Travis County DA to no longer prosecute cases involving trace amounts of drugs

Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore is making big changes when it comes to how law enforcement handles possession of controlled substances cases.

Last week, she asked both the Austin Police Department and the Department of Public Safety to no longer analyze trace amounts of drugs, basically setting new protocols for how felony prosecutors evaluate drug cases involving the tiniest amounts of illegal substances.

This is so not only drug labs can free up their resources, but it could also raise the number of dismissals. Some of those controlled substances include cocaine and methamphetamine.

"I started looking at this data when I started running for this job in the first place, I was looking at data and it was startling to me and may be your viewers that the highest number if you take a category of felony charges the highest number is POCS under a gram," Moore said. "The next highest number are family violence cases. So it may be the highest number of cases but it isn't the highest priority for felony courts."

Moore says her most recent request has been months in the making, following discussions with local law enforcement. She says she was talking to one of her prosecutors about what constitutes a "trace amount" when it comes to dealing with possession cases.

"Less than a hundredth of a gram is considered trace," Moore said.

On April 10 the DA's office called over to the Austin Police Department's lab and they released a letter from Moore requesting the lab "no longer analyze suspected controlled substances where the mass of an item falls below 0.01g when uncertainty (at 99.7% confidence) is subtracted." 

Shortly after. the letter was also sent to the Department of Public Safety. The letter essentially requests both APD and DPS to dismiss possession cases with the smallest amount of trace drugs because her office won't prosecute those cases.

"We're also instructing them not to test it," Moore said. "And that lightens up the load on the lab."

Moore says the timing and its impact is tremendous especially since APD’s lab unit had just been told they wouldn't be getting a new analyst.

"We're at a time where resources are really hard to come by and the legislature is talking about revenue caps on counties and cities we've got to very seriously look at how we're using tax dollars," Moore said.

She says there are about three thousand possession cases filed each year, with lab results showing less than a gram which is about the size of a small Sweet N' Low packet.

 "Say there's a difference between a guy who's high and runs a red light and dangers people and turns out to have dope on him, we may want to prosecute that,” Moore said. "That's a lot different than someone who j-walks and gets caught with something. I want to do this with law enforcement. Not just say okay we're not going to prosecute. They're conducting law enforcement issues everyday based on problems in a neighborhood."

Moore says when she talks to the community, she has found they'd rather focus on tracking down dealers and people who are endangering others. She says the K2 problem that was huge in Travis County in 2017 is an example. 

So far, for this recent new protocol they've created a state jail court and transferred as many possession cases on that docket so it's handled in a magistrate's court, which allows district court resources to focus on more serious felonies.

Looking ahead, Moore says she wants police and prosecutors to look closer at cases involving a first-time drug offender with little or no criminal history. Depending on what they determine, that case could be dropped or the person could be sent through a diversion program. 

But other suspects that might be involved in larger drug cases could be fully prosecuted depending on the circumstances.

To be clear going forward, no matter the amount in their possession, all suspects in drug cases will still be arrested.