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Crime and Punishment

More on Abbott’s stay-in-jail order

Here’s that more detailed Chron story I referenced yesterday. I’m just going to quote the newer information about Greg Abbott’s executive order that attempts to basically stop most releases of inmates from the jail regardless of the coronavirus situation.

The newly appointed monitor over Harris County’s misdemeanor bail protocol, Duke law professor Brandon Garrett, said the decree violated “many state and federal constitutional provisions.”

Alec Karakatsanis, a civil rights attorney who represents thousands of indigent defendants awaiting trial at the lockup on felony charges, called the governor’s stance illegal and perilous.

“The edict is dangerous, unprecedented, chaotic, and a flagrantly unconstitutional attempt to infringe fundamental constitutional rights,” he said. “If enforced it would have catastrophic public health consequences.”

[…]

The governor’s order suspends portions of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure and statues related to personal bonds, barring any personal bonds for anyone with a prior violent conviction or a conviction involving the threat of violence. He also outlawed releasing inmates with prior violent convictions on electronic monitoring.

In a barely veiled reference to the preparations taking place by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the governor suspended portions of the Texas Government Code permitting a county judge, mayor or emergency management director from releasing people outlawed under his new order. He said criminal court judges who handle misdemeanor and felony cases may still consider such releases on an individualized basis for health or medical reasons proper notice to prosecutors.

Among prison inmates, Abbott suspended portions of the state criminal code related to commuting sentences for anyone convicted of violence or threats.

Multiple plans for lowering the jail population have evolved in the past two weeks, including an executive order by Hidalgo that never came to fruition and a request by the lawyers who sued the county over its bail practices. District Attorney Kim Ogg also entered the discussion, telling the sheriff and presiding district judge that she wanted to weigh in and expedite releases of low-risk inmates in the “high likelihood” of a federal court order dictating either substantive bail hearings or outright release on personal bonds.

“As the legal representatives of the State of Texas, we also have the duty to be advocates for victims and the community in a full and fair bail hearing related to the proposed release of individuals who do pose a substantial risk to public safety,” Ogg wrote, in the letter obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

Hours before Abbott’s announcement, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal convened an emergency hearing by phone to address incomplete plans by plaintiffs in a federal civil rights case to craft the a release order for people accused of some nonviolent offenses, along with lawyers for the sheriff and the county judge.

An official from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office told the federal judge that Paxton was poised to appeal any order by Rosenthal that called for blanket releases of inmates.

See here for the previous post. The Trib adds on.

Abbott’s order applies to inmates who have been accused or convicted of “a crime that involves physical violence or the threat of physical violence,” which defense attorneys called a vague and subjective standard. Abbott’s directive also appears to apply to inmates with any history of violent offenses — meaning a person arrested on a nonviolent drug charge last week could be held if he had a decades-old conviction of a violent offense.

Though the order bans release of inmates on no-cost, personal bonds, it does not set a standard for how high a bail amount must be. Presumably, judges could still release inmates on bonds of $1, defense attorneys said.

Legal experts questioned the order’s validity, and it drew immediate rebukes from Democrats and bail reform advocates, who argued the order discriminates against poor people. Several Texas counties, including Harris and Dallas, have in recent years had their bail practices deemed unconstitutional for discriminating against poor defendants.

“It is a dangerous, unprecedented, chaotic and flagrantly unconstitutional edict that if enforced would expose many people around the state of Texas to a public health catastrophe,” said Alec Karakatsanis, executive director of the Civil Rights Corp, which has been at the helm of Harris County’s federal bail lawsuits.

El Paso Democrat Joe Moody, a state representative and former prosecutor and defense attorney, said “if followed, this order will see jails bursting at the seams [with] minor drug offenders, homeless people whose most recent ‘crime’ was something like simple trespass & everyday citizens picked up on the flimsiest of allegations.”

According to Abbott’s order, a judge may consider a defendant’s release for health or medical reasons, after the district attorney is notified and there is an opportunity for a hearing.

You can see the executive order here, and a brief analysis of why it doesn’t pass constitutional muster here. Rep. Gene Wu was on a call with Abbott and reports that the Governor is either misinformed or not telling the truth about his own order. The ACLU of Texas has responded to Abbott’s order, and I presume we’ll have some action in the federal court today. I should note that Ken Paxton jumped out in front of this parade ahead of Abbott’s order, which prompted a couple of folks to observe that Ken Paxton is himself under a felony indictment and out free on bail. Hey, irony went into hospice care sometime back in 2002, so just keep swimming. The Texas Observer has more.

Still trying to do something about the coronavirus risk in the jail

Time is extremely limited for this.

A federal judge Friday asked lawyers to hammer out a plan for releasing about 1,000 indigent inmates detained on bonds of $10,000 or less amid fear of a COVID-19 outbreak at the third largest jail in the country. The judge indicated she would take up the fate of another 3,400 people in the Harris County Jail awaiting trial on higher bonds next week.

The instructions by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal came in response to an emergency request Friday by the team of lawyers who challenged the county’s bail policies. They argued that thousands of poor defendants trapped in the jail simply because they couldn’t afford bail should be granted immediate bail hearings or be released.

The pleading laid a grave situation at the hands of a judge who has made many tough decisions in the criminal justice realm.

“A public health catastrophe of historic proportion looms in the Harris County Jail. Only this Court can avert it,” the motion says. “With every passing hour, the risk of disaster increases. All eyes turn to this Court in this dire moment.”

The bail lawsuit motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction seeks release of about half the jail’s population of nearly 8,000 if they cannot be afforded immediate bail hearings. This would mean thousands of people charged with nonviolent offenses would be allowed to await trial on bond outside the facility, as they would otherwise be able to do if they could post cash bond.

Other local officials, including the sheriff, state district judges and top county official have been tackling the potential public health threat from different angles over the past two weeks, seeking compassionate releases of medically vulnerable inmates, bonds for those accused of nonviolent offenses, or some cross-section of the two groups.

But early Friday lawyers from Civil Rights Corps, the Texas Civil Rights Project and pro bono counsel from Susman Godfrey, stepped in with a constitutional approach to the jail problem that could allow much more drastic cuts in the population than the compassionate release plans outlined by the sheriff and the county judge.

Rosenthal asked the lawyers for indigent defendants and attorneys for the sheriff and the county to assemble by Monday a list of thousands of people who might qualify for release based on their bond amounts, charges, criminal histories and risk factors. In addition, the judge indicated she would move swiftly on a subset of the indigent defendants who can’t pay their bond. She asked for confirmation that 1,000 or so people being held on bonds of up to $10,000 were not subject to other holds or detainers.

The sheriff and county officials told the judge that they had no objection to this first group being released if they fit the judge’s criteria. According to a lawyer for the plaintiffs, the only agency that opposed the release of those facing $10,000 bonds was the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

Sheriff Gonzalez had been working on this for the past week, trying to get individual judges to allow some inmates to be released, but the process was slow. County Judge Lina Hidalgo had been working on an executive order that would have released a larger number of inmates, but she shelved it after objections from the Attorney General’s office; you can read that story for the details. And I know, we’re all going to be murdered in our sleep by a rampaging horde of pot smokers and check kiters, but let’s do pause for a moment and consider what the alternative might be:

In another effort to address the issue, Harris Health System leaders on Friday sent a letter asking for the release of defendants with nonviolent offenses.

The county medical system’s president and CEO stressed that an outbreak in the Harris County Jail is not a matter of if, but when.

“The Harris County Jail and other large correctional facilities pose a real and immediate danger to the health of the community,” Esmaeil Porsa said. “An even limited outbreak of COVID-19 in the Harris County Jail has the potential to overwhelm our already overburdened hospital system. If this happened — and the likelihood is high — it could leave many vulnerable people in our community without access to care.”

Porsa urged the county to consider prioritizing inmates over 60 with pre-existing conditions such as cancer, diabetes, asthma and chronic pulmonary disease, heart disease and HIV. Jails are known to have higher concentrations of people in the high-risk group, he said.

He added that social distancing is nearly impossible, with dorm settings holding between 20 and 60 people in a close space. And quarantine is also unfeasible when inmates are booked in and out of the jail on a daily basis.

We could just let them all die, I suppose. I’m sure Dan Patrick would approve. I would rather not do that.

UPDATE: And now Greg Abbott is involved, and I’m confused.

As the first Harris County inmate tested positive for COVID-19 Sunday, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order blocking any release of inmates from jails and prisons accused or convicted of violent crime.

“Releasing dangerous criminals from jails into the streets is not the right solution and doing so is now prohibited by law by this declaration,” Abbott said at an afternoon briefing.

The news comes as federal, state and local government officials continued to squabble over details of what a jail release would look like as they attempted to prevent a catastrophic outbreak among the approximately 8,000 people incarcerated at the downtown facility.

The governor was referencing Attorney General Ken Paxton’s motion to prevent Harris County from releasing 4,000 people awaiting trial on felonies, saying such a move would “allow dangerous criminals to roam freely and commit more crimes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Protecting Texans is one of my highest priorities. It is vital that we maintain the integrity of our criminal justice system and continue to enforce state law during this pandemic,” Paxton said. “My office will not stand for any action that threatens the health and safety of law-abiding citizens.”

Hours earlier a federal judge convened an emergency hearing to address plans that plaintiffs in a federal civil rights case had hammered out over the weekend with lawyers for the sheriff and the county judge to release inmates accused of some nonviolent offense.

An official from Paxton’s office appeared telephonically at that hearing and said the AG planned to appeal an order by the federal judge to the 5th U.S. Circuit if it called for any blanket releases.

The judge set a hearing for Tuesday to address a possible appeal.

There wasn’t anything in the previous story about people accused or convicted of violent crimes, hence my confusion. I assume there are still plenty of people in the Harris County jail for misdemeanor charges, so it’s not at all clear to me what the extent of the dispute is. Maybe later versions of the story will make that more clear.

UPDATE: There’s now a more detailed version of the Chron story and also a Trib story, but this post is too long already. I’ll be back with more tomorrow.

Reducing the coronavirus risk in jail

This is an obvious step to take.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

More than 8,500 people are housed inside the Harris County jail, and thousands more move through the building and return to their communities each day to keep the criminal justice juggernaut running.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez likens the situation to three massive ships docked in downtown Houston. An outbreak of COVID-19 in this setting could be catastrophic to the region and overwhelm hospitals’ limited capacity to treat patients.

That’s why the sheriff overseeing the third largest jail system in the country is pushing for “bold action” to avert the potential fallout — he is seeking compassionate releases of hundreds of vulnerable people who pose a low risk to public safety. For that to happen, judges would need to sign off.

“Jails and prisons are fertile ground for the spread of infectious disease,” Gonzales said, noting that his staff has done “yeoman’s work to keep an outbreak at bay,” addressing hygiene and health concerns. “My nightmare scenario is that an outbreak happens at the county jail.”

But he said, “The standards we implement in the general community are either impossible to follow or hard to do in a jail setting. Our criminal justice system must become more aggressive in granting compassionate releases.”

And time is of the essence, he said.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is on board and considers taking steps to mitigate an outbreak at the jail “a very high priority,” noting “this could spread like wildfire at the jail.” County officials and judges are discussing the matter and consulting the fine print of statutes that govern such measures to try to assess how to make it happen.

Hidalgo also said she’s looking at ways to limit the population at the county’s juvenile lockup.

“Were trying to do as much as is feasible and can be done in a safe way to have these people not packed in so close together,” she said.

Alex Bunin, the chief public defender for the county, said the situation is dire: “If you are in jail and … and facing charges for a nonviolent crime, that shouldn’t be a death sentence because you’re going to get cornonavirus.”

He said county leaders can give the sheriff the authority to release people on misdemeanors. Felony decisions, under normal circumstances, must come from the judges.

There are easy ways to prioritize who might be released – older inmates, pregnant women, immuno-compromised inmates, and the like. Bear in mind that if the jail becomes a hot spot for coronavirus, then everyone who works at the jail, everyone who provides goods and services to the jail, and everyone they come into contact with including their families, are put at risk. Are we serious about trying to contain this pandemic, or is all that just lip service? The question answers itself if you let it.

Coronavirus and the courts

More things that will be shut down for the time being.

Courts in the Houston region are announcing measures to reduce or suspend some operations in response to the new coronavirus outbreak and local declarations of emergency.

Harris County’s court system announced Thursday that jury service will be suspended from Friday through March 20, another move by local authorities as they grapple with the spread of the new coronavirus.

Local Administrative Judge Robert Schaffer said that the Board of District Court Judges met and decided to suspend service. “Jurors who have received a summons for these dates do not need to appear and do not need to schedule,” he said in the order released Thursday.

In addition Harris County Civil Administrative Judge Michael Gomez said earlier that civil trials will be canceled through the end of the month, and individual judges would determine how to handle bench warrants.

Brazoria County also announced suspension of jury duty because of the coronavirus outbreak for the week of March 16 and the week of March 23. “Residents that have received a jury summons for the week of March 16th or the week of March 23rd will not need to report for jury duty,” the county said in a release.

The federal courts have also announced some adjustments to civil matters in the wake of the public health pandemic, although federal courthouses across in the massive Southern District of Texas – which stretches from near the Louisiana border to the Mexico border — will remain open. Civil jury trials in Houston and Galveston have been postponed until April 1 or thereafter. Judges have the discretion to postpone bench trials.

The federal clerk’s offices will become a virtual operation, with aides available to the public by phone and responding to snail mail. The intake desks will process electronic court filings.

On the criminal side, juries are still being called. In addition, all hearings before a district, bankruptcy or magistrate judge will remain as scheduled unless the presiding judge in the case makes a change.

There’s more, involving civil, criminal, and family court, so read the rest, and check in with your court or your attorney if you have any legal proceedings in the near future. Texas Lawyer has a more comprehensive roundup of court actions around the state. As Alex Bunin, the head of the Public Defender’s office says in the piece, once there’s a confirmed case involving someone in a courtroom, whatever their role may be, it’s going to snowball from there.

Let’s also not forget the prisons and jails, which could be a major vector for the spread of the disease. The Harris County jail is doing screenings and can do quarantines, but maybe the short term answer is to arrest fewer people and let asylum-seekers and others out of detention. There’s lots of ways to do social distancing.

Meet your bail reform overseers

They’re where the buck will stop.

A federal judge Tuesday approved the choice of a Duke University law professor to oversee Harris County’s historic bail reform agreement that governs what happens to thousands of people arrested on low-level offenses.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered Brandon L. Garrett, from Duke’s Center for Science and Justice, to serve as monitor for implementation of the seven-year consent decree. The judge also approved Sandra Guerra Thompson, a former New York prosecutor who teaches at University of Houston Law Center, as deputy monitor for the settlement.

[…]

Garrett has a background in criminal justice, policy-making and reform, according to a biography on Duke’s website. His research and teaching has focused on criminal justice outcomes, evidence and constitutional rights. He has also studied DNA exoneration, eyewitness identification and corporate crime.

Guerra Thompson, a native of Laredo, is an award-winning professor who directs the university’s Criminal Justice Institute for the UH law program, according to the UH website. Her scholarly work includes articles on wrongful convictions, eyewitness identification, forensic science, civil asset forfeiture, federal sentencing, discrimination in jury selection, prosecutorial ethics, police interrogations and immigration-related crimes.

She has played a key role in the transition to office for Mayor Sylvester Turner in 2016 and Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg in 2017. She was a founding board member for the Houston Forensic Science Center and was tapped in 2009 by Gov. Rick Perry to serve on the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions.

Sounds like two good people for the job. It’s not totally clear to me what exactly their responsibilities will be, but I assume if things are not going the way they should, we’ll hear about it from them.

It’s even harder to prosecute pot cases now

Such a shame.

What if lawmakers writing one of the most consequential laws to come out of last year’s legislative session, legalizing hemp in Texas, forgot to include a small, but crucial detail that could get your marijuana possession charges dropped?

That’s what happened last week, after a Brazos County court judge concluded the new law omitted a date typically included in state crime legislation. As a result, misdemeanor charges against a Texas A&M University student arrested on the day of his 2018 college graduation were summarily tossed.

The decision is the latest stumbling block that Texas’s nine-month-old hemp law has presented for police and prosecutors committed to pursuing low-level marijuana possession cases. Although the decision does not bind other judges, attorneys said the successful tactic had the potential to change the course of hundreds of pending cases across the state.

[…]

New state crime laws always include a clear dividing line, typically written as a date, said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for Texas District and County Attorneys Association. Before the date, the old law applies; after, the new law does.

Yet the hemp bill, which was passed through the Agriculture and Livestock Committee instead of the regular criminal justice panels, neglected to specify when the new pot definition started. A little-known provision of Texas law says that without clear transition instructions, if a new law lowers the penalty for a crime it can be applied retroactively.

The district and county attorneys association noted the missing language early on. “The law went into effect on June 10, 2019, but it is unclear whether it applies to previously-filed marijuana cases pending on that date,” it warned In a June letter to member prosecutors.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tracy King, D-Batesville, did not return a call to his office seeking comment on the AWOL date.

Criminal defense attorneys noticed it, too, and began seeking cases to test if the new law could also be used to challenge older possession charges.

Long story short, they found a defendant in College Station who wanted to have his day in court, and their argument that the new law applied resulted in the dismissal of the case because the cops hadn’t tested the pot they said they found. Testing is another problem for prosecutors, and the DPS has said they don’t have enough money to handle the demand from the locals, leaving them in limbo. Which is fine by me. Let’s keep this natural experiment going and see for ourselves once and for all how little there is to fear from not being hardasses about weed.

How should we police the police?

This article raises a number of interesting questions.

Kim Ogg

A quarter of the 60-plus law enforcement agencies operating in Harris County have refused to sign agreements to help local prosecutors track problem cops.

Under those agreements, all signed since District Attorney Kim Ogg took office three years ago, 46 agencies have promised to voluntarily turn over information about potentially untrustworthy or unreliable officers. But 17 other agencies declined to sign, a move that forces prosecutors to spend time getting the information through subpoenas and can potentially drag out the resolution of cases.

The Houston Police Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety and Metro Transit Police are among those that signed memoranda of understanding, but all of the county agencies — including all eight constable precincts and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office — declined to sign.

“Based on the County Attorney’s advice, the sheriff’s office has joined with other Harris County law enforcement agencies that are unable to sign the district attorney’s proposed memorandum of understanding at this time,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said in a statement to the Houston Chronicle, adding that his agency still “fully cooperates” with prosecutors by “providing all legally required information concerning all pending cases being prosecuted.”

A county attorney’s office spokesman declined to explain why lawyers told agencies not to sign the agreement, saying the office was “not comfortable” commenting on legal advice given to clients.

To Ogg, that’s all far from ideal: Without an agreement in place, her office must send out subpoena orders to make sure agencies turn over everything.

“It’s a great deal of added work,” Ogg said. “I just don’t think this (agreement) is anything that law enforcement agencies should fear.”

Long-time local defense lawyer Patrick McCann agreed that it was a “pretty fair point” that issuing added subpoenas could be a significant burden for prosecutors, and raised concerns about some agencies’ refusal to enter an agreement.

“It is absolutely indicative of the culture of hiding the ball,” he said.

[…]

The three-page agreement asks agencies to tell the DA’s office whenever a potential police witness is charged with or investigated for a crime, relieved of duty or suspended for misconduct allegations, taken off casework, determined to be untruthful through an administrative investigation, or found guilty of misconduct that could call into question their integrity. Getting agencies to sign the agreement, Ogg said, would reduce work time for prosecutors and ensure that they get all the information they need to turn over to the defense.

“We rely upon the agencies to give us the information that we would need to comply with disclosure (requirements),” Ogg said, “and instead of just blindly relying, we’ve asked them to sign written memorandums of agreement.”

To defense lawyers like McCann, the efforts to create a database and get law enforcement on board seem “laudable,” but he pointed out that ultimately it’s up to the DA’s office as to whether or when to turn that material over. “They’re still trying to keep a stranglehold on the information,” he said, “and they’re terrible about timeliness.”

So first and foremost, why is it that the County Attorney advised the Sheriff and the Constables not to sign this MOU? I would definitely have asked this question when I was doing County Attorney interviews if I had known about this. This arrangement has been in place for five years, though it started with just an informal agreement with HPD. Similar formal agreements exist around the country. It’s certainly possible there have been problems with these things in other places, but what about this particular MOU is troubling to the County Attorney? Surely there’s a way to resolve this. I’d like to understand more about this.

The information gathered via this agreement is compiled into a database, which is not publicly disclosed by Ogg. I can understand that – there are privacy concerns, the unions would surely put up a fight, and the possibility exists that a cop could get on this list as a form of retaliation by their department. One might also argue that a cop should be eligible to come off that list after a certain period of good behavior, and that a cop might have some process to challenge their placement on that list. I also understand the argument for making it public. There’s an awful lot of secrecy that surrounds law enforcement agencies, and if we’ve learned one thing in recent years it’s that such secrecy is toxic. I got an email from a person at The Justice Collaborative a little while ago, sending me their documentation about where Kim Ogg and the two main challengers stand on a variety of issues. They had all been sent a questionnaire, and I was given the responses sent by Audia Jones and Carvana Cloud; Ogg did not respond but where her position was known via public statement or her past record, it was noted. The issue of maintaining a disclosure database and making it public was included in the questionnaire – Jones supported having a public list, Cloud said she would not make it public, matching Ogg’s position. I don’t know enough right now to know how I feel about this, but I wanted to share that much with you.

Anyway. Having this arrangement is a good thing. Getting all 63 law enforcement agencies for Harris County on board should be a priority, with the non-participating agencies made known. Whatever is preventing the HCSO and the Constables from joining needs to be resolved. That can and should be a job for all of the relevant elected officials.

Cite and release

This has been a long time coming.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Harris County law enforcement officials on Tuesday will begin a “cite and release” program that treats some misdemeanor charges like court citations for speeding tickets, just days after the district attorney’s office said it could not fully comply with the initiative.

The program, which applies to six charges handled in Harris County’s misdemeanor courts, comes amid countywide discussions about bail reform and over-incarceration, as well as District Attorney Kim Ogg’s repeated requests that Harris County Commissioners Court fund more prosecutors for her office.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office is the first policing agency in the area that is reported to be participating in the program approved by a working group that includes judges. After voicing concerns in a letter to the sheriff, Ogg’s office agreed to the new procedures.

Ogg’s office sent the Chronicle a copy of the letter but declined further comment.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez noted that Harris County is behind the curve on using cite and release, as other Texas counties began employing it after the state Legislature in 2007 authorized such programs. The hope is that fewer bookings will allow deputies to have more time to patrol neighborhoods, while people who are eligible can stay with their families and keep going to work, he said.

“This administrative policy should help reduce our pre-trial county jail population and provide local costs savings to taxpayers,” the sheriff said. “Citations can divert lower risk individuals from detention, reserving limited space and resources for more dangerous individuals.”

The class A and B misdemeanor charges that apply are criminal mischief, $100-$750; graffiti, $100-$2,500; theft, $100-$750; theft of service $100-$750; contraband in a correctional facility; and driving while license invalid.

If a resident is stopped on one of those offenses, the sheriff’s office will run a check for active warrants and contact the district attorney’s office to see if the person is eligible for cite and release, according to an internal memo about the procedures.

Once prosecutors accept the charges, the deputy completes the citation as long as it’s signed off by the defendant. The suspect is given a court date on the spot and then released.

These are exactly the types of defendants who would be at the top of the list for a personal recognizance bond, so it makes sense to treat them this way. I feel like we’ve been talking about this for a long time, including with HPD, but it just hasn’t happened before now. As the story notes it’s happened as a direct result of the 2018 election, as the Democratic misdemeanor court judges were a driving force behind it. This is the moment, and it’s clearly the way to go. And now that the Sheriff’s office has adopted this policy, maybe HPD will follow.

Metro’s robot security guards

Not a character from a dystopian action movie, I promise.

Robot security guards are coming to a Houston-area transit center, park and ride lot and rail station in the coming months, after the Metropolitan Transit Authority board approved a $270,000 test of the techno-police Thursday.

“They have been shown to be deterrents,” said Denise Wendler, chief information officer for Metro.

Wendler said Metro’s agreement with Knightscope is a one-year test, from which it could expand beyond the three locations. Citing the need to provide more security to petty crimes without stretching police resources, officials sought information on the robotic rangers.

Agency officials, in consultation with the company, will decide which parking lots, transit centers and rail stops get a robot in the first year, Wendler said.

Security sentinels are becoming a familiar sight in shopping malls and some developments. In downtown Houston, a robot patrols the grounds of Allen Center.

Though many users nationally have said they are a cost-effective crime deterrent, the devices have raised alarms with some privacy concerns about a robot roaming public spaces recording everything and broadcasting back to private and public entities. Fears of hacking also have been raised.

Metro officials are likely to use a K5 robot — a 400-pound, 5’2” bullet-shaped bot that moves at a maximum speed of 3 mph — at a transit center and park and ride lot. Though a sleek R2-D2 does not sound that intimidating, its ability to record video and relay it to police is its real threat to thieves and others.

“What they have seen is people move away from it because they do not want to be videoed,” Wendler said.

If you’re thinking you might have seen one of these things before, you may have. I don’t feel like digging through my archives for this, but there was a big discussion in Houston a bit more than a decade ago about the usefulness of installing a bunch of closed-circuit cameras downtown as a crime deterrent. That was eventually scrapped, partly for cost reasons, partly for privacy reasons, partly for a general lack of evidence that the cameras did serve as deterrents. It’s possible that data is different now – for sure, camera and surveillance technology is a lot more advanced, for better and worse – but even then the one good use case for the closed circuit cameras was in enclosed spaces – parking lots, subway trains, that sort of thing – and that’s more or less what is being proposed here. So we’ll see how they work. I do hope Metro is forthcoming with data about the experience, and I hope they will admit it and move on if they don’t have much effect.

Stockman denied on appeal

At least one thing in this world is still righteous and wholesome.

Best newspaper graphic ever

A federal appeals court summarily rejected what it called a “self-serving” appeal by disgraced former U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman, finding the lower court properly convicted him of 23 felony counts in a massive fraud scheme involving illegal spending of more than $1 million in charitable donations.

The 5th U.S. Circuit on Friday slammed the “somewhat tortuous” argument by the ex-lawmaker that the trial judge erred by failing to acquit him and by improperly instructing jurors. The 18-page opinion was riddled with stinging barbs.

Stockman’s lawyer picked apart the lengthy jury instructions on appeal, but the court said those arguments were “confected on a foundation of sand” and found “ample support” for conviction. Each of six claims that the trial judge improperly instructed the jury lacked merit, the appellate panel found, in an opinion dripping with sarcasm.

“Stephen E. Stockman served four years in Congress and now faces ten years in prison,” begins the opinion written by Sen. U.S. Judge E. Grady Jolly. “He seeks to avoid this career detour.”

The opinion goes onto say that the Republican ex-congressman argued “that prison should not be the next item on his résumé because the convictions were tainted by improper jury instructions and unsupported by the evidence.” The appellate court strongly disagreed, in the ruling joined by Judges James E. Graves, Jr. and Stephen A. Higginson.

[…]

Stockman’s appellate lawyer David A. Warrington previously served as counsel to the 2016 Trump campaign at the Republican National Convention and describes himself on his firm’s website as “one of the leading Republican lawyers in the nation.” He argued in court documents that prosecutors failed to prove Stockman intentionally defrauded two major GOP donors when he solicited donations to pet projects.

“Stockman was convicted for nonprofit fundraising and political activities subject to protection under the First Amendment,” Warrington wrote, asking the court to dismiss the case because “The Government’s case against him turned his failure to achieve completion of certain nonprofit political activism and projects into fraud.”

However, the appeals court responded last week by referencing the painstakingly detailed evidence of money transfers showing the ex-congressman perpetrated “a scheme to separate wealthy donors from their money and to spend that money at Stockman’s pleasure and direction.”

The ruling ends with a final decisive punch:

“In sum, the judgment of the district court is, in all respects, AFFIRMED.”

See here and here for the background. This is a work of art and you should enjoy it as such.

Marijuana arrests stay down

We really should view this as the new normal, and not a problem to be “fixed”.

It’s been more than six months since Texas lawmakers legalized hemp and unintentionally disrupted marijuana prosecution across the state.

Since then, the number of low-level pot cases filed by prosecutors has plummeted. Some law enforcement agencies that still pursue charges are spending significantly more money at private labs to ensure that substances they suspect are illegal marijuana aren’t actually hemp.

The Texas Department of Public Safety and local government crime labs expect to roll out a long-awaited testing method to distinguish between the two in the next month or so. But that’s only for seized plant material. There’s still no timeline for when they will be able to tell if vape pen liquid or edible products contain marijuana or hemp. And DPS said even when its testing is ready, it doesn’t have the resources to analyze substances in the tens of thousands of misdemeanor marijuana arrests made each year — testing it didn’t have to do before hemp was legalized.

“If law enforcement agencies and prosecutors asked for all of those to be tested when these new procedures become available … DPS would start with such a huge backlog that it would likely never get caught up,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. “One decision for prosecutors and law enforcement agencies and the labs is: How do they triage these cases to focus on the most important ones?”

[…]

In 2018, Texas prosecutors filed about 5,900 new misdemeanor marijuana possession cases a month, according to data from the Texas Office of Court Administration. The first five months of 2019 saw an average of more than 5,600 new cases filed a month. But since June, when the hemp law was enacted, the number of cases has been slashed by more than half. In November, less than 2,000 new cases were filed, according to the court data.

For those who support marijuana legalization, that change is welcome, adding to an already growing effort in some of the state’s most populated counties to divert pot smokers from criminal prosecution or not arrest them at all.

“It means that there are fewer Texans that are getting slapped with a criminal record for marijuana possession, something that is already legal in other states,” said Katharine Harris, a drug policy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

See here for the background. There’s no serious argument to be made that the drop in marijuana arrests has had any negative effect on public safety, but it has had the positive effect of keeping thousands of basically harmless people out of the criminal justice system. The main problem with the new status quo is that the reduction in prosecutions is completely ad hoc and not systemic. Whether one gets arrested and jailed or warned and released is entirely a function of where you are and which law enforcement agency is dealing with you. The Lege in 2021 needs to look at what has happened since this inadvertent loosening of marijuana laws and make it a real, permanent thing. We’ve already seem that nothing bad will come of it. Grits and the Current have more.

Will the Paxton case move back to Collin County?

Team Paxton is asking for that to happen.

Best mugshot ever

A Harris County judge said Tuesday he will rule by the end of next month on Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to move his felony securities fraud case back to his home county.

Judge Robert Johnson avoided getting into other issues raised in the case until he decides whether to send it back to Collin County, where it originated nearly four years ago.

Special prosecutor Kent Schaffer — who opposed Paxton’s motion to move the case — said after Tuesday’s hearing that he thinks Johnson “will make the right decision” and that he believes “with a high degree of certainty” that Paxton will go to trial by spring 2020.

[…]

The case has been delayed for nearly four years now for reasons ranging from the change of venue request to courtroom damage due to Hurricane Harvey to an ongoing disagreement between Collin County officials and special prosecutors over what they ought to be paid for their work.

It was Paxton’s political influence in Collin County that led a judge to move the case to Harris County in the first place. In 2017, Judge George Gallagher sided with prosecutors who argued that Paxton could not receive a fair trial in the county where many of his friends and political allies live and hold positions of power.

The Collin County District Attorney, for example, recused himself from the case because of a friendship with Paxton, a former state legislator.

Paxton’s lawyers argue that Gallagher exceeded his authority in changing the venue in the first place because his temporary assignment to the case had expired months before he made the decision.

They’ve also said that public attention on Paxton’s indictment has waned since 2016 when the case was the talk of “blogs, media and Facebook posts.” Plus, Collin County is better-equipped to take the case as well, they say, because the Harris County court system is already overburdened.

See here, here, and here for the background. Paxton’s argument seems pretty self-serving here, but in some sense it doesn’t matter. We all know Judge Johnson’s ruling will get appealed, all the way to the CCA, and that whole rigamarole will take a couple more years. We’re all going to be old and gray before this case is resolved.

Former judge McSpadden rebuked by State Commission on Judicial Conduct

Good.

A former district judge who served on the Harris County bench for 36 years has received a formal reprimand from a state watchdog commission for comments he made to a Houston Chronicle reporter stating black defendants were getting poor guidance from their parents about how to behave when they’re suspected of crimes.

The commission’s rebuke also cited the former judge’s comments in an editorial he penned for the Chronicle expounding on black defendants’ attitudes toward the justice system.

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct issued a warning on Nov. 12 to Michael McSpadden, a Republican who served on the 209th Criminal Court from 1982 through the 2018 election, for “casting public discredit on the judiciary and the administration of justice,” based on a series of comments he made about defendants’ attitudes toward judges and police officers. The commission announced its decision on Monday.

The Austin-based panel found that McSpadden violated a portion of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct that instructs judges not to do anything outside of court that casts reasonable doubt on the judge’s ability to act impartially. The panel also found McSpadden violated the Texas Constitution’s prohibition against “willful and persistent conduct that is clearly inconsistent with the proper performance of his duties or casts public discredit upon the judiciary or administration of justice.”

The warning does not prevent McSpadden from sitting by assignment as a visiting judge, according to Eric Vinson, former executive director of the commission.

[…]

Ashton Woods, president of Black Lives Matter Houston, who called for McSpadden to come under scrutiny for the comments, said the former judge’s statement in chambers and in his editorial called into question his ideology, indicating he could not be fair to black defendants and people of color who came before him due to his preconceived notions of how they may think.

“There’s already an imbalance … and when people put their thumb on the scale like McSpadden did, it increases the disparity,” Woods said. “There may have well been innocent people going through his court and he may have thrown the book at them because he had a bias toward them.”

Woods said he hoped all of McSpadden’s rulings would be reviewed for impartiality.

James Douglas, president of the Houston branch of the NAACP, said he did not think the commission went far enough.

“I think he should be banned from sitting on the bench,” Douglas said. “I don’t think he has the mental temperament or understanding of racial issues…Those views are not the views of a person who is totally impartial on the issue. He indicates he is not impartial when it relates to charges against African American males.”

See here and here for some background. The original comments from McSpadden, who was thankfully removed from the bench last year by the voters, came in a story about how he and others had “directed magistrates to deny no-cash bail to all newly arrested defendants”, over a period of nearly ten years. I agree that McSpadden’s previous rulings should be reviewed, and I definitely agree that he should never be allowed near a bench again. The visiting judge system needs an overhaul as it is, and it should be updated to exclude specifically problematic jurists like McSpadden. This is a no-brainer.

Smoots-Thomas suspended from the bench

What you’d expect.

Alexandra Smoots-Thomas

A district court judge in Harris County has been suspended after she was indicted on federal wire fraud charges for allegedly misspending campaign donations.

Judge Alexandra Smoots-Thomas, 44, will be removed from her bench without pay until the State Commission on Judicial Conduct determines otherwise, the oversight board said Tuesday, the same day it was presented with the indictment and ordered her suspension.

“We’re not surprised, but we’re still very disappointed that the state chose to take that action,” Smoots-Thomas’ attorney, Kent Schaffer, said. “It just adds to the fight that we have before us.

[…]

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct has the authority to suspend judges, but can only recommend their removal to the Texas Supreme Court after conducting an investigation, according to the commission’s procedures.

Smoots-Thomas has rarely sat on her bench this year, Schaffer said, because she has breast cancer and has undergone several rounds of treatments.

See here for the background. I guess I can understand being disappointed in this entirely expected decision, but I don’t know what else might have happened. I can’t imagine a scenario in which a judge in similar circumstances would not be suspended. If nothing else, anyone appearing before her might reasonably question whether she could be on her game, since there would obviously be bigger things on her mind than whatever case was being argued.

I know that Judge Smoots-Thomas is collecting signatures to get on the ballot next year. I don’t know at this time if anyone else is doing the same. I’ll be surprised if that isn’t the case, but stranger things have happened. In the meantime, we’ll see how long this investigation takes.

State Rep. Poncho Nevarez busted for cocaine possession

It’s been a week, hasn’t it? I have three things to say about this.

Rep. Poncho Nevarez

Authorities issued a warrant Thursday for the arrest of state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, an Eagle Pass Democrat, on felony drug possession charges. A state special investigator claims in the warrant, which was obtained by The Texas Tribune, that Nevárez was caught on surveillance footage in September dropping an envelope with cocaine as he was leaving the Austin airport.

A magistrate judge in Travis County signed the warrant Thursday afternoon. Nevárez faces a charge of third-degree felony possession of a controlled substance, which carries a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison.

Neither Nevárez’s office nor the Travis County District Attorney’s Office immediately responded to a request for comment.

Thursday’s news came hours after an affidavit detailing the allegations, filed Oct. 29 in Travis County court by the Texas Department of Public Safety, was revealed and later obtained by the Tribune and other news outlets. The affidavit was attached to a warrant seeking to conduct a test to determine whether Nevárez’s DNA was on the envelope. The document says that the envelope had Nevárez’s official House seal and held “four small clear baggies” containing a substance found to include cocaine.

Nevárez, who chairs the House Homeland Security & Public Safety Committee, announced last week he was retiring from the lower chamber. And in a statement to the Tribune Thursday morning before the warrant was issued, Nevárez confirmed that the “news is true” — and that the events detailed in the affidavit prompted his decision to not seek reelection.

“I do not have anyone to blame but myself,” he said, noting that he plans to seek treatment. “I accept this because it is true and it will help me get better.”

1. Nevarez had previously announced he was not running for re-election, which I think we can all agree is for the best. Sometimes, regardless of other considerations, stepping back in order to get one’s life together is the stronger course of action.

2. And I really do hope he gets his life back together. Addiction is a terrible thing, and it has real costs not just on the addict but on the addict’s family and friends. Even if I am grossly overstating the issue here – I am making some big assumptions – I stand by the main point about the personal cost to all involved.

3. I hope we take this as an opportunity to further reflect on how the criminal justice system handles drug usage and possession. I would not advocate for decriminalization of cocaine, but I would hope we would all by now recognize that a ten-year jail sentence for possessing a small amount of it is ridiculous and serves no worthwhile purpose. It’s needlessly punitive, exorbitantly expensive, and surely does not have a positive effect on addiction and drug abuse. And we should reflect on the fact that while someone like Rep. Nevarez is unlikely to spend much if any time in jail, many many people in Texas and around the country are not so fortunate. Our drug laws are harmful and woefully out of date. We really should do something about that. If Rep. Nevarez’s situation helps even one legislator realize that, then at least one good thing will come out of this.

Harris County’s gun surrender program

Just common sense.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County officials on Tuesday announced four measures aimed at curbing gun violence, which County Judge Lina Hidalgo said are necessary because the state and federal governments have missed opportunities to prevent shootings.

Hidalgo secured unanimous approval from Commissioners Court to expand a gun surrender program to all 22 of the county’s felony courts.

Additionally, county officials unveiled a streamlined system of reporting criminal convictions to the Texas Department of Public Safety, a new health department task force focused on violence prevention and a free gun lock program.

“We know the vast majority of Americans want common-sense gun reforms, and it’s an issue where we’re not just going to roll over,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve spent the last few months scouring what we can do within the framework that exists.”

[…]

The surrender program, which debuted in the 280th family court in December 2018, requires defendants charged with domestic violence offenses to give up their weapons to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office until their legal cases are resolved. To date, deputies have seized 25 guns under 10 protective orders.

Speeding up the reporting of convictions is one of the gun violence mitigation ideas Greg Abbott had in the wake of the El Paso murders. The surrender program for domestic violence offenders is just a recognition of the correlation between gun violence and domestic violence. Anyone who opposes these simple, broadly-supported, sensible solutions – a group that apparently includes one of the Republican candidates in HD148 – has no interest in reducing gun violence. Anyone who doesn’t support these proposals is part of the problem.

District Court Judge Smoots-Thomas accused of wire fraud

Yikes.

Alexandra Smoots-Thomas

A Harris County judge is facing federal charges that accuse her of using campaign donations for personal expenses, including for mortgage payments, private school tuition and travel.

Judge Alexandra Smoots-Thomas, 44, is charged with wire fraud charges, according to federal prosecutors. She turned herself in to U.S. Magistrate Peter Bray, appearing before him with chains wrapped around her waist and ankles.

She pleaded not guilty to the charges, and the magistrate set a pre-trial conference for Jan. 6.

Wearing a gray and black suit, she kept her head down for most of the arraignment. Smoots-Thomas has breast cancer, and had a round of chemotherapy on Thursday, attorney Kent Schaffer said.

Schaffer denied the charges after the proceeding, alleging that the U.S. Attorney’s Office, under Ryan Patrick, was targeting Smoots-Thomas because she is a black female Democrat.

“She has not defrauded anybody,” he said.

Patrick’s office has been contacted for comment on Schaffer’s allegations.

A federal grand jury on Oct. 24 returned a seven-count indictment against Smoots-Thomas, who presides over the 164th District Court and has jurisdiction over civil cases within Harris County. The indictment was unsealed on Friday.

[…]

The indictment alleges Smoots-Thomas of soliciting campaign contributions on the premise the money would be used to help facilitate her re-election campaigns in 2012 and 2016, prosecutors said. She concealed the expenses from her campaign treasurer and the Texas Ethics Commission by filing false campaign finance reports, according to the charges.

Obviously, this is bad and upsetting. She is of course innocent until proven guilty, but federal prosecutors tend to prefer bringing charges in cases they feel confident about winning.

Judge Smoots-Thomas was first elected in 2008. She was known as Alexandra Smoots-Hogan then; I know she had gotten divorced, and I presume remarried. There’s always a question about whether elected officials who are accused of crimes should resign when that happens. This is where I point out that Ken Paxton is still Attorney General, and I have not called for his resignation because he has not yet been convicted of anything. I’m inclined to believe that Kent Schaffer’s allegation about Assistant US Attorney Ryan Patrick is more defense lawyer strategy than anything else, but if all it took was an indictment to force someone out of office, then it’s certainly possible to imagine a politically motivated prosecutor filing sketchy charges as a partisan tactic. Plenty of people have been unjustly prosecuted in other contexts, after all. It’s a terrible look and I’m sure Republicans are rubbing their hands with glee over the potential attack ads, but even public officials get their day in court.

No charges against Bonnen

No surprise.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen will not be criminally prosecuted for the things he said during a secretly recorded June meeting with a hardline conservative activist, the district attorney in his hometown announced Thursday.

“As repugnant as Speaker Bonnen’s actions and statements are,” Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne said in a statement, “I do not believe there is sufficient evidence from the June 12, 2019 meeting to warrant a criminal prosecution of Speaker Bonnen for Bribery or Solicitation of a Gift by a Public Servant, therefore no criminal charges will be brought.”

[…]

A spokesperson for Bonnen said Yenne’s decision “deflates Michael Quinn Sullivan’s entire reason for going public three months ago — that, according to him, the Speaker solicited a bribe and broke the law.”

“Unfortunately, we now live in a political climate where one is guilty until proven innocent, and not only has that thrown the ability of Republicans to hold onto our House majority into jeopardy, it sets a dangerous precedent moving forward,” Cait Meisenheimer, the speaker’s press secretary, said in a statement. “While justice prevailed today, unfortunately, the damage has been done.”

See here, here, and here for the background. This was the conclusion of the Texas Rangers investigation – their report was submitted to DA Yenne earlier this week, according to the story. There wasn’t anything in the tape to suggest criminal activity, just deep stupidity, for which Bonnen will leave the Legislature and Yenne chewed him out. All things considered, I’ve got no gripes about how this turned out.

The visiting judge and the public defender

I want to understand more about this.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis is calling for a review of the process used to select substitute judges after fielding a scathing letter from the county’s public defender outlining two decades of allegations against ex-Judge Jim Wallace and questioning whether he is eligible to still sit as a “visiting” jurist in light of his disciplinary history.

The former elected judge, a Republican who left the bench in 2018, was one of 11 publicly admonished by state oversight officials in August for allegedly violating judicial canons by ordering hearing officers to deny no-cost bail to thousands of poor defendants.

That admonishment — which the State Commission on Judicial Conduct later retracted, according to Wallace’s attorney — was just one of nearly a dozen incidents outlined in the two-page letter, which also detailed Wallace’s previous disciplinary actions and a more recent courtroom spat when he suggested that a female attorney was objecting too often and told her she should just “stay standing through the whole trial and save your knees.”

The letter, signed by Chief Public Defender Alex Bunin, called those actions “prejudicial to a fair trial” and suggested that the county get a legal opinion on whether Wallace is still eligible to get work as a visiting judge in light of his history.

The regional administrative judge who approves such appointments said that Wallace does qualify because his disciplinary matters were considered lower-level infractions. Wallace, meanwhile, disputed some of the allegations against him, and argued that his other actions were justified or taken out of context.

“They’re bringing up a bunch of stuff that’s totally not true and inaccurate,” he told the Houston Chronicle. “I’m a judge that comes from the old school but I’m not gonna be intimidated by the public defender’s office.”

To Ellis, the letter raises questions about whether judges who were voted out of office or left the bench should still be overseeing local courtrooms. Though he conceded it’s not clear what changes county-level elected officials could implement, on Friday he added the issue to the next Commissioners Court agenda and said he planned to go to the county attorney for advice.

“I’m not sure what can be done,” he said, “but I’m sure what cannot be — and that’s for us to turn a blind eye.”

See here for more on that admonishment. I for one would like to know for sure if the State Commission on Judicial Conduct did in fact retract it, which if true seems to me to be a big deal and a key fact, or if this one judge’s lawyer is just saying they did. The rest of the story goes into the charges levied by Alex Bunin and Judge Wallace’s responses to them. I don’t have nearly enough information to assess them, so I support Commissioner Ellis’ call to review the entire system, which I’m guessing hasn’t had any such review ever. Maybe everything is working fine, maybe there are a few tweaks here and there that could be made, and maybe a wholesale overhaul is in order. Now is as good a time as any to do that, so let’s move on it and see what we find out.

Ronald Haskell convicted

Good, but nothing can undo the damage he did.

Cassidy Stay, the lone survivor of a 2014 shooting that killed her mother, father and four younger siblings, folded her hands in prayer inside a courtroom while awaiting a verdict.

The killer, Ronald Haskell, claimed insanity when he fatally shot six relatives of his ex-wife at their Spring home. But a Harris County jury determined on Thursday that Haskell knew what he was doing when he massacred the family, convicting him of capital murder and moving him closer to a possible death sentence.

Upon hearing the decision, Stay breathed a deep sigh of relief, closed her eyes and pressed her hands over her heart, while Haskell just stared straight ahead.

The decision came after a month of testimony from dozens of witnesses, who described the gruesome scene and attempted to capture Haskell’s mental state at the time of the shooting. Prosecutors said Haskell planned the murders in an effort to enact vengeance on anyone who had helped his ex-wife, who left him in 2013.

Jurors took more than eight hours to deliberate their verdict.

“We are grateful for the jurors’ rapt attention over the last many weeks to every piece of evidence in the case,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a statement. “There was never a reasonable doubt that Haskell meticulously planned and carried out the slaughter of the Stay family.”

The jury panel will return Monday for the punishment phase of the trial to decide whether to sentence him to either life without parole or death.

See here for the background. Ronald Haskell is as much an emblem of mass gun violence as any of the more notorious murderers. His kind of crime, aimed at those closest to him and driven by misogyny and a history of domestic violence, is so common we almost don’t even notice it. He’s the problem we need to solve if we want to reduce gun violence in our country.

DPS’ intel gathering

Should be interesting. And necessary.

State and federal officials in Texas have started monitoring racist and incendiary rhetoric online, such as that alleged to have been used by the suspect in the El Paso mass shooting, in the hopes of preventing violent attacks in the future.

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told a select House committee on mass violence prevention Tuesday that officials at so-called fusion centers — multi-agency intelligence centers throughout the state — had not previously done that work, in part because of the public’s concerns about privacy.

“We know that if we can proactively find those individuals before an event, we have a better chance of getting an opportunity to prevent it from happening,” McCraw said. “It takes professional analysts around-the-clock to do it.”

[…]

Though the online hate monitoring still is in beginning phases, McCraw said officials will be tracking groups from neo-Nazis to incels — self-described involuntary celibates known to commit acts of violence.

Law enforcement is also infiltrating online forums like 8chan where the suspect in the El Paso slaughter allegedly posted a manifesto prior to the attack.

“All of those groups, obviously when there’s individuals that start talking about something that raises a concern, a threat, we should be able to move on it,” McCraw said.

McCraw said the centers will need more resources in the future to not only identify such individuals but also follow up and vet them.

This is what a responsible law enforcement agency should be doing. The threat is real, and the best defense is knowledge of what’s happening. Obviously, any time law enforcement gets involved in intelligence gathering there is the potential for innocent people to be put under suspicion, especially people of color. There will be pressure to view things through a political lens, which in this state is more likely to be bad for those who lean progressive. Strong oversight from the Lege is needed, but we should be prepared for negative effects regardless. Be that as it may, this is still necessary. I hope DPS is up to the task.

Appealing the Crystal Mason illegal voting conviction

This continues to be an appalling travesty.

When Crystal Mason got out of federal prison, she said, she “got out running.”

By Nov. 8, 2016, when she’d been out for months but was still on supervised release, she was working full-time at Santander Bank in downtown Dallas and enrolled in night classes at Ogle Beauty School, trying, she said, to show her children that a “bump in the road doesn’t determine your future.”

On Election Day, there was yet another thing to do: After work, she drove through the rain to her polling place in the southern end of Tarrant County, expecting to vote for the first female president.

When she got there, she was surprised to learn that her name wasn’t on the roll. On the advice of a poll worker, she cast a provisional ballot instead. She didn’t make it to her night class.

A month later, she learned that her ballot had been rejected, and a few months after that, she was arrested. Because she was on supervised release, prosecutors argued, she had knowingly violated a law preventing felons from voting before completing their sentences. Mason insisted she had no idea officials considered her ineligible — and would never have risked her freedom if she had.

For “illegally voting,” she was sentenced to five years in prison. Now, as her lawyers attempt to persuade a Fort Worth appeals court to overturn that sentence, the question is whether she voted at all.

Created in 2002, provisional ballots were intended to serve as an electoral safe harbor, allowing a person to record her vote even amid questions about her eligibility. In 2016, more than 66,000 provisional ballots were cast in Texas, and the vast majority of those were rejected, most of them because they were cast by individuals who weren’t registered to vote, according to data compiled by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. In Tarrant County, where Mason lives, nearly 4,500 provisional ballots were cast that year, and 3,990 were rejected — but she was the only one who faced criminal prosecution.

In fact, Mason’s lawyer told a three-judge panel in North Texas last Tuesday, hers is the first known instance of an individual facing criminal charges for casting a ballot that ultimately didn’t count.

Her case, now pending before an all-Republican appeals panel, is about not just her freedom, but about the role and risks of the provisional ballot itself.

Prosecutors insist that they are not criminalizing individuals who merely vote by mistake. Despite those assurances, voting rights advocates fear the case could foster enough doubt among low-information voters that they’ll be discouraged from heading to the polls — or even clear a path for prosecutors to criminally pursue other provisional ballot-casters.

“There are a lot of people who have questions about whether they can vote or where they can vote,” said Andre Segura, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “You want all of those people to feel comfortable going in and submitting a provisional ballot.”

[…]

Tarrant County prosecutors have brushed off concerns the Mason case could lead to voter suppression. “The fact that this case is so unique should emphasize why this case should in no way have a ‘chilling effect’ on anyone except people who knowingly vote illegally,” Jordan said.

But during the 2019 legislative session, some Republican lawmakers pushed to erase Mason’s legal defense for future defendants by making it easier to prosecute people who cast ballots without realizing they’re ineligible.

Currently, to commit a crime, voters must know they are ineligible; under the proposed law, they would commit a crime just by voting while knowing about the circumstances that made them ineligible. In other words, Mason would have been illegally voting because she was aware of her past felony conviction — even if she was not aware her “supervised release” status made her ineligible.

The fact that Mason’s provisional ballot wasn’t actually counted would have also been ruled out as a legal defense under the proposed changes to state law. That legislation ultimately failed in the House amid major opposition from Democrats.

See here for some background. The appellate hearing was last week, and it drew national coverage. There are three legal justifications given by the ACLU on behalf of Crystal Mason why her attempt to vote was not illegal, but even if you think those arguments are insufficient, there’s still no possible justice in a five year prison sentence for this. I mean, there’s plenty of other crimes that are punished far, far less. This is about scaring certain people so they don’t feel confident about voting. This is why reversing the tide of voter suppression laws has to be a priority for the next Democratic Legislature. Further reading about the case from the ACLU is here and here, and the Observer has more.

No, crime is not up in Houston

Facts are stubborn things.

Like the rest of the country, crime in Houston has plummeted over the last 30 years, as has residents’ fear of crime being the city’s most pressing problem. FBI data show that most categories of crime in Houston have fallen or remained stagnant during Turner’s term, which began in January 2016. Criminologists also scoff at the claim that Houston is among the country’s most dangerous cities.

Violent crime is down more than 10 percent from 2017, during its peak under Turner’s administration, according to preliminary FBI data. Non-violent crime has dropped about 6 percent since 2015.

From 2015 to 2018, murders dropped and robberies fell; burglaries decreased; thefts fell; and fewer vehicles were stolen. The exceptions were aggravated assaults and rapes, which rose in 2017 before declining again in 2018.

[…]

“We are at the bottom of a 30-year decline, more or less, in the crime rate,” said Scott Henson, of Just Liberty, a criminal justice reform nonprofit.

In Turner’s first year in office, for example, criminals murdered 301 Houstonians. The city saw 279 murders in 2018, a slight uptick from 269 in 2017.

The city’s murder rate is four times that of New York, the safest large city in the United States, and a sixth of St. Louis, the nation’s most deadly. A survey of the nation’s 297 largest cities (meaning they had populations of 100,000 or more) shows Houston’s ranked 75th in murders, and 31st in violent crime.

“When we talk about the murder capitals of the country, the violent crime capitals of the country, Houston is not one of the cities people put on that list,” said Jeff Asher, a New Orleans-based criminologist. “At least anyone familiar with the data.”

Ames Grawert, senior counsel for the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, said it is misleading to compare the crime rate of a city with 2.3 million people to those of small towns, which frequently have much lower crime rates.

A more accurate measure, he said, would be to look at other large cities across the country.

Among the nation’s 30 largest cities, Houston’s murder rate “is thoroughly middle of the road,” Grawert said. “I don’t see Houston as being one of the more ‘violent’ places in the country.”

And while criminologists acknowledge the city’s overall crime rate is indeed higher than 95 percent of other American cities, towns, and villages, they say such comparisons overinflate the importance of more common but less serious crimes like thefts.

“As a major American city, Houston has some crime,” said Asher. “That’s the same as me saying Houston has more trash cans than 95 percent of cities … Houston is one of the largest cities in the country. Of course it does.”

Experts say it is not useful to measure crime on a year-to-year basis because one-year outliers do not accurately reflect trends or significant changes in crime patterns.

Since 1985, the annual number of murders has risen as high as 608 in 1991 and as low as 198 in 2011. Overall, the city’s murder rate has trended downward from about 26.5 per 100,000 to 11.5 per 100,000 in 2018.

“Houston is safer than has been for a really long time, honestly, is the truth of it,” said Henson.

This article was written because the non-Mayors in the Mayoral race were all claiming that crime is up and mayhem is rampant. I mean, what else do they have to talk about? I don’t know about some of these candidates, but I was living here in 1991, and I remember what it was like. I remember looking for rental properties with my roommates in Houston and noticing that the most prominent feature on many places in Montrose was burglar bars. I remember that the conventional wisdom was that single women should not live in the Heights because it wasn’t safe for them. Hell, when I bought my first house in the Heights in 1997, Tiffany’s parents (who live in Bellaire) were worried about its location. The Houston we live in now is so much safer.

One more thing: Insistence that the city is swamped by crime leads naturally to a demand for more aggressive policing – more traffic stops, more “broken windows”-type arrests, more zero-tolerance mindset, etc. We all know what that means for minority communities. At a time when people are recognizing the great harm that over-incarceration and the “war on drugs” have caused, this is dangerous and deeply out of step with the popular will. And pretty much what I’d expect from King and Buzbee, the two loudest voices in that story. Grits, who was quoted in the story, has more.

Red flag

This seems like maybe it’s a problem.

A report out Wednesday by the San Antonio Express-News found that a gun owner in Texas had sent more than 100 pages of racist and violent letters to the Texas Attorney General’s office threatening to kill undocumented immigrants over the course of a year and a half, and that nothing was done to stop him or to communicate the threat to local authorities.

“We will open fire on these thugs,” the white man who allegedly sent the messages wrote in an email to the office. “It will be a bloodbath.”

Over the same period, local officers in San Antonio responded to 911 calls made by and about the man, and visited his house, on at least 35 occasions. However, because he had never seemingly committed a crime, police did not arrest him or take legal action. Nearby neighbors told the Express-News that the man’s home is covered in security cameras and that he often emerged holding a shotgun.

When alerted by a reporter at the Express-News of the threats made to the Attorney General’s Office, the police force did respond. “Since you’ve made us aware of those threats, our fusion center and our mental health unit have reached out to the AG’s office and are trying to work something to make a case against [the alleged suspect Ralph] Pulliam,” Sargent Michelle Ramos told the paper. “They’re going to investigate that.”

The threats and lack of communication by Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to local police takes on a new light in the wake of two mass shootings in Odessa and El Paso. The El Paso shooter had long written about his hatred for immigrants and his mother had reportedly called the police before the shooting because she did not think her son should own a gun.

“These messages are clearly threats of deadly force against San Antonians based solely on the color of their skin,” wrote State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer in a letter to Paxton. “It is deeply alarming to me that despite the large volume and explicit nature of the messages from Mr. Pulliam, the Office of Attorney General has taken so long to cooperate with local law enforcement.”

The story was published in the print edition of the Sunday Chronicle, but there’s no link for it yet on the Chron site and the E-N story is behind the paywall, so this is the best I can do. Do bear in mind that Ken Paxton has been actively encouraging people like this to report their complaints to his office, so it’s no wonder he’s being tight lipped about this. Dude’s one of his best customers. In the meantime, while we hope this guy doesn’t follow through on any of the many threats of violence he has made, let’s see if any of our Republican leaders, who have been trying to convince us that they might actually Do Something this time, will at least voice support for disarming this guy. I’m not going to hold my breath.

The Lege will not take any action on guns

By all means, keep calling for a special session to address the issue. Just do keep in mind who holds all the cards.

At least 17 Texas state lawmakers are asking Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session to address gun violence following a mass shooting in El Paso that left 22 dead and dozens injured.

The list includes four state representatives from San Antonio, including Roland Gutierrez, Diego Bernal, Leo Pacheco and Ina Minjarez.

“Our state leadership has failed to be proactive and adopt laws that would allow gun safety,” said Gutierrez, who has secured more than 500 signatures in a related online petition. “All Texans should feel safe in their communities. Every year we lose too many to gun violence. Over 3,353 gun-related deaths occur in Texas each year. One death is too many – time for change.”

Others on the list are: state Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston; state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin; state Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton; state Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth; state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston; state Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas; state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin; state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood; state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City; state Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin; state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo; state Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Fort Worth and state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

In case you didn’t read through that whole list, none of the legislators in question are Republicans. That tells you everything you need to know.

(To be fair, there are other political reasons why there won’t be a special session.)

After the massacre of 22 people at an El Paso Walmart by an attacker with a military-style rifle, Texas’ Republican leadership is still unlikely to push for gun restrictions in a state that has long embraced firearms and has nearly 1.4 million handgun license holders, experts and advocates on both sides of the gun issue say. The shooting comes nearly 21 months after the Sutherland Springs massacre that killed more than two dozen people and more than a year after the Santa Fe shooting that killed 10.

“When Texas Republicans look at these massacres, they don’t blame guns, or gun laws. They blame people. They may blame institutions, schools, families, mental health, but not guns,” said Mark Jones, political science professor at Rice University. “If a school massacre and a church massacre didn’t change people’s opinion, the El Paso massacre isn’t going to.”

[…]

Abbott met last week with Democratic lawmakers from El Paso who have pushed for gun control and said he wants to keep guns away from “deranged killers.” Abbott said the state should battle hate, racism and terrorism, but made no mention of gun restrictions.

“Our job is to keep Texans safe,” Abbott said. “We take that job seriously. We will act swiftly and aggressively to address it.”

Abbott said he will meet with experts this month to discuss how Texas can respond – much as he did after shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe.

Those meetings resulted in Abbott issuing a 43-page report with proposals for more armed guards in schools, boosting mental health screenings, new restrictions on home gun storage, and consideration of red flag laws.

Gun rights supporters immediately pushed back on anything that could be interpreted as restricting gun ownership, and the Legislature’s Republican majority pivoted to expanding run rights. The only victory gun control supporters could claim was a small item in a $250 billion state budget: $1 million for a public awareness campaign on safe gun storage at home.

“They made things worse,” said Gyl Switzer, executive director of Texas Gun Sense. “I went naively into the session thinking ‘Progress here we come.’ But we ran head on into this idea that more guns make us safer.”

Well, more armed guards in schools, in churches, at WalMart, and now after Midland/Odessa, in cars and on the roads. Maybe if we station an armed guard on every street corner, inside every shop and restaurant, and on every floor of every office building in America, we’ll finally be safe from gun violence. We won’t have time to do anything else because we’ll need literally everyone to serve as all those armed guards, but hey, at least we’ll have done something that the Greg Abbotts and Matt Schaefers of the world can abide. Alternately, we can vote them out and elect people who want to do more rational, sensible, and effective things to curb gun violence. Decisions, decisions.

The felony judges who abused the bail system

Shame on them all.

Three sitting judges and eight former district judges in Harris County were publicly admonished by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct in response to complaints that for years they violated state law and judicial cannons by ordering hearing officers to deny no-cost bail to thousands of poor defendants.

But the actions this week came too late to affect most jurists’ behavior on the bench. Seven left their district seats last year either because they didn’t run or lost elections. One lost re-election back in 2016.

The misconduct probes of all 11 judges began in February 2018, when the Houston Chronicle obtained copies of memos and notes that showed that for a full decade most of Harris County’s felony court judges had provided different types of written or verbal instructions to the county’s hearing officers to routinely deny no-cash bail to all or most newly-arrested defendants.

The agency’s findings confirm most bans were in effect for years and largely went unnoticed and unchallenged until 2017 when Harris County judges and other officials were civilly sued in federal court for allegedly violating the rights of poor defendants by routinely failing to provide no-cost bail in many misdemeanor as well as felony cases.(The county is now in the process of settling that lawsuit).

In its August disciplinary orders, the commission concluded that through various actions all 11 Harris County district judges willfully violated judicial cannons and also “failed to comply with the law and failed to maintain competence in the law” by instructing hearing officers not to issue personal bonds even though under state law the hearing officers had the authority and duty to do so, the orders say. Under state laws and ethical cannons, the hearing officers are supposed to consider each defendant’s case and circumstances individually.

Let’s be clear here: These judges were found by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct not just to have violated rules of conduct that they are expected to follow, they actually broke the law by systematically denying personal recognizance bonds to poor defendants. This is serious stuff.

You may say “but these are FELONY defendants!” Sure, but it’s still the case that some number of them will never be convicted of a crime. Some of them will agree to a plea deal for a misdemeanor or lesser felony for which the sentence includes no jail time. Some, regardless of how their case gets adjudicated, represent little to no risk to public safety. How big a risk they are to public safety is completely unrelated to how much cash or collateral they can scrape up to buy their way out of jail. Again, Robert Durst got bailed out. There remains a bail lawsuit in Harris County over the practices in the felony courts, and there’s a similar lawsuit in Dallas that’s working its way towards a resolution. Standard practices are going to change, because they have to change.

The judges who were admonished included former longtime Harris County District Judge Michael McSpadden, who retired last year after many years presiding over the 209th District Court. The commission found McSpadden had, like many other longtime judges, issued blanket instructions to deny all personal recognizance or PR bond requests from Nov. 20, 2009 to Feb. 1, 2017. McSpadden had previously written a letter to the Houston Chronicle in March 2018 where he admitted that “it is true I have instructed the magistrates not to grant these bonds in our felony cases to all defendants, never specifying a certain race or gender.”

McSpadden told the Chronicle on Thursday that he stands behind his decision to deny PR bonds even if it violated the law.

“I have great respect for the work of the commission. But I still feel the same way. I, as the elected judge, would like to make the decision on free bonds for accused felons rather than turn those important duties over to the magistrates. And it would take one more day to do this,” he said.

[…]

The three active Harris County District Judges who were admonished were: Hazel Jones, of the 174th District Court, Herb Richie of the 337th District Court and George Powell of the 351st District Court.

Michael McSpadden’s first duty as a judge was to follow the law. He did not do that. I don’t give a crap what his feelings were. He failed to do his job, and I am glad he is no longer on the bench.

I am not happy that three Democratic judges were also found to be doing this. All three are up for election next year, and there are no more Republican judges on the district or county courts for Democrats to aim for. But we can still perform upgrades, and these courts are at the front of the line for that. Democrats with a criminal justice background, an interest in becoming a judge, and a commitment to following the law, should look here first.

(Obligatory copy editing nitpick: A “cannon” is a big gun. A “canon” is a fundamental principle or general rule, and is the thing that these judges violated. Spelling counts, y’all.)

The harder question

This story just upsets me so much.

After a man posing as a FedEx deliveryman forced his way into her family’s house and fatally shot her parents and four siblings, 15-year-old Cassidy Stay played dead until the killer fled the scene.

Bleeding from a wound on her head where a bullet grazed her, Cassidy managed to call 911.

“It was my Uncle Ronnie. He has been stalking my family for three weeks,” she told paramedics when they arrived at the Spring-area house, according to court documents. “He said he would shoot us and kill us.”

Cassidy would be the lone survivor of the July 2014 massacre, which Harris County prosecutors say unfolded in a moment of rage as Ronald Haskell hunted for his ex-wife, Melannie Lyon. Cassidy’s parents had been providing support to Lyon, the sister of Katie Stay, Cassidy’s mother. Ronald Haskell didn’t find his intended target, prosecutors said, but opened fire on the entire Stay family.

Cassidy’s phone call is believed to have prevented more violence, as Haskell was captured on the way to Lyon’s parents’ nearby home, police said.

[…]

In the case of the Stay family murders, police said Haskell had come to Texas from California in search of his ex-wife, who had recently divorced him after years of sustained domestic abuse, court filings show. They had lived together in Utah before Melannie Lyon escaped. Haskell had moved to California. where a restraining order was issued against him after he allegedly duct-taped his mother to a chair and choked her because she had spoken to Lyon.

But Lyon wasn’t at her sister’s home in the suburban Spring neighborhood that Wednesday afternoon.

Police gave the following account: Dressed as a FedEx deliveryman, Haskell knocked on the door, then went away. When he came back and knocked on the door again, Cassidy quickly realized something was not right, especially when he mentioned his name. Cassidy tried to close the door, but the burly Haskell forced his way inside, brandishing a 9mm pistol and holding Cassidy and the rest of the children hostage until their parents, Stephen and Katie Stay, returned home. Upon their return, Haskell demanded to know where his ex-wife was, but either no one knew or would say.

Initial police reports were that Haskell had tied up members of the family before shooting them, but court documents say he only threatened to do so. Katie Stay tried to stop him, and he opened fire on the entire family, killing Stephen, 39; Katie, 34; and Bryan, 13; Emily, 9; Rebecca, 7; and Zach, 4. Cassidy lay motionless until Haskell fled in the Stays’ Honda sedan, reportedly continuing his search for his ex-wife.

Katie’s 911 call saved her grandparents’ lives, officials said after the slayings. Harris County Precinct 4 deputy constables intercepted Haskell just seconds before he arrived at Lyon’s parents’ home, then chased him into a nearby cul-de-sac. After a long standoff, Haskell surrendered hours later.

“These people were seconds away from getting killed,” said Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman, then the assistant chief deputy of the agency.

There’s more in this story, and of course there’s been plenty more written about this horrible crime, which happened in 2014. Haskell’s trial is now underway, and prosecutors will seek the death penalty. Because this mass murder occurred in a private home and not a public space, it hasn’t gotten the wall-to-wall national coverage that the public massacres tend to get, but this kind of violence, often involving multiple victims, is much more prevalent. We can and should have serious conversations about how to prevent men like Ronald Haskell from getting guns, but we should also be realistic enough to admit that that’s an impossible task. As long as guns exist, men like Ronald Haskell will find them, and even if we somehow thwart them, they’ll find other ways to carry out their violent urges.

The much harder question to ask ourselves is, how do we prevent boys from growing up to become men like Ronald Haskell? The rage, the hate, the misogyny, they all come from somewhere. It’s well established that a common factor in many mass murders is a history of domestic violence on the part of the shooter, as was clearly the case here. If we want to reduce gun violence, this is what we have to address. What are we doing about that?

David Temple convicted again

New trial, same result.

A Harris County jury on Tuesday convicted David Temple of murder in the 1999 death of his pregnant wife, opening the door for the former Katy-area football coach to be sent back to prison several years after an appeals court reversed his original guilty verdict because of prosecutorial misconduct.

The panel of seven men and five women handed down the decision following almost eight hours of deliberation and 18 days of witness testimony, including evidence prosecutors withheld during the initial trial and which led to the reversal. In the end, jurors convicted David Temple of murder for a second time, rejecting the defense attorneys’ claim that an alternate suspect, a teenage neighbor, fatally shot Belinda Temple.

As state District Judge Kelli Johnson read the verdict, Temple cast his face downward, sweating and suppressing tears while his family members, including his adult son, burst into a chorus of sobs.

Just feet away, siblings and friends of Belinda Temple let out audible sighs of relief, comforted that the man they have long believed killed her could be locked up once more.

[…]

Testimony in the retrial revolved around two competing timelines of events on Jan. 11, 1999, the day Belinda was found shot to death in her master bedroom closet. David Temple told authorities that he came home from a trip to the park and store with his 3-year-old son and found his wife dead amid an apparent burglary.

Prosecutors argued that the husband — who was in the throes of a secret relationship with a coworker — had executed Belinda with a close-contact shotgun wound shortly after she arrived home from a work and a trip to pick up soup for her sick child. He washed his hands, changed his clothes, and left for the store, before returning home and staging a crime scene, state attorneys said. At some point during his shopping trip, prosecutors said, he ditched the murder weapon, which was never located.

Temple’s defense lawyers contended that their client didn’t have time to murder his wife, given a “narrow window” of opportunity when they were both home alone. They argued that the killing occurred while Temple was at the store, and was carried out by a 16-year-old neighbor who had a bone to pick with Belinda, who was also his teacher at Katy High School.

The neighbor testified during the retrial, telling jurors that he skipped the last class period of the day on Jan. 11, 1999. He said that he spent much of the afternoon on a mostly fruitless quest to find marijuana, and several of his high school friends corroborated parts of his story.

See here and here for the background, and here for the rest of my blogging about this. The re-trial was due to Temple’s attorneys successfully arguing that he had not received a fair trial in 1999 because of misconduct by then-Assistant DA Kelly Siegler. Current District Attorney Kim Ogg recused her office from the do-over, with prosecutors from the Attorney General’s office handling the case. In the end, it seems the jury didn’t buy Temple’s defense. Sentencing is still to come, but I imagine he’ll be spending some more time in prison.

I don’t have anything to say this morning

Twenty people murdered in El Paso by a racist piece of shit. Just families, out shopping for back to school supplies. You’re not safe anywhere from an asshole with an automatic weapon and a manifesto. I grew up in a high crime era, but I never worried that I or someone I knew would be randomly gunned down on the street. But here we are.

We all know what needs to be done. We are not powerless. We are, for now, held hostage by a federal and state government that are dominated by a political party that will not do anything about it. We have the power to change that. I don’t want to live with the status quo. I don’t want my kids to live with the status quo. I have, and you have, the power to change it. What will we do?

Once more with more prosecutors

This time, it might work.

Kim Ogg

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office is asking county commissioners once again for more prosecutors to handle fallout from the botched Houston drug raid that left a Pecan Park couple dead earlier this year.

The latest $1.96 million funding request that will go to Commissioners Court for consideration Tuesday would add 10 positions to the office, including seven felony chief prosecutors and three investigators housed in the Civil Rights Division.

“What leaders fund speaks to what they think is important and our investigation of the Harding Street shootings is one of the most significant matters we have seen in decades,” District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a statement to the Houston Chronicle. “Community trust depends on us getting to the truth sooner than later; we need to add experienced prosecutors to our Civil Rights Division to handle an investigation this deep and wide.”

[…]

Already, it seems the latest proposed expansion may have more support from the politicians who hold the county’s purse strings. Previously, two Republican commissioners generally voiced their support for adding prosecutors, but this time Democrats look poised to back it as well.

“I’m proud that the district attorney and I have reached common ground in working with an independent consultant to help create a strategy that fosters public confidence in our criminal justice system,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said. “This additional resource is critical to supporting our law enforcement officers.”

Similarly, Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis — who opposed the request last time around — said he will back it.

“The Harding Street tragedy raises concerns that are bigger than one officer — it’s about an entire system that needs to be held accountable,” he said. “I have worked with the DA to ensure this new request includes robust oversight by an independent third party to identify the failed safeguards that allowed for any miscarriage of justice to occur.”

See here for the previous update. If nothing else, it looks like Ogg took to heart the reasons why her previous asks were rejected. She’s already got the two Republican commissioners in line, so passage appears assured, and it’s just a matter of whether or not Judge Lina Hidalgo makes it unanimous. (Also of note: unlike the previous times, I’ve not gotten an email from the ACLU or TOP opposing the request.) Assuming nothing unexpected happens and this does go through, I’ll be very interested to see what they turn up. I feel confident saying there’s more to that botched raid than we know about right now.

Paxton wants to move his case back to Collin County

Of course they do.

Best mugshot ever

Paxton’s defense team has asked that the case be moved back to his hometown of Collin County, years after it was moved from there to Harris County. The case was moved hundreds of miles southeast after the prosecutors claimed that Paxton, a Republican who is well connected in that region and once represented it in the Texas Legislature, would not get a fair trial there.

But Paxton’s defense team argued this week that the judge who moved the case to Harris County two years ago didn’t have the authority to do so, as his term overseeing the case had elapsed.

[…]

That leaves [Judge Robert] Johnson, a Democratic judge overseeing the case, with several issues to mull before Paxton faces a jury. Johnson has not yet responded to either side’s motion.

On Monday, Paxton’s defense attorneys argued that if there is a hearing on the prosecutors’ fees, they should also be present — and asked that the judge rule on changing the venue before the pay issue.

The Team Paxton motions were in response to the prosecutors’ motion to confer with Judge Johnson – just them, Team Paxton is not invited – regarding their pay. I can understand that motion, but as the Observer notes, the argument to move the case back to Collin County is a rehash of the same arguments they made when the case was originally moved. That was seen at the time as a win for Paxton, since his team had moved to boot the original judge from the case. It seems unlikely to me that Judge Johnson will agree to just hand the case back to Collin County, but it’s a lead pipe cinch that Team Paxton will appeal that ruling and thus accomplish their main goal, which is delaying this trial from now until the heat death of the universe. Either way, they get something they want. The DMN has more.

We return once again to the Paxton prosecutor pay fight

This is an interesting argument.

Best mugshot ever

The prosecutors appointed years ago to take Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to trial will continue to fight over their pay rate, lengthening a dispute that has already delayed the case for well over a year.

[…]

Prosecutors Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer had signaled they might withdraw from the case if they could not be paid. Instead, they are now asking a Harris County judge for a private, “ex parte” hearing over their fees — a meeting that would not include Paxton’s defense team. In a filing this week, they asked Judge Robert Johnson to “issue a new order for payment of fees.”

“The Attorneys Pro Tem’s payment is now an administrative matter for the trial court to decide,” an attorney for Wice and Schaffer wrote. “The Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision provides the court with the parameters necessary for the court to use its discretion in discharging its administrative duties.”

They added that “there is no authority suggesting that an adversarial hearing regarding the payment of fees … should be held” — arguing that Paxton’s defense lawyers should not be present for the hearing.

The judge has not yet responded to the request. A spokesman for Paxton did not return a request for comment.

See here for the last update. I’m glad they waited till after the legislative session to advance this argument, as I can easily imagine a hastily-written bill to cut this off at the knees getting rammed through. I’ve no idea if this brief, let alone the assertion that there doesn’t need to be a response from Team Paxton, has any merit or has ever been tried before. But it sure isn’t boring, and I can’t wait to see how Judge Johnson rules. The DMN has more.

David Temple re-trial is now underway

I continue to be fascinated by this.

It’s 1999 in Katy, Texas.

A seemingly perfect couple is falling apart at the seams. David Temple, a high school football coach, is having an affair with a beautiful teacher on campus. His wife, a beloved special education instructor, is becoming anxious. She’s also eight months pregnant.

It was an act of disloyalty, David Temple’s attorneys conceded with opposing state prosecutors. The legal parties disagree, however, on the events of Jan. 11, when Belinda Temple was found shot to death in the closet of her master bedroom.

Lawyers began to reconstruct the murder of Belinda Temple for Harris County jurors on Monday, launching testimony for her husband’s second criminal trial in 12 years. Unlike the first trial, when jurors found David Temple guilty in the killing – a decision that was later overturned by an appeals court – attorneys were tasked with making the panel understand a story from another era.

“We’re going to go back in time,” David Temple’s attorney, Stanley Schneider, began his opening argument on Monday. “We’re going to hear a story of betrayal, two betrayals.”

The lawyer told jurors that while the defendant was unfaithful to his wife, law enforcement also betrayed citizens by operating with “tunnel vision” in the case, which rocked the Katy area in the early 2000s and has maintained a hold in the county ever since.

[…]

“There was only one person on this Earth who had the motive, the means and the opportunity to cause her death,” said Lisa Tanner, a state prosecutor re-trying the case in lieu of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, which recused itself after the initial verdict was reversed. Investigators didn’t charge anyone with the crime at first but had questions about Temple’s account, Tanner said. The family’s dog was aggressive and made it difficult for police officers to even gain entry into the yard, making them wonder how a burglar could have made it past. The break-in also seemed staged, Tanner said, as evidenced by the location of broken glass on the floor.

Surveillance videos located Temple being where he said he was on two instances, but the videos are separated by a nearly 45-minute gap, Tanner said.

See here for the background and here for all posts. Again, I don’t have anything to add. We just don’t see many re-trials like this, especially in cases where the original prosecutors had been found to have withheld possibly exculpatory evidence. We’ll never know the answer to the questiof what might have happened if they had played by the rules back then, but we’ll see what happens now that this evidence is known to all. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

Did the Lege sort of decriminalize marijuana?

Well, sort of.

Because of a new state law, prosecutors across Texas have dropped hundreds of low-level marijuana charges and have indicated they won’t pursue new ones without further testing.

But the law didn’t decriminalize small amounts of marijuana for personal consumption. It legalized hemp and hemp-derived products, like CBD oil.

An unintended side effect of the law is that it has made it difficult for law enforcement to tell if a substance is marijuana or hemp, according to prosecutors. Among other provisions, House Bill 1325 changed the definition of marijuana from certain parts of the cannabis plant to those parts that contain a higher level of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that produces a high. It’s a difference numerous district attorneys, the state’s prosecutor’s association and state crime labs say they don’t have the resources to detect, weakening marijuana cases where defendants could claim the substance is instead hemp.

“The distinction between marijuana and hemp requires proof of the THC concentration of a specific product or contraband, and for now, that evidence can come only from a laboratory capable of determining that type of potency — a category which apparently excludes most, if not all, of the crime labs in Texas right now,” stated an advisory released by the Texas District and County Attorneys Association last month.

A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Public Safety, which runs more than a dozen state crime labs to conduct forensic testing, including drugs, for local agencies said it does not have equipment, procedures or resources to determine the amount of THC in a substance. Some involved in the hemp legislation have countered that there is already available equipment to test suspected drugs, even if it isn’t in most crime labs.

Still, top prosecutors from across the state and political spectrum — from Harris to Tarrant counties — have dismissed hundreds of pending marijuana charges since the law was signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and immediately went into effect on June 10. They have also signaled they won’t pursue any new charges without testing a substance to indicate if there is more than 0.3% of THC, the now-legal limit to distinguish between hemp and marijuana.

“In order to follow the Law as now enacted by the Texas Legislature and the Office of the Governor, the jurisdictions … will not accept criminal charges for Misdemeanor Possession of Marijuana (4 oz. and under) without a lab test result proving that the evidence seized has a THC concentration over .3%,” wrote the district attorneys from Harris, Fort Bend, Bexar and Nueces counties in a new joint policy released Wednesday morning.

So basically, some counties are now refusing to accept low-level pot cases out of concern that they would not be able to prove them at this time; Harris County is one of them. Others will carry on as usual and see what happens, while DPS is now pushing to get the lab equipment they would need to adjust to this change. I think in the end that the prosecutors will figure out how to adjust to this, and at some point the lab equipment will catch up, so in a few months things will return more or less to normal. I mean, I’d be happy if they all just decided this was a better state of affairs and adopted the stance that this change was permanent. But that’s not going to happen.