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Harris County First Chance Intervention Program

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson announced the First Chance Intervention Program October 1, 2014, for first-time offenders who would be charged with a Class B misdemeanor for possession of marijuana. Those who comply with the program will not face charges.

Upon introduction, only the Harris County Sheriff's Office and Houston Police Department would offer the program to people pre-charge. Anyone arrested by other agencies could only participate post-charge. On November 5, 2015, Anderson announced that all law enforcement agencies in Harris County would be required to participate.

It is, unquestionably, a good thing that the DA’s office is making efforts to reduce the number of people facing charges for cannabis possession. Too many lives are ruined by arrests for the mere possession of marijuana. It should not even be a crime for a responsible adult to possess cannabis. While the DA cannot change the law, she can change how marijuana charges are prosecuted and prioritized in Harris County.

However, the program still has many issues. It is advisable that those offered the program contact an attorney.

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Details of the First Chance Program

When an officer alleges he or she finds a person in possession of two or less ounces of marijuana, the officer will bring the person to a station. Whether that constitutes an arrest, a detention or whether the DA’s office is purporting that the person is somehow going voluntarily is one of the unclear points discussed below.

At the station, law enforcement will fingerprint the suspect to determine whether he or she is eligible. Eligibility for the First Chance Program is narrow. A person only qualifies if he or she would be charged with a Class B misdemeanor for possession of marijuana, which is less than two ounces. They must also:

  • Face no additional charges relating to the detention or arrest, unless it is a Class C misdemeanor ticket;
  • Have no outstanding warrants or holds;
  • Have no adult criminal convictions that are a Class B misdemeanor or greater;
  • Have never received any type of probation or deferred adjudication;
  • Not be out on bond, deferred adjudication or probation; and
  • Have never participated in the First Chance Program or any other pretrial intervention program before.

If the person is eligible, the officer will show an informational video about the First Chance program, and then ask the suspect if he or she wishes to participate. If the person says “no,” the officer files the complaint and the suspect will face charges. If the person says “yes,” the officer does not file the complaint.

The person is then released and must contact Pretrial Services within three days. When they contact Pretrial Services, they must schedule an initial intake and assessment. The assessment will determine whether the person must be on the program for 60 or 90 days and whether the person must take a class or complete community service.

Under the program, the person must:

  • Not commit any new crimes with the 60 or 90 day time period;
  • Pay a $100 nonrefundable fee; and
  • Complete either eight hours of community service or an eight-hour class.

If the person successfully completes the program, the DA does not press charges.

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Notable Issues

As mentioned above, DA Anderson announced that all law enforcement agencies would be required to offer the program to eligible offenders. The change was announced after local organizations, including Houston NORML, placed pressure on Anderson with public information requests.

However, it is uncertain the extent to which this change may occur. While the District Attorney is the most powerful law enforcement officer in the county, she cannot necessarily dictate procedures for law enforcement agencies. She may reject charges that fall outside the First Chance program.

The First Chance program also falls short of marijuana decriminalization or legalization. At the end of the day, people still face criminal consequences due to possession of cannabis.

Finally, the DA’s office can reject a person from the First Chance Intervention Program. Do not admit to anything under the assumption that you will be able to participate.

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Matt Horak Matt Horak is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization since 2014