Harris County hearing officers sanctioned by state for not considering personal bonds
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By Gabrielle Banks

Updated 8:48 pm, Friday, January 12, 2018

Three Harris County hearing officers already facing a federal court order over their handling of bail bonds received a rare sanction from the state for failing to issue personal bonds for defendants to get out of jail.

The rebuke by the Texas Commission on Judicial Standards cites hearing officers Joseph Licata III, Jill Wallace and Eric Hagstatte with a public admonition and ordered them to take additional educational instruction.

The order from commission chair, Justice Douglas S. Lang, said the board took into consideration that the hearing officers testified on Dec. 7 in Austin that they had been told by Harris County criminal court judges they should not grant cash-free bonds or more affordable bond rates. They said they feared they would be fired if they didn't comply.

The findings were prompted by a landmark federal court ruling in April that the county's bail system was unfair to indigent defendants and a complaint by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, to the state commission that oversees judicial ethics requesting it review the judge's findings.

Whitmire filed the complaint after a Houston Chronicle story exposed details from video recorded bail hearings, during which judicial officers appeared to ignore pleas from defendants seeking personal no-cash bonds. Some set high bonds because a person didn't call them "sir" or when they didn't like the demeanor of the defendant.

" Whitmire said of the videos."The total non-judicial conduct ... and the rude bullying that took place on the tapes led to my complaint. We have to have zero tolerance for that."

He said, "I was shocked about how they treated somebody so vulnerable. I don't stand for that at all."

Whitmire said he was grateful the commission exposed the conduct of these officers.

"They're letting the public know some of the abuses that are happening in the basement of the criminal courthouse by our magistrates," he said.

Harris County employs five hearing officers who work around the clock, setting bond for people before they have a chance to make an initial appearance before a judge. Whitmire singled out the three officers based on their conduct in the videos.

The bond hearings held via videolink showed that many defendants in misdemeanor cases were never questioned about their ability to pay. Those who asked for personal bonds because of family hardships, jobs or other valid reasons were routinely denied and sometimes treated rudely. In one video, a judge doubled a bond after a female defendant said "yeah" instead of "yes."

In three terse 5-page rulings, the judicial commission ordered the three criminal law hearing officers to submit to four hours of additional education to be completed within 60 days.

In similarly worded statements, the commission concluded the officers "failed to comply with the law, and failed to maintain competence in the law, by strictly following directives not to issue personal bonds to defendants per the instructions of the judges in whose court the underlying cases were assigned."

By ignoring this duty, the commission said, the judges violated their "constitutional and statutory obligation to consider all legally available bonds, including personal recognizance bonds, for those individuals whose cases were assigned to courts who instructed him not to issue personal recognizance bonds."

The commission based its findings on a ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal in a 2016 class-action lawsuit in Houston by indigent misdemeanor defendants, including a young mother who was held for two days in jail because she couldn't post $2,500 bail after her arrest for driving with an invalid license.

Rosenthal found the county's bail practices violated the U.S. Constitution, saying indigent defendants didn't have equal access to gain their freedom because they couldn't afford it.

Rosenthal's injunction followed a contentious hearing that pitted county officials against one other. She ordered the county's judges to release indigent, low-level defendants within 24 hours if they don't have holds or other detainers. That ruling is on appeal before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Harris County, which was in the process of reforming its risk assessments for bail, has spent more than $5 million defending itself against the suit. The county's lawyers argued on appeal that Rosenthal's order jeopardizes public safety and unfairly takes discretion out of the hands of judges.

Robert Soard, first assistant to County Attorney Vince Ryan, said he couldn't respond in detail to the commission's finding.

"We are in the process of reviewing the orders issued by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct as we are awaiting the ruling of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals of Judge Rosenthal's opinion," he said. "A ruling favorable to the County may have a significant impact on these orders."

The lawyers for the indigent defendants also said they were not prepared to comment on the sanctions.

But County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a longtime advocate of reforming the bail system, said he was gratified by the commission's findings.

"They recognized what I've been saying all along — that Harris County magistrates violated the law when they adhered to the county courts' strict bond schedule and refused to grant pretrial release simply because misdemeanor defendants were poor," he said. "This is further evidence that we must stop defending our two-tiered bail system that favors the wealthy, punishes the poor and undermines public safety."

He added, "Harris County must stop spending millions of taxpayer dollars fighting the lawsuit over its bail procedures and instead enact meaningful reforms that treat all people equally under the law."

Whitmire agreed.

"This just documents how broken the bail bond system is in Harris County," he said.

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