By Kathi Bliss
Dozens of new laws will take effect on Sept. 1, 2009, as a result of the 81st Texas Legislature. Although Texans may not be aware of the changes in the laws, several may have an impact on the way Texans not only conduct business, but in the way they communicate, commute and are punished for criminal activity.
Of particular note, a new law will require that all passengers without regard to their age or position in the vehicle, must wear a seat belt.
Presently, backseat passengers over the age of 17 are not required to wear safety belts.
In addition, with regard to vehicle safety, passengers in 15-passenger vans will be required to adhere to the same safety belt laws as other drivers and passengers. Further, children under the age of 8 must be properly restrained in a booster or other child safety seat, unless they are taller than 4 feet, 9 inches.
The current law governing child safety seats applied only to children age 5 and under, and 36 inches tall or shorter.
Sources say that although the law will be in effect Sept. 1, 2009, some jurisdictions might not begin issuing citations until June 2010.
Cell phone users will also have to be more aware when talking in school districts.
One of the many new laws going into effect on Tuesday mandates that cell phones may not be used by drivers in school zones, unless a hands-free device is used. Local governments will be expected to install the signs indicating that cell phone usage is prohibited.
That requirement has sparked some debate, with certain local officials suggesting it might be possible to get around the law by not posting the signs. Lockhart Mayor James “Jimmy” Bertram, said that Lockhart does not currently have a plan for each campus, but that the State of Texas will install the signs at school campuses on state highways.
“We do have some campuses that are on state roads,” Bertram said. “So there is a better chance that we will install the signs than that we won’t. We want to make sure all our school zones are uniform and conform with the state policy. And we want to make sure that
the safety of our children comes first.”
Bertram said the initiative would likely come before the Lockhart City Council within the next few weeks.
Several of the new laws will also address the topic of drunk driving.
Beginning Sept. 1, a driver that is arrested for Driving While Intoxicated with a Child Passenger will, by statute, have their driver’s license suspended, even if that driver is a first-time offender. The penalties for repeat offenders have been strengthened, and will result in the possibility of stiffer punishments and longer periods of license suspension.
Additionally, minor drivers who fail a breath or blood test while operating a watercraft may also have their driver’s licenses suspended by DPS. Minors arrested for DWI while operating motor vehicles already face mandatory suspensions.
Perhaps one of the most important changes to a digital society is the introduction of an Internet Harassment statute. Under the current laws, there is little if any remedy available for victims of online harassment. However, beginning Sept. 1, the crime as defined by HB2003, will be punishable as a criminal offense.
The law specifically addresses the action of would-be offenders using the names, personal identifying information or persona of others to post information on social networking sites without consent, or with the intent to harm or defame another. Such behavior would be prosecuted as a third-degree felony.
Additionally, HB 2003 makes it a Class A Misdemeanor to distribute identifying information about another individual, including phone numbers or other specific information, without the permission of that individual or with the intent to harass or harm another individual.
Caldwell County District Attorney Trey Hicks scheduled training sessions with law enforcement officials from across Caldwell County this week, and indicated the many changes to take effect on Sept. 1 would be discussed at length during the sessions.
For a full list of the more than 400 laws that will change, as a result of the 81st Texas Legislature, visit www.legis.state.tx.us.