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New state law allows walking on roads when sidewalks are blocked or unsafe

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As Texas faced frigid temperatures during a February 2021 winter storm and snow and ice made sidewalks and roads impassable, 18-year-old Rodney “R.J.” Reese was arrested by Plano police officers for walking on a road while heading home from work.

The Black teen was charged with a Class C misdemeanor, accused of violating a section of the state’s transportation code that makes it illegal to walk on a roadway if there is a sidewalk — a law that will change on Sept. 1.

Body camera footage from the day of Reese’s arrest shows that the sidewalk and the neighborhood street were both covered by ice. Social justice advocates alleged that Reese’s arrest was racially motivated, according to news reports.

Charges against Reese were dropped after he spent a night in jail. Jennifer Chapman, a public information officer at the Plano Police Department, said that police officers involved in Reese’s arrest followed all department policies when they responded to a 911 call about a man walking in the winter storm in a T-shirt, stopped the teen and detained him.

But the incident spurred Texas lawmakers to reexamine the law that led to Reese’s arrest and pass House Bill 1277.

Under the existing law, pedestrians must walk on the left side of the road, facing oncoming traffic if there’s no sidewalk available. HB 1277 allows pedestrians to walk on roadways facing oncoming traffic if sidewalks are obstructed or unsafe.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who sponsored the bill, said the law will disincentivize police officers from “messing with” people of color.

“The only thing [Reese] was guilty of is walking while Black, walking down the street while Black,” West said, adding that he hopes the new law will “reduce the chances of people being targeted because of the color of their skin when it’s 20 degrees outside and they’re walking down the street.”

Potholes, fallen trees, pools of water and weather conditions can all make sidewalks unusable, said Savannah Kumar, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas.

“Unfortunately, we see restrictions on the use of public streets and spaces used to criminalize people’s harmless actions such as when they are simply stepping onto a street,” Kumar said. “The law simply can’t be rigid about where pedestrians can move — especially when road conditions are dynamic.”

Brian L. Owsley, a law professor at the University of North Texas at Dallas, said state legislators must balance concerns for both pedestrian safety and pedestrians’ need to get from one location to another. He said that police officers should apply “common sense and discretion” in enforcing laws rather than strictly adhering to the letter of the law.

“This is about sensible policing,” said June Jenkins, president of the Collin County chapter of the NAACP, which supported HB 1277.

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After a legislative session, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement requires a minimum of 40 hours of training for all licensed peace officers, including county sheriffs and deputy constables, to inform them about new laws they will be responsible for enforcing. Plano police said that the department’s legal advisor will provide new law training to their officers beginning in September.

Chapman said the Plano Police Department has made policy changes after Reese’s arrest like requiring a supervisor’s approval for most arrests for Class C misdemeanor offenses — minor crimes like traffic violations that are punishable only by a fine and rarely lead to an arrest.

Disclosure: The University of North Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Credit: by Alejandra Martinez, Texas Tribune

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