Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Harris DA: Delay pleas on drug cases till lab results are in

Reacting to numerous drug cases where defendants pled guilty to get out of jail and crime labs later returned results saying they'd never been in possession of a controlled substance, overturning their convictions based on "actual innocence," Harris County DA Devon Anderson recently announced a new policy in which prosecutors can no longer agree to a plea in such cases unless final results are back from the crime lab. The only exception is that "a defendant housed in jail [may] receive a term of community supervision with no additional jail confinement as a condition of the community supervision." Here are three, notable discussions of the new approach:
There are a lot of moving parts to consider so I understand Murray Newman's pessimistic view that the policy is unworkable. If lots of low-level drug defendants fill up the jail because they can't make bond (and Harris judges notoriously issue few personal bonds), or if court dockets expand significantly beyond their already very high levels, it's easy to see how there may be pressure on the DA to do things differently.

If local judges would agree to issue personal bonds to these defendants while they await crime lab results, that would make this policy work a lot more smoothly. Without that sort of tacit cooperation, though, it's hard to understand how the approach is sustainable in the long term.

OTOH, the situation described recently by former Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Cathy Cochran surrounding these drug-possession innocence cases is equally untenable. She told Texas Monthly:
speaking of keeping people out of jail, I really think the law needs some help with pre-trial bail, letting people out before the case is sentenced. We’ve had a lot of cases recently where we’ve granted relief because here’s somebody arrested for possession of cocaine or meth or whatever and they plead guilty because they’ve got a job or a family or they just can’t stay in jail for the next six months before trial; they don’t have enough money to make bail, but they plead guilty. Then sure enough six months later the analysis on the drugs comes back and guess what? It’s not a drug.  
There aren't a lot of good answers here. Our friends at the prosecutors' association have suggested boosting crime lab funding, but throwing money at the problem won't change the structural dysfunction created fundamentally by high case volumes and unreasonable bail policies.


Anonymous said...

Putting people under community supervision without proof of a crime is silly.

Anonymous said...

Add to the discussion the likelihood that a lot of these low level drug offenders will likely just reoffend if they're allowed out on a PR bond thereby generating new cases for the courts to digest. No easy answer here.

Anonymous said...

"will likely just reoffend"

These are victimless crimes, who cares?

Anonymous said...

@11:11 maybe their children? Their families? Taxpayers who have to pay for their food stamps and health care? Not to mention the property crimes which are never solved but which are inevitably the consequence of the addicts ever increasing need to stay high.

Anonymous said...

11:11 here. Kids want mom and dad home. Ask them.

And taxpayers pay a lot more to jail them than for food stamps, etc.

On the last bit, these aren't property offenders - only drug possession, less than a gram. Some have jobs. If they steal, prosecute them. Different issue.

Jason Truitt said...

"Our friends at the prosecutors' association have suggested boosting crime lab funding"

So did your friend on Murray's blog. If the state wants an efficient system, they need to fund it. Until then, let's act like we care a little bit about the presumption of innocence.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's time to decriminalize some of these low level drug offenses.

Mike Howard said...

On the one hand, I'm glad they're doing something to try to stop the immense pressure to cop to a bad case just to get out of jail. People in jail just want out and they're often willing to do almost anything to get out - without carefully considering the ramifications to their lives down the line.

On the other hand, I often have clients who tell me they're guilty and just want to move on with their lives. They have a job they'll lose if they're in jail for much more time, or an apartment they'll lose, or kids to feed... With policies like this one, they're stuck in jail until the crime lab gets around to their case - and that can be months.

I agree with Scott's analysis - this policy could be unworkable without pretrial release or some other mechanism that keeps people from being stuck in jail while the crime lab tries to sift through a huge (and ever growing) stack of cases.

I'm not saying this is a bad policy. It's certainly a start... but it's not perfect, in my humble opinion.

Anonymous said...

I recently spent 30 days in the Ft Bend County Jail on a probation violation. Over half the inmates were there because they could not make bail. Some had the money to post bail but didn't want to spend the money on a bondman. I asked one whose bail was $2000 and only needed $200 to get out and who had been in jail about six weeks and didn't have a court date for another month why he didn't post bail. He said "I'll just plead guilty and be sentenced to time served. I'll want to save the money."

Several others thought the same thing. I think it was the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland who said "Sentence first, trial later." That seems to be part of our current system.

Anonymous said...

Why not cancel the lab request once the defendant pleads? That w would ease the workload on the lab and there is no reason to test something that a defendant has sworn in a judicial concession was contraband.

Robert Langham said...

The Drug War....are we winning yet?

Jason Truitt said...

"On the one hand, I'm glad they're doing something to try to stop the immense pressure to cop to a bad case just to get out of jail."

I don't think that's any part of the policy. In fact, this may cause people to stay in jail longer, unless the judges start agreeing to more PR bonds. Which they will likely not do.

I heard an interesting prelude to an upcoming Marshall Project story on bond practices in the US on NPR this morning. Should be a good look into the system.

The Homeless Cowboy said...

well I do know that Harris County will make this deal, We will give you thirty days county jail time, if you plead guilty to a drug possession felony. I have done that several times in the past (Not in the past 7 years) so it is common policy to plead it and move along.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Speaking of - "Harris County", located in the great state-of-confusion & the notorious land-of the-loopholes aka: Texas.

A 'Real' Criminal Defense Lawyer over at - The "Meaning" of America law blawg, the one & only Mr. Rob Fickman actually did the right thing vs. simply bloggingaboutit and moving on. The proof is in the posting(s) linked to below for your convince.

The Fickman Report: 2013 Open Letter Challenge, *Do The Right Thing Your Honors'

*Those wishing to read the Fickman Report can slide on over to the Defending People blawg and search for Mr. Rob Fickman's open letter to all 15 misdemeanor court judges. It's a must read and when you are finished you'll see why it's a must copy and paste in an effort to allow everyone to read it. You could also consider rereading a great GFB posting linked to below.

With Mr. Fickman being considered as the Father of Bail Reform, we at the PNG of Texas feel that he should be honored as such, each & every single time this topic arises. Sadly, the 15 Judges collectively chose to ignore his initial shot across the bench(s). It was of no surprise to see them ignore: emails, calls & letters from ordinary citizens (taxpayers & voters - Rs, Ds & Inbetweeners). Maybe with this new surge of interest regarding the public at large (taxpayers & voters best interest) they'll actually 'Do' the right thing vs. allowing it to continue to be an in house (JOKE) motto from a stable with a history of in your face criminal misconduct. Obviously, they couldn't have done it & gotten away with it for decades without support from 'you' the voters & taxpayers. They thank you, they really do.


Anonymous said...

With Mr. Fickman being considered as the Father of Bail Reform

According to who? Fickman?

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Well, since you asked, I guess according to me, since I'm the one that tagged his ass with the label. I'll gladly change it to one of the founding fathers of bail reform 'if' I'm supplied with the full name(s) of anyone that can be shown to have actually done something about the criminal conduct that's been: practiced, taught & condoned in Harris County for decades on end, under their real name.

While blogging / blawging about it is very important and useful in bringing the public at large up to date on issues that the media is paid to ignore, and signing on to a cause in comment sections is heroic, it's no where close to actually doing it. For that, he did just that.


*BTW, it's - Mr. Fickman. He earned it.