AUSTIN -- Drivers heading into Mexico could have their vehicles searched for guns or cash under a bill heard at Wednesday's meeting of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security.
According to Brownsville Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr., the cartel-driven violence in Mexico, which has caused nearly 40,000 deaths across the border, is supported by money and arms from the United States. Current law only permits searches of vehicles heading south into Mexico from Texas in a 250-foot zone around certain international bridges, and only for the purposes of catching stolen vehicles. Lucio believes that expanding this authorization to include searches for guns and cash will starve drug cartels of the resources to continue their bloody conflict.
Lucio says that between $18 and $39 billion head across the Rio Grande into Mexico from the U.S. each year. "This is drug money," he said. Lucio added that 40 percent of all guns seized in connections with violent crime in Mexico can be traced back to Texas; more than the other three southern border states combined. He said that Texas needs to address the growing problem of violence in northern Mexico before it spills across the international border. "By disrupting the transportation of illegally smuggled guns, ammo, cash and technology, Texas would be protecting Texans in a way that does not interfere with our cherished liberties," he said.
Lucio's bill would expand the checkpoint region from 250 feet near certain bridges to a 25 mile zone all along the Texas/Mexico border. Border patrol officers and state troopers conducting checkpoint searches would be authorized to search for bulk cash, guns, ammunition, and technology that could be used by drug cartels. The bill remains pending before the committee.
The Transportation and Homeland Security Committee also considered an omnibus homeland security bill, authored by its chairman, Senator Tommy Williams of the Woodlands.
This bill would require everyone arrested in Texas to be run through the federal Secure Communties Program, a database that checks both arrest history and immigration status. It would permit the Department of Public Safety to use GPS tracking devices without a court order, except where specifically prohibited by the Constitution.
"This will help them track and combat gang activity," said Williams. This provision would expire within two years, and would require DPS to report to the Legislature next session on the success of the program.
The bill also commissions a pilot program studying the use of license plate readers in state trooper vehicles. Such readers could only be used for the purpose of identifying a vehicle, and are specifically prohibited from capturing images of people inside of vehicles.
The bill has a number of provisions aimed at organized crime in general with the intention of targeting transnational gangs operating in Texas. It enhances criminal penalties for organized crime offenses, and would require a person convicted of leading an organized crime ring to serve at least half of their sentence before they were eligible for parole.
With so many moving parts in a single bill, Williams has split each individual provision of the omnibus bill into its own proposal. This will permit parts of the bill to move forward if supporters cannot reach consensus on some issues with those concerned by some of the proposals. All related bills, the omnibus bill as well as the bills containing individual provisions, remain pending before the committee.