Court allows criminal sanctions for violations of meetings act
TEXAS–Ignorance of open meetings laws is not a valid defense in criminal proceedings arising from an illegally closed meeting, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held in late October. Criminal penalties may be imposed against a government official even when that official alleges he was unaware the meeting violates the Texas Open Meetings Act.
In so deciding, the high court unanimously held that a member of a governmental body can be held criminally responsible for his involvement in the holding of an impermissibly closed meeting regardless of his mental state.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is the highest court for criminal matters in the state.
Writing for the court, Judge Morris L. Overstreet stated that the Open Meetings Act “places a duty upon members of governmental bodies to hold open meetings and a concomitant duty to find an exception to the general rule if they desire a closed meeting.” Neglect of this duty will subject the official to criminal sanctions, he wrote.
The court noted that violations of the act were “public welfare offenses” and involve relatively minor punishment. Individuals may be held strictly liable for their conduct when they commit public welfare offenses, the court wrote. Other criminal offenses involving more inherently evil or immoral acts require an individual to have a culpable mental state in order to be found guilty of the offense.
The appeal came in the case of Joseph Tovar, the former president of a Texas school board who was indicted for two offenses involving Open Meetings Act violations. A jury found Tovar guilty of calling, organizing and participating in an impermissibly closed meeting.
Tovar was given a sentence of six months of incarceration and a $500 fine. However, the trial court suspended the sentence and placed him on six months of community supervision. Following Tovar’s first appeal, an intermediate appellate court upheld the conviction.
In a concurrence, Judge Charles F. Baird noted that although Tovar contended that he was not aware the closed meeting violated the Act, ignorance of the law was not a valid defense. The punishment is harsh, but it is incumbent upon public servants to be aware of the relevant laws, he wrote. (Tovar v. Texas)