The combined efforts will include additional law enforcement resources provided by state and local governments and the use of asset forfeiture laws to seize vehicles used in violent incidents of road rage or street racing.
At a press conference earlier this week, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said there had been a 33 percent increase in road rage related shootings.
“Preliminary crime analysis indicates we’ve had more than 200 incidents this year, and have ended in someone being shot on our roadways compared with 150 in the same period a year ago,” said Acevedo. “Six of these incidents through October have actually led to murder.”
Acevedo explained that there would be new a new law enforcement joint-task force at the local, county, and state levels.
Texas DPS Regional Director Jason Taylor, who joined the press conference, added that his officers would be utilizing marked and unmarked units on Houston freeways to locate aggressive drivers and would assist the sheriff’s office and Houston police in responding to incidents.
Later in the week, Governor Greg Abbott announced he had directed DPS to deploy resources to the Houston area that would include special agents and state troopers to conduct gang and drug investigative operations, and a helicopter and two patrol planes to provide direct air support.
“The State of Texas is working closely with HPD to provide the necessary resources that will effectively combat violence in the Houston community,” said Abbott in a written statement. “The support that DPS is providing to HPD will protect Houstonians and crackdown on illegal and violent activity, including road rage-related shootings, within the city.”
Acevedo on Monday also noted that the district attorney’s office would be supporting efforts to seek forfeiture of vehicles related to road rage or racing incidents.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, also speaking at the press conference, explained that the law permitted forfeiture of vehicles in certain circumstances.
“If you are driving recklessly, and we’ve all seen them they pass you at 90, 100, sometimes in the right lane, sometimes chasing other cars or racing other cars, whether it’s rage or not, if a gun is involved that now means that the legal act of carrying a gun when combined with the reckless driving is a criminal offense for which you will go to jail,” said Ogg.
“But just the fact that you’re taking a risk using a gun endangering people’s lives allows the district attorney’s office under the law to subject a vehicle to forfeiture as a criminal instrument.”
Under Texas law, law enforcement agencies may seize property as evidence in a criminal investigation but can also seek forfeiture in one of two ways. Criminal forfeiture takes place after a finding of guilt or guilty plea, but civil asset forfeiture allows police to file suit against the property itself and can be completed without a conviction or even charging a person with a crime.
The latter practice is not without controversy, and in 2017 a bipartisan reform effort in the Texas Legislature sought to effectively end the civil process and tie forfeiture proceedings to the criminal courts alone.
Derek Cohen, director of the Center for Effective Justice and Right on Crime at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, says that forfeiture can be useful in thwarting criminal activity, but should be used appropriately.
“It is important that we use every tool at our disposal to fight criminal behavior, however it is also important to ensure that these tools are used against criminals as opposed to people who have not committed any crime,” Cohen told The Texan.
Ogg said her office would be pursuing vehicle forfeiture “where the evidence supports it.” She also called on the public to help by reporting anyone brandishing or utilizing a weapon in road rage, street racing, or “road takeover” events.
Initial reports on the murder of an off-duty Houston police sergeant last month indicate that road rage may have played a role in that incident where a suspect out on $100 bond is alleged to have shot and killed Sergeant Sean Rios.
In the multiple road-rage related shootings in the Houston and Harris County region this year police often do not have suspects. In the most recent killing, a man was shot in the head in an altercation that appears to have begun on Interstate 45 north of the city, but police are still seeking information about the incident.
Acevedo attributed the rise in road rage and domestic violence issues to pandemic conditions.
“We do know that COVID has had an impact on the collective psyche of the American people. We know that we’ve seen a rise across the nation in violent crime.”
Street racing has been blamed in several Houston-area fatal crashes this year, and police are also pledging to target drivers and individuals who illegally block streets to conduct races.
In response to rising murder rates, Acevedo has also announced that he will shift additional resources to the homicide division of the Houston Police Department.