12 New Texas Laws that May Surprise You | Legislative Update 2017
Bestiality. Drones. Cyberbullying. Swords. Lotto. A mixed bag of bills became Texas law on September 1 and, if you’re a legal or crime junkie, you won’t be disappointed. Out of the 6,631 bills filed during the 85th Texas Legislature, 17 percent — or 1,139 — of them passed. That’s a lot of law to digest! And since no one’s got time for that, we’re highlighting the 12 most interesting, impactful or incredulous new Texas laws to take effect September 1.
1. No More Texting and Driving.
Texans are no longer allowed to read, write or send an electronic message behind the wheel — unless their vehicle is stopped. And drivers under age 18, can’t use a wireless communication device at all, regardless if the vehicle is stopped or not. This law has been a long time coming. Lawmakers have been working on a texting while driving ban for more than a decade, but the initiative gained momentum in March after a distracted driver collided with a church bus in rural Texas, killing 13 people.
Punishment: Violators face fines from $25 to $99 for a first offense. A subsequent offense will result in a fine of up to $200. If a driver causes death or serious bodily while using an electronic device, they face a Class A misdemeanor.
2. Go Ahead and Hunt Hogs from a Hot Air Balloon.
If you’ve ever had a burning desire to go hog hunting from a hot air balloon, you’re in luck. It’s legal now. In an effort to reduce Texas’ growing hog population, lawmakers have approved the hunting of wild hogs and coyotes from hot air balloons. The state already allows hunters to shoot hogs from helicopters but that method hasn’t been very successful since choppers are loud and scare off the animals. Hot air balloons are quieter and apparently offer a more solid shooting platform.
3. Drones Banned Over Jails and Sports Arenas.
Apparently, the sky is not the limit for drones. Texas lawmakers have banned flying drones over large sports stadiums, jails and prisons. The regulation was designed to protect the public from weapons that drones could carry and to prevent drones from supplying inmates’ drugs or tools to aid in their escape.
Punishment: Flying a drone over correction facilities or stadium is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail.
4. The Right to Bear Swords…and Machetes!
Speak softly and carry a big…sword? It’s now legal in Texas. House Bill 1935 – known as the Texas Knife Law Reform Bill – repealed a ban on carrying blades over 5 ½ inches, including bowie knives, daggers, swords, and machetes. Essentially, the bill removed the term “illegal knife” from the penal code and replaced it with the words “location-restricted knife.”
Technically, this means you can now walk around in public with a machete if you want, as long as you are 18 and are not in a restricted location. Restricted locations include schools, polls, courts, racetracks, secure area of the airport, bars, sporting events, jails, hospitals, churches, and amusement parks.
Punishment: Carrying a long blade into a restricted area is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine, unless it was carried onto a school or education institution, in which case it is a third-degree felony punishable by two to 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
5. No More Lunch Shaming
Students who have a negative balance on their lunch account will no longer be publicly embarrassed by being denied a hot meal and given a cold sack lunch or cheese sandwich. A new law prohibits “lunch shaming” by requiring school districts to set grace periods to allow students without lunch money to continue eating a hot lunch. It also requires districts to notify the parent or guardian of the student when lunch money runs out.
6. Bestiality is Formally Outlawed…in 2017.
Many people were surprised to learn that bestiality was not illegal in Texas – until now. In the past, individuals caught having sex with animals were prosecuted for public lewdness, animal cruelty, or not at all. Senate Bill 1232 officially outlaws bestiality in Texas, bringing the Lone Star state in line with 42 other states that had already made sex with animals a crime. The law criminalizes participating, promoting, or observing sexual contact with an animal. What’s more, convicted offenders will have to register as a sex offender.
Punishment: Bestiality is a state jail felony, punishable by up to two years in a state jail facility and a $10,000 fine. If the conduct occurred in the presence of a child or caused serious bodily injury or death to the animal, the crime is a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
7. Criminalizing Cyberbullying.
In the past, there was little law enforcement and school districts in Texas could do to deter cyberbullying. That’s about to change. This week, student cyberbullying will officially be illegal in Texas and school districts will have more power to intervene in cyberbullying cases. The new law requires school districts to beef up their bullying policies and to notify a victim’s parents within three days after a bullying incident. The new law also allows victims to get a restraining order, temporary injunction or permanent injunction to stop the cyberbullying.
Punishment: Cyberbullying a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up 180 days in jail and a maximum $2,000 fine. The offense becomes a Class A misdemeanor if the offender has a previous conviction for cyberbullying or if the victim was under 18 years old and targeted with the intent to make the victim commit suicide or hurt themselves. A Class A misdemeanor is punishable by up to a year in jail and a maximum $4,000 fine. Cyberbullies can also face expulsion or be sent to alternative school.
8. Finally! Lotto Winners Can Remain Anonymous.
When Texans hit the lotto, they get more than just a pot load of money. They also get lots of attention — or at least they used to. Lawmakers recently passed House Bill 59, which now allows individuals who win at least $1 million to choose to remain anonymous. Prior to the passage of this law, the Texas Lottery Commission was required under the Texas Public Information Act to release to the public and the media the names of prize winners, their city of residence and the amount of the prize. The new law is designed to protect lottery winners from unwanted attention, predators, and the media.
9. Threatening, Attacking Police or Judges is Considered a Hate Crime.
Threatening or attacking law enforcement is now considered a hate crime in Texas, which means increased penalties for individuals who target police or judges because of their profession. In Texas, hate crimes are offenses committed with a prejudice or bias against someone’s “race, color, disability, religion, national origin or ancestry, age, gender or sexual preference or by status as a peace officer or judge.” The new law, referred to as the “Blue Lives Matter” law, is in response to the 2016 ambush that left six Dallas police officers dead and the 2015 attack on state District Judge Julie Kocurek outside her Austin home.
Punishment: Making a terroristic threat that puts a police officer or judge in fear of imminent bodily injury is a state jail felony, punishable up to two years in a state jail facility. Unlawful restraint or assaulting a police officer or judge is a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 20 years. Crimes against a peace office or judge that results in serious bodily injury would be a first-degree felony, punishable by up to life in prison.
10. First Time DWIs Get a Second Chance.
In the past, first-time DWI offenders did not have the ability to seal their record from public view, which could make getting employment, housing, and loans difficult. Now, first-time offenders have the ability to put the mistake behind them, thanks to a new law. House Bill 3016, dubbed the “Second Chances Law,” allows first-time DWI offenders to seek a non-disclosure, which is a legal remedy that allows non-violent offenses to be sealed after their case is disposed. Once the record is nondisclosed, it is hidden from private employers, apartments, banks etc.
11. Crackdown on Improper Relationship between Teacher and Student Laws.
It’s already for illegal for teachers to have an improper relationship with a student in Texas, but the law got tougher. The Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 7, which added new criminal and administrative penalties to crack down improper relationships between employees of public or private schools and students. Among other things, the law disqualifies certain offenders from receiving pensions and mandates that principals and superintendents report teacher misconduct to parents and the Texas Education Agency.
Punishment: A superintendent or director who intentionally fails to report teacher misconduct to the Texas Education Agency in an effort to conceal the misconduct faces a state jail felony, punishable by up to two years in a state jail facility and a $10,000 fine.
12. In 2020 Straight Ticket Voting Will be Out of Style
Beginning in 2020, Texans will no longer be able to check one box to cast a ballot for every candidate from a single political party. Gov. Greg Abbott has signed a bill into law eliminating the straight-ticket voting option. Supporters of the new law say eliminating the one-click option forces voters to make informed decisions and brings Texas in line with at least 40 other states that don’t allow straight-ticket voting.
Also published on Medium.