Monday, October 14, 2019

Roundup: Oversight overlooked, the I-35 Fine Corridor, a last chance to end forensic hypnosis, and more

Here are a few odds and ends that merit Grits readers' attention:

Agency regulating judges toothless and useless
Texas' State Commission on Judicial Conduct is a toothless agency. Its investigators appear to do a good job, but they're too cozy with the judges they regulate and the results just don't sufficiently protect the public. This Houston Chronicle editorial speaks to that point: "The State Commission on Judicial Conduct should be embarrassed by the wrist slap it gave three current and eight former Harris County judges who routinely denied no-cost bail to thousands of poor defendants between 2009 and 2017," their editorial board opined. I agree, but the biggest problems are embedded in the statute and would require the Legislature to fix them.

Crime lab delays grind justice to a halt
State Representative Terry Canales complained to Texas DPS that crime-lab delays fundamentally threaten the administration of justice:
“Defendants are frequently and unnecessarily spending years in jail waiting for forensic evidence to be processed so that they can have their day in court,” Canales wrote. “This gross reality threatens the very essence of our legal system and the fabric of our democracy, and it devalues the credibility of the state’s governing bodies and law enforcement agency.”
According to the McAllen Monitor:
For instance, the oldest firearms case pending is 1,187 days old while the average turnaround is 228 days. The oldest pending fingerprint testing case is 1,279 days old while the average turnaround is 255 days. Finally, the longest pending seized drug case is approximately 1,209 days old while the average case takes 90 days to complete.
Drug war a major contributor to attacks on Fourth Amendment
There's a meme out there spread by revisionist academics like John Pfaff that critics of the drug war have overstated its contribution to mass incarceration. While it's true that only 16.5% of Texas prison inmates are incarcerated for drug crimes, drug cases represent 34% of all new felony charges filed, so Grits finds that criticism overstated, at best. Criminalizing addiction accounts for a huge proportion of how the justice system spends its time. But focusing solely on prison population ignores the severe collateral consequences from the drug war in scaling back Fourth Amendment rights, as prosecutors are seeking to do in two cases pending before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The Austin Statesman's Chuck Lindell covered those here.

Qualified immunity claim overcome in case vs. Dallas transit cop
The Fifth Circuit declined to dismiss a case against a Dallas transit cop based on qualified immunity after the officer arrested a photographer expressly in violation of her agency's written policy. Grits doesn't believe qualified immunity should even exist. Maybe Justice Don Willett is having an influence; he's a critic of the qualified immunity doctrine.

Activists angry at first Dallas police oversight board meeting
The initial meeting of the new police oversight board in Dallas erupted in chaos when board members tried to adjourn the meeting without hearing from the public. Activists were upset that three appointees had opposed creation of the board and lacked commitment to its mission. Adding fuel to the fire, reportedly one of the officers attempting to push citizens forcibly out of the room was wearing a "Punisher" t-shirt.

Fine revenue and local budgets
Now that the state legislature has capped property tax increases for local governments, expect more of them to attempt to boost revenue from criminal fines. An analysis by Governing magazine found 90 Texas municipalities where 10% or more of revenue came from fines, 39 where fines made up more than 20% of the budget, 22 where fines were more than 30% of the budget, and 10 where they made up more than half. An accompanying map shows that many of these are clustered along I-35 between San Antonio and Dallas.

Jury acquits prison guard despite repeated brutality
A Brazoria County jury found a Texas prison guard not guilty of aggravated assault after he slammed a handcuffed prisoner to the floor and killed him. The same guard had already been disciplined for doing the same thing to the same prisoner several months prior.

Politicizing innocence compensation
Having been deeply involved in passing Texas' best-in-the-nation innocence compensation statute when I was Innocence Project of Texas policy director back in 2009, Grits is incredibly disappointed at the Comptroller and Attorney General going to irregular lengths to deny compensation to Alfred Brown. This was pointless, mean-spirited, and driven by pandering to the Houston police union.

Last chance to get rid of 'forensic hypnosis'
This Guardian story on forensic hypnosis correctly hones in a case pending before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals as the best chance for the state to be rid of the practice. But it incorrectly suggested the Forensic Science Commission could deal with the issue (they say they don't have jurisdiction because the practice doesn't deal with physical evidence), and a bill filed to end the practice at the Texas Legislature last session couldn't even get a hearing in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. As such, the author was a bit too sanguine the practice might be abolished here. If the CCA doesn't get rid of this junk science, in Grits' estimation it will remain with us in Texas courts for a long, long time.

Hug it out
The judge in the Amber Guyger case explained why she gave the defendant a hug. And an academic argues that the hug Botham Jean's brother gave Guyger turned the trial into a lesson in restorative justice.


Gadfly said...

I can now somewhat more accept the hug. The judge didn't explain the bible or the "read this bible" stuff. And, since she had to walk back to chambers to get it, means that ... it was arguably premeditated and not spontaneous, per the old diff (in the public eye, though not Texas law) between murder and manslaughter.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

She actually said in that story it was her personal bible ... "the Bible I use every day." FWIW, she also said she thought to give it to her bc Guyger told her she didn't own one. So that sounds pretty spontaneous, to me. Others' mileage may vary.

Anonymous said...

Restorative justice initiatives never, EVER expect, require or even inquire about forgiveness on the part of the victim survivor. DMN's assertion - "critical for the success of restorative justice is the victim’s ability, interest, and willingness to forgive" - is the kind of misinformation that undermines what RJ can accomplish.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That's an excellent point, 10:45. Well said.

Gadfly said...

Grits, it may be more spontaneous. That said, the giving it to Guyger because Guyger said she didn't have one? Only increases the 1A concern angle in my mind.