Harris County D.A. will no longer prosecute “trace cases”
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg made good on a central campaign promise this week, announcing that her office will no longer prosecute “trace cases” that involve trivially small amounts of drugs, or drug residue. In an interview with the Houston Press, Ogg said that although there is still no formal policy prohibiting these prosecutions, her office stopped pursuing such cases in late July.
“It’s been a point of contention with most Houstonians who don’t appear to agree that it’s a wise use of taxpayer dollars to prosecute people in possession of empty crack pipes that contain drug residue,” Ogg told the Press. “And while not all the cases follow that example, many, many do.”
Trace cases have a politically volatile history in Harris County. Heeding the broader shift toward criminal justice reform as Texas struggled with its bloated prisons, former District Attorney and Republican Pat Lykos changed the office’s policy when she took office in 2010, instructing her deputies to prosecute cases involving 1/100th of a gram of drugs as misdemeanors, rather than felonies as the office had in the past. The move saved the county money and greatly reduced its crowded jail population.
But it also drew the ire of local law enforcement, who argued that their ability to file felony charges in residue cases was instrumental to efforts to lock up people guilty of robberies and burglary. By the end of 2011, a coalition of six Harris County police groups had announced a vote of “no-confidence” in Lykos.
When Lykos lost her seat to Mike Anderson in late 2012, the new district attorney made reversing her policy on trace cases one of his first priorities. After Anderson passed away in 2013 and his wife Devon Anderson took his place, she maintained his policy, and the office continued to charge drug residue cases as felonies. The prosecutions of trace cases became a prominent point of contention between Anderson and Ogg on the campaign trail.
Unlike Lykos, Ogg is moving forward with the support of the Houston Police Officer’s Union, though it is tempered. The union’s president, Ray Hunt, told the Houston Press that “we’re not going to make a big deal about this as long as these people who break into cars, which we believe are the big crack users, that when we catch them, they’re hammered and they’re not given slaps on the hand.”
As shown in other jurisdictions, assurances from district attorneys that they will step back from prosecuting certain crimes don’t always have meaningful results. In Brooklyn, for example, former district attorney Ken Thompson made waves in 2014 when he announced his office would no longer prosecute most low-level marijuana cases. After Thompson passed away, current district attorney Eric Gonzalez took his place, vowing to maintain Thompson’s policies.
But a recent investigation from WNYC found the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office only throws out roughly one out of every five low-level marijuana arrests. (Gonzalez said he believed most of these charges were for smoking marijuana, which is classified as the same misdemeanor as low-level possession, and contends his office is still working to reduce possession prosecutions.)
Now, Houstonians will wait to find out if Ogg’s word — which again, is not yet a written policy — will make a meaningful dent in the number of trace case prosecutions in the county. With voters and local law enforcement behind her, there is little reason for her to stray from her stance.