Big changes in drug trace evidence cases

HOUSTON Right now, any amount of a controlled substance is a state jail felony at minimum, but in three weeks getting caught with small amount of drugs could just get you a ticket.

New Year's Day will bring change to how some drug cases are handled in Harris County. Currently, possession of any amount of cocaine is a felony, but starting January 1, the DA's office will no longer prosecute drug trace evidence cases of 1-100th of a gram or less. Instead a Class C Misdemeanor, equal to a traffic ticket, is recommended.

"If you only have a couple granules, it's hard for a jury to believe that you should be a felon," said KTRK Legal Analyst Joel Androphy.

Thirty percent of cases are for possession of a controlled substance under a gram. The majority of those cases are for trace evidence. Androphy says the new policy is proactive, unclogging courts and relieving overcrowded jails.

"Don't put the people in the system because once the people are in the system they are going to end up getting what we are going to give them now. So why waste the time of the courts, the DA's office, why put the person in jail, why spend the money or the time?"

It's also hard to prosecute trace evidence cases, as the small amount usually allows for only one test, meaning once prosecution tests the substance and then the defense ask for a subsequent test, that case is often dropped or reduced to a lesser charge if the defendant can afford decent representation.

"In large effect, this policy serves many good purposes, one of which it narrows the gap between defendants with good representation and poor representation," said Androphy.

The new policy recommends in cases where drug residue or trace evidence is found be filed as a Class C Paraphernalia charge. According to the Harris County DA's office, this is also policy in Bexar and Travis counties, essentially San Antonio and Austin.

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