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10 civil rights groups call on Travis County to drop pending marijuana cases

August 1, 2019

Katie Hall

en civil rights groups are calling on Travis County to drop all pending marijuana possession cases in the wake of a decision from the district and county attorneys not to pursue most new cases on that charge. District Attorney Margaret Moore announced that her office would dismiss 32 felony possession cases filed in the three weeks since June 10, when the Legislature passed a state law legalizing hemp. County Attorney David Escamilla said his office would dismiss 61 misdemeanor cases filed in the same period. Just like other prosecutors across Texas, Moore and Escamilla have said they will not pursue most marijuana possession cases moving forward because the new law requires them to prove whether a suspected drug is hemp or marijuana, which means conducting a costly test of the substance's THC content. However, Moore said it's not her intention to stop prosecuting marijuana cases on a long-term basis. She has not said if or when her office would resume marijuana possession prosecutions. In the letter addressed to Moore and Escamilla, the civil rights groups ask Travis County prosecutors: If you're not pursuing new cases, why bother pursuing older cases? "People with pending cases should not lose their jobs and risk going to jail solely based on the date of their offense, especially when the offense is possession of a substance that over half of American adults have admitted to using at some point in their lives," the letter says. "Dismissing these cases would also mean the county would save time and resources that could be spent on actual public safety threats." The letter urged them to drop all cases and rescind outstanding warrants affecting roughly 4,000 people. The letter is signed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, Austin Justice Coalition, Workers Defense Project, Texas Fair Defense Project, Just Liberty, Texas Civil Rights Project, Texas Appleseed, Grassroots Leadership, Austin Community Law Center and the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. Prosecutors with Moore's office declined to comment on the letter Friday, saying they are still researching the matter. Escamilla said he intends to meet with the groups. However, he said, it is unlikely his office would drop cases that were filed long before the law took effect. "We need to encourage people to appear in court, and a lot of these people didn't," Escamilla said. Instead, Escamilla said his priority is to create a few amnesty days for people who have outstanding warrants tied to marijuana possession charges. This would allow people to show up at court and, instead of being arrested, they would sign up for a $40, four-hour accountability and responsibility class. If they complete the class, prosecutors would dismiss the case. This is an option the county court offers most people facing marijuana possession charges. However, that option is less common for people who have outstanding warrants because they missed a court date, and an amnesty day would make that option available on a temporary basis, Escamilla said.

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