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