Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Defense pushback against Kim Ogg's contention that judges can't consider COVID

Last week, Grits wrote about a unusual motion to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals from Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg arguing for higher bail in the case of Timothy Singleton, in which the DA asked the court to rule that judges could not consider issues related to the coronavirus when setting bail. After initially turning her down, Singleton allegedly committed another offense, this time, domestic violence against his girlfriend and her grandmother, and fled. The DA again asked the CCA to intervene, and this time the court required the bond be set at $100,000, although they did not mention nor affirm the DA's contention the judges couldn't consider public health issues during bail decisions.

Now, though, Mr. Singleton has hired counsel, Brent Mayr and Stanley Schneider, who on 4/20 issued a motion for reconsideration to the CCA. The Houston Chronicle's St. John Barned-Smith provided coverage here. Their brief provides a great example why one doesn't get a full story in the courtroom unless both sides get to make arguments.

For example, the DA's brief had not informed the CCA that the pretrial risk assessment instrument magistrates use to guide release decisions scored Singleton at a level suggesting a "Personal Bond Recommendation referred to Magistrate." That would have been useful information to give them, don't you think? The DA recommended no bail, and the magistrate set bail at $500.

The Chronicle story mentioned a few other items from the defense brief that the DA had omitted, including the magistrate's specific reason for her decision:
Court records show the magistrate noted that police did not find any gun when they investigated the allegation against Singleton. His bond paperwork also shows police did not appear to have spoken to any other witnesses, and that Singleton had not missed any court appearances in the two years prior to the incident. 
Magistrate Jennifer Gaut also ordered him not to have contact with the man he was accused of threatening.
Gaut also conditioned his release on complying with curfew restrictions. So, while the DA's brief accused the magistrate of ignoring the state's recitation of Singleton's criminal history, and pretended her sole concern was a desire not to "fill up the jail," clearly she was looking more closely than they gave her credit for at the evidence being presented in the current case, and was following the recommendation of the pretrial risk assessment, which was never mentioned in the state's brief to the CCA.

Attorneys and others closely following bail debates will want to read and digest the analysis in the defense brief, which goes through the relevant statutes governing increasing bail much more thoroughly than did the state's. They claim "The state plays fast and loose with its citations to authority in its motion."

The alleged authority to have the CCA raise the bail amount relied on a statute that only applies to examining trials, argued the defense, while ignoring a more-on-point statute which declares that, once a defendant "has given bail for his appearance in answer to criminal charges, he shall not be required to give another bond in the course of the same criminal action" unless the judge or magistrate "in whose court such action is pending" finds the bond is defective, excessive, or insufficient, or the sureties provided are "not acceptable." Under that statute, the CCA plays no role.

They quoted back to the CCA its own holdings on statutory construction that when "a general statute and a more detailed enactment are in conflict, the latter will prevail." They contend that the statute the DA relied upon, Article 16.16 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, "is a general statute that applies when there is an examining trial and bail in that limited context is found to be insufficient. Article 17.09, however, is much more detailed and provides an explicit prohibition on a defendant having to give another bond. And it limits the authority to require a defendant to be rearrested and give another bond to the judge or magistrate who the matter is pending before."

The defense cited precedent in which Judge Michael Keasler, who is still on the CCA, disallowed judges besides those authorized in Article 17 from changing bail amounts, lamenting this would lead to a system where "all judges have jurisdiction over all things at all times. and where forum shopping to reduce or increase bail amounts flourishes." According to the defense brief, "The action taken by the state here is absolutely no different and for this Court to entertain such action would put it squarely in conflict with this precedent." If the CCA ignores this longstanding precedent, they warn, "the floodgates will open" and appellate courts will be inundated with back-and-forth motions on bail that would "create an endless cycle."

The defense brief iterates that a court's bail decisions may only be reviewed on appeal for "abuse of discretion," and cites precedent that "an appellate court must not substitute its own judgment for that of the trial court and must uphold the trial court's ruling if it is within the zone of reasonable disagreement." Given that the pretrial risk assessment relied upon by magistrates recommended Mr. Singleton receive a personal bond, granting low bail appears to this non-attorney observer as per se within this "zone of reasonable disagreement."

The defense concluded,
Let there be no mistake about what the State is doing here: they are complaining about the decision of the magistrate and the trial court setting bail in this case. The State has no right to appeal a trial court’s decision to set bond. Nor could they seek a writ of mandamus or prohibition. And, yet they are asking this Court to review the trial court’s decision with no record, no findings of fact, nothing more than conclusory affidavits.
Finally, the defense brief addressed the DA's novel argument that courts are disallowed from considering health concerns when setting bail. They argued that concerns about limiting incarceration due to the coronavirus falls directly under the court's authority to consider the "future safety of ... the community," which is explicitly a factor statutes contemplate when judges set bail.

As Grits mentioned the other day, the Harris County jail is struggling more than any other lockup in the state with the coronavirus outbreak, which places not only inmates but jailers and the community at large at risk. Future safety of the community is a broad concept, and nothing in the statute limits how judges should define it. Seems like a pretty strong argument to me.

The Houston Chronicle coverage pointed out how unusual was both the state's motion and the CCA's rapid response to it:
Courthouse veterans said the move was surprising for both the speed with which the CCA ruled on the case, and the judges' decision to set Singleton’s bail above what prosecutors had initially asked for. 
[Harris County Public Defender Alex] Bunin said that when defendants ask the CCA to reduce their bond, the court can take months — or longer — to act. 
“It seems more like they are trying to send a message than create law,” Bunin said, of the appellate judges. “But it’s an unclear message other than ‘don’t set low bonds unless you have somebody with no criminal history and a history of appearing in court when asked.’”
There's no telling how the CCA will react to this new motion, or how quickly. With the Government-Always-Wins faction currently in firm control of the court, one wouldn't be surprised if they side with the District Attorney no matter what. The GAW majority on the court tends to be outcome oriented, first deciding what they want the result to be and then searching out legal arguments to support it instead of interpreting the law and having that decide the outcome. But because that approach would fly in the face of past CCA precedents that benefited the state, in particular a key precedent authored by a GAW judge who's still on the court, it could become a much closer call.

Regardless, Grits finds this debate fascinating. I'm learning a lot from it.

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