city jurisdiction did not have the cellphone signs. She said she planned to verify that the district had the authority to install them. “If we do,” she said, “then we will pay to add those.”

Look, we’re most likely talking about a couple hundred grand, which despite my earlier snark really isn’t that much in the context of the city’s budget. In addition, the cost can surely be split to some extent with the big ISDs within Houston – HISD, Cy-Fair, Alief, et cetera. In the name of dropping one annoying little thing from the list of things that the Mayoral candidates can grandstand about, can we please get this done? Thanks. Campos has more.

911 to text is here

As expected.

Text-to-911 service is available now in Harris and Fort Bend counties for Verizon and T-Mobile wireless customers.

“This is not to be used just because people like to text, but when people cannot make a voice call,” said Sonya Clauson, spokeswoman for the Greater Harris County 911 Emergency Network.

The service for Verizon and T-Mobile subscribers went live on Tuesday, Clauson said. Sprint and AT&T cellphone customers in the two-county area are expected to be able to use messaging services to reach emergency help next month.

See here and here for the background. Remember, as the National Emergency Number Association says, call if you can, text if you can’t. Hair Balls has more.

Text to 911 option coming locally

Ever wonder why you can’t text 911? Well, in Harris and Fort Bend Counties, you will soon be able to.

By the end of the year, millions of Houston-area residents are expected to have a silent alternative: the Text-to-911 option for emergencies.

Despite the popularity of messaging, the service hasn’t been available in most of the nation and much of Texas for the most life-threatening situations: pleas for fire, police or medical assistance.

In May, the nation’s four major wireless carriers met a voluntary deadline to have their end of the Text-to-911 technology ready to deliver customers’ messages topublic safety agencies that request the service, the Federal Communications Commission reported.

As a result, dozens of call centers nationwide and several in Texas can now receive texts from cellphones on AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon networks.

The Greater Harris County 911 Emergency Network, which provides technical support for call centers in Harris and Fort Bend counties that serve more than 5 million residents, will be ready in the coming months to do the same with at least one carrier.

That’s important because most people in the Houston area call for emergency help by cellphone. In the first seven months of this year, 84 percent of emergency calls in Harris and Fort Bend counties originated from wireless lines, Greater Harris County 911 figures show.

[…]

FCC rules specify that by year’s end, all wireless carriers – not just the major companies – should be able to provide text messages to call centers that have requested the service.

Those centers, however, are not required to exercise that option, said Brian Fontes, CEO of the National Emergency Number Association – which is known as NENA.

Some states, such as Indiana and Vermont, are deploying the service statewide, he said. Others, such as California, leave the decision to individual public safety call centers or networks.

According to an FCC list dated Aug. 25, 18 states had at least one 911 center that could receive texts, though some were limited to one or two major carriers. The police departments in the Lone Star State which can receive texts are mostly in the Dallas Metroplex. There are none so far in the Houston area.

With the major carriers ready, the last hurdle is preparation at local 911 centers, said NENA government affairs director Trey Forgety.

As we know, text to 911 is currently available in some North Texas counties, which are so far the only places where it has been deployed. Nationally, however, only about two percent of emergency call centers around the country are prepared to handle text messages, and compliance is voluntary at this time. I’d guess that while cell calls are the bulk of 911 contacts, there’s still not much demand for texting emergency services.

All of Collin County supports the service. But it isn’t offered anywhere in Denton County. A handful of police departments in Dallas County can receive emergency texts: Balch Springs, Cockrell Hill, Sachse, Seagoville and Wilmer.

But texts still account for only a fraction of 911 requests in North Texas.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments oversees 44 call centers in a 16-county region that includes Dallas, Denton, Collin and Tarrant counties.

Of those centers, 25 have text-to-911 capability, and the rest will have it by the end of September, said Christy Williams, chief 911 program officer for the agency.

Since the service launched in January 2013, dispatchers at these centers have received only 12 text messages, compared with more than a million 911 calls, she said.

You can see why the rollout is proceeding slowly. To some extent, this is a chicken-and-egg question, and I’ve no doubt that over time usage will grow. There are also still some technical advantages to calling 911, though perhaps over time that will change as well. For now, the potential remains theoretical. For more on the text-to-911 program, see the FCC webpage.

Texting 911

This is clearly the way of the future, though I admit that I myself would be a bit leery of using it right now.

With eight of 10 Americans using their cellphones to send or receive text messages, some emergency response centers are updating their technology. Among them are centers in 12 Texas counties, hoping to accommodate situations in which calling 911 may be risky or impossible.

The text-to-911 service is an early step in a national initiative to modernize the emergency call system. The initial deployment in Texas, where the service is available at 27 call centers for Verizon or T-Mobile users, is one of the largest so far in the country.

Text-to-911 technology, which allows a user to send a text to 911, also makes emergency response more accessible to the deaf community. Phone calls remain the priority, officials said, because voice calls have better location-targeting capabilities.

[…]

North Texas counties were among the early adopters, partly because the call centers run by the North Central Texas Council of Governments already had an Internet-based calling system that enabled the cost-free installation of text-to-911. Call centers with older equipment would need to spend anywhere from $80,000 to $8 million to enable the service, depending on their size, said Christy Williams, the chief 911 program officer with the council.

LeAnna Russell, the system’s 911 database supervisor, said that while the several 911 texts sent in North Texas so far have not been the most dramatic of circumstances, they have been important. “We’re just glad they’re using the system,” she added.

Williams, who will become the president of the National Emergency Number Association next month, said the long-term goal was to make sure emergency response technology kept up with cellular technology used by consumers.

“We’re ripping out and replacing an infrastructure that’s over 45 years old,” she said. “Once that’s done, we can provide enhanced features for citizens and public safety responders.”

Potential future advances in 911 technology include incorporating video and photo messaging in emergency response systems and allowing different 911 call centers to share maps and databases, which could cut costs and improve efficiency, Fontes said.

“In a next-generation 911 environment,” he said, “when a car crash happens, people could move around, take pictures of the scene and the license plates, and all of this information will be pushed through the responders and hospitals before they even arrive.”

My initial reaction to this was one of skepticism – I thought, if I’m having an emergency, I’d rather have a live person I can talk to on the other end of the line – but the more I think about it, the more I can see the utility of this. For one thing, texting would be mighty handy in any situation where making noise could be dangerous. For another, in the context of an app you could attach a photo or other useful evidence, as you now can for non-emergency purposes as with Houston’s 311 app. Down the line I could imagine integrating Skype or Facetime or some other video chat function. Not many people use this now, but that will surely change. I figure by the time this is rolled out nationally, it will be an indispensable tool in the kit.

Another slap on the wrist for a prosecutor behaving badly

Weak. Very weak.

The Texas Bar Association has issued a public reprimand to state district Judge Kaycee Jones for her role in clandestine texting during a criminal trial while she was a prosecutor and before her election to the bench last year.

Jones, who oversees the 411th court in Polk, Trinity and San Jacinto counties, signed the agreed judgement citing her for “professional misconduct” just before she came in front of the bar’s grievance panel for a hearing this month.

Jones, 39, was an assistant Polk County prosecutor for 11 years before becoming a judge in 2013. She could not be reached for comment.

However, in a letter to the bar’s disciplinary counsel several months ago, Jones confessed to being an accomplice in a texting incident that she stated she knew was wrong, writing: “I deeply regret that I acted in this manner.”

The agreed judgment documented how Jones had received text messages from state district Judge Elizabeth Coker, while she was seated on the bench during a trial in a child injury case.

Jones, then an assistant prosecutor and observer during the trial, wrote down the message that suggested a line of questioning to bolster the prosecution’s case and relayed it to the lead prosecutor.

[…]

However, several whistle blowers in the investigation, including attorneys Cecil Berg and Richard Burroughs, said the state bar was far too lenient on Jones.

“I’m totally stunned and in disbelief,” said Burroughs of Cleveland. “I served on the state bar’s grievance committee for eight years and would have expected Jones to be suspended or disbarred when she has confessed to violating someone’s civil rights.”

He said Jones has since refused to recuse herself from overseeing his cases that come into her court and feels she is retaliating against him.

He and Berg wanted the state bar to expand its investigation to include multiple other “ex parte” texts between Jones and Coker involving other defendants which were given to the state judicial commission for review.

“We want to find a way to have the bar association look at them still,” Burroughs said.

See here and here for the background. I suppose the State Commission on Judicial Conduct can weigh in as well, since Jones is now a judge, but since all they did with her partner in crime Coker was make her resign, I don’t expect much. I still think a suspension of one year is the bare acceptable minimum punishment for what these two unethical idiots did, and disbarment would not have been too harsh. Why bother to behave if there are no consequences for breaking the rules? Grits has more.

Who’s spamming you?

Probably someone from Dallas. Figures, right?

When it comes to those annoying and unsolicited text messages you get imploring you to reply for weight loss tips, “free” money, and adult-oriented services, Houston and Dallas are smartphone spam lords of Texas, acccording to Internet security firm AdaptiveMobile.

The funny part is that most of the SMS spam in Texas is sent between Dallas and Houston themselves, with few spam messages making it outside those two cities. The Houston versus Dallas rivalry even rages via spammers.

The report says that phones in South Florida, Dallas and Chicago are hit with the highest levels of SMS spam in the country. It also says Los Angeles creates the most SMS spam.

AdaptiveMobile said in a press release earlier this month that most of the spam in Texas is adult-themed. Florida is known for what is called “junk car” spam, solicting people to sell junker cars for cash.

You can see the infographic here and a post describing how it was created here. That latter link may be of interest to those of you that are into visualizing data; I personally prefer to see the numbers themselves, but to each her own. For what it’s worth, I hardly get any text spam at all. I get junk phone calls on my cell all the time – I’ve largely stopped answering the phone for any number I don’t recognize – but junk texts don’t seem to be a problem. Not sure why that is, but it’s fine by me. Anyway, now you know which direction to shake your fist in anger when you get spammed. You’re welcome.

Stockman and Bitcoin

Somehow, this doesn’t surprise me.

U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, a Friendswood Republican with a history of flouting campaign finance laws, entered a new legal gray area this week when he announced his campaign can now accept donations in Bitcoin, a private virtual currency.

Stockman, who is challenging U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas in this year’s Republican primary, was attending an event promoting the NYC Bitcoin Center in New York’s financial district earlier this week when he told a reporter with Business Insider that his campaign could now accept Bitcoin donations. Stockman appeared to confirm the report by posting it on Facebook and Twitter.

Stockman isn’t the first politician to embrace Bitcoin, though he may be the first elected official to do so. Among the legal concerns about Bitcoin campaign donations is that the virtual currency makes it easier to make donations anonymously; federal campaign finance laws require candidates to reveal the names of their contributions. Few businesses currently accept Bitcoin though acceptance has been growing over the last year.

A spokesman with the Federal Elections Commission could not say whether Bitcoin donations are legal. In November, the FEC considered whether to explicitly allow federal candidates and political action committees to accept Bitcoin donations as in-kind donations. The committee deadlocked, 3-3. The commission has not taken up the issue since the November vote, a spokesman said.

Whether Stockman has actually received any Bitcoin donations is unclear. As of Friday morning, his campaign website’s donation page made no mention of Bitcoin. However, in a photo that has circulated online since Tuesday, Stockman is seen at the NYC Bitcoin Center event holding a poster with a scannable QR code on it. The code is a link to a Bitcoin account, but it is not clear if the account is Stockman’s campaign fund. Since Tuesday, the account has received Bitcoin payments worth more than $200.

When asked about the QR code in the photo in an email, NYC Bitcoin Center spokesman Hamdan Azhar wrote back, “Congressman Stockman’s office would probably be best suited to address your question.” A Stockman spokesman has not responded to inquiries about the QR code or whether the campaign has received any Bitcoin donations.

Fine by me if he wants to do that. He can collect Bitcoins, gold bullion, or live chickens as far as I’m concerned, as long as he meets the disclosure requirements. Given that this is Steve Stockman we’re talking about, I don’t have a whole lot of faith in that. But as a matter of philosophy I have no problems with this. As with contributing via text messages, I welcome these innovations as long as proper disclosure is made and all other relevant campaign finance laws are followed. I doubt Bitcoin donations will make any difference to Stockman’s campaign, but hey, a guy can dream if he wants to.

Consequences are for suckers

They’re not for former judge Elizabeth Coker, thank you very much.

Elizabeth Coker

State District Judge Elizabeth E. Coker, who presided over Trinity, Polk and San Jacinto counties before resigning Dec. 6 under fire in a texting controversy, filed Monday to run for Polk County district attorney next year.

Coker will be challenging the incumbent prosecutor, Lee Hon, who was among the witnesses who testified about Coker this year before the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Coker was accused of unethical bias during court proceedings, including sending as many as 40 text messages from the bench to prosecutors, tampering with witnesses and slipping into a jury room to tell those deliberating how to vote.

She admitted no guilt and the commission stopped short of issuing any findings of misconduct.

In October, Coker, who served 14 years on the 258th East Texas bench, agreed to voluntarily resign. As part of a signed agreement with the commission, Coker is disqualified from sitting or serving as a judge in Texas and cannot even officiate at weddings.

But the order does not specifically ban her from other public offices, like district attorney, said commission spokesperson Seana Willing.

“The most the commission can do is remove someone from the bench,” she said.

Local attorney Laura Prigmore is mulling over whether to ask the courts if a prosecutor can be considered a “judicial” position since it is listed under the judicial branch in the Texas Constitution.

[…]

Republican chairman Lowell Crew said expects an “interesting match up” between Hon and Coker in the March Republican primary, but said he could not predict the outcome.

Prigmore, the attorney who wants a higher court to investigate Coker’s eligibility to run for district attorney, said in past elections that “Coker’s power was amazing.”

“She had a machine. But I’m not so sure it will still hold together now,” said Prigmore.

Cecil Berg, an attorney who filed complaints against Coker and who is running to replace her as district judge, described Coker’s campaign as “the most brazen thing I’ve ever seen.”

“I’m dismayed by it,” he said. “After all the improper communiqués she’s had with assistant district attorneys while a judge, now she wants to run the department. It’s beyond my comprehension.”

See here, here, and here for some background. Note that the prosecutor Coker was texting is now a judge herself, though she has a hearing with the Judicial Conduct commission pending. As I said before, I thought this punishment was too light. I’d have advocated for disbarment, though I’d have settled for a suspension of her law license for at least a year. Given that there was no stronger remedy available, I’m not at all surprised she chose to run for office again. No one has laid a glove on Elizabeth Coker yet. I saw no mention of a Democratic candidate in this race, not that it likely would have mattered, so it’s up to the GOP primary voters in these counties to decide if they’re the suckers here. Grits has more.

From the “Judges Behaving Badly” files

We’ll start with now-former Judge Elizabeth Coker:

An East Texas state district judge who had been accused of sending text messages to coach a prosecutor during a trial, being biased against some attorneys and improperly meeting with jurors has resigned as part of an agreement with a state judicial commission.

Elizabeth E. Coker did not admit to guilt or fault as part of her agreement with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. The commission announced Monday that Coker had taken an immediate leave of absence and her resignation will take effect Dec. 6. The agreement also prevents her from ever being a judge again in Texas.

Coker had been a judge since 1998. She oversaw proceedings in Polk, San Jacinto and Trinity counties. Her father and grandfather had also been judges who presided over the same counties.

[…]

The commission said that during an August 2012 child abuse trial Coker presided over, the judge sent text messages to Polk County prosecutor Kaycee Jones, suggesting questions that Jones should relay to the prosecutor handling the case.

Coker was also accused of suggesting that a witness review a videotaped interview he gave to law enforcement to refresh his memory and rehabilitate his testimony and of discussing legal issues pertinent to the case “in an unsuccessful effort to assist the State (to) obtain a guilty verdict in the case.”

The defendant ended up being acquitted of a felony charge of injury to a child.

The commission also alleged Coker might have engaged in other improper communications and meetings with Jones and other prosecutors in Polk and San Jacinto counties and certain defense attorneys regarding pending cases in her courtroom.

“Judge Coker allegedly exhibited a bias in favor or certain attorneys and a prejudice against others in both her judicial rulings and her court appointment; and Judge Coker allegedly met with jurors in an inappropriate manner, outside the presence of counsel, while the jurors were deliberating in one or more criminal trials,” the commission said.

In addition, the commission alleged Coker “may not have been candid and truthful” in testimony before the panel about whether she tried to influence the testimony of a witness who spoke to the commission.

That’s quite the sorry litany of bad judicial behavior. About the only thing I can think of that she could have done to make it worse would have been to bet on the outcome of the cases before her. Personally, I think she got off too lightly – I think disbarment would have been a fitting punishment. But at least she’ll never don the robes again.

The prosecutor Coker texted is now herself a judge, and is facing her own inquiry for her role in that incident.

While the state judicial commission’s investigation into alleged improprieties by State District Judge Elizabeth Coker ended Monday with her resignation, the focus may now shift to any possible complicity by fellow judge and former prosecutor, Kaycee Jones.

Coker’s voluntary agreement to resign alludes to complaints that she “engaged in improper ex parte text communications with Jones,” who served as a Polk County assistant district attorney for 10 years until this year becoming the 411th state district judge.

On Tuesday, Jones could not be reached for comment. But in a previously written letter to the Texas Bar Association’s disciplinary counsel, Jones said that during her tenure as prosecutor she improperly utilized clandestine text messages sent from the bench by Coker.

Jones acknowledged passing along the texts, designed to bolster the prosecution’s case, to the lead prosecutor during a child abuse trial. “It was wrong and I knew better,” she wrote.

Jones’ name was prominently mentioned three times in Coker’s resignation agreement. The signed document refers to the so-called “texting and judging” incident as well as allegations of other improper communiques and meetings between Jones and Coker involving additional cases that were not specified.

Apparently, her boss at the time in the DA’s office made her promise to never do it again, but that ain’t good enough. Jones’ formal hearing is in March, but honestly, unless she has something better to say for herself, she should just save us all the time and trouble and submit her resignation. I don’t see how she can be trusted as a judge given her appallingly bad judgment.

Those two are known to be bad apples. Here in Harris County, we have an accusation of bad behavior against a Family Court judge.

State District Court Judge Denise Pratt is under investigation, accused of backdating court records to make it appear that she issued rulings and filed court documents sooner than she actually did, according to county officials.

Allegations against the 311th family court judge, raised by a Houston-area family lawyer in a criminal complaint filed with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, already have led to the resignation of Pratt’s court clerk.

Webster-based family lawyer Greg Enos, whose criminal complaint last year against a Galveston County court-at-law judge sparked an investigation by the state attorney general and multiple indictments that led to the judge’s suspension and subsequent resignation, said he delivered his complaint against Pratt to First Assistant District Attorney Belinda Hill on Monday. Enos said he believes the office has already launched an investigation.

A spokesman for the district attorney’s office said he “can’t confirm or deny” whether any investigation is underway, but county and other sources say the office is looking into it and already has contacted attorneys to arrange interviews.

The concerns Enos is raising also have touched off an investigation by the Harris County District Clerk, the official keeper of all court records.

District Clerk Chris Daniel said he looked into two of the six cases Enos included in his complaint, which led to the resignation on Monday of Pratt’s lead clerk, a well-liked, 25-year employee of the District Clerk’s office.

Daniel said he found records were postdated or mis-marked in those two cases, and that he is looking into a seventh one that another family lawyer brought to his attention.

An inaccurate timestamp or missing signature on a court document not only erodes “the integrity of the record,” Daniel said, but can have an impact on appeals and other legal processes.

“If you have the wrong date on a document, then statutorily you can run out of time to appeal a case, and that’s where the most damage is,” he said.

[…]

Several lawyers involved in the cases Enos cites in his complaint said they never have experienced such problems with a judge.

Marcia Zimmerman, a 30-year veteran family lawyer based in Clear Lake, said she resorted to filing a motion after waiting for months on a ruling from Pratt. When the ruling finally came in, she was surprised to see the date listed was months before she had filed her motion.

“I don’t think any of us believed the ruling was actually made before the petition for writ of mandamus because, why would she rule and not tell anybody?” Zimmerman said, noting that Pratt also missed two scheduled hearings.

Family lawyer Robert Clark said he had a similar experience, arguing a case in January and then waiting five months for a ruling from Pratt that the official court record now says was issued on Jan. 30, the day before the two-day trial actually ended.

“The thing is, it’s had a seriously adverse affect on the child in this case and my client,” Clark said. “This is just egregious.”

The DA’s office doesn’t comment on these matters so we don’t know for sure what’s going on with Judge Pratt, but the main charges against her are serious and could lead to a felony arrest if there’s sufficient evidence to bear them out. As things stand now, she would be up for re-election in 2014, though as was the case with our old buddy Chuck Rosenthal, whose name was dropped at the end of the story, she might come under pressure from the local GOP to not file. The filing deadline in December 9, and I daresay that regardless of what is being said officially about her case, we’ll have a pretty good idea of whether or not she’s in real trouble by then.

Have you gotten your text from the Ben Hall campaign?

The Ben Hall campaign sent out this press release on Tuesday:

Ben Hall

Ben Hall

The Ben Hall for Mayor campaign has launched a new initiative to reach Houston voters and communicate with them on a platform where they already spend a lot of their time – their cell phones. The Hall campaign has partnered with Politikast, a mobile outreach firm that operated President Barack Obama’s successful 2012 voter text program that contacted 12 million voters, including 2 million in Florida, a state the President carried by 73,000 votes.

The campaign will send the following text to over 100,000 Houston voters with the below message and a link to the recent ad video, “Dream”:

“Hi, I’m Ben Hall for mayor. I believe Houston’s the greatest city, but our challenges require leadership with vision. Visit www.bh4m.co/hallforall.”

“As the fourth largest city in the nation, Houston has nearly a million registered voters who all access information at different times and on various platforms. We are committed to making it as easy as possible for voters to learn about Ben’s vision, to engage with our campaign, and to take action to get new leadership elected this November,” said Julia Smekalina, press secretary for the Ben Hall campaign. “The text message campaign is just one part of our aggressive voter outreach. We will continue communicating with all voters on every platform that they engage on to ensure that every Houstonian is fully informed before casting their vote this election.”

One person really didn’t appreciate the effort.

A local man is suing Houston mayoral candidate Ben Hall, accusing his campaign of sending illegal text messages.

Joe Shields says on Friday two of his family cell phones received the message, which included a link to Hall’s web site and instructions for opting out of further texts.

After calling Hall’s campaign – and Politikast, the company that sent out the text messages – Shields says he was unsatisfied with their responses.

So on Monday, he filed a federal law suit against Hall. Shields’ suit claims he never consented to receiving such texts, which would make the messages he did receive unlawful.

“You’re not required to opt out, they’re required to have you opt in,” explained the plaintiff. “Prior express consent of the called party. And they didn’t have that.”

Joe Shields’ lawsuit is seeking damages of $3000, the maximum allowable for two text messages.

“[Hall] is definitely benefiting from an illegal text message that was made to my cell number and my wife’s cell number,” Shields said. “Probably a bunch of other people too.”

According to Ben Hall’s campaign, the texts have gone out to more than 100,000 cell phones with just one complaint: Joe Shields. And Shields has turned suing telemarketers, spammers and robo-texters into something of a cottage industry.

“We see this technology as an exciting approach and we will continue to use it because voters are receptive,” said Hall’s press secretary, Julia Smekalina. “We will ensure that every message is legally sound.”

Politikast CEO Robert Culhane told FOX 26 News he could provide proof that Shields did indeed opt in. But the company was unable to supply that documentation by our broadcast deadline.

Filing a federal lawsuit strikes me as being a wee bit over the top, response-wise. Bitching about it on Facebook is a lot more proportional to the crime, if one sees this as an offense. Be that as it may, I’m curious to know who else out there has received one of these texts. I haven’t, but then I’ve been pretty circumspect about giving out my cell number to entities that might be compiling a list of them for later sale to vendors like Politikast. And yes, I’m quite certain that while some people will have opted in for this, most of the cell numbers will have come from purchased lists. I doubt that any local campaign has the resources to get 100,000 people to voluntarily provide their cell numbers for something like this. The Chron story confirms my suspicion.

Federal rules prohibit unsolicited, prerecorded sales calls to landline phones, but exempt political calls of that type, known as “robocalls.” The rules for cellphones are more restrictive: To receive cellphone calls or text messages a person must give “express prior consent” or the situation must be an emergency, said Richard Alderman, dean of the University of Houston Law Center.

Politikast gathers some of its own user information and buys the rest from third parties such as Netflix and FreeCreditReport.com, according to an online presentation about its work. Alderman said he would be more comfortable if voters opted in directly with a campaign – texting a number announced at a rally, or entering their cell number on a campaign website, as often is done – rather than having the “opt in” come from an unrelated website.

“To legally send you text messages based on your consent, they must prove that you expressly agreed to receive the messages,” Alderman said. “I do not believe a broad consent satisfies the statutory requirement that the person ‘expressly agree.'”

Smekalina said Politikast used the same data-purchasing technique to send 2 million text messages for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign in Florida.

The Obama campaign, you may recall, collected a lot of cell numbers by promising to announce his choice for VP via text to his supporters before the news broke anywhere else. It didn’t quite work out that way, but the allure of being the first to know was surely a powerful incentive to give up that bit of information about yourself. I’m not sure how much value there is in texting people that had not had any prior contact with your campaign, and I wonder how many of those 100,000 recipients actually live in Houston – remember, all of unincorporated Harris County and several small cities like West U have “Houston” in their mailing addresses. It’s an interesting idea, and I agree that campaigns should take advantage of current technology and communication methods, I just don’t know if this is the right way to do it. Did you get a text from the Hall campaign, and if so would you say you opted in for it? Leave a comment and let us know.

Less is more, local legislative edition

Harris County and the city of Houston generally play more defense than offense when the Legislature is in session, so as a rule the fewer bills that get passed that affect them, the better.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

County and city lobbyists said their efforts to scuttle unfunded mandates and bills that would have handcuffed local governments’ powers largely had succeeded.

On a broader level, however, Mayor Annise Parker and County Judge Ed Emmett were disappointed that some of their top priorities stalled.

“When we go to Austin, our goal is generally to play defense to keep things from happening that would have major consequences for Houston taxpayers, but we also try to promote a limited city agenda,” Parker said. “We made progress on some small pieces of legislation. Would I characterize it as a horrible session? No. A horrible session is when they do something really stupid to you, and there were some really stupid bills that we jumped on.”

Most notably, bills to cap local government revenues did not succeed, said the Texas Municipal League’s Bennett Sandlin and Texas Association of Counties’ Lonnie Hunt.

“Our mantra, more or less, is local control,” Hunt said.

[…]

Judge Ed Emmett

Judge Ed Emmett

Emmett said he was disappointed, but not surprised, the Legislature failed to expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. He also decried a lack of progress on transportation.

“That’s the biggest worry we have, because if we’re going to realize our economic potential and our growth potential, we’re going to have to have transportation, and right now it’s not there,” he said.

Emmett and [Rep. Garnet] Coleman cheered large increases in mental health funding compared to the last biennial budget, including a $10 million pilot program to divert the mentally ill from the Harris County jail.

Given the Legislature’s “disgraceful” failure to restrict payday lending, or to ban texting while driving, Parker said she will move forward with local ordinances.

Parker echoed Emmett’s disappointment at the Legislature’s progress on big issues, ticking off education, transportation, immigration and pensions as areas in which she said there had been insufficient progress.

“It’s always a success for a city when the Legislature doesn’t do anything to harm that city,” she said, “but in terms of the major issues confronting our state … you can’t say this was a successful Legislative session.”

Given that at one point, the payday lending bill would have done little more than nullify local ordinances, failure to do anything wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Mayor Parker wanted to wait and see what the Lege would do before acting locally on the issue, so I’m glad to see her bring it up again. We did get the bike trail bill, which was very nice, and there was something in there about a bill to allow county clerks to accept financial disclosure forms and campaign finance reports electronically, which would be awesome if it leads to a makeover for the crappy interface we have now. Death to scanned PDFs, I say! We didn’t get Medicaid expansion, but we did at least get that.

Houston may ban texting while driving

This will likely come before City Council later this year.

Houston will consider an ordinance banning texting while driving if the Legislature again fails to enact a statewide ban, Mayor Annise Parker said Tuesday.

Parker, flanked by 30 people ranging from high school students to the fire chief, announced the official start of the city’s campaign against texting while driving.

Known as It Can Wait, Houston, the program will use social media, news media and community activism to get the word out, the mayor said.

While officials believe Houston is the first U.S. city to take on the issue with a major campaign, the local program mirrors the 3-year-old It Can Wait program started nationally by AT&T.

Noting that April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, the mayor characterized texting while driving as an epidemic that cuts across all communities.

“We have to change the culture that says, ‘I’m just taking my eyes off the road for a moment. It’s no big deal,’ ” Parker said at the news conference, held in the City Hall rotunda. “But it is a big deal. It kills people.”

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, with a long list of task force members. You can see the video Mayor Parker made with rapper Bun B here – I’ll bet that’s a sentence you never expected to read. There were a number of bills to ban texting while driving filed for this legislative session, but after Rick Perry vetoed such a bill in 2011, I didn’t see the point in following them. I expect the Mayor to bring an ordinance to Council after the Lege adjourns because there won’t be a statewide law coming any time soon. West U and Bellaire already have texting while driving bans in place, as do a number of other cities including Austin and San Antonio. It’s fine by me if the city addresses this – it’s pretty common for me to see people fiddling with their phones while driving these days, and Lord knows the streets around here are adventuresome enough. Hair Balls has more.

TEC approves texting campaign contributions

From Jerad Najvar:

After brief discussion and comments by Jerad Najvar, attorney for Harris County Republicans, the TEC voted unanimously to approve a draft opinion permitting Texas political committees to accept contributions by text message. APPROVED OPINION HERE (the first page is a diagram of each method)

The request proposed two methods for processing text message contributions. One method would have permitted a political committee to accept small-dollar contributions without collecting the contributor’s identifying information, relying on the ability of political committees to accept small-dollar contributions without itemizing contributor information on its campaign finance reports. Although the FEC has approved this method for unitemized contributions, the TEC has previously decided (in Advisory Opinion 207) that Texas law doesn’t permit acceptance of even the smallest of contributions from an anonymous source. This method, therefore, was not approved.

The second method proposed that the committee use a series of reply text messages to collect the contributor’s name, address, and other required information before processing the contribution. This is the method approved today. The final opinion also confirms that the processing firms do not make a prohibited corporate contribution by advancing a portion of each confirmed text contribution to the political committee pursuant to a normal business agreement (in other words, the committee doesn’t have to wait until the contributor pays the cell phone bill before receiving some of the funds).

See here for the full opinion, and here for the background. I think this is perfectly sensible, and I’m glad to see it happen. I doubt this will be revolutionary, but it’s certainly a tool every candidate and grassroots campaign should have in its bag. I will be very interested to see how this gets deployed in the coming elections.

Texting campaign contributions

I see no reason why this should not be allowed.

A Houston-based PAC is asking the Texas Ethics Commission to approve a proposal that would allow the committee to solicit text message contributions from donors in the state.

The Federal Election Commission has approved a text-to-donate model for federal campaigns, but demand for the service is already spreading down the ballot. The PAC—Harris County Republicans—wants the Ethics Commission to move quickly so donation functionality can be added to a voter mobilization app developed by PAC founder Robert Flanagan.

“When a campaign buys the app from the company, it’s customized for their jurisdiction,” says Jerad Najvar, the PAC’s attorney. “They put it in the app store, and the volunteers for that person’s campaign can then download.”

The app syncs with the state’s voter registration database so that once a volunteer downloads the app, an algorithm runs contacts against the voter file and identifies those who are registered in the jurisdiction. From there, the volunteer can call or email highlighted contacts with one touch. Soon Flanagan hopes users will be forwarding the keyword “donate” to their friends with the touch of a button.

[…]

Najvar thinks the company’s text donation model is readily passable under Texas law, but he’s not sure about the timetable for approval from the state’s Ethics Commission, noting “the TEC is not as efficient as the FEC.”

You can, of course, already make a contribution from your smartphone – just browse to your favorite candidate’s webpage, or go to Act Blue, and give to your heart’s content. The distinction between an app and a webpage on a smartphone is one without much difference – they’re both just fancy ways of accessing a web server and backend database. As this KHOU story notes, there are a few extra wrinkles with texting.

For example, if someone makes a text donation over his employer’s phone and the employer simply pays the company cell phone bill, it could be considered an illegal corporate campaign contribution. Then again, people who aren’t supposed to contribute to campaigns, like foreign nationals, may innocently break the law by texting contributions.

Najvar predicts Texas candidates will simply put a verification screen in their text message donation process, asking contributors to certify that their contributions are legal.

“The issue here, of course, is verification on the candidate side,” said Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist and KHOU political analyst. “He or she has to prove that these are legitimate campaign contributions and has to be able to back it up with some verification.”

And cell phone carriers are skimming a huge portion of donors’ campaign contributions, political operatives say. In some cases, Najvar says, phone companies are keeping anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent of text message donations.

Nonetheless, he’s convinced the questions raised by the new technology will be resolved as more campaign money flows in from text messages.

I would think you could solve the verification issue by having the contribution site send back a link for the donor to click to verify that he or she is the bill-paying owner of the phone, and is an American citizen. I suppose that eliminates anyone who’s still using a non-smartphone, but how many such people with an interest in texting campaign contributions could there possibly be? I figure if this catches on, someone will push legislation to limit the amount that a provider could skim off the top. I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t become reality soon. A press release from Attorney Najvar is here, and Texas Watchdog has more.

Hang up and walk

We all know that texting and other smartphone tomfoolery while driving is a bad idea. Turns out that texting while walking isn’t so safe, either.

On city streets, in suburban parking lots and in shopping centers, there is usually someone strolling while talking on a phone, texting with his head down, listening to music, or playing a video game. The problem isn’t as widely discussed as distracted driving, but the danger is real.

Reports of injuries to distracted walkers treated at hospital emergency rooms have more than quadrupled in the past seven years and are almost certainly underreported. There has been a spike in pedestrians killed and injured in traffic accidents, but there is no reliable data on how many were distracted by electronics.

“We are where we were with cellphone use in cars 10 years or so ago. We knew it was a problem, but we didn’t have the data,” said Jonathan Akins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices.

State and local officials are struggling to figure out how to respond, and in some cases asking how far government should go in trying to protect people from themselves.

In Delaware, highway safety officials opted for a public education campaign, placing decals on crosswalks and sidewalks at busy intersections urging pedestrians to “Look up. Drivers aren’t always looking out for you.”

Philadelphia officials are drafting a safety campaign that will be aimed in part at pedestrians who are looking at their devices instead of where they’re going. “One of the messages will certainly be ‘pick your head up’ — I want to say ‘nitwit,’ but I probably shouldn’t call them names,” said Rina Cutler, deputy mayor for transportation and public utilities.

[…]

A University of Maryland study found 116 cases over six years in which pedestrians were killed or seriously injured while wearing headphones. In two-thirds of the cases the victims were men under age 30. Half the cases involved trains. In a third of the incidents, a warning horn was sounded just before the accident.

“With the smartphone technology these days and everything at your fingertips, it’s almost getting to be an obsession or a compulsion with people,” Fox said. “You see it in airports or train stations or malls — if there’s any kind of downtime, they’re jumping right to that phone.”

About 1,152 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms in the U.S. last year for injuries suffered while walking and using a cellphone or some other electronic device, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which receives annual data from 100 emergency rooms and extrapolates the information into a national estimate. But that’s likely an underestimate because patients may not mention they were using a cellphone or other device at the time at the time they were injured, or the doctor or nurse may neglect to include the information in their report, said Tom Schroeder, director of the commission’s data systems.

The difference between texting while walking and texting while driving is that you’re more a menace to yourself with the former. How big a problem this actually is remains hard to define – one presumes it’s less of an issue in places like Houston where there are fewer pedestrians than in places like New York – but I suppose it’s just a matter of time before someone becomes the poster child for this. Try not to do this when crossing the street or on a crowded sidewalk, OK?

New frontiers in spam

Text message spam. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken this long to be seen as a major problem.

Once the scourge of e-mail providers and the Postal Service, spammers have infiltrated the last refuge of spam-free communication: cellphones. In the United States, consumers received roughly 4.5 billion spam texts last year, more than double the 2.2 billion received in 2009, according to Ferris Research, a market research firm that tracks spam.

Spread over 250 million text message-enabled phones, the problem is not as commonplace as e-mail spam. But it is a growing menace, with the potential for significant damage.

“Unsolicited text messaging is a pervasive problem,” said Christine Todaro, a lawyer with the Federal Trade Commission, the consumer watchdog agency, which is turning to the courts for help. “It is becoming very difficult to track down who is sending the spam. We encourage consumers to file complaints, which helps us track down the spammers, but even then it is a little bit like peeling back an onion.”

Although some text spam is of the harmless, if annoying, marketing variety, a vast majority is more insidious, experts say. With one mobile tap, smartphone users risk signing up for a bogus, impossible-to-cancel service.

Or they may succumb to that offer for a Walmart gift card or a free iPhone in exchange for taking a survey and divulging all sorts of personal information, like their addresses or their transaction history — which can then be sold to digital marketers or even used to crack their bank accounts.

And, so far, it is hard to stop it. Even replying to unwanted messages with “NO” or “STOP” — the usual method for unsubscribing from an unwanted text message list — may only verify to spammers that you have a working number that can then be resold.

Scrambling to get a better grasp on the problem, the mobile industry last month joined with a maker of antispam software, Cloudmark, on a new reporting service that lets users forward mobile spam to “7726,” a number that spells SPAM on most keypads. Carriers will then use that information to block numbers.

People were told the same thing about email spam 15 years ago. I don’t know why anyone would ever respond to a spam message – it seems to me that the spam business would dry up completely if people would just wise up – but there you have it. There are some technological ways to fight back against the spammers if you’re so inclined. I figure the cell providers will eventually get a better handle on this. I mean, between what Gmail does and whatever our corporate spam filter does I hardly see any genuine spam in my inbox these days. It’s still being sent to me, I just don’t see it any more. Surely the same fate awaits the text message spammers.

Here are the vetoes

Sunday was the deadline for Rick Perry to sign, veto, or leave unsigned all of the remaining bills from the regular legislative session. He had 1170 pieces of legislation awaiting a decision while he was busy gallivanting around the country. Yesterday, he finished the task, issuing a total of 24 vetoes, one of which was for a fairly high-profile bill.

Notable among the vetoed bills is HB 242, a measure that would have banned texting while driving.

“I support measures that make our roads safer for everyone, but House Bill 242 is a government effort to micromanage the behavior of adults. Current law already prohibits drivers under the age of 18 from texting or using a cell phone while driving. I believe there is a distinction between the overreach of House Bill 242 and the government’s legitimate role in establishing laws for teenage drivers who are more easily distracted and laws providing further protection to children in school zones,” Perry said in his veto statement.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who wrote the texting while driving ban, said she was dismayed and disappointed that Perry vetoed the measure. Legislators’ decisions can save lives, and she said the texting ban would have done just that.

“From my perspective there will be blood on his hands,” Zaffirini said. “Every time that we hear about a tragedy related to distracted driving … I hope that is forwarded to the Governor.”

Perry’s vetoes will also mean a couple more agenda items for lawmakers to accomplish during the special session. He nixed sunset bills that are necessary to keep the Departments of Information Resources and Housing and Community Affairs going.

HB 2608, the sunset bill for TDHCA would continue operations of the agency until 2023, but Perry argued “prescriptive language was added to House Bill 2608 that would impose a new layer of bureaucracy that makes unrealistic demands of the state, delay assistance to communities hit by disasters and duplicate disaster planning conducted by the Texas Division of Emergency Management.”

Perry also took issue with the bill’s reliance on federal disaster recovery funds and a requirement the state issue plans for how it would use those funds.

“I do not take lightly the impact this veto may have in potentially shutting down TDHCA over the next year. That is why I have asked the legislature during this special session to amend language in pending legislation to continue the operation of TDHCA,” Perry stated.

You can see Perry’s statements here and here. Of greater interest to me are the bills he didn’t veto, including the Texas Cottage Food Law bill SB81 and the TV recycling bill SB329. As for the TDHCA bill, I don’t recall that being added to the call for the special session, but there’s still two weeks left in the session so there’s plenty of time for it if it needs to be in. Any surprises in what did and didn’t get vetoed to you?

Saturday video break: The Magnited States of America, where you are FREE to TEXT in a THE-A-TER

In case you haven’t seen it yet, another reason to love the Alamo Drafthouse:

I wonder if this girl has figured out yet what a spectacle she has made of herself. CNN’s Anderson Cooper picked up on it the other day:

Bravo, I say. See Austin360 for more.

Texting while driving ban passed

Somehow, this managed to happen as everything else was going on at the end of the session.

The Senate voted for a statewide ban on texting while driving Wednesday night, as an amendment added to another bill.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, added the bill as an amendment to a bill that would allow retired peace officers to carry certain firearms. The measure will now go back to the House to accept the amendments.

According to the Trib, the bill that got amended was HB242. The House had passed its own bill to ban texting while driving back in April, but it never made it to the Senate floor. That bill was HB243, and like HB242 it was authored by Rep. Tom Craddick. After the Senate passed in on Wednesday, it went to a conference committee and was passed again by the Senate on Sunday, then passed by the House before everything went crazy over SB1811.

According to a press release from Sen. Zaffirini, which is reproduced beneath the fold, the text-banning amendment is based on her bill SB46, and “would prohibit a driver from reading, writing or sending a text-based communication while operating a motor vehicle, unless the vehicle is stopped. Voice-operated, hands-free and GPS devices would be exempt.” Assuming this does get signed, get ready to adjust your driving habits as needed.

(more…)

House passes texting while driving ban

Put that phone down and drive.

This is no LOL matter: Texting while driving could soon be prohibited statewide. The House preliminarily passed a bill [Thursday] that singles out “text-based communication” — texting, instant messaging or e-mailing — while driving as a punishable traffic offense. Using other applications, like GPS, Google or Facebook, on a smart phone would not be banned.

“Why is this being singled out when there are a multitude of things that distract us while driving?” asked Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, who voted against the bill. “I’m concerned about limiting freedom and making people criminals for just reading an electronic message.”

But Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, who authored the bill, told lawmakers the chances of someone having an accident while texting is 20 times that of a drunk driver. The majority of the House, 124 members, voted in favor of the bill; 16 members voted against it.

Current Texas law already prohibits drivers from using a mobile device in any capacity while driving in a school zone. Nor can teenage drivers under 18 text and drive. (Making an emergency call is an exception for both laws.) According to Craddick, texting is “just one more piece of the puzzle” that needs to be prohibited to keep roads safe.

Craddick’s bill is HB243, and it passed on third reading on Friday. The text specifies “a communication sent from a wireless communication device for the purpose of manually communicating with another person in a written medium”, which basically means texts, emails, and instant messages; whether you could get ticketed for a tweet or a Facebook status update or some other typing is unclear to me. Note Larry Taylor’s amendment, which narrows it to writing, not reading, and Marc Veasey’s amendment that adds in “The term does not include a text-based communication that is voice-activated and displayed in a manner that allows the driver to view the material on the dashboard or above the steering wheel.” In other words, there are still ways around this.

I have assumed for some time that Texas would eventually adopt a statewide ban, as many cities have adopted varying ordinances of their own. Among those that have already acted on this: West U, Bellaire, Galveston, Conroe, Seguin, and San Antonio. I have also assumed that the state would set a standard that would override local ordinances, but I don’t see anything in the bill that would specify that. So, even if this bill passes, be aware of those local variations.

Texting while lawmaking

This is a fascinating issue.

A bill by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi , would make an addition to the Texas Open Meetings Act. And it would apply to any public meeting, whether it’s a House committee or a small-town city council meeting.

The measure, House Bill 2977, says an official would be committing an offense if he or she transmits an electronic message — including an email, text message, instant message or Internet posting — during a public meeting.

No penalty has been included in the bill. But Hunter said he’s still considering how to deal with violators.

Hunter, who chairs the powerful House Calendars Committee, said he had a few reasons for filing the bill.

“For one, it’s discourteous if you’re conducting business on a cellular phone or BlackBerry when somebody’s coming in to testify. You need to be focused on those people,” Hunter said.

But perhaps more to the point, Hunter is seeking to take the state’s open records and open meetings laws into the digital age.

The state has to modernize the law, Hunter said.

“I also don’t think you should be communicating in a public setting with private interests, telling you how to vote, telling you how to think, telling you how to speak without that being open access to the public,” he said. He added that state legislators would still be allowed to text from the House and Senate chambers.

But rudeness and modernization are not the only reasons for filing the measure. There is a legal basis for his bill, too, Hunter said: If lawmakers don’t address the issue, it could end up the subject of a court challenge.

Here’s HB2977. The subject came up last year in a Senate State Affairs Committee hearing. I think Rep. Hunter is correct that if the Lege doesn’t take action to clarify existing laws relating to open meetings, the courts eventually will, and I think there’s a lot of merit to what he’s saying. I’m not sure about drawing a line between public meetings and just being in the House or Senate chambers, since surely those same private interests are there as well, but the subject is worth debating. I personally think that applying the same guidelines for email to other forms of messaging on mobile devices would go a long way towards addressing these issues, though that brings up the matter of retention intervals. Like I said, there’s a lot to discuss here, and whatever gets passed initially will surely need to be revisited in the future, probably multiple times. It’s going to take awhile to figure this all out and come up with something workable.

No more texting while driving in Seguin

Add another city to the list of those that have banned the practice.

Seguin has joined several area cities in banning texting and using applications on cell phones while driving.

The new ordinance went into effect [last] Saturday, joining bans already in place in San Antonio, Universal City, Selma and Converse. The Seguin City Council voted unanimously in November to ban using wireless communication devices while driving.

The council set up a 30-day grace period to publicize the ordinance before implementing the law.

Offenders could face a fine of up to $500.

[…]

Seguin Police Detective Aaron Seidenberger said the focus of the ordinance is “safety, preventing injuries and preventing accidents.”

The offense makes it unlawful for “an operator of a motor vehicle to use a wireless communication device to view, send or compose an electronic message or manually engage other application software while operating a motor vehicle upon a roadway in the city,” he said.

Manually engaging other application software includes using built-in GPS, the Internet or Facebook. Talking on the phone is legal except in school zones.

“So, it’s not just texting,” Seidenberger said. “Technically speaking, you can’t go to your GPS app on a phone and pull up a location and hold it in your hand and manipulate the keypad or phone while you’re driving. You can cradle it where it’s hands-free, but you can’t manipulate it while you’re driving. ”

He said the law also applies when a motorist is stopped at a stop sign or red light.

Remember to adjust your behavior the next time you’re in Seguin. This is normally where I’d say that I expect there to be some attempt in the Lege to standardize these rules at the state level, but I’m not so sure about that for this session. There’s too much other stuff going on, and I don’t think anything that’s not on the approved Republican wish list will get much attention. I could be wrong, but I’d bet we’re more likely to see this come up in a future legislature than in this one.

Facebook mail

I’m sure by now you’ve heard about this.

On Monday, Facebook founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said the world’s largest social network plans to launch an updated version of its messaging service that will allow users to send emails and SMS text messages from inside their Facebook Messages account, and that the Palo Alto, California-based company will enable the site’s more than 500 million users to each have their own “@facebook.com” email address.

“We don’t think that a modern messaging system will be email,” Mr. Zuckerberg said during a presentation to announce the new service.

It’s times like this that I realize just what an old fogey I really am.

Though e-mail is still a primary form of communication for older adults, recent studies suggest this is not the case for young people. Text messaging has surpassed face-to-face contact, e-mail, phone calls and instant messaging as the primary form of communication for U.S. teens, according to a 2009 survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Yeah, I don’t see text messages replacing email for me any time soon, or ever, and I hate IM with the fiery intensity of a thousand suns. I’ll just be over here in the corner, muttering about these damn kids and their newfangled ways.

Back to the original story:

“It’s not email, it handles email in addition to Facebook Messages … it’s true people are going to be able to have Facebook.com email address, but it’s not email,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.

Mr. Zuckerberg said users will be able to have an @facebook.com email address that matches their public user name. However, he said the new service goes beyond email and will allow users to integrate text messaging, email and Facebook chat. Users will also be able to send attachments through the new Facebook Messages platform.

As well, in an effort to combat spam, users who adjust their privacy settings to accept messages from only their friends will have all other emails bounced away from their inbox.

I dunno. The problem with the white-list approach to spam fighting is that sometimes you do need and want to receive a message from someone with whom you do not have a pre-existing relationship. I suppose in this model, you’d need to accept a friend request from them first, to which my reaction is that I don’t necessarily want anything more from them than an exchange of information.

Lifehacker quantifies another concern I have about this.

According to a report from last year by DNS service OpenDNS, Facebook was the second most commonly blocked web site on the internet, second to MySpace. You won’t find an email provider among that top 10 list.

That doesn’t mean that every workplace blocks Facebook or that no workplaces block Gmail, but the prerequisite to communication is access, and a lot of people who can’t access Facebook from work can still access their email accounts. In theory, Facebook Messages could get around this problem by sending you messages via SMS, but unless you want to do all your “emailing” from your phone, that’s not much of a solution.

Yeah, I know, everyone has a smartphone for this stuff these days, but if you’re actually at your desk at work, fooling around on your phone all day looks bad. At least if you’re checking your Gmail account on the work PC, you’re in position to easily switch over to whatever else you need to be doing. I guess I’d need to know more about what all of this means, but my initial reaction is that it’s not anything that would make me leave Gmail. Did I mention that I’m really old? For more, see TechCrunch and Dwight. What do you think about this?