New Texas Criminal Laws | 2021 Legislative Update
A long and controversial legislative session resulted in a mixed bag of new criminal laws in Texas. Here is a roundup of the new criminal laws and the biggest changes to existing criminal laws stemming from the 87th legislative session.
1. Constitutional Carry
HB 1927: Signed June 16
Starting September 1, Texans over age 21 will be able to carry a handgun in public without license or training. House Bill 1927 eliminated the requirement for Texans to obtain a license to carry as long as they are not prohibited from possessing a gun by state or federal law. This legislation also makes a number of other changes and additions to the Penal Code concerning firearms, including:
- Making it a crime to carry a firearm while intoxicated. This offense is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a maximum $4,000 fine.
- Making it a crime for a gang member to carry a firearm in a vehicle. This offense is a third-degree felony punishable by two to 10 years in prison and a maximum $10,000 fine.
- Allowing a peace officer to disarm a citizen at any time if he or she believes it is necessary to protect the person, the officer or another individual. The officer, however, must return the person’s handgun before leaving the scene if the officer determines the person was not a threat and didn’t commit a violation.
- Allows for the expungement of records for those who have been previously convicted of unlawfully carrying a weapon before September 1, 2021.
2. Obstructing Emergency Vehicles
HB 9: Signed June 1
House Bill 9 makes it a state jail felony to knowingly block an emergency vehicle with its lights and sirens on or to obstruct access to a hospital or health care facility. A state jail felony is punishable by six months to two years behind bars and a maximum $10,000 fine. Individuals convicted of this offense are required to spend at least 10 days in jail, even if they are sentenced to probation. This legislation was passed in response to protestors blocking roadways during last year’s nationwide protests against police brutality.
3. Financial Abuse of the Elderly
HB 1156: Signed June 9
This bill creates the new offense of financial abuse of an elderly individual. A person commits this offense if he or she “knowingly engages in the wrongful taking, appropriation, obtaining, retention or use of money or other property of an elderly person” by any means, including financial exploitation. The penalties for financial abuse of an elder range from a Class B misdemeanor to a first-degree felony depending on the amount of property or money taken. This bill was passed in response to the growing number of elderly Texans who fall victims to scams, frauds and exploitation each year.
4. Impersonating a Private Investigator
HB 1400: Signed June 15
It is now illegal in Texas to impersonate a private investigator, who are licensed by the Texas Department of Public Safety and deal with personal and highly sensitive matters. A person commits this offense if he or she impersonates a private investigator with the intent to induce another to submit to the person’s pretended authority or to rely on the person’s pretended acts of a private investigator, or knowingly purports to exercise any function the requires licensure as a private investigator. Impersonating or purporting to be a private investigator is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a maximum $4,000 fine.
5. Unlawful Use of Fireworks: Endangering Law Enforcement
HB 2366, Signed June 1
It is now a felony to explode or ignite fireworks to interfere with or flee from official police activity. It’s a state jail felony (punishable by six months to two years in state jail) to use fireworks that are sold to consumers, and it’s a second degree felony (punishable by two to 20 years in prison) if explosive fireworks, such as those used in public displays, are fired at an officer. It is also a third-degree felony to direct laser pointers at a uniformed safety officer, rising to a first-degree felony if the conduct causes bodily injury to the officer. Prior to House Bill 2366, using a laser pointer at officers was only a misdemeanor offense.
6. Homeless Camping Ban
HB 1925: Signed June 15
Camping in an unauthorized public place is now a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $500 fine. The bill effectively criminalizes homelessness. However, the bill states that an officer must make a reasonable effort to redirect homeless people to available resources, such as non-profit agencies, “before or at the time” a citation is issued. If the person is arrested or detained solely for this offense, law enforcement must also ensure all of the person’s property is preserved.
7. “Johns” in Prostitution Cases Face a Felony Charge
HB 1540: Signed June 16
Texas is the first state to charge “Johns” with a state jail felony (instead of a misdemeanor) for soliciting sex from prostitutes. A state jail felony is punishable by six months to two years in a state jail facility and a maximum $10,000 fine. The new law is part of sweeping legislation aimed at cracking down on human trafficking. In addition to increasing penalties for solicitation of prostitution, House Bill 1540 also implemented numerous other measures. Notably, it also made human trafficking a first-degree felony if the actor recruited, enticed or obtained the victim from a shelter or treatment center for runaways, foster children, and the homeless, among others.
8. Police Reality Shows
HB 54: Signed May 26
This bill prohibits a law enforcement agency from authorizing a person to accompany and film a peace officer acting in the line of duty for the purpose of producing a reality television show. It is also known as “Javier Ambler’s Law,” stemming from the death of a 40-year-old black man who was tasered by Williamson County deputies. The Javier Ambler Law bans law enforcement agencies from contracting with shows such as “COPS and “Live PD,” the latter of which captured Ambler’s deadly encounter with Williamson deputies but never aired.
9. Swatting: False Report to Induce Emergency Response
SB 1056: Signed June 18
Senate Bill 1056 makes it a Class A misdemeanor to falsely report a crime or an emergency to elicit an emergency response from law enforcement or other emergency responders. A Class A misdemeanor is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. The punishment is increased to a state jail felony, punishable by six months to two years in state jail, if the defendant has been previously convicted twice of the offense. The punishment is a third-degree felony, punishable by two to 10 years in prison, if a person is seriously injured or killed as a result of the emergency response. A court can also order a defendant to make restitution or reimburse the cost of the emergency response.
10. Sexual Assault by Coach or Tutor
Senate Bill 1164, Signed June 16
Senate Bill 1664 expands the circumstances that constitute sexual assault by adding provisions to the definition of consent. Sexual assault is without consent if a coach or tutor causes an individual to submit or participate by using influence or power to exploit their dependency on the actor. Additionally, if a person is a caregiver hired to assist a person with daily activities and causes a person to submit or participate by exploiting their dependence, sexual assault is without consent.
11. Flying a Drone over Airport or Military Facility
SB 149, Signed June 14
It is now a Class B misdemeanor to operate a drone over airports and military institutions. Senate Bill 149 expanded the definition of critical infrastructure facilities to include public or private airports recognized by the FAA and military installations owned or operated by the federal or state government, or another governmental entity. A Class B misdemeanor is punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a maximum $2000 fine.
12. Reckless Driving Exhibition, Street Racing
SB 1495, Signed June 18
Senate Bill 1495 enhances the penalty for obstructing a highway or passageway from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class A misdemeanor for an individual who engages in a reckless driving exhibition. The bill enhances the penalty to a state jail felony for person who has previously been convicted of this offense; a person who operates a vehicle while intoxicated; or who causes someone to suffer bodily injury. The bill also creates the Class B misdemeanor offense of interference with a peace officer investigation of a highway racing or reckless driving exhibition. A Class A misdemeanor is punishable by up to a year in jail and a maximum $4,000 fine.
13. False Statement to Buy a Firearm
SB 162, Signed May 30
Senate Bill 162, also known as the “Lie and Try” bill, makes it a state jail felony for a person prohibited from possessing a firearm to lie on a firearms background check form. A state jail felony is punishable by six months to two years in a state jail facility. The bill was filed in response to the 2019 Walmart Shooting in El Paso, which left 23 people dead. The Texas Safety Action Report that was written after the El Paso mass shooting stated that an estimated 100,000 people lie on firearm background checks each year.
14. Operating a Boarding Home without a License
SB 500, Signed June 14
This legislation makes it a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a maximum $2,000 fine, for a person to operate a boarding home without a permit in a county or municipality that requires a permit.
15. Harassment Expands to Social Media Posts
SB 530, Signed May 30
Senate Bill 530 updates the harassment statute and makes it a class B misdemeanor offense to harass another person by publishing repeated electronic communications on a website, including a social media platform, with the intent to harass, annoy, alarm, torment, or embarrass that person. A Class B misdemeanor is punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a maximum $2,000 fine. The penalty can go up to a Class A misdemeanor, however, if the actor has been previously convicted of the offense or if it involved a child under age 18 with the intent to cause the child serious bodily injury or to commit suicide.
16. Slow Down for Toll Vehicles
HB 2048, Signed June 4
Current law requires drivers to move over or slow down for specific types of vehicles. House Bill 2048 adds to that list by requiring drivers to vacate the lane next to, or slow down 20 mph slower than the posted speed limit, when passing a vehicle operated by a toll project that has certain required visual signals.
17. Medical Marijuana Expansion
HB 1535: Signed June 15
More Texans can now use medical marijuana. House Bill 1534 expanded Texas’ Compassionate Use Program for people suffering from certain conditions, including cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder.
HB 1024: Signed May 12
This new law allows restaurants to permanently sell alcohol with pickup and delivery orders. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order to expand alcohol sales during the onset of the pandemic last year in an effort to open up a revenue stream for restaurants. Now, lawmakers have made alcohol-to-go indefinite.
19. Guns in Hotel Rooms
SB 20: Signed June 18
Hotel guests are now allowed to carry and store firearms and ammunition in their private rooms. This new law prohibits hotels from banning firearms, however the hotel can adopt a policy requiring firearms and ammunition to be carried in a certain manner on the property.
20. Blood Specimens in DWI Cases
HB 558: Signed June 18
The legislation allows automatic, mandatory blood draws for motorists who are arrested for an intoxicated offense after seriously injuring or causing a death. The legislation stems from the death of a pedestrian, a Denison school teacher, who was struck by a motorist whose blood was never tested. The motorist was later no-billed by a grand jury. This legislation will likely result in government overreach and a significant number of violations of the Fourth Amendment. Additionally HB 558 will result in the unnecessary suppression of evidence and a guarantee of extensive litigation in Texas’ trial and appellate courts. There is a good chance this legislation will likely be found unconstitutional on appeal. For the time being, though, it is the law.
21. Bo’s Law: Body-Worn Policy Camera Policies
HB 929, Signed June 16
House Bill 929 is also known as the “Botham Jean Act,” named after a black man who was shot and killed in his apartment by Amber Guyer, an off-duty officer who mistook him for a burglar. The new law requires officers to keep their body cameras activated during the entirety of an investigation, unless the camera has been deactivated in compliance with a police department’s specific policy.
22. Rape Kit Collection
HB 2462: Signed June 16
This law provides that a sexual assault victim is entitled to a forensic medical examination within 120 hours of the alleged offense. Law enforcement does not have the authority to decline a request. The bill also requires DPS to submit an annual report on the number of unanalyzed evidence collection kits in the tracking system to the governor and legislature and to post the report on its website.
23. Active Shooter Alert System
HB 103, Signed May 24
House Bill 103, also known as the Leilah Hernandez Act, creates an alert system to be activated on the report of an active shooter. The bill requires DPS to develop and implement the Texas Active Shooter Alert System in cooperation with TxDot, the governor’s office, and other appropriate law enforcement agencies. DPS would activate the alert system in a 50-miles radius of an active shooter’s location. The bill is named after Leilah Hernandez, a 15-year-old Odessa High School student who was the youngest victim killed in a mass shooting on Aug. 31, 2019 in Odessa and Midland.
24. Police Chokeholds
SB 69, Signed June 14
This legislation prohibits law enforcement from intentionally using a chokehold, carotid artery hold, or similar neck restraint when searching or arresting an individual unless the restraint is necessary to prevent serious bodily injury or death of the officer or another person. The bill also establishes an officer’s duty to intervene to stop or prevent another officer from using excessive force and requires officers to promptly report excessive force. This legislation was filed in response to the death of George Floyd, who is black and died after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds. That officer, Derek Chauvin, sentenced to more than 22 years in prison for murder.
25. Human Trafficking Awareness
HB 290, Signed May 18
This legislation imposes requirements for human trafficking awareness and prevention in commercial lodging establishments, such as hotels, motels and inns. The operator of a commercial lodging establishment must require each of its direct employees to complete an annual human trafficking awareness and prevention training program, which includes guidance on how to identify at-risk individuals and report and respond. The bill also allows officers to enter the premises to ensure compliance.
26. Asset Forfeiture Funds from Human Trafficking
HB 402, Signed June 7
House Bill 402 allows prosecutors and law enforcement agencies to use certain civil asset forfeiture funds to cover the cost of a contract with a city or county program to provide services to victims of trafficking. The funds would come from contraband that was used to commit or facilitate human trafficking offenses.
27. Officer’s Duty to Render and Request Aid in Excessive Force Incidents
SB 2212, Signed June 18
Senate Bill 2212 establishes a duty for officers to request emergency medical services and render aid to a person who is injured during the course of an officer’s duties – as long as it is safe for the officer to do so. This legislation puts more responsibility on officers in excessive force cases.
28. 9-1-1 Drug Overdose Defense
HB 1694, Signed June 16
This legislation, known as the Jessica Sosa Act, provides a defense to prosecution of certain drug offenses if the actor was the first to request emergency medical assistance in response to a possible overdose of another person, remained on the scene until medical assistance arrived, and cooperated with medics and law enforcement. The defense to prosecution would not be available if the peace officer was arresting the individual at the time, if he or she was committing another crime or have previously been convicted or placed on deferred for a drug offense.
29. Sanctuary State
HB 2622, Signed June 16
With the passage of House Bill 2622, Texas now joins the ranks of a small, but growing number, of states that have passed laws that designate them as second amendment “sanctuaries.” This legislation prevents state officials from enforcing new federal statutes, orders or rules regulating firearms, firearm accessories or firearm ammunition that don’t exist under state law. It prohibits a state agency, political subdivision, or law enforcement officer from receiving state funds if the entity contracts with or provides assistance in any way to a federal agency related to firearms registration, background checks, confiscation programs or firearm sales.
20. Silencers are Now Legal
HB 957, Signed June 15
House Bill 957 removes a firearm silencer from the list of weapons that are prohibited in Texas, so it is no longer an offense to possess a silencer. The bill also establishes that firearm suppressors that are manufactured and remain in Texas are not subject to federal law or regulation.
31. Withholding Educator’s Names Until after Indictment in Improper Educator- Student Relationship Cases
HB 246, Signed June 15
This legislation prohibits the release of the name of a school employee who is accused of an improper relationship between an educator and student until the employee is indicted for the offense. However, the bill authorizes the release of the employee’s name regardless of an indictment as necessary for the school to report or investigate the accusation.
32. No More 180 Day License Suspension for Drugs
SB 181, Signed June 14
Senate Bill 1818 revises the law that automatically suspends a person’s driver’s license for 180 days for any drug conviction, regardless of circumstances. Instead of an automatic suspension, the bill specifies that a $100 fine be imposed instead for a misdemeanor conviction. There are exceptions, however. The bill specifies that a driver’s license would be automatically suspended for 90 days if convicted of:
- a felony drug offense;
- or a misdemeanor drug offense if the defendant has been previously convicted of a drug offense in the last 36 months
33. No Parole for Continuous Trafficking
HB 465, Signed June 15
Under this statute, inmates sentenced for continuous trafficking of children are ineligible for parole unless both parties enter into an agreement at the time of trial. In that case, the defendant would have to plead guilty and the prosecutor, defendant’s attorney and defendant would have to agree in writing that the defendant would become eligible when he or she served one half of the sentence or 30 years, whichever is less. Judges, upon motion of the prosecutor, would be required to make an affirmative finding that the parties had entered into an agreement and enter the finding into the case judgement.
34. New Penalty Group for Fentanyl
SB 768, Signed June 14
This legislation puts fentanyl in a new category, Penalty Group 1-B, and increases the penalties for people convicted of manufacturing or delivering fentanyl. The penalties are:
- less than one gram, state jail felony punishable by six months to two years in state jail and a maximum $10,000 fine;
- 1-4 grams, second-degree felony punishable to 2 to 10 year in prison and a maximum $10,000 fine;
- 4-200 grams, 10 years up to life in prison and a maximum $20,000 fine;
- 200-400 grams, 15 years to up to life in prison and a maximum $200,000 fine;
- more than 400 grams, 20 years to up to life in prison and a maximum $500,000 fine
The law also specifies that anyone convicted of the new offense for an amount more than four grams is not eligible for probation or deferred adjudication.
35. Texting Court Appearances
HB 4293, Signed June 15
This new law requires counties to send text messages to defendants about scheduled court appearances by 2022. The Office of Court Administration is tasked with developing and making available to each county (at no cost) a court reminder program.
36. Coverage for Prosecutors on Brady Materials?
SB 111, Signed June 14
This legislation requires a law enforcement agency filing a case with the state’s attorney to submit a written statement acknowledging that all documents, items and information in the agency’s possession that must be disclosed to the defendant have been disclosed to the state’s attorney. If the law enforcement agency discovers any additional information at any time after the case is filed, they must promptly disclose it to the prosecutor.
37. Probable Cause for Tracking Devices
SB 112, Signed June 14
Senate Bill 112 requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant to install a mobile tracking device. Applications for the warrant must be supposed by a sworn affidavit with substantial facts establishing probable cause.
38. Suspect’s Right to Record CPS Investigations and Interviews
HB 135, Signed June 16
House Bill 135 requires the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to inform an alleged perpetrator in a child abuse or neglect investigation that the suspect has the right to record the interview, and they also have the right to request an administrative review of the departments findings after the investigation.
39. Enhanced Punishment for Offenses Against Public Servants
House Bill 624, Signed June 16
People who commit an offense against someone whom they know is a public servant or against a member of the public servant’s household or family now face increased punishment. The punishments would be increased one level, so if an offense was a Class A misdemeanor, for example, it would be elevated to a state jail felony. First-degree felonies would not be increased. The increased punishments apply to arson, criminal mischief, criminal trespass, breach of computer security, harassment, stalking, or fraudulent use of possession of identifying information.
40. Continuous Sexual Abuse Expanded to Include the Disabled
HB 375, Signed June 4
The offense of continuous sexual abuse of a young child is now extended to include disabled individuals of any age. The offense of continuous sexual abuse of a young child or disabled individual is a first-degree felony punishable by 25 years to life in prison with no possibility for parole.
41. Enhanced Punishment for Assaulting a Process Server
HB 1306, Signed June 9
People who assault a process server while he or she is performing their job now face increased punishment. House Bill 1306 makes assault a third-degree felony (punishably by up to 10 years in prison) and aggravated assault a first-degree felony (punishable by up to life in prison) if the actor knew the person was performing a duty as a process server.
42. Destruction of ATM
SB 516, Signed June 7
It is now a third-degree felony to damage, destroy or steal an ATM machine. A third degree felony is punishable by two to 10 years in prison and maximum $10,000 fine. This legislation is an effort to deter the spike of “smash and grab” crimes involving ATM machines.
43. Early Parole for Participation in Pilot Work Program
HB 2352, Filed without Governors Signature
House Bill 2352 authorizes the parole board to grant early release to an inmate who participates in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TCDJ) education and vocational pilot training program. The bill requires TDCJ to annually identify at least 100 inmates who are suitable candidates for participation in the pilot program and requires the Office of Court Administration of the Texas Judicial System to develop and annually provide a training program to educate and inform judges on the components of the pilot program. The bill also removes confinement in state jail felony as a condition of probation that a judge may impose on a state jail felony defendant ordered to participate in the pilot program.
44. Professional Boards Can’t Consider Completed DFAJ
HB 757, Signed June 15
This legislation prohibits professional organizations from suspending or revoking a professional or occupational license or certificate from a person who successfully completes deferred adjudication probation and has had their case dismissed. There are exceptions, however, if the profession for which the license was sought involved direct contact with children or if the offense:
- was the list of offenses in Code of Criminal Procedure art. 42A.054 for which judges cannot order community supervision;
- was listed as a reportable conviction or sexually violent offense under the state’s sex offender registry;
- involved certain other sex offenses or public indecency;
- or was related to the activity or conduct for which the person sought or held the license.
45. Street Racing Seizure Law
HB 2315, Signed June 15
Under House Bill 2315, vehicles that are used in street racing offenses are now subject to seizure and civil asset forfeiture. Lawmakers passed this bill in an effort to deter dangerous street racing, which has grown in popularity.
46. Drone Policy for Law Enforcement
HB 1758, Filed without the Governor’s Signature
This legislation mandates that law enforcement agencies adopt a written policy detailing the agency’s use of force by a drone and submit it to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement every two years. The bill also limits the circumstances under which the use of force by a drone is justified.
Thanks for checking out our 2021 legislative update. Feel free to share this information and tells us your thoughts on Texas’ new criminal justice laws.