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Crime and Punishment

The national media discovers Skeet Jones

Here’s NBC News with a nice, juicy story.

Lawmen came to remote Loving County, Texas, on Friday to arrest the county judge, a former sheriff’s deputy and two ranch hands on one of Texas’ oldest crimes — cattle theft.

Judge Skeet Jones, 71, the top elected official since 2007 in the least populated county in the continental United States, is facing three felony counts of livestock theft and one count of engaging in criminal activity, accused of gathering up and selling stray cattle, authorities said.

Jones, the scion of a powerful ranching family that settled in Loving County in the 1950s, was booked into Winkler County Jail on Friday and released on $20,000 bond, records show. He did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Authorities also arrested former Loving County deputy Leroy Medlin Jr., 35, on one count of engaging in criminal activity — a second-degree felony that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. Medlin did not return phone calls, but his wife sent an email that questioned the motives behind the arrests. “We are being targeted,” she wrote, “at full force.”

Officials with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, the lead agency on the case, offered few specifics about the alleged crime. Commissioned through the Texas Department of Public Safety, the association has “special rangers” — certified peace officers — who investigate livestock theft and other agriculture crimes.

Jeremy Fuchs, a spokesman for the association, said the yearlong investigation is ongoing and more charges are possible.

The idea that the judge — who is paid $133,294 annually — would get picked up for cattle rustling was just too much for Susan Hays, a Texas election lawyer who’s wrangled with the Joneses in the past.

“You can’t make this shit up,” she said. “It’s a pain in the ass to round up cattle and take them to market. And then to risk real trouble for it? It’s just asinine to me.”

See here for the background. As a reminder, Susan Hays is also the Democratic candidate for Ag Commissioner.

For decades, a handful of prominent families in Loving County have feuded bitterly for control of the local government, with the Joneses finally largely coming out ahead. Skeet Jones has served as the judge for more than 15 years. His sister is the county clerk. His cousin’s husband is the county attorney. His nephew is the constable.

But some recently elected county officials have been butting heads with the Joneses and their allies, making for colorful commissioner’s court meetings and a much-anticipated November election.

And blood is no longer holding the Jones family together.

“He’s had free reign for the entire time since he’s been the judge,” said Skeet Jones’ nephew, Constable Brandon Jones, who was elected in 2016. “That’s given him a sense of power and impunity that he can do whatever he wants whenever he wants. Even the feeling of self-righteousness. That he can do no wrong.”

When Skeet Jones was sworn in as judge in 2007, most of the caliche roads were rutted like washboards and residents still had to line up to get potable water dispensed from a community tank.

But he presided over a period of unprecedented growth, as fracking boomed in the Permian Basin, feeding money into the county’s coffers. The parched landscape is dotted with massive gas plants, water plants and salt water disposal systems. Many of the surviving working ranches have “frac pads” for horizontally drilled wells that cut through the caliche and bedrock to free up the lifeblood for Loving County’s economy: oil and gas.

The tax base hovers around $7 billion to $9 billion. And the county’s budget has grown from about $2 million in 2008 to more than $28 million.

The salaries for many of the top officials in town — the judge, auditor, treasurer, clerk, justice of the peace, county attorney, constable and sheriff — are $100,000 or higher.

To give you some idea of how insane a budget of $28 million for a county with 57 people in it, that’s about $491,000 per person. The fiscal year 2022 budget for Harris County had an estimated general fund of $2 billion, for 4.8 million people, or $415 per person. That’s less than 0.1% of the per capita allocations for Loving. If Harris had the same resources as Loving, it would have over $2.3 trillion in its general revenue fund; in other words, in the ballpark of what the US as a whole spends in a non-COVID year. As for the family dynamics and the concentration of power like that, well, I suspect we’re just beginning to delve into the plot.

One more thing:

Medlin previously worked as a detective for the San Antonio Police Department, where records show he was issued indefinite suspensions — the department’s equivalent of being fired — three times.

In 2015, he was placed on indefinite suspension for a 100-plus mph pursuit of a driver who had a toddler in the back seat, records show. Medlin was reinstated after an appeal.

Then in 2018, Medlin engaged in another high-speed pursuit after telling dispatchers the driver “almost ran me over,” records show. But body and dash camera footage contradicted Medlin’s account, according to internal affairs reports. He appealed again, telling supervisors he felt threatened, even if it wasn’t evident from the videos.

He was later issued another indefinite suspension after supervisors determined he issued tickets for violations he didn’t witness, records show.

Medlin joined the Loving County Sheriff’s Office in January 2019 and “separated” from the agency less than two years later, records show. (Sheriff Chris Busse declined to say why.)

Medlin also worked on Jones’ ranch before being hired by Loving County as a janitor and groundskeeper.

Forget the Yellowstone-meets-Game of Thrones as directed by early-career Coen Brothers aspect of this, it’s Leroy Medlin that’s the tale as old as time here. The inability of law enforcement agencies to fire corrupt and/or inept cops, combined with said cops’ ability to easily hire on with some other law enforcement agency in the state (there are nearly 2,000 law enforcement agencies in the state of Texas, including as we now know the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, which was responsible for this particular bust) makes for a plethora of opportunities. I feel very confident there’s more to the story of why Leroy Medlin did not stay with the Loving County Sheriff’s Office longer than he did than what we now know.

The AP had a much shorter story on this, which the Chron picked up. I’m sure other outlets, including the Texas papers, will join in, and I can’t wait. Hell, I can’t wait for the eight-part true crime podcast and hopefully HBO miniseries on the life and times of the Jones family of Loving County. Susan Hays is right, you cannot make this stuff up. But you sure can ride it to the end when it happens anyway.

The cattle-rustling County Judge

“Bonkers” is the first word that came to mind as I read this Twitter thread and the linked story at the end of it:

Read the rest of the thread and the story at the end for more. Remember that this is the County Judge at the top of this alleged crime ring – imagine if say, Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough had been busted for running a gang of car thieves. A few other points to note:

– This was not Judge Skeet Jones’ first brush with the law, as noted. In 2016, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct issued a public warning and order of additional education for his role in quashing speeding tickets for truck drivers (note that “CDL” = “commercial drivers license”, so this was for people who drive, usually big rig trucks, for a living). In a sane world, it should have been a political-career-ending scandal, but somehow there he was still in office eight years later stealing cows.

County Judge is normally an executive position, but constitutionally they do have some bench-judge authority, which most County Judges are too busy to do even if they had any interest in it. And also, since I’m sure you’re wondering, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association does indeed have law enforcement authority, which apparently includes a crossover with Oklahoma. The things I learn doing this blog, I swear. Anyway, this is my nominee for most amazing story of the year, and I don’t even want to think about what could knock it off that perch. Many thanks to my friend Ginger for pointing this out to me.

How will abortion bans be enforced?

The good news is that anti-abortion zealots don’t yet know how they’re going to force women to give birth. The bad news is we cannot count on that to continue to be true.

Right there with them

It took next to zero effort for pandering Republican state legislators to obtain cut-and-paste, ALEC-generated laws banning and criminalizing all abortions in their states, then brag and fundraise after such laws were passed by a willing Republican governor. But now that the Supreme Court is apparently set on overruling Roe v. Wade, the much harder part—as Republicans are about to find out—is figuring out how such laws terrorizing pregnant people will actually work in practice.

How do you go about catching and punishing someone who violates these laws? What tools of law enforcement will be necessary? How do you collect the evidence necessary for a prosecutor to charge someone with “aiding and abetting” an illegal abortion, for example? Can you dangle a lesser sentence if they agree to confess or cooperate against the suspect? And once the unrepentant offender has been apprehended, what sort of forensic examination methods or interrogation techniques should be utilized to prove their “crime?” Under what conditions?

[…]

None of the states that provide “exceptions” in cases, for example, involving rape or incest, or to protect the health and life of the mother could provide any guidance as to how such determinations would be made. As Einbinder and Kaskins point out, nearly two-thirds of rapes go unreported, so what type of evidence would be required to apply such an exception? Idaho, Mississippi, and Utah require that the rape be reported to law enforcement before an abortion will be “permitted,” while other states do not. Do prosecutors expect the rapist to voluntarily confirm his behavior?

And what type of medical testimony would be sufficient to establish that a person’s life was actually threatened by their pregnancy? Would there exist a ready cottage industry of experts used by prosecutors to rebut such a claim? Would doctors in a state that provides no such exception be forced to simply sit and watch the pregnant person die?

As Einbinder and Kaskins observe, no one in any of these states so eager to criminalize reproductive choices seems to know the answers to any of these questions. Most of Insider’s requests yielded no records (one district attorney from Shelby County, Tennessee, called their inquiries “political grandstanding”), or were met with bland statements that the agency was not involved in “enforcement”.

It seems clear to me that a big part of the playbook is just having laws that criminalize abortion in whatever form on the books. As we know from the SB8 experience, that by itself serves to intimidate and scare many women away from exploring whatever options they may still have, and also incentivizes fellow zealots to rat out anyone they suspect of engaging in behavior they don’t like – remember, it was someone involved in Lizelle Herrera’s medical care that reported her to law enforcement. If that’s not enough, the next step will be to make it easier for law enforcement to investigate the women in question, which will necessarily mean invasive searches of medical records, Internet and phone records, and who knows what else. Just look at the DFPS investigations of the families of trans kids for a preview of what that might resemble.

It’s likely that at least at first, enforcement of new anti-abortion laws will be uneven, as prosecutors will exercise their discretion as they can. The current Bexar County DA has already said he won’t prosecute abortion cases, and he won’t be alone in that. But DAs can lose elections, and with Ken Paxton actively seeking to bulldoze over DAs who refuse to go along with his agenda, authorizing the AG to pick up these prosecutions will be on the agenda if the zealots deem it necessary. There are no norms or traditions or existing laws that will stop them.

There do remain some ways for blue cities and suburbs to put up resistance even with all that.

Data. Immigration sanctuary cities responded to shifts in federal law during the Trump administration with a data management strategy. Do you need someone’s immigration status? If not, don’t write it down or put it in a database. Local hospitals, whether in red or blue states, should carefully consider what kind of records they must keep about people accessing care related to abortion or miscarriage, along with other kinds of soon-to-be-banned care. County hospitals can also commit to objecting to subpoenas requesting medical records, and instead force courts to compel their cooperation. They can choose not to question a patient’s narrative; they can decline to allow police to question a hospitalized patient.

Nonprosecution. Progressive district attorneys have won election in cities across the country in recent years, including in red states. Some in red states have already said they will refuse to prosecute criminal cases involving abortion. We need to demand that progressive prosecutors nationwide use their broad discretion to decline to prosecute doctors and patients for accessing abortion, for “suspicious” miscarriages, and for using types of birth control outlawed by state abortion laws that mistake pregnancy prevention for pregnancy termination. Even in states like Texas and Florida, it is often local elected prosecutors who will be making those determinations, at least for now.

On the flip side, advocates should be partnering with civil liberties organizations to scrutinize local police departments’ use of big data technologies, which could be used to identify and locate those who have accessed abortion care. Some cities, such as Oakland, California, have privacy task forces that must approve any new technology used for surveillance purposes. Such government bodies could, for example, refuse to approve any technology that makes use of data from period- or fertility-tracking apps. Cities might also consider directing their own police departments not to run searches of residents’ internet searches related to health care.

With the right resources, public libraries could also provide a space for residents to search for information related to self-managed abortion without leaving a search history on their personal devices. Blue cities in red states could provide funds to advertise the availability of library computers, purchase more devices if needed, and even set up the physical space in a way that affords computer users some degree of privacy.

Advice. Another important role cities play is giving advice to their agencies and hospitals and to the public at large. Cities can advise OB-GYNs concerned about their own vulnerabilities, particularly given laws that seek to criminalize routine care even when performed out of state and to deputize citizens to sue health care providers. These localities should develop a clear channel for providers to ask questions about how best to protect themselves while still providing care. Many local governments already have systems in place for disseminating information. During the pandemic, cities have used websites, automated texts, central phone lines, and more to make rapidly changing information and guidance available about COVID-19. Drawing on these strategies, local librarians and public health departments can play an important role in providing information about self-managed abortions. Cities need to think about how their employees might provide guidance, such as by handing out informational pamphlets or via websites and transit ads, and explore strategies for protecting employees and residents alike from liability.

These are all good ideas, but we’ve already seen in Texas that the Republican legislature and state leadership will not let cities stand in their way of anything. As long as they have the power to pass laws that overrule local ordinances or compel cities to do things, they will. It always comes back to the same truth that until we change who’s in charge of the state, we’re not going to be safe from this kind of abuse. We can brainstorm and strategize all we want, and we will have to for at least the short term, but in the long term that’s a losing battle. Winning more elections is the only way forward.

Crystal Mason’s conviction to be reconsidered

Good news.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has told a lower appeals court to take another look at the controversial illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, who was given a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release for a federal conviction.

The state’s court of last resort for criminal matters on Wednesday ruled a lower appeals court had wrongly upheld Mason’s conviction by concluding that it was “irrelevant” to Mason’s prosecution that she did not know she was ineligible to cast a ballot. The ruling opens the door for Mason’s conviction to ultimately be overturned.

Mason’s lawyers turned to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals after the Tarrant County-based Second Court of Appeals found that her knowledge that she was on supervised release, and therefore ineligible to vote, was sufficient for an illegal voting conviction. Mason has said she did know she was ineligible to vote and wouldn’t have knowingly risked her freedom.

On Wednesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the lower court had “erred by failing to require proof that [Mason] had actual knowledge that it was a crime for her to vote while on supervised release.” They sent the case back down with instructions for the lower court to “evaluate the sufficiency” of the evidence against Mason.

[…]

In Wednesday’s ruling, the court held that the Texas election code requires individuals to know they are ineligible to vote to be convicted of illegal voting.

“To construe the statute to mean that a person can be guilty even if she does not ‘know[] the person is not eligible to vote’ is to disregard the words the Legislature intended,” the court wrote. “It turns the knowledge requirement into a sort of negligence scheme wherein a person can be guilty because she fails to take reasonable care to ensure that she is eligible to vote.”

The court on Wednesday ruled against Mason on two other issues. They rejected her arguments that the lower court had interpreted the state’s illegal voting statute in a way that criminalized the good faith submission of provisional ballots, and that the appeals court had wrongly found she “voted in an election” even though her provisional ballot was never counted.

See here, here, and here for some background. Of particular interest is that the recent voter suppression law played a positive role in this outcome.

Insisting they’re not criminalizing individuals who merely vote by mistake, Tarrant County prosecutors have said Mason’s case is about intent. The case against her has turned on the affidavit she signed when submitting her provisional ballot.

But the legal landscape underpinning Tarrant County’s prosecution shifted while the case was under review, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals noted.

Last year, the Texas Legislature included in its sweeping new voting law several changes to the election code’s illegal voting provisions. The law, known as Senate Bill 1, added new language stating that Texans may not be convicted of voting illegally “solely upon the fact that the person signed a provisional ballot,” instead requiring other evidence to corroborate they knowingly tried to cast an unlawful vote.

The Legislature’s change to the election code — along with a resolution passed in the Texas House regarding the interpretation of the illegal voting statute — are “persuasive authority” that the lower court’s interpretation of the law’s mens rea requirement was incorrect, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled on Wednesday.

Good. This isn’t over for Mason, as this is just about the appeal of her conviction. Even if the appeals court ultimately throws it out after reconsideration, Tarrant County could still pursue this case and who knows, they might be able to convict her again. It sure seems like the spine of the case against her has been removed, though. And no matter how you look at it, she has already suffered consequences far in excess of her original sin, however you measure it. Please let this be over for her. The Dallas Observer has more.

Oh yeah, Hotze knew all about the Aguirre attack

Who could have ever guessed that a lifelong lying lair was lying to us?

Two days before a private investigator looking into a voter fraud conspiracy theory smashed into an air conditioning repairman’s truck and pulled a gun on him, far-right activist Steven Hotze called then-U.S. Attorney Ryan Patrick and told him about the plans to have “a wreck,” court documents show.

Hotze, who funded the investigation and now faces felony charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and unlawful restraint, asked Patrick whether he could send federal marshals to help his private investigator. The investigator, former Houston Police Department captain Mark Aguirre, faces the same charges.

Hotze’s attorneys long have claimed Hotze was unaware of the encounter between Aguirre and the repairman until he saw it on the news after the episode. The transcript suggests otherwise.

“We’ve surveilled them for the last two nights and still my, my, Mark Aguirre, he said he wants to capture them when they bring (the ballots) out and leave tonight to deliver them but he needs a federal marshal with him,” Hotze says in the Oct. 17 call, according to a transcript submitted in Hotze’s criminal case by the Harris County district attorney’s office.

Hotze added later in the call: “In fact, (Aguirre) told me last night, hell, I’m gonna have, the guy’s gonna have a wreck tomorrow. I’m going to run into him and I’m gonna make a citizen’s arrest.”

Two days later, Aguirre allegedly rammed his SUV into the back of the air conditioning repairman’s truck and pulled a gun on the man around 5:30 a.m.. He expected to find thousands of ballots in the man’s truck, but there only were repair tools.

In addition to the criminal case, the repairman has sued Hotze in a civil case.

The transcript says Patrick recorded the call. It is unclear what Patrick did with the information or the recording after talking with Hotze.

[…]

According to the transcript, Patrick rejected Hotze’s request, telling him that as U.S. attorney he did not have marshals that report to him or investigative staff. Even if he did, Patrick said, he would need probable cause and approval from the Department of Justice to assist.

“I can’t just send marshals. That’s not, the marshals don’t work for me,” Patrick said. “I don’t have any, there are no federal agents that work for me. I don’t have officers, I don’t have investigators, like a DA’s office. I don’t have any peace officers or federal agents that work for me.”

Both Hotze and Aguirre have denied wrongdoing.

A former Harris County prosecutor called the recording “extremely significant,” because the district attorney’s office will have to use the “law of parties” principle — which can hold people criminally responsible for the actions of someone else — in their case against Hotze.

“Having a conversation ahead of time, whether recorded or with a reputable individual such as Ryan Patrick, that there was a plan to have an accident — that certainly shows he was involved in this conspiracy,” said Nathan Hennigan, a former prosecutor who worked at the district attorney’s office from 2008 to 2017.

“It’s basically what you would need to prosecute this case,” he said.

[…]

Previous court documents said Aguirre had called the attorney general’s office days before the alleged assault and asked it to conduct a traffic stop of the repairman.

In the new transcript, Hotze tells Patrick the attorney general’s office “is just AWOL” and he cannot try enlisting the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, “obviously because they’re Democrats.” Hotze suggests he may try to find a constable who would assist Aguirre.

Hotze also said Aguirre planned to have an official from Immigration and Customs Enforcement there, in hopes of threatening to deport the man to coerce a confession. Hotze said the people “running the ring are all illegals.”

About six minutes into the call, Patrick tells Hotze he has received the information but he has to go. Patrick, the son of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, then was serving as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas.

There’s a ton of backstory here, but this is a good place to start. I have some sympathy for Ryan Patrick, who I can picture with a pained expression on his face as he’s trying to disconnect from this raving lunatic on his phone. In retrospect, maybe he could have tried to warn someone about what Hotze was up to, but it’s not clear to me who he could have tipped off, and what could have been done about it by whoever he informed. The fact that he declined to get involved in the seditious insanity is sufficient, with a lot of bonus points for recording the call. He did not disgrace himself or his office, and honestly that’s all I really want from most Republicans these days.

Anyway, Hotze’s attorney Jared Woodfill, who has as strained a relationship with truth and reality as Hotze does, claims in the story that this recording will actually bolster Hotze’s defense and prove that he’s innocent, and yeah, no. Given how this has gone so far, and the depraved character of the main players, it won’t shock me if more evidence along these lines surfaces. I’m sure the attorneys for David Lopez, the AC repairman that Hotze’s goons attacked who is suing Hotze for hopefully every last penny he has, are busy taking notes right about now. In the meantime and in conclusion, lock him up. The streets are not safe as long as Steven Hotze is free to walk them.

What is going on at CrimeStoppers?

Whatever it is, I’m not sure how to stop it.

“Anyone with information is urged to call Crime Stoppers at 713-222-TIPS.” That message, along with the promise of a reward, has appeared for decades at the end of news reports about shootings, stabbings or criminal mayhem in the nation’s fourth-largest city.

But recently, Crime Stoppers of Houston has been blasting out a different, more political message: Activist judges are letting “dangerous criminals” out of jail to threaten the safety of law-abiding residents. On television, Twitter and videos, the traditionally nonpartisan nonprofit organization has been condemning more than a dozen elected judges — all Democrats, four of whom lost primaries last month — while praising the crime policies of Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican.

“What we’re seeing is an assault against the community” by the judges, Rania Mankarious, the organization’s chief executive, said this year on a national Fox News broadcast.

The group’s aggressive posture on the issue followed shifts in Houston’s approach to prosecuting low-level crimes and setting bail. The changes helped prompt a political backlash fed in part by the Crime Stoppers campaign and a rising murder rate.

But an investigation by The New York Times and The Marshall Project found that the stance embraced by Crime Stoppers also intersects with the organization’s financial interests.

  • Financial documents and government records, along with dozens of interviews, show that the organization, with an annual budget of about $2.4 million, has in recent years become reliant on state grants backed by Mr. Abbott. Those grants included $4 million in 2017 that was never publicized by Mr. Abbott or Crime Stoppers, which had previously trumpeted smaller donations from other government entities. In the past five years, the Texas government under Mr. Abbott has given the group more than $6 million, state records show.

  • The organization received $500,000 last year from the local district attorney — money allocated from a pool of funds seized in asset forfeiture. The district attorney, a conservative Democrat, used to run Crime Stoppers, is generally in sync with the group on bail issues and has not been publicly criticized by it.

  • Many of the Democratic judges Crime Stoppers is slamming have cut into the organization’s revenue by curbing a common practice requiring many people sentenced to probation to pay a $50 fee that goes to Crime Stoppers. The nonprofit’s revenue from those fees has fallen by half since Democrats swept the county’s judicial races in 2018.

  • The drop in court revenue and the growing reliance on funding from elected officials came as Crime Stoppers went into debt and ran growing annual deficits.

The evolution of Crime Stoppers of Houston underscores the potential conflicts of interest that can arise when charities become dependent on financial support from politicians.

And it illustrates how nonprofit organizations technically barred from participating in political campaigns can nonetheless exert outsize influence, especially when they wade into a potent issue like violent crime.

And there’s this.

Exchanging money for anonymous tips is still Crime Stoppers’ calling card. Yet as the organization approaches its 50th birthday, for many chapters the heavily promoted rewards have become almost a financial afterthought, with far heftier sums being spent on education, celebrating police, purchasing equipment or supporting their own administrative scaffolding.

Midland Crime Stoppers in 2020 reported $145,000 in expenses, including a director’s salary and $60,000 for advertising, office, banquet and travel costs, for $6,000 in paid rewards. Charity Navigator, a national evaluator of nonprofits, recently gave the North Texas Crime Commission, which includes the Dallas-area Crime Stoppers, a “zero” score for spending more on administrative costs than programs.

Sustained by a steady flow of court fees from criminal defendants ordered to pay local Crime Stoppers as punishment, some chapters have quietly amassed bulging bank accounts. Williamson County Crime Stoppers has long collected more than it paid for tips, said Chairman Sam Jordan. Documents show it distributed about $17,000 in rewards over the past two years while receiving nearly $100,000 in court fees. Its bank account is approaching $700,000, records show.

By the end of 2020 the Dallas chapter, which has seen its reward payments plummet in recent years, had a nest-egg of cash and investments approaching $5 million, records show.

[…]

Crime Stoppers nonetheless continues to boast eye-catching accomplishments. The live tally on the national website stands at more than 800,000 crimes solved and $4 billion-worth of property and drugs recovered thanks to tips.

[Loyola University Chicago Professor Arthur] Lurigio acknowledged it was nearly impossible to fact-check such numbers. It is difficult to know which crimes would have been solved without a paid tip. Shrouded by anonymity – legally protected in Texas – Crime Stoppers stats derive exclusively from police, who have an incentive to report high arrest rates.

Several organization officials also acknowledged that while solving violent crimes garner attention and advance public safety, offenses commonly solved by Crime Stopper tipsters are much more mundane. Mike Pappas, who heads up the North Texas program, said most tips referenced probation violations or drug possession. Midland’s school program pays $20 rewards for information on kids smoking vape pens, Valenzuela said.

“It doesn’t do anything to add to public safety,” said Scott Henson, a long-time Texas criminal justice reform advocate. “It’s a PR ploy that promotes a culture of law enforcement fetishism.”

Lurigio concluded that even a highly successful chapter well-supported by the community was unlikely to have a meaningful impact on local crime rates. “While numerous crimes are solved through Crime Stoppers,” he wrote, “these successes amount to only a small fraction of the total volume of serious crimes committed in a given community each year.”

And this.

Under the leadership of Mankarious, the organization shifted even more aggressively toward crime prevention, rather than focusing exclusively on helping police solve crimes. While the organization says it has helped solve 35,767 cases since 1980, the organization’s annual reports show a sizeable drop in cases in recent years. In 2020 Crime Stoppers issued payments to 248 tipsters totaling $310,800. That same year, the organization paid Mankarious — who supervises just over a dozen employees — about $280,000.

That’s about $8,000 less than that of Houston Police Chief Troy Finner’s (who supervises more than 5,000 officers) salary.

That’s also a lot of cash not being spent on those rewards. There’s a lot more to all of these stories, so go read them in full. I don’t know who decided that this was the week to write about Crime Stoppers, but I approve. I also don’t know what can be done about this bloated and now-partisan organization, but showing it for what it is seems like a decent start. I’m open to suggestion beyond that.

Hotze gets bail

I don’t know about you, but I’d feel much safer if this guy had been locked up.

Far-right activist Steven Hotze on Thursday made his first court appearance since being indicted on criminal charges after funding a private investigation into voter fraud that ended with the investigator pointing a gun at an innocent air conditioning repairman.

State District Judge Maritza Antu set a combined bail at $18,500 on the two charges of aggravated assault and unlawful restraint, Hotze’s attorney Jared Woodfill said after the court hearing.

Hotze, 71, declined to comment after the hearing. Woodfill said Hotze could not comment due to pending litigation.

Woodfill also said the bail was lower than what prosecutors with the Harris County District Attorney’s office sought, which he called a “victory” for his client.

Prosecutors sought bail of $30,000 on the assault charge and $5,000 on the restraint charge, the agency said. Woodfill sought $10,000 on the assault charge on $3,000 on the restraint charge.

See here for the background. By a weird coincidence, Hotze drew the one Republican judge on the bench in Harris County – Judge Antu was appointed by Greg Abbott to the newly-created 482nd Criminal District Court. One less thing for him to whine about being SO UNFAIR to him, I guess. Disgraced former HPD cop and Hotze hired goon Mark Aguirre was levied the bail amounts that prosecutors had requested for Hotze. I’m sure I will blog obsessively about this, so thank you in advance for your indulgence.

Hotze indicted for his bogus “voter fraud investigation”

Lock him up.

Steven Hotze, the far-right agitator who funded a private investigation into voter fraud that ended with a private investigator pointing a gun at an innocent air conditioning repairman, has been indicted for his role in the episode.

A Harris County grand jury has indicted Hotze for charges of unlawful restraint and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, according to his attorney, Gary Polland.

The former police officer whom Hotze hired, Mark Aguirre, was indicted on a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon late last year. Terry Yates, who represents Aguirre, said he has been re-indicted on the same charges as Hotze.

[…]

Through a group called Liberty Center for God and Country, Hotze funded a private investigation into a conspiracy theory that Democrats had collected hundreds of thousands of fraudulent ballots, prosecutors have alleged. The group paid Aguirre, a disgraced former Houston police captain, $266,400 to investigate the claims.

Before 6 a.m. on Oct. 19, 2020, Aguirre allegedly slammed his black SUV into the back of the repairman’s truck and drew a pistol. He ordered the repairman to the ground and put a knee on his back, prosecutors have said.

Aguirre thought the repairman had hundreds of thousands of ballots in his truck. Instead, there were only air conditioning parts and tools, prosecutors said. Aguirre later told police he had followed the repairman for four days.

The vast majority of the money from Hotze’s group, $211,400, arrived to Aguirre one day after the alleged assault, previous grand jury subpoenas showed.

Even after Aguirre’s indictment, the organization has sought donations for more investigations. Hotze hosted a “Freedom Gala” fundraiser April 2 in Houston with Attorney General Ken Paxton and Mike Lindell, the MyPillow executive who has pushed former President Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen.

Invites for the event said any money raised would be used to investigate voter fraud in Harris County and Texas, recruit poll watchers, and pay for the legal defense “and offensive efforts” to stop voter fraud.

See here, here, and here for some background. The AC repairman that Hotze’s goons attacked has filed a lawsuit against Hotze that I hope will end up wiping him out. But even that isn’t enough, and I’m so ready to see Hotze as a criminal defendant. And hopefully, one day, as a convicted felon. The Trib has more.

City Council approves security camera ordinance for bars and convenience stores

I have mixed feelings about this.

Houston bars, nightclubs and convenience stores must install security cameras outside of their buildings within 90 days in a citywide surveillance effort Mayor Sylvester Turner hopes will diminish violent crime in high-risk areas.

City Council approved the measure in a 15-1 vote Wednesday after a lengthy discussion on the merits of cameras as a deterrent to robberies, shootings and other criminal activity officials say is concentrated at the nighttime businesses. The ordinance also applies to game rooms and sexually oriented businesses.

The camera requirement is a minor component of the mayor’s One Safe Houston agenda, which will funnel more than $44 million in federal relief funds to mental health and crisis intervention services over the next three years. It passed over objections from the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposed the plan to fine businesses for failing to turn footage over to the Houston Police Department upon request within 72 hours.

The ordinance, which also requires convenience stores to install enhanced lighting at their entrances, overcame skepticism from council members who worried it would penalize business owners and overburden police. Businesses could face a $500 citation if they fail to provide police with surveillance footage within three days of a crime.

[…]

Police Chief Troy Finner thanked the council for passing the camera requirement Wednesday, calling it “a force multiplier” that will help his department solve more crimes.

Finner said his department is crafting protocols to guide its collection of businesses’ video footage following a crime. Police will be required to obtain a warrant in the event a business does not volunteer footage, officials said.

We’ve been talking about security cameras as a crime-fighting tool in Houston for at least 15 years. As of the year 2014, HPD had nearly 1,000 camera feeds available to it, mostly around downtown, stadiums and event spaces like the George R. Brown Convention Center and the Theater District. It’s no unreasonable to think that these have had some effect on crime and crime-solving. Bars, nightclubs, and convenience stores are higher-crime areas in general, so they’re a logical place to want to have security cameras. I’m more or less okay with the concept, though I share the ACLU’s concerns about privacy and transparency; given the track record with police body camera video, who wouldn’t be concerned?

My hesitation here is more prosaic. As noted, we’ve had a ton of these cameras around town for a decade or more. We therefore have a huge amount of data relating to their use and their efficacy. Can HPD provide some evidence to back up the claims that more cameras and/or strategically-placed cameras do in fact have a salutary effect on crime? Like I said, I’m inclined to believe it, but it sure would be nice to have some empirical backing of that belief. I don’t think that’s a lot to ask. So please, show us the evidence, HPD. And a year or so after these new cameras have been installed, show us the evidence for their effect, too.

More on Lizelle Herrera

Listen to the advocates. They’re seeing this clearly.

A 26-year-old woman was arrested and jailed in South Texas last week over a self-induced abortion just months after the state banned most abortions and weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court could roll back 50 years of federal abortion protections.

The timing of the now-dropped murder charge amid such seismic policy shifts could be pure coincidence. But on Monday, legal scholars and abortion rights advocates said the implications of Lizelle Herrera’s ordeal could not be more timely.

“Ms. Herrera’s case is a terrific example of exactly what we expect to happen,” said Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, a group that has defended women in abortion-related criminal cases. “You can’t continue to say over and over again that abortion is murder and not expect that police and prosecutors are going to not treat it as murder.”

[…]

But abortion researchers warn that as Texas and other states further restrict abortion access, more and more pregnant women will be driven to seek out the procedure themselves, leading to potential criminal investigations. In the past, abortion-related criminal cases have disproportionately affected women of color and poor women.

“When you don’t have anybody else to punish, do you just punish no one and let the abortion happen? Or do you punish the woman?” asked Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University who has studied the anti-abortion movement. “I don’t know what the state’s going to do with that, but that’s going to be the scenario sometimes. And I think this is sort of a harbinger of that debate to come.”

See here for the background. The anti-abortion zealots that forced SB8 on us insist that they don’t want women who seek abortions to be punished, but there’s no reason to trust them. There are Republican candidates who would very much like to punish women for getting an abortion. There’s no reason to believe that won’t become the mainstream Republican position, because the Republican mainstream has gotten more and more extreme over time. Allowing rape and incest exceptions for abortion used to be Republican mainstream, and now it’s not. This goes in one direction, and we can see that from here. Listen to what the advocates are saying. They’ve been right all along.

The “self-induced abortion” saga

This was quite the journey.

Starr County District Attorney Gocha Allen Ramirez said Sunday he has filed a motion to dismiss a murder charge against a woman for performing a “self-induced abortion.”

Ramirez said the Starr County Sheriff’s Department “did their duty in investigating the incident brought to their attention by the reporting hospital” but this was not a criminal matter under Texas law.

The Starr County Sheriff’s Office arrested 26-year-old Lizelle Herrera on Thursday and held her in custody on $500,000 bond. By Saturday night, Herrera was released from custody after an abortion rights advocacy fund posted bail on her behalf.

The specifics of the case and the strength of the case against Hererra were murky from the start.

Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, said that based on the information available, the murder charge didn’t make sense.

“The Texas murder statute does apply to the killing of an unborn fetus,” he said, “but it specifically exempts cases where the person who terminated the fetus is the pregnant woman.”

Vladeck said Herrera’s situation showed what will happen as legal protections around abortion crumble. “I think what this case really is, is an ominous portent of what things are going to look like on the ground in states that have aggressive abortion restrictions,” he added.

Jessica Brand, a former prosecutor and founder of the WREN Collective, a criminal justice nonprofit organization, agreed. “We’ve had a lot of wake up calls in Texas for how far people are willing to go to prosecute women to strip women of their rights,” she said.

Melissa Arjona, who co-founded South Texans for Reproductive Justice, said the arrest is a consequence of SB 8, which criminalized abortion as early as six weeks and deputized private citizens to sue anyone who provides an abortion or “aids and abets” a procedure.

“I mean, they criminalized pregnancy, basically, and abortion access,” she said. “And so we knew something like this was bound to happen eventually.”

I saw this story hit on Friday night but didn’t have time to delve into it. By the time I did get to it, the charges had been dismissed. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first this AP story from Saturday does some legal analysis of what was then an arrest with not a whole lot else known.

It’s unclear whether Lizelle Herrera is accused of having an abortion or whether she helped someone else get an abortion.

Herrera was arrested Thursday and remained jailed Saturday on a $500,000 bond in the Starr County jail in Rio Grande City, on the U.S.-Mexico border, sheriff’s Maj. Carlos Delgado said in a statement.

“Herrera was arrested and served with an indictment on the charge of Murder after Herrera did then and there intentionally and knowingly cause the death of an individual by self-induced abortion,” Delgado said.

Delgado did not say under what law Herrera has been charged. He said no other information will be released until at least Monday because the case remains under investigation.

Texas law exempts her from a criminal homicide charge for aborting her own pregnancy, University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck told The Associated Press.

“(Homicide) doesn’t apply to the murder of an unborn child if the conduct charged is ‘conduct committed by the mother of the unborn child,’” Vladeck said.

A 2021 state law that bans abortions in Texas for women who are as early as six weeks pregnant has sharply curtailed the number of abortions in the state. The law leaves enforcement to private citizens who can sue doctors or anyone who helps a woman get an abortion.

The woman receiving the abortion is exempted from the law.

However, some states still have laws that criminalize self-induced abortions “and there have been a handful of prosecutions here and there over the years,” Vladeck said.

“It is murder in Texas to take steps that terminate a fetus, but when a medical provider does it, it can’t be prosecuted” due to U.S. Supreme Court rulings upholding the constitutionality of abortion, Vladeck said.

Lynn Paltrow, the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women also noted the state law exemption.

“What’s a little mysterious in this case is, what crime has this woman been charged with?” Paltrow said. “There is no statute in Texas that, even on its face, authorizes the arrest of a woman for a self-managed abortion.”

Another Texas law prohibits doctors and clinics from prescribing abortion-inducing medications after the seventh week of pregnancy and prohibits delivery of the pills by mail.

Medication abortions are not considered self-induced under federal Food and Drug Administration regulations, Vladeck said.

“You can only receive the medication under medical supervision,” according to Vladeck. “I realize this sounds weird because you are taking the pill yourself, but it is under a providers’ at least theoretical care.”

At this point, we still don’t know a lot about what happened. One hopes we will learn more starting today, and one hopes that Lizelle Herrera will collect a ton of restitution against Starr County if the facts warrant it. I’ll turn this over to Twitter to fill in the rest for now, starting with Prof. Vladeck and a reminder that stupidity is often the simplest explanation for this kind of malfeasance. Which, to be fair, doesn’t make it any less scary or damaging.

Like I said, I hope we learn a lot more soon, because this stinks and it’s scary. MSN and the Trib have more.

No charges against Deshaun Watson

Good for him, I guess.

A Harris County grand jury on Friday declined to indict Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, choosing not to criminally charge him in nine alleged instances of sexual assault or harassment during various private massage appointments, according to Johna Stallings of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

The decision came down the same day Watson was deposed in connection with two of the 22 civil lawsuits against him, which are separate legal matters. Watson declined to answer questions under oath, invoking his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself during that proceeding, attorney Rusty Hardin said.

Neither of those cases in the deposition involved women who filed criminal cases against the quarterback, however. Tony Buzbee, who is representing the women who filed suit, said Friday he asked Watson several hundred questions over about three hours of depositions.

Watson, 26, has denied any wrongdoing.

After the grand jury’s decision was announced, Hardin said he is ready to move forward.

“We are delighted that the grand jury has looked at the matter thoroughly and reached the same conclusion we did,” Hardin said in a statement. “Deshaun Watson did not commit any crimes and is not guilty of any offenses.”

See here for the previous entry. I don’t know what I expected from this, but getting no-billed was certainly on my list of possible outcomes. As for the depositions:

While a Harris County grand jury eight blocks away met to decide whether to criminally indict Deshaun Watson, the Texans quarterback spent Friday morning at his attorney’s downtown office building where he declined to answer questions while under oath for the first time in connection to 22 civil lawsuits accusing him of sexual assault and harassment during various massage appointments.

Tony Buzbee, who represents the women who filed suit, said he asked Watson several hundred questions over about three hours of depostions. In each, Watson asserted his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.

Buzbee said there was no connection between Friday’s two legal proceedings. A judge allotted Buzbee 48 total hours to depose Watson, and, on Friday, Buzbee said he asked Watson about facts and circumstances in reference to two women who did not file criminal complaints and believes his clients are “entitled” to hear Watson’s version of events.

“There should be no incrimination involved at all,” Buzbee said. “If you didn’t do anything wrong, if you didn’t do anything illegal, answer the question. It would be one thing if we were asking questions about the women that have filed criminal complaints. We’re not doing that.”

Days before the deposition, Buzbee said he received written testimony from Watson that he had no communication with either woman. Buzbee also requested Watson to provide any phone number that he may have used to communicate with the women. Watson provided seven or eight phone numbers, Buzbee said. Buzbee claimed to have a combined 50 pages of communication between Watson and the women, and he said none of the phone numbers Watson provided had been used in those communications.

Hardin said Watson is “more than willing to talk” in the civil depositions but was following his advice not to incriminate himself while the criminal case was ongoing. When asked how the answers from a deposition with women who were not involved in the criminal investigation would be used against Watson, Hardin said “I have no idea.”

“But you would never take that chance,” Hardin said. “That’s the point. The issue is, is the lawyer going to allow his client to give a civil deposition on the same subject matter that is currently being considered by a grand jury and you won’t find a lawyer who will.”

Hardin said Wastson will waive his silence and answer questions in the civil case after the criminal investigation is resolved, and he said Buzbee has wanted Watson to plead the fifth all along because it gives him an advantage in the civil cases.

Again, I guess I’m not surprised. I’m certainly not in any position to question either Hardin or Buzbee’s legal strategy. The one thing everyone seems to agree on at this time is that this clears the path for the Texans to trade him, as other teams had been waiting to see what happened with the criminal charges. The civil cases, which will continue on in court, didn’t scare them. Make of that what you will. Sean Pendergast has more.

More on Tina Linn and Harold Clouse

Very moving stuff.

Donna Casasanta picked through the brush in an overgrown patch of woods in northeast Harris County, looking.

The 80-year-old mother had spent 40 years wondering. She had traveled 980 miles, driven with her grown children for three days from her home in Florida, to be here.

Casasanta is not as sturdy as she once was. Navigating through the brush and brambles wouldn’t have been difficult 40 years ago, but now she walks with a cane.

But she needed to reach the spot where police finally found her son’s body, a small piece of land next to Wallisville Road in northeast Harris County. The spot was sprinkled with palmettos, fallen trees, and a bed of leaves that crunched and rustled at every step.

She needed to see it.

Forty-two years ago, her son, Harold “Dean” Clouse and his young wife, Tina Gail Linn, moved to Texas from New Smyrna, Fla.

He’d been promised a job building houses, a job that would help him provide for Tina and their infant daughter, Hollie Marie.

They exchanged letters all throughout 1980, but that October, Dean stopped writing.

As the months passed, Casasanta became more and more worried. What had happened to her son?

As we now know, her son and his wife had been murdered. Their bodies were found in 1981, but weren’t identified until last year, thanks to DNA, geneaolgy, and a couple of amateur sleuths. It’s a fascinating story, and you should go back and read the first one if you haven’t already. But there was another mystery to go along with what happened to Tina and Harold. What happened to their baby daughter Holly?

Weeks after those IDs, more questions have emerged: Who will investigate the 1981 murder of Dean and Tina Clouse? Did the Jesus Freaks have something to do with it? And what became of Holly? Was her tiny body carried away by predators or overlooked?

With help from relatives, Peacock, who no longer works with Identigene, has already begun exploring another possibility: Was Holly kidnapped by her parents’ killers? If so, she’d be a woman of about 42 with no memory of them at all.

The Clouse homicide case is considered active in Harris County, according to Deputy Thomas Gilliland, a Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman. But recently, that department, which has jurisdiction over a county of 4 million—a population larger than most states—essentially defunded their cold case unit. The two detectives who once oversaw unsolved murder cases like this one have been reassigned, leaving the unit with only one part-time investigator. Gilliland told the Observer via email that the department has “no active suspects or any information on the missing daughter. This case may be transferred to the Texas Attorney General’s Missing Person & Cold Case Unit so that they can utilize more manpower/resources than we can.”

Unfortunately, the cold case task force formed last year by the Texas Attorney General’s office has only just begun to take its first cases. The group’s blue-ribbon advisory board has met, but its progress has been frustratingly slow, members say. Potential leads in the 1981 murder of Tina and Dean Clouse—and the disappearance of their baby Holly—are scarce. It’s unclear if any of the physical evidence from the murder scene is still around.

And it’s not the only high-profile cold murder case in Texas that seems to need urgent attention. Most genetic genealogy groups, like Identigene, rely on small grants or even crowdfunding to work cold cases. But even with limited funding, relatives of several other Texas homicide victims have already been identified through genetic genealogy.

In April 2019, genetic genealogists had identified two out of four women murdered and dumped at different times in a lonely patch of woods in League City, Texas. But the serial murder case called “the Killing Fields” remains unsolved more than 30 years later.

Then, in August 2019, other genealogists working with the non-profit DNA Doe Project helped identify Debra Jackson, a teen found on Halloween 1979 off I-35 north of Austin. Jackson’s murder was initially blamed on Henry Lee Lucas, Texas’ notorious lying “Confession Killer.” But Lucas’ death sentence was commuted after his lies were exposed, and Jackson’s murder also remains unsolved.

The state’s huge backlog of unidentified murder victims should not exist at all, argues Kristen Mittelman, whose husband and business partner David is a member of the AG Cold Case and Missing Persons Unit Advisory Committee. She and David Mittelman, who together run a genetics lab in Houston called Othram, both told the Observer that the state should move more quickly. “We’re super excited with the task force. But unfortunately, we haven’t worked any cases,” she said. “What’s going to change the world is creating a way to solve these cases at scale—and to be able to clear 1,000 of cases at a time and be able to clear these backlogs.”

More money is the obvious answer to that. I can see a bill to make it happen getting through the Legislature – it’s the kind of thing that would have little to no opposition, and would be an easy cause to champion – but someone has to do it. It might take more than one try, as these things often do. But it can be done, if someone makes the effort.

Tina Linn and Harold Clouse

This is a fascinating story about two people who were murdered in 1980, discovered in 1981, and finally identified in 2021 thanks to the broader availability of public DNA databases.

Debbie Brooks was hard at work one day back in October when her husband told her two genealogists were trying to reach her.

It was urgent, he told her. Brooks, a senior planner at a semi-conductor plant in central Florida, was thinking it had to be a scam when she responded to the call.

The genealogists had a question:

Did she have a relative who’d disappeared a long time ago?

Of course, Brooks said. Her brother, Harold Dean Clouse, had gone missing more than 40 years ago.

Hundreds of miles away, Misty Gillis had news.

“We believe we found him,” she said. “He was murdered. His body was found in 1981.”

They’d also found the body of a young woman, who they were still trying to identify.

[…]

Authorities in Harris County exhumed the bodies in July 2011 to extract DNA from them — part of a broader effort to close cases that were still open but had gone cold decades before. Investigators were hoping to determine if the two were related. But that still didn’t bring any breaks in the case.

The case remained stagnant until late 2021, when employees at Identifinders International, a California-based organization that performs genetic genealogy for law enforcement, contacted the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences and asked to test the remains.

In this case, the remains were in good condition and investigators had plenty of material to work with, said Misty Gillis, one of the Identifinders investigators who worked the case. They uploaded the information to Gedmatch.com, a genealogy site that allows users to share their genetic information with law enforcement agencies across the country. (Other sites, such as 23andme or ancestry.com, do not share their information with police.)

Soon, they were able to connect Clouse’s DNA to that of close cousins living in Kentucky.

It had taken her 10 days to track down the identity of a man who’d been nameless for 40 years. She began searching for contact information for Clouse’s cousins and other relatives, trying to find out if her hunch was right.

The break in the case was the latest in an increasing number of cold-cases brought to resolution with the help of new genealogical testing. In recent years, millions of people have uploaded their DNA into genealogy testing sites such as Gedmatch.com or familytreeDNA.com. The information on the sites have helped people connect with long-lost relatives and learn about their origins.

Go read the rest, it’s quite a story. It’s also not a finished story, because the couple had a baby, who has never been found and may very well be a 42-year-old woman out there somewhere who has no idea who she really is and who her parents really were. Maybe someday the DNA will lead to her as well.

We don’t really need more prosecutors on the bench

Ugh.

Kim Ogg

On a winter afternoon nine months into the pandemic, Harris County district attorney Kim Ogg held a Zoom meeting with felony judges and prosecutors to discuss the backlog of cases caused by COVID-19 shutdowns at the downtown Houston courthouse. But the backlog wasn’t the only issue to come up that day. For years, the Democratic DA had been publicly criticizing local judges who set what she deemed insufficiently high bonds for defendants accused of violent crimes. Now her office would deliver a direct warning. First assistant district attorney David Mitcham, Ogg’s top lieutenant, informed the judges that there would be a “reckoning” if they didn’t start setting higher bonds.

“My reaction was like, ‘Wow, that was bold,’ ” said Joe Vinas, the president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, who was on the call representing the criminal defense bar. “One of the judges asked if Mitcham was threatening him.”

Many in Houston’s legal community have thought back to that moment, now that fourteen Harris County prosecutors and one DA investigator have filed to run for criminal court judgeships this year—eight in Democratic primaries, seven in Republican primaries. It’s not unusual for prosecutors to run for judgeships, but the high number in this election cycle has raised eyebrows. In 2020 not a single Harris County prosecutor ran in any of the nine local criminal court races; in 2018, which featured 31 races, just one prosecutor ran. But with Ogg linking a sharp rise in homicides to the bail practices of reform-minded judges elected in recent years, perhaps it’s no surprise that so many of her prosecutors are challenging the 29 Democratic incumbents up for reelection this year.

[…]

In 2019 Harris County agreed to a sweeping set of reforms, including the elimination of cash bail for the vast majority of misdemeanor defendants. Instead, defendants would be released before trial on so-called “personal bonds,” which require no up-front payment. The landmark settlement, the first of its kind in the U.S., was endorsed by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and every other major county-wide Democratic officeholder—with the exception of Ogg, who warned that letting defendants out on personal bonds would threaten the public by giving judges “unfettered and unreviewable discretion” to delay trials or excuse defendants from ever appearing in court.

In the wake of Harris County’s settlement, Travis County also eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanor offenses. Two recent academic studies have found that this reform has been effective. Fewer defendants are now incarcerated before trial and those released on personal bonds have proven unlikely to be rearrested. But that hasn’t stopped some politicians from arguing that more lenient bail policies are endangering public safety. And Republicans, who have not won a county-wide race in Harris County since 2014, hope to capitalize on the issue to regain some judgeships and other offices in 2022.

The concerns about bail reform have been exacerbated by local and national spikes in violent crime over the past two years. Between 2019 and 2020, murders jumped by nearly 30 percent across the country—the largest year-over-year increase in at least six decades—and homicides rose again in 2021 (although the FBI hasn’t released its final data). That trend has held true for Houston: there were an estimated 469 homicides in the city last year, an increase of 71 percent from 2019. That’s still well below the 701 killings in 1981, the city’s deadliest year, when the population was nearly one million less.

Violent crimes such as assault have also increased since 2019, both nationally and in Harris County, although nonviolent crime is down. While the national homicide rate remains below its historic peak in the early nineties, the rapid increase has received intense attention in local media, with crime stories frequently leading television news. Houston’s Fox 26 features a recurring segment called “Breaking Bond”—created in collaboration with nonprofit group Crime Stoppers of Houston—about felony defendants who are rearrested while out on bail. The series regularly features prominent local Republicans blasting Democratic judges for their bail practices.

Criminologists disagree on the reason for the rising crime, but most agree that pandemic-induced frustrations, the surge in gun sales during the coronavirus outbreak, and a general police pullback in reaction to protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd have something to do with it. There’s little evidence to connect bail reform with the surge in homicides, but one notorious case last September added fuel to the argument. After judge Greg Glass set bonds of $10,000 and $20,000 for two drug charges against thirty-year-old Deon Ledet, the Harris County man went free and allegedly killed one police officer and injured another. Prosecutors had asked Glass to hold Ledet without bond because he had twice been convicted of a felony. In March, Glass (who did not respond to an interview request) faces two primary challengers, one of them a Polk County assistant district attorney; if he prevails, he’ll face one of Ogg’s Republican prosecutors in the fall general election.

There’s a lot in here to annoy me, starting with the conflation of the reforms to misdemeanor bail reform and complaints about the amounts of bail being set by felony court judges. The simple fact of the matter is that if your system allows for any possibility of bail, sooner or later someone, whether out on ten dollars bail or ten million dollars bail, is going to commit a crime. You could have a system that’s right 99.9% of the time, but given the thousands of people that go through the courts each year, that means multiple times each year when that happens. Unless your solution is to lock everyone up from the time they’re arrested until the time their case is completed in whatever fashion, no matter what the charge or their circumstances or anything else, then you need to accept this basic fact of life.

(Such a solution would be blatantly unconstitutional, of course. So is simply charging everyone more for bail, since that makes bail only accessible to the wealthy, and punishes others for being poor. Which is what the misdemeanor bail lawsuit was all about. That does introduce some risk as noted, but we’re trying to balance it against the enormous wrong of locking up people who have not been convicted of any crime. Sometimes these things don’t have simple answers.)

Look, you can read the various judicial Q&A responses I’ve published from incumbents and candidates. I’ll have run over 40 of them by the time all is said and done. I’ve no doubt some of these assistant DAs would be fine judges. But this isn’t a good look, and I’m not at all inclined to view their time in that office as a positive because of it. And speaking as someone who has voted for Kim Ogg in each of the past two primaries, I’ll be looking very carefully at my other options in 2024.

Sid Miller’s political consultant indicted

Well, this is interesting.

Todd Smith, a top political consultant to Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, was indicted Tuesday on felony charges of theft and commercial bribery related to taking money in exchange for state hemp licenses that are doled out through Miller’s office, according to Travis County district attorney José Garza.

Smith was arrested in May, accused of taking $55,000 as part of the scheme, according to an arrest warrant affidavit. Smith and others were accused of soliciting up to $150,000 to get an “exclusive” hemp license from the Texas Department of Agriculture. Smith allegedly said $25,000 would be used for a public poll on hemp. A hemp license from the state costs $100, according to the arrest warrant.

“We are holding accountable powerful actors who abuse the system and break the law,” Garza said. “Our community needs to know that no one is above the law and will face justice.”

Smith could not immediately be reached for comment but his attorneys said in a statement that their client has not broken any laws.

“We are disappointed that the Travis County District Attorney has obtained an indictment against Todd Smith, he was not invited to address the grand jury. He is not guilty of these charges and intends to vigorously defend himself against the allegations made by the Travis County District Attorney’s Office,” attorneys Sam Bassett and Perry Minton said in a statement.

[…]

Miller on Tuesday evening declined immediate comment, saying he was just learning the news of the indictment from the Tribune reporter. He later went on conservative radio host Chad Hasty’s show and said he’s gonna review indictment, but he’s “not ready to throw [Smith] under the bus” and is “not surprised,” suggesting it’s politically motivated. Miller says he still doesn’t believe Smith did anything wrong.

Smith has faced scrutiny before over his conduct and ties to the Department of Agriculture. In 2018, the Austin American-Statesman reported that Smith promised a San Antonio businessperson an appointment with the Department of Agriculture in exchange for a $29,000 loan. And in 2016, Miller gave Smith’s wife a newly created assistant commissioner position, one of the highest-paying roles in the department.

Miller is unlikely to take this seriously, though he did dump Smith shortly afterwards. His Republican opponents have been all over the story, and I suppose it’s always best to be proactive. As for the indictment itself, I think we all know that this sort of thing either gets resolved very quickly, via a plea deal or (more likely) the charges getting tossed, or it drags out for months if not years. To whatever extent this has an effect on Miller’s re-election chances, it will be because of what has already happened. We already know what kind of a person Sid Miller is, but it never hurts to have a reminder. The Chron and Reform Austin have more.

Come watch Ken Paxton light your tax dollars on fire

I mean, Theranos would have delivered a greater return on investment than this.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton has been one of former President Donald Trump’s most reliable allies in spreading the myth of widespread voter fraud, particularly in the 2020 election, and frequently boasts that few states are as vigilant.

His office’s election integrity unit added two lawyers to the team in the last year, bringing it up to six staffers total, and worked more than 20,000 hours between October 2020 and September 2021. Its budget, meanwhile, ratcheted up from $1.9 million to $2.2 million during that time.

Yet records from the office show that the unit closed just three cases this year, down from 17 last year, and opened seven new ones. That includes the newly created unit focused on the 2021 local elections, which has yet to file a single case.

“This is an exorbitant amount of money that has resulted in no benefit for the average Texan,” said Austin Evers, executive director of American Oversight, a left-leaning nonprofit government watchdog that regularly files public information requests and files suits to force compliance with those requests. The organization shared some records it obtained from the Texas Attorney General’s Office with Hearst Newspapers for this report; others were obtained independently by Hearst Newspapers.

Evers added: “Taxpayers are funding a political stunt meant to fuel the false claim of a stolen election and justify voting restrictions.”

[…]

Richard L. Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California at Irvine, said there’s a more likely explanation, noting that Paxton, who is running for re-election, has “every incentive,” politically speaking, to vigorously go after voter fraud, as it’s an issue that energizes his party’s base.

“He’s finding very little of it despite spending a lot of money and using a lot of resources looking for it,” Hasen said. “The reason is not that such fraud is too hard to find. Those that commit voter fraud tend not to be brain surgeons. The reason he’s not finding a lot of it is because voter fraud is rare.”

Multiple academic studies and journalistic reviews have uncovered no evidence of widespread voter fraud, nor did a wide-ranging investigation of election fraud in 2020 conducted by the U.S. Justice Department.

There’s more, and the story does a good job of highlighting how Paxton takes the ridiculously small numbers involved in his crusade and exaggerates them to make them sound slightly less small, so read the rest. Just understand that facts have nothing to do with any of this, and won’t do anything to deter Paxton and his raving band of saboteurs. The argument here is exactly the same as the ones that Republicans have been using for at least the last 20 years for spending on “border security”: If they catch more cases of “vote fraud” it means that what they’re doing is working and so they need to get more money for it. If they catch fewer cases, it means that they’re falling behind and need to get more money to keep up. There are no circumstances under which spending less on this useless and harmful exercise makes sense.

One more thing:

While it’s true that the office has more cases pending this year over last year, 44 up from 38, that’s not because of a surge in new prosecutions. It’s because the vast majority of cases that were pending around this time last year are still making their way through the court system.

Among the cases pending include that of Hervis Rogers, a Black man from Houston who was charged this year with illegally voting while on parole, after he had made national headlines for waiting six hours to vote in the 2020 primary election.

A new ruling from the state’s highest criminal court Wednesday may afford legal relief to Rogers and potentially others, after it found that Paxton’s office does not have the constitutional right to prosecute voter fraud without the consent of local prosecutors.

Yes, given that recent ruling, one has to wonder how much of this activity is even legal at this point. I would suggest that attorneys for every one of the defendants in Paxton’s crosshairs, as well as all of those that have been convicted or pled guilty to something, start filing briefs to have cases and convictions tossed. Let’s expose this for the mockery it is.

New details about the Deshaun Watson criminal investigation

All sorts of bad things from the search warrants.

Houston police have at least nine reports accusing Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions, with search warrant records showing that investigators are eyeing indecent assault — a misdemeanor crime — as a possible criminal charge.

The three search warrants — signed in October by a judge to collect data from Watson’s Instagram and Cash App usage — shed light on the Houston Police Department’s criminal investigation into the athlete, who has not been charged with a crime, amid months of litigation from nearly two dozen lawsuits. The search warrants detail accounts from nine women who say their encounters with Watson devolved from massages to misconduct.

The women reported receiving Cash App payments after the sessions, with some amounts ranging from $100 to $300, according to court records.

In two incidents at The Houstonian Hotel, the football player pressured the women into performing felatio, court records show. One licensed massage therapist said Watson contacted her on Instagram and that they met in June 2020 for a massage without incident. During a second appointment at the Memorial-area hotel, he asked her for oral sex.

The woman “felt as if she had no choice,” the investigator wrote.

[…]

Much of the accusations outlined in the search warrants were already detailed in civil lawsuits against Watson but investigators also revealed aspects of the case not previously made public using interviews that the Forensic Center of Excellence — a Houston group of forensic nurses who specializes in trauma — conducted with the accusers.

The Houston Police Department acknowledged in April their investigation into Watson but have declined to comment since. The civil litigation, meanwhile, is still pending.

Investigations by the FBI into Watson’s alleged behavior and the NFL are also happening. Watson’s lawyer, Rusty Hardin, has denied wrongdoing by the quarterback, saying any sexual encounters with massage therapists were consensual.

On Wednesday, Hardin said he welcomed the police department’s investigation into his client’s records.

I’ve skipped over most of the more graphic stuff. The HPD investigation is still ongoing, the civil litigation is awaiting the first court dates, and Watson is still a non-playing member of the Texans. Not much else to say at this point.

Indictments and guilty pleas in FBI investigation of former HISD officials

Woof.

A former top Houston ISD official and vendor were indicted Thursday in connection with an alleged bribery scheme over the last decade that federal prosecutors estimate cost the district millions of dollars and resulted in plea agreements with at least five other former district officials, including a former president of the district’s Board of Education.

Federal authorities arrested former Chief Operating Officer Brian Busby, 43, and contract vendor Anthony Hutchison, 60, both of Houston, on Thursday, hours before their initial court appearance. Both men pleaded not guilty to all counts and were expected to be released under conditions that include no contact with current and former HISD employees with the exception of Busby’s wife, who prosecutors said has filed for divorce.

Prosecutors accused Busby of helping award HISD construction and grounds maintenance contracts to Hutchison in return for cash bribes and hundreds of thousands of dollars in home remodeling, according to a 26-count indictment unsealed Thursday.

“This investigation and resulting indictments reflect my office’s commitment to rooting out public corruption,” Acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer B. Lowery said in a statement. “We will not stand idly by when there are people in positions of trust who are suspected of such wrongdoing.”

Dick DeGuerin, Busby’s lawyer, denied any wrongdoing by his client.

“For most of his adult life, Brian Busby has been a loyal employee of HISD, rising from the lowest employment to chief operating officer,” DeGuerin said. “He has never taken a penny from any contractors or any illegal money — ever. I am sure that a fair jury will find him innocent.”

[…]

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, who served two terms as HISD trustee between 2012 and 2019, and as board president in 2015 and 2018, was among the former officials charged in connection with the alleged bribery scheme and pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges. She currently serves as a Houston Community College Trustee. It was not clear Thursday whether she would have to resign or be fired. A spokesman for the college did not respond to a request for comment.

She also worked for Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis’ community and government affairs team until Thursday.

“The news today came as a shock to us, and we never had any indication of such inexcusable wrongdoing during her time at Precinct One,” Ellis’ office said in a statement. “Upon learning of this news today, her employment was immediately ended.”

Attempts by the Chronicle to contact Skillern-Jones, as well as the other former officials who entered plea agreements, were unsuccessful Thursday.

Those other former employees were identified by prosecutors as Derrick Sanders, 50, Missouri City, officer of construction services; Alfred Hoskins, 58, Missouri City, general manager of facilities, maintenance and operations; Gerron Hall, 47, Missouri City, area manager for maintenance; and Luis Tovar, 39, Huffman, area manager for maintenance.

Sanders had joined Aldine ISD in September 2020 and voluntarily resigned Oct. 22, school officials there said.

Saying he was “extremely outraged,” HISD Superintendent Millard House II, who began leading the largest public school district in Texas in July, told the Chronicle he had ordered a review of the internal team and systems for contracting and vendors, as well as an external review of the district’s procurement procedures before he was even made aware of the charges. He said he had made changes “to make sure everyone on my staff knows it is a new day inside HISD.

“I am outraged. Outraged that we’re talking about this. Outraged how adults who are supposed to be working for the public trust may have taken money from children,” House said. “In my 26 years as an educator — in Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee — I have never seen such a failure. As a parent, as a teacher, as a taxpayer, I promise you – HISD will do everything in its power to never be vulnerable to this kind of alleged misconduct again.”

He added: “I will not be deterred by 10 years of corruption, waste, and fraud that came before me. My team did not create this problem, but we will solve it. Permanently.”

See here for the background. The Chron’s editorial board ripped into Skillern-Jones for her role in this debacle. I wish Superintendent House all the best in cleaning up whatever remains of this mess. And a note to the other HCC Board members: You should probably try to get Trustee Skillern-Jones to resign from that position.

On a completely tangential note, the story that the FBI raided Brian Busby’s house was in late February of 2021, so about 21 months ago. There’s another FBI probe of interest happening in this state, and it began in November/December of last year, or about 12-13 months ago. Just offering that data point as some perspective on how long it can take for these things to go from beginning to indictment, in case your mind works like mine does.

UPDATE: Rhonda Skillern-Jones has resigned as HCC Trustee. Good. The HCC Board will name a replacement for her, with that person having to run again in 2023.

CCA tells Ken Paxton he’s not the supreme prosecutor

Cry me a river, Kenny.

Best mugshot ever

Texas’ highest court for criminal cases on Wednesday struck down a law that allows the attorney general to unilaterally prosecute election cases.

The state’s Court of Criminal Appeals issued an 8-1 opinion saying a provision of the law violates the separation of powers clause in the Texas Constitution, representing an intrusion by the executive branch into the judicial branch. The attorney general can only get involved in a case when asked to by a district or county attorney, the court said.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican who has been aggressive in trying to root out voter fraud, bashed the opinion from the all-GOP court. He said in a tweet that the ruling “could be devastating for future elections in Texas.”

At stake was a part of the election code that says the attorney general, the state’s top law enforcement officer, “may prosecute a criminal offense prescribed by the election laws of this state.”

The provision was thrown into jeopardy by a long-winding case involving Jefferson County Sheriff Zena Stephens. After the county district attorney declined to prosecute Stephens over campaign-finance allegations stemming from the 2016 election, Paxton’s office stepped in and obtained an indictment from a grand jury in neighboring Chambers County.

In its opinion, the Court of Criminal Appeals overturned a lower-court ruling that said the election code provision “clearly and unambiguously gives the Attorney General power to prosecute criminal laws prescribed by election laws generally whether those laws are inside or outside the Code.”

Rather, the Court of Criminal Appeals said, “the Attorney General can prosecute with the permission of the local prosecutor but cannot initiate prosecution unilaterally.”

I don’t have any posts about this, but from reading the opinion, Sheriff Stephens, who was elected in 2016, was charged with making false claims on her finance report, specifically claiming that some $5,000 contributions were actually under $50. I don’t know what her explanation was, or why the JeffCo DA declined to prosecute. The rest of the opinion is pretty dense and technical, but the summary of what is at stake is quite simple. Here’s the opening paragraph from the opinion:

Zena Collins Stephens appeals both the court of appeals’ denial of a pretrial writ of habeas corpus and its reversal of the district court’s decision to quash Count I of the indictment. She presents the following question: May the Texas Legislature delegate to the Attorney General, a member of the executive department, the prosecution of election-law violations in district and inferior courts? No. Because Texas Election Code section 273.021 delegates to the Attorney General a power more properly assigned to the judicial department, we conclude that the statute is unconstitutional. Therefore, we reverse the decision of the court of appeals and remand the case to the trial court to dismiss the indictment.

And here’s the section of the law in question, which is now null and void. Interestingly, that law passed originally in 1985, and was last modified in 1997. Either no AG had ever tried this before, or there are some people that have been prosecuted and maybe convicted under this statute that deserve some relief.

Anyway. I for one will sleep better tonight knowing that Ken Paxton does not have unfettered discretion to bring vote “fraud” charges against anyone he feels like. (I’m also old enough to remember when the main function of the AG’s office was civil enforcement and collecting child support. My aunt worked in that office in the 80s and 90s, and that was what her department did.) I’ll give the last word to these gentlemen:

I’ll take my wins where I can get them.

Aguirre indicted

Gotta admit, I had thought this happened long ago.

A Harris County grand jury on Tuesday indicted former Houston police captain Mark Aguirre on an assault charge after he was accused of running a man off the road and pointing to a gun to his head because he thought he was committing voter fraud in the run-up to the 2020 election.

Aguirre will face a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The trial currently is scheduled to begin in February.

Prosecutors allege Aguirre slammed into the back of an air conditioning repairman’s truck at about 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 19 of last year. He pulled a gun, forced the repairman to the ground and put a knee on his back. He ordered another person to search the truck. A police officer happened upon the scene shortly after.

Aguirre, who was fired by the police department in 2003, would later tell investigators he was conducting a “citizens investigation” into an alleged ballot harvesting scheme he thought was orchestrated by local Democrats. He told police they would find hundreds of thousands of ballots in the repairman’s truck.

They found only air conditioning parts and tools. Aguirre said he had been following the repairman for four days.

Aguirre, a licensed private investigator at the time, was hired to investigate fraud claims and paid about $266,400 by the Liberty Center for God and Country around the time of the incident. That group is led by Steven Hotze, the local conservative activist, and Jared Woodfill, the former Harris County Republican Party chairman.

See here, here, and here for some background. Aguirre was arraigned almost exactly a year ago – I genuinely have no idea why it took so long for there to be a grand jury and an indictment. I mean, sure, COVID likely didn’t help, but he was arraigned in peak COVID times, so I don’t know what the effect would be. With the trial scheduled for February, maybe things will move a little faster now, but if you want to explain to me why this all just happened now, please feel free. In the meantime, at least the lawsuit against Steven Hotze is proceeding apace.

Crystal Mason using SB1 to try to overturn her illegal voting conviction

Hope this works. It would be one small good thing to come out of that otherwise harmful law.

Crystal Mason, the Tarrant County woman whose illegal voting conviction has garnered national attention, is asking for a Texas appeals court to overturn her conviction under a new provision of Texas’ recently adopted election law Senate Bill 1.

Mason, 46, was sentenced to five years in prison for attempting to cast a ballot in 2016′s presidential election. At the time, Mason was on supervised release from a federal tax fraud conviction and was prohibited from voting in Texas.

Her lawyers with the American Civil Liberties Union this week filed a brief with the Texas Court of Criminal of Appeals citing the state’s new election law that took effect earlier this month in asking for her conviction to be overturned.

Tucked within SB 1 that was passed by the Texas Legislature in this year’s second special session is a section erasing criminal penalties for felons who attempt to vote without knowing that they were committing a crime. That portion of the law came about with Mason’s conviction in mind.

“SB 1 is a repudiation of Ms. Mason’s conviction and five-year sentence of incarceration,” the brief states.

[…]

Her attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union declined a request for comment. The Tarrant County District Attorney’s office, which prosecuted and has argued against overturning Mason’s conviction, said in an emailed statement that SB 1 has no bearing on Mason’s case.

“Even under the new law, she is guilty,” office spokeswoman Anna Tinsley Williams said. “She wasn’t convicted simply for casting the provisional ballot; she was convicted for casting a provisional ballot when she knew she was ineligible to vote. Knowledge of ineligibility is the key. This is not a case of mistaken voting.”

See here and here for some background. House Democrats had negotiated an amendment in the original bill during the regular session that would have retroactively covered Mason’s case, but it was taken out in the conference committee version by Senators on the committee, and that breaking of the faith was one of the catalysts for the initial quorum break during the regular session, which prevented the bill from getting a final vote. In the second special session, after House Dems had returned from Washington, a similar amendment was added to the House version of the bill, but it again ran into resistance in the Senate, with bill author Bryan Hughes the main obstacle. (How bad does Hughes look when even Briscoe fricking Cain was willing to add this provision to the bill?) If people can read the final version of the bill to include or not include Crystal Mason in its scope, then it’s at best a tossup what the CCA will do, and given their usual pro-prosecution bias, I can’t say I’m optimistic. But it’s sure worth the try.

A long story about the bail industry

It’s complicated.

Judges set bail, but it’s the bondsmen who decide how much a defendant pays to get out of jail.

The long-held 10 percent standard — with defendants or their loved ones paying a tenth of the bail amount to a private company — is not gospel anymore in Harris County and likely never was. People have been securing their release from jail on lower fees for years, according to county data and bail agents.

Bondsmen recently have been accepting lower-percentage fees on an increasing number of violent felonies. The discount makes it clear that judges are not always determining what people have to pay to get out of jail, and the implications for defendants, victims and the system are far-reaching.

“That means the cash bond system itself is serving a danger to the community,” state District Judge Chris Morton said. “Any time there’s a for-profit aspect to criminal justice, that creates the opportunity for oppression and inconsistencies in justice.”

Bail is the money a defendant must pay in order to get out of jail. A bond is posted on a defendant’s behalf, usually by a bail bond company, to secure his or her release. Such a surety bond is like a security deposit.

Bail is not intended as a punishment. It is rather a way of securing a defendant’s agreement to abide by certain conditions and return to court. The standard for bail in most jurisdictions — and other states — is that a bail agent requires 10 percent of the bail amount plus collateral to secure a defendant’s freedom. In Harris County, bail companies rarely pay in full and give the court an equivalent of a provisional IOU with the backing of insurance agencies, said County Court at Law No. 8 Judge Franklin Bynum.

If a defendant skips court, prosecutors can move to revoke or forfeit the defendant’s bond. Revocations trigger an arrest warrant and their return to court upon their capture. Forfeitures are a more tedious process that results in the court keeping the bail amount — but only after a judge agrees and prosecutors successfully sue to seize the money.

In Texas, the 10 percent figure is referenced in Texas Insurance Code, which states that payments above that amount could be subject to regulations. No minimum is required.

[…]

Profits diminished for bail companies after Harris County began adopting bail reform in 2017, requiring cash-free releases for most poor misdemeanor defendants. Bail licenses in Harris County have dropped by nearly two dozen since 2017, with about 80 permitted as of September to operate, records show.

One estimate from monitors tracking the implementation of bail reform indicated that bail bond earnings in Harris County went from around $3.5 million in 2015 to slightly over $500,000 in 2019.

The dwindling bail landscape caused agents to adapt or close up shop. Many padded their business with felony cases, some carrying higher bonds and more risk of defendants skipping court. Some bail agents are relying more on payment plans and are not asking for collateral — a house, car or other possession.

The Houston Chronicle reviewed hundreds of court records and found that bail bondsmen for years have been granting less than 10 percent rates on surety bonds. A sampling of data for the first six months of 2021 supported bondsmen, defense attorney and judges’ anecdotes that bail agents are more frequently charging lower fees, sometimes as small as 1 or 2 percent, at times on more violent crimes. Some of the defendants are then put on payment plans for the remainder of the money.

“We’re business people,” said Michael Kubosh, an at-large city councilman and former bondsman. “You collect what you can.”

While seemingly better for defendants, the lower fees are concerning to lawyers and jurists. Several judges worry that they no longer can count on defendants paying 10 percent for their pretrial release; others feel that even at lower rates, bail is still too much for some.

Authorities believe some defendants have committed more crime to pay bail for themselves and others, according to court records.

Jose Luis Perez — on bond for a prior offense — was charged in March with robbing a woman at gunpoint; he told officers he needed cash to pay for the bail, meaning he was likely on a payment plan, prosecutors said. He faced additional charges in federal court, and the state case was later dismissed.

Prosecutors say that the lower payments also minimize the pressure to return to court, because more money down means defendants would feel beholden to family members who put their livelihoods on the line to free them.

Advocates, meanwhile, do not believe any amount of cash bail keeps the public safe, and they feel bail discounts and payment plans show how many defendants — primarily poor people of color — remain on the hook with private enterprises after securing their freedom.

There’s more, so read the rest. As the story notes, only the US and the Philippines have this sort of cash bail system, and that just seems to me like a bad place to be. As you know, I’m a believer in getting rid of cash bail as part of a larger overhaul of the criminal justice system. We’ve taken a small but important step forward in Harris County, but there’s still a lot to do and a lot of resistance to overcome. This story will give you a feel for some of that.

FBI involved in Deshaun Watson case

Never a good sign, though there might be a wrinkle in this one.

The FBI is looking into sexual assault allegations against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, according to opposing legal parties in the player’s civil court cases.

The extent of those probes remains unclear. Defense attorney Rusty Hardin on Wednesday declined to call any federal interest in the sexual assault allegations part of an “investigation,” but he said he knows definitively that one FBI investigation is underway into claims that a woman extorted Watson for money.

The high-profile defense attorney held a 20-minute news conference in direct response to recent statements by his opponent, Tony Buzbee, who said that he spoke to representatives of the federal agency.

Buzbee told the website League of Justice that the FBI appeared interested in Watson’s alleged use of the internet and interstate travel to solicit sessions from massage therapists.

Hardin said he learned Tuesday that the FBI was checking into some claims presented in the 22 civil suits filed earlier this year against Watson. He said he welcomes those federal investigations, but he simultaneously denounced Buzbee for bringing them to the media.

“He wants to leverage his civil lawsuits,” Hardin said. “He knows those lawsuits have no future in the long run. But he wants to be out there and promote himself and the lawsuits and try to get Deshaun to settle them and pay him money so he can ride into the sunset.”

Buzbee, who is representing the women suing the 25-year-old for sexual assault and harassment, denied that any of his clients were being investigated.

“I think Rusty is reaching for straws and that’s kind of silly,” Buzbee said. “God bless him, the FBI, is, not as far as I know, is not investigating the women who have been victimized. They’re investigating Deshaun Watson.”

Buzbee later clarified that he does not know whether there is an official “investigation” into Watson, but that he did speak with federal agents.

[…]

Hardin on Wednesday focused on claims that one of those women extorted Watson for money before filing a lawsuit alleging he forced oral sex. He read text messages that appeared to show the woman apologizing for her own behavior during a session.

The attorney said the FBI approached his team in April about those allegations, and Watson later spoke to the bureau about them.

Buzbee said he detected irony in Hardin’s statements about his client.

“He’s doing the best he can do, but it’s kind of sad that he’s turning it around on the women,” he said.

Hard to know what to make of this. I’m loathe to believe any claim Tony Buzbee makes, but I’d say he’s more likely to be right about what the FBI is doing than Rusty Hardin is in this case. But who knows? The FBI said nothing as per their usual policy, and whatever it is they may be doing, they’ll be done when they’re done. So we wait.

More criminal complaints against Deshaun Watson

Yeesh.

Multiple women have filed complaints with the Houston Police Department related to Texans’ quarterback Deshaun Watson, according to both sides in the football player’s civil sexual assault cases.

Almost half of the 22 women who filed civil claims against Watson have given sworn statements to police and spoken to NFL investigators, attorney Tony Buzbee said Sunday. Defense lawyer Rusty Hardin specified on Monday that eight women in the suits have filed complaints with police. He also said two new women not in litigation have done the same, which ESPN first reported.

Houston police on Monday declined to comment beyond an initial statement they released in early April. One person filed a complaint, they said at the time, leading the agency to open an investigation.

The police and NFL investigations remain underway with no signs of immediate resolution for Watson, who returned to training camp this week amid the allegations of sexual assault and harassment.

Those cases as well as the lawsuits are trudging along, keeping Watson in a holding pattern while he doesn’t play and demands a trade — that in itself an unlikely occurrence until his legal issues end, team sources have said.

“Both processes are very lengthy,” Buzbee said, referring to the police and NFL probes. “We expect to provide further information to the NFL from all victims.”

[…]

Hardin said on Monday Houston officers should also speak to the remaining 14 women who sued but did not file police reports, he said, in order to complete a full investigation.

The lawsuits are meanwhile moving through the discovery process in the Harris County civil courts. Buzbee said his team is currently obtaining written information from Watson, including electronic data and payment records.

See here and here for some background. The complaints by two women who are not suing Watson sounds ominous to me. I know that he’s Rusty Hardin and I’m not, but if I were Rusty Hardin, I might be a little worried about what the police might find when they talk to those other 14 women.

The arrest of Hervis Rogers is a travesty

You should be very mad about this.

Hervis Rogers

A Houston man who made headlines last year for standing in line six hours to vote at Texas Southern University was charged this week by Attorney General Ken Paxton with casting that ballot illegally while on parole.

Just a day before Republicans forced a special session of the Texas Legislature to tighten voting restrictions, Hervis Rogers, 62, was jailed on $100,000 bail in Montgomery County on two counts of illegal voting, court records show, even though he lives and voted in Harris County. Rogers is due back in court on July 20 in what a legal expert called a “symbolic prosecution.”

“The argument of voter fraud is very hot right now, the statistics don’t seem to bear out that it is widepsread but this case will certainly stick, I suspect, in people’s memories as a cautionary tale of why you should never consider doing it,” according to criminal defense attorney Christopher Downey, who is not affiliated with this case.

An indictment filed last month with the Montgomery County District Court claims Rogers was still on parole for a 1995 burglary conviction when he voted in both the March 2020 Democratic primary and November 2018 general election.

He had been released from prison in May 2004 after serving nine years of a 25-year sentence, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He voted in the March elections less than four months before his parole was set to expire on July 1, 2020.

Texas Election Code states that someone on parole for a felony conviction is ineligible to register as a voter, and that violations of election law may be prosecuted in the county where the alleged crime was committed, or an adjoining county. Because Rogers has three prior convictions between 1986 and 1995 — all for burglary or robbery — he is potentially facing between 25 years to life in prison, Downey said.

The charges against Rogers are “extremely unusual” to Downey, who said in his nearly 30 years in criminal law he’s never come across a voter fraud case. The choice to prosecute in more conservative Montgomery County instead of Harris County, where the alleged fraud occurred, also “reeks of forum shopping” and “strengthens the argument that its a symbolic prosecution,” even if the move is legally sound.

If Rogers was indeed ineligible, his only point of contention could be that he was unaware of the restrictions on his eligibility, Downey said, though he noted that ignorance of a law does not amount to much of a legal defense.

“The Hervis case demonstrates why we need to make sure people who have been disenfranchised fully know their rights when it comes to voting, but we also need to change the laws to fully restore voting rights.” said Stephanie Gomez, associate director at Common Cause Texas, a self-described “pro-democracy” group. “There is already a lack of clarity around voting rights restoration for people who have been disenfranchised by the criminal justice system.”

[…]

“When you push forward bills that criminalize our elections, that hurts Texans and people like Hervis,” Gomez said. “It’s not lost on me that the governor has called a special session where they are chasing these claims of widespread voter fraud across Texas … the timing is not lost on me at all.”

See here for when we first met Hervis Rogers. Note that he is being held on $100,000 bail.

Really tells you something about Ken Paxton’s priorities, doesn’t it? I can’t think of a valid reason to hold this guy, or anyone like him, on that level of bond. Among many other things, this is a good example of why the cash bond system is unconstitutional and needs to be completely overhauled.

Look, we all know the reason Ken Paxton is doing this, and why he’s doing it now, more than a year after Hervis Rogers cast that vote, and why he picked Montgomery County as his preferred venue. Hervis Rogers didn’t hurt anyone. In nearly half the states in the country, he’d have been free to vote at this point in his life. He did nothing wrong, and he’s in danger of having his life destroyed for a mistake by a deeply corrupt Attorney General who wants to make and example of him. As a schoolkid I used to hear about this sort of thing happening in scary totalitarian places like East Germany and the Soviet Union. And now it’s happening here. I’m sick just thinking about it. KUHF, which was first to report this, and Reform Austin have more.

UPDATE: Thankfully, Hervis Rogers has now been released on bail. Everything about this is still a goddamned travesty.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story.

FBI looking into Constable “bachelor party sting” mess

Never a good sign.

Constable Alan Rosen

Federal investigators are probing the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office after several current and former female employees accused superiors of sexually exploiting them during undercover anti-human trafficking operations, a lawyer for the women confirmed Thursday.

Attorney Cordt Akers, who is representing several of the women, confirmed Thursday that federal investigators had subpoenaed his clients to learn more about their allegations.

“Our clients have been in full cooperation with the federal authorities in their investigation into the horrible misconduct in the Precinct 1 Human Trafficking Unit,” he said, in response to questions from the Chronicle. “The serious nature of these crimes deserves serious attention, and we are happy that this conduct will no longer go unchecked.”

FBI Spokeswoman Christina Garza declined to comment on the case.

“Per Department of Justice policy, the FBI does not confirm or deny the existence of any investigation,” she said.

[…]

In an emailed statement, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was “aware” of the allegations and “obviously concerned,” but said the lawsuit prevented her from saying anything more.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia — who has previously clashed with the constables over questions about efficiency or redundant or wasteful law enforcement operations — said the FBI “must have the opportunity to thoroughly investigate these allegations.”

“Without knowledge of specific facts, this is not a time to speculate on what may have transpired,” he said. “That being said the allegations that have been made public are extremely disturbing and these women deserve to have their allegations thoroughly investigated.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I did call for an outside investigation into this case. Not what I had in mind, but it counts. Unless something leaks, we’re not going to know any more about this until such time as the FBI finishes its business. So sit back and wait patiently, and be glad you’re not Alan Rosen right now. The Press has more.

Andrea Yates, 20 years later

This case still breaks my heart.

Twenty years after their killings, attorney George Parnham still dutifully visits the graves of Andrea Yates’ five children.

He regularly drives to Clear Lake to leave flowers for Noah, 7; John, 5; Paul, 3; Luke, 2 and Mary, 6 months. He makes sure the grass over their graves is cut. He still weeps when he talks about them.

“I haven’t had a case in my entire career that has impacted my life as much as this case has,” said Parnham. “It’s something about the kids.”

During Yates’ 2002 trial, which drew international attention, many couldn’t fathom how a 36-year-old mother could drown her own children in a bathtub. The definitions of postpartum depression and psychosis were not yet commonly known. In order to defend Yates, Parnham had to educate the public about mental illness.

“When a person is suffering from mental illness and is in a psychotic state, they make decisions based on their own reality,” he said. “They don’t have a decision-making process based on rational thinking.”

The case brought mental health awareness, and postpartum mental illness in particular, into public awareness. Since it happened, more therapists, psychiatrists and medical professionals have dedicated their careers to helping women struggling after giving birth. More resources and interventions have also become available.

“Over the years, we’ve seen more and more women speak up and ask for help,” said Dr. Sherry Duson, a licensed therapist and counselor who founded the Center for Postpartum Family Health in Houston . “And there’s a greater understanding among OB-GYN pediatricians that perinatal mental illness is common and treatable and needs to be addressed.”

You should read the rest. It’s still painful to consider all the ways that Andrea Yates was failed by everyone around her, but at least we are more cognizant of mental illnesses, in particular postpartum depression and psychosis, than we were before. And God bless George Parnham for all the work he did on this case, and for his commitment to Andrea Yates and her children after all this time. May we never see another case like this again.

The HPD transparency portal

This is good.

Traffic stops. Discipline. Use of force. Following widespread calls for police accountability, Houston residents now can use the city’s “Police Transparency Hub” to get far more detailed, accessible information about some of police’s most controversial topics than has ever been available previously.

The online tool — compiled in a series of dashboards — provides information about the work and conduct of Houston police officers, including how often they use force, how often they are disciplined, statistics on the department’s diversity, information on traffic stops, and information on the department’s implementation of “cite-and-release,” in which officers issue citations for some misdemeanor offenses instead of arresting people.

Since the start of the year, police officers conducted 88,301 traffic stops, used force 4,203 times, and issued 152 citations instead of arrests.

In a news release that accompanied the launch of the tool earlier this month, Mayor Sylvester Turner said it was “a significant step toward increasing transparency and accountability while building trust between the public and the police department.”

The website also tells residents how to file complaints about police officers and shares information about other controversial policing topics, including the city’s contract with its officers, the police department’s general orders, the city’s new Office of Police Reform and Accountability, and the Independent Police Oversight Board.

[…]

Criminal justice reform advocates called the dashboard a “critical step” toward keeping HPD accountable but said it needs more work.

“Data transparency is a vital tool to assess the efficacy and fairness of policing,” said Julia Montiel, policy and advocacy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “We hope city leaders will collaborate with advocates to further refine the dashboard.”

See here for the background, and here for the city’s press release. The portal looks pretty useful, and the key here is just that the data is publicly available, in easy to view form. That will help answer a lot of questions, and will be a force for accountability just because people will be able to see how the data trends over time. I don’t know what specifically could be done to make this better, but the suggestion that the city work with activists and get their feedback makes a lot of sense. There was a lot of work done under Mayor Parker to make a bunch of city data available in raw form for developers and other folks who might want to make use of it, and I hope that is the case with this data as well. Take a look at what’s there and see what you think.

The Capitol date rape drug allegation was fabricated

Jesus Christ.

The news landed at the Texas Capitol last month like a bombshell: State police were investigating claims that a male lobbyist from one of the most influential firms in Austin had used a date rape drug on two female legislative staffers.

The Capitol quickly swung into outrage mode. Female legislators wore pink in solidarity with the victims. The House speaker condemned the “disgusting, detestable allegations.” After the alleged culprit was identified, some legislators banned his firm, HillCo Partners, from their offices. And new laws requiring that lobbyists receive harassment training were proposed.

Within a week, however, the Travis County district attorney and the Texas Department of Public Safety announced in a statement that they would not be bringing any charges. “We have concluded there is not enough evidence to support these allegations. … No crime occurred in this instance,” DPS and DA Jose Garza said.

Now, a DPS investigation has concluded that a legislative staffer fabricated the story of the date rape drug to cover up embarrassing personal behavior. “No evidence or facts obtained during the investigation support the allegation,” the 50-page report said.

In a separate audio recording obtained by Hearst Newspapers, the investigator went even further, describing the accused lobbyist, Richard Dennis — not the female staffer — as “the victim” in this case. “She lied to me,” the investigator, Special Agent Patrick Alonzo, can be heard saying. “She orchestrated all this.”

DPS turned over the results of its investigation to the district attorney’s office indicating that the woman was deceitful in her dealings with the police, but prosecutors declined to charge her. Garza, a Democrat elected in 2020, did not respond to questions from Hearst Newspapers.

In a lengthy interview in the office of his attorneys, David and Perry Minton, Dennis said that when he learned he was the suspect in the drugging case, he felt like his career was over. At one point, he said, he thought about killing himself.

“I contemplated, with my life insurance, maybe I am at this point better off not walking this earth, to my family, than I am walking in it,” said Dennis, 42. “She needed an alibi. For some reason, this is the story that she settled on.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I believed the accuser. There was no reason not to – there was nothing fantastical about her claim. Far too many women have their own stories to tell, and the Capitol’s reputation as a hostile work environment for many women is well earned. The policies put in place following the 2017 stories about the Capitol’s culture were not very robust, with the omission of lobbyists from the mandatory sexual harassment training being dumb and obvious. I don’t regret emphasizing the voices of the women who were speaking out following this accusation.

But this story turned out to be a lie, and the lobbyist who was named by the accuser (and whose name was published by Michael Quinn Sullivan’s website The Scorecard) was the actual victim. That’s terrible for Richard Dennis, who did not deserve to have any of this happen to him. I was suspicious when the investigation ended with no charges being brought – we have certainly seen that outcome in cases where the story was not made up – and that turned out to be wrong. I hope Richard Dennis is able to get his life back together and that he gets any help he might need in processing what happened to him, and I hope that people remember him for more than this.

This is also terrible for everyone who has been or is being or will be victimized by an actual sexual predator, because now there’s another reason for many people to dismiss and disbelieve them. False accusations like this are quite rare, something like two percent of the total, but they sure leave an impression. I don’t know what drove this woman to make the decision she did, but I sure hope she lives with the regret and guilt of that choice for a long time. She did a lot of damage, and not just to Richard Dennis.

This story may have been untrue, but the culture at the Capitol, and so many other places, remains a problem. It still needs everyone’s efforts to fix it. Don’t let one lie and one liar distract you from that.

HempLicenseGate

The headline on this Trib story is “Top political aide to Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller arrested in alleged scheme to take money in exchange for hemp licenses”, and I have no idea how to make it any pithier than that.

The top political consultant to Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller was arrested Thursday on allegations that he participated in a scheme to solicit money and campaign contributions for state hemp licenses issued by Miller’s Texas Department of Agriculture.

The consultant, Todd Smith, ultimately took $55,000 as part of the scheme, an arrest warrant affidavit obtained by The Texas Tribune says. Smith and others involved in the scheme are alleged in the warrant to have solicited a total of $150,000 to guarantee a license, including a $25,000 upfront cost for a survey that they said was required to get a license in Texas. Some of the money would also go toward funding unnamed political campaigns, according to the affidavit.

The affidavit alleges that Smith committed third-degree felony theft.

“Todd Smith created by words and his conduct, a false impression of fact that affected the judgment of others in the transactions to obtain a hemp license and/or conduct a survey that was never attempted by Todd Smith,” the affidavit says.

The allegations were investigated by the Texas Rangers’ Public Integrity Unit, which is responsible for looking into claims of public corruption.

[…]

The affidavit says Smith used another person as a middle man between himself and those interested in getting licenses. The affidavit does not provide much information about the middle man other than that he was “introduced to Todd Smith by a friend in August 2019.”

The affidavit includes the account of one man who wanted to get involved in the hemp industry and met the middle man at a social gathering in August 2019. The affidavit says the middle man told the license-seeker that he was “working directly with senior leadership at the TDA” and that he “needed $150,000.00 in cash, with some of the money going toward campaign contributions, in order to receive the ‘guaranteed’ hemp license.”

The license-seeking man agreed to the deal, setting off a chain of events that included a November 2019 visit to Austin where he handed the middle man $30,000 cash in a car outside El Mercado, a Mexican restaurant in downtown Austin near the TDA offices, according to the affidavit. Williams went through an alley to take the money to the TDA headquarters before returning to the car and collecting Vinson for a scheduled meeting at the offices.

The affidavit says the license-seeker learned later that month that he was not guaranteed a license, despite the scheme that had been proposed to him. He reached Smith via phone, who “denied any knowledge but did admit to receiving a $5,000.00 gift from” the middle man, according to the allegations.

You can see the affidavit here. As the story notes, these hemp licenses were created in the 2019 Legislature for the purpose of allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp, which had been illegal under prior marijuana laws. HB 1325 from last session modified the legal definition of marijuana as part of the solution for that, and in the process made it harder for prosecutors to pursue low-level marijuana possession cases. None of that has anything to do with this case, which appears to be your basic “greedy dude with access to power attempts to cash in” story, at least on the surface. Good luck to the famously articulate Sid Miller explaining that to the voters.

Houston police reform items announced

It’s a start.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Thursday unveiled a sweeping effort to reform policing in Houston by banning no-knock warrants for non-violent offenses, restructuring the police oversight board, publicly releasing body camera footage when officers injure or kill residents, expanding diversion programs and allowing online and anonymous complaints against officers.

The reform package, which Turner outlined at a City Hall press conference with Police Chief Troy Finner and other city officials, comes nearly 11 months after the mayor appointed a task force to explore changes the city should make after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The group published a lengthy report last September that recommended 104 reforms to policing in Houston. Turner at the time said he supported “almost all” of the measures.

The city made more modest changes before and after it unveiled the report, such as an executive order curbing certain uses of force, “safe harbor” court to provide alternatives to jail for people who cannot afford to pay fines, and joining a cite-and-release program that gives citations instead of arrests for certain nonviolent crimes.

The slow pace in addressing big-ticket items, though, frustrated advocates looking for more immediate reforms. Turner sought to change that Thursday, addressing many of the central recommendations in the task force’s report. He said the city now has implemented more than half its suggestions.

Among the changes: a dashboard to track police misconduct and encounters while also accepting anonymous complaints; a revamped oversight board with full-time investigative staff; the ban on no-knock warrants, one of which resulted in two civilian deaths and unearthed a major scandal for Houston police; and the public release of body camera footage within 30 days of critical incidents.

The online complaint form, available in five languages, and data dashboards will be available by the end of May, Turner said. It will allow for anonymous complaints, which advocates have said is critical.

Scott Henson, executive director of justice reform nonprofit Just Liberty, said a similar change had a profound impact in Austin, where officers began anonymously reporting each other for infractions.

[…]

Turner also said he will use more than $25 million in federal pandemic relief dollars over three years to expand diversion programs, a key victory for some advocates who had called for the city to add mental health counselors to police responding to certain calls, or replace them altogether.

The diversion programs include Crisis Call Diversion, which directs certain 911 calls to mental health professionals with the goal of resolving an incident without a police response; Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams, which dispatch mental health professionals without law enforcement; and Crisis Intervention Response Teams, which pair a mental health counselor with a police officer.

The mayor said the city will expand the call diversion program to around-the-clock coverage, at an annual cost of $272,140, and hire 18 new mobile crisis outreach teams at a cost of $4.3 million per year, as the task force recommended.

While the report called for 24 new crisis intervention teams, the city will hire six new teams to add to the current staff of 12, among other efforts.

“We do ask our police officers to do way too much, and put them in some very precarious situations where the outcomes sometimes are not positive,” Turner said.

See here for the previous update. Overall, this seems pretty good, and the announcement drew praise from CMs Letitia Plummer and Tarsha Jackson, who are among the leaders in pushing for reforms on City Council. Some advocates were more muted, but at least no one was quoted in the story with harsh criticism. It’s still early days, so we’ll see about that. The next step is in the implementation, which will be another measure of the commitment from the city, as well as an indication of if we’re going in the right direction and at the right pace. It’s a good start, now we need to take the next steps. The Press has more.

On the topic of criminal justice reform, there were also a couple of items of interest from the Lege. First, the George Floyd Act passed the House.

The Texas House on Thursday quickly gave preliminary approval to three police reform measures that are part of a sweeping set of legislation following the in-custody murder of George Floyd last year.

The bills would require Texas law enforcement agencies to implement more uniform and substantive disciplinary actions for officer misconduct, bar officers from arresting people for fine-only traffic offenses and require corroboration of undercover officer testimony.

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, lead author of the bills and the omnibus George Floyd Act, said the disciplinary measure was about fairness and accountability.

“The bill is by no means a cookie cutter process,” said Thompson, D-Houston. “Every case of officers’ misconduct is different. But so are other crimes in this state.”

The approved measures will head to the more conservative Senate after a final vote in the House. The upper chamber has also passed targeted pieces of Texas’ George Floyd Act — though only those that are also supported by police unions. The measure on officer discipline is strongly opposed by major police unions.

See here for some background. I am cautiously optimistic, but with the Senate working to pass permitless carry over the objections of law enforcement, I fear they’ll aim to appease them by watering down this bill. We’ll see.

Also from the Lege: Smaller penalties for pot possession passes the House.

The Texas House preliminarily approved a bill that would lower the criminal penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana and provide a path for many Texans charged with such a crime to expunge it from their criminal records. The bill applies to possession of one ounce or less — approximately two dime bags.

Currently in Texas, possession of up to two ounces of marijuana is a Class B misdemeanor, which can be punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. House Bill 441, authored by state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, would reduce possession of one ounce or less to a Class C misdemeanor, which carries no jail time. Police also wouldn’t be allowed to make arrests for possession at or under an ounce.

In a committee hearing, Zwiener said the language had been worked on with Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and praised the “bipartisan conversation” over reducing possession penalties. The House passed a similar measure two years ago, but Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick opposed it and quickly declared it dead in the upper chamber. Patrick’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

I continue to believe that no measure of marijuana decriminalization will pass the Lege as long as Dan Patrick is in a position of power. I will be happy to be proven wrong about that.

No charges files in Capitol date rape drug incident

A not very satisfying resolution.

The Texas Department of Public Safety and Travis County District Attorney’s Office said Thursday “that there is not enough evidence to support” an allegation that a lobbyist used a date rape drug on a Capitol staffer and that “no crime occurred in this instance.”

“DPS has conducted a thorough investigation following allegations of drugging of a Capitol staffer by a lobbyist,” the joint statement said. “Together, we have concluded that … criminal charges are not appropriate.”

The statement did not name the lobbyist, and officials have not offered further details — including the names of anyone allegedly involved — since DPS confirmed it was investigating the allegation, as first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

Earlier this week though, after DPS confirmed it was investigating the allegation, Bill Miller, a co-founder of the prominent Austin-based HillCo Partners, told The Texas Tribune that one of its employees was “a person of interest” in the investigation.

In a statement after Thursday’s news, Miller said that neither the firm nor the employee “had absolutely anything to do with the” allegation and said “DPS found we are completely clear of any and all wrongdoing.”

“The announcement today confirms our own internal investigation into the issue,” Miller said. “We commend law enforcement for a forceful and swift investigation into this serious matter.

After news of the investigation surfaced Saturday, state lawmakers, staffers and other Capitol observers expressed outrage, with many House members declaring that they planned to ban from their offices any lobbyist or lobby firm associated with the accusation. By Sunday, Buddy Jones, another co-founder of HillCo told state lawmakers in an email that the group had hired outside legal counsel and “a respected former law enforcement official” to launch an investigation into the matter.

Meanwhile, Austin lawyers David and Perry Minton, who said earlier this week they were representing a person” purportedly being looked into” for the investigation, said in a statement Thursday that the allegation was “100% false.”

“It is our opinion that the individual or individuals involved in this outrages and immoral scheme [of making the allegation] should be held accountable by their employers and then prosecuted by our new district attorney,” the two said.

See here and here for the background. You can see the full statement here. Saying there’s not enough evidence to support the allegations is not the same as saying that nothing bad happened – to say “no crime occurred” is a tautology, since that is exactly what it means to not bring charges. We have due process for a reason, and this is the result. Maybe nothing did happen, or at least nothing that was ill-intentioned. Maybe it was too late for a drug test to render a judgment, since rohypnol metabolizes quickly. Maybe this was just another powerful guy getting away with it. We’ll never know for sure. If the lobbyist in question, whose name has been released by one right wing website, is innocent then this really sucks for him, since this incident will always follow him around. It’s going to suck even more for the woman who made the allegation, especially if it was true.

Putting all that aside, and putting aside the bills that have been filed to try to do something about sexual harassment and sexual assault at the Capitol, the one thing that seems clear is that little to nothing will change from a cultural perspective. Women aren’t going to be any more respected or valued at the Capitol, and the men who have been at the forefront of creating the hostile environment they work in – as well as the men and women who enable that environment – will not be held accountable. It’s aggravating, and I say that as a dude who has never been in a remotely similar position. My thoughts are with the woman who made the report, and with everyone who has ever gone through something like that. The Chron has more.

More on the Capitol date rape drug allegation

Good for Speaker Dade Phelan for forthrightly calling this out, but the underlying issue is a matter of culture, it’s been this way for a long, long time, and it’s going to be a slog to change it.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan in a speech to colleagues Monday called for reforms to some of the chamber’s policies relating to sexual harassment training and reporting, days after an allegation came to light that a lobbyist used a date rape drug on a Capitol staffer.

“These allegations shake our Capitol family to its core,” the first-term Republican speaker said soon after the House gaveled in, “and I am disgusted that this sort of predatory behavior is still taking place in and around our Capitol.”

On Saturday, the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed it had opened an investigation into a complaint made recently by a Capitol staffer. Officials though have so far declined to comment on further details, including the names of anyone allegedly involved. The news was first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

News of the allegation prompted state lawmakers, staffers and other Capitol observers to denounce the alleged incident, with some House members declaring on social media they were banning from their Capitol offices any lobbyist or lobby firm associated with the accusation.

By Sunday, HillCo Partners, a prominent Austin-based lobby firm, told state lawmakers in an email that it had launched an internal investigation into the matter, with one co-founder of the firm later telling The Texas Tribune that HillCo had been “tipped off” that one of its employees “is a person of interest” in the investigation.

Phelan said he was directing the House General Investigating Committee to establish an email hotline for staffers in House offices to submit reports or complaints of harassment in the workplace.

The speaker also said he had directed the House Administration Committee to change the chamber’s required sexual harassment prevention training to be completed in-person rather than virtually.

See here for the background. Again, I commend Speaker Phelan for taking this seriously – we’ve all seen plenty of examples of people in similar positions of leadership who have done much worse. But let’s be honest, there’s only so much that an email hotline and in-person sexual harassment prevention training can do. The problem is cultural, it’s deeply rooted, it’s not tied to a party or ideology, and it adapts to changing circumstances. It’s going to take the collective action of the entire Capitol community to make this stop – not just not tolerating the behaviors that have existed for decades, but calling them out and imposing consequences, even on friends and ideological allies. I don’t have to tell you that this won’t be easy – just look at how the “Me Too” movement has played out in society at large – and it won’t be quick. It’s just that there’s no other choice.

I’m going to end with a few more tweets, and the hope that the staffer who was victimized by this predator finds the justice she deserves. There’s video of Rep. Phelan’s speech at KVUE, and the Chron and Reform Austin have more.

UPDATE: Welp…

Whoever was at the center of this was always going to defend himself. This tells me that his defense will be quite vigorous. It could get a lot more contentious from here.