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ACLU: County legal system discriminates against poor

GALVESTON

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued Galveston County, its judges and magistrates over a bail system the civil rights group asserts unjustly harms indigent people accused of crimes.

The lawsuit was filed Sunday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on behalf of plaintiff Aaron Burl Booth, a 36-year-old man in the Galveston County jail on charges of possession of a controlled substance.

The county’s legal system infringed on Booth’s due process civil rights by failing to appoint an attorney before setting his bail and not determining his financial ability to pay the bail, which violates constitutional equal protection guarantees and right to counsel, according to the lawsuit.

The complaint asserts the situation is common in the county’s legal system.

Booth is being held in the Galveston County jail on a $20,000 bond, according to the lawsuit.

ARBITRARY, CASH-DRIVEN

The county operates an arbitrary cash bail system that favors wealthier defendants while encouraging poorer defendants to either plead guilty or sit in jail, sometimes for months, while awaiting trial, the lawsuit claims. The system treats defendants accused of the same crimes differently by making their release a matter of whether they can afford bail, according to the lawsuit.

The system harms poorer defendants by keeping them away from their work and families and violates their constitutional rights to counsel, due process and equal protection under the law, the lawsuit asserts.

“Instead of administering equal justice in criminal cases, Galveston County locks the accused who cannot afford a payment in jail, while allowing those who can afford a payment to go free,” the lawsuit states.

“The county sets these payment amounts without any meaningful hearing. The result is a jail filled with hundreds of people who are incarcerated simply because they cannot afford to purchase their release.”

JUDGES, DA NAMED

The suit was filed against Galveston County District Court Judges Kerry Neves, Lonnie Cox, John Ellisor, Patricia Grady, Anne Darring and Michelle Slaughter.

Galveston County Court at Law Judges John Grady, Barbara Roberts and Jack Ewing; Galveston County Magistrates Mark Baker, Kerri Foley and James Woltz; and District Attorney Jack Roady were all named in the lawsuit.

Cox, the administrative judge for the county, did not respond to requests for comment by deadline. Roady declined comment.

The ACLU filed against the judges, magistrate and district attorney because the judges vote to set the county’s administrative rules on bond, according to the lawsuit. The magistrates carry out the county’s pretrial release standards and the district attorney is a policy maker on the bail-setting rules that govern prosecutors, according to the lawsuit.

SIMILAR CASES

In January, the ACLU filed a similar suit against Dallas County on behalf of six plaintiffs, Faith In Texas and the Texas Organizing Project Education Fund.

The case is also similar to a suit filed against Harris County over its bail bond system. The lawsuit led a federal judge in April 2017 to rule that county’s bail bond practices unconstitutional and order certain reforms.

“If you’re a policy maker you can see the writing on the wall,” ACLU attorney Trisha Trigilio said. “These jurisdictions unfortunately will be sued if they don’t reach out and take the initiative and take a proactive approach.”

REFORMS URGED

For more than a year, Trigilio has been in contact with Galveston County officials about concerns the organization has with the county’s justice system and pretrial detention practices for people accused of nonviolent offenses, according to county records.

In July, Trigilio wrote the county legal department proposing changes to the bail system and requesting the county recommend cheaper personal bonds for all misdemeanor and state jail felony charges and requesting a meeting, according to an email county legal provided.

In November, Trigilio in a letter to the county called for a more urgent response to addressing concerns about the legal system, most notably the pretrial release system.

Criminal court judges had not been cooperative in working with the civil rights group to address the proposals, Trigilio said in the November letter. Judges were invited to a Nov. 2 meeting with the ACLU, but not all attended, she said. And only Cox had reviewed the proposals, she said.

The county commissioners court had been working toward reforms, she acknowledged. The court had voted to support an immediate end to pretrial detention for misdemeanor and state jail felony charges and had committed at least $2 million for reforms, Trigilio said.

The organization requested the county make several changes, including having magistrates release inmates accused of nonviolent misdemeanors or state jail felony charges, such as drug possession, on cheaper personal bonds. Most of those changes have not yet been made, Trigilio said.

“The message we’re looking to send with the lawsuit is not that we’re going to sue everyone who is doing it wrong,” Trigilio said in an interview.

“There’s a genuine reason we sent a letter to Galveston County in late July with proposed changes. Collaboration is definitely preferable to us.”

SOME REFORMS MADE

The judges had agreed to some changes, Trigilio said. For instance, they had scrapped the use of a document containing 36 reasons a person could be denied a cheaper personal bond, she said. The ACLU had considered many of the reasons on that list for detaining a person on a more expensive bond arbitrary and unconstitutional, she said.

The judges had also ended the practice of requiring payment of administrative court fees in advance as a condition of release, she said.

But the other requested reforms had not been made and the county still was detaining people for no other reason than their inability to pay a bond, Trigilio said.

“They wanted to convene a committee and couldn’t commit to making any changes in shorter than a year, but this is a crisis,” Trigilio said.

“There are already hundreds of people locked in Galveston County over bond and in the meantime the county would continue locking people in jail for the sole reason that they can’t make bail.”

BOOTH’S ARREST

Booth was arrested early Sunday on charges of felony drug possession, according to court records. The arresting officer consulted with a prosecutor who set his bail at $20,000, according to the lawsuit.

On Sunday morning, Booth saw a magistrate officer who adopted the bail amount without question, according to the suit. The magistrate had not inquired about whether Booth could afford the bond, whether he was a flight risk or a danger to the community, according to the lawsuit.

Booth requested an attorney and completed a “pauper’s oath” form to demonstrate he is too poor to hire his own attorney, according to the lawsuit. He had not been appointed an attorney by the time the lawsuit was filed Sunday night, according to the ACLU’s complaint.

The lawsuit asserts these actions violate constitutional rights granted to the accused by adopting a bail schedule without determining ability to pay or appointing a counsel.

MORE WIDESPREAD?

It’s common for accused people to be held in jail for a week or longer before getting a “meaningful bail hearing” after magistration, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit represents one plaintiff, but the organization asserts the practice is more widespread.

“Galveston County operates one of the largest jails in the State of Texas, with capacity to lock up more than 1,000 people,” the lawsuit states.

“Typically, more than 700 of these people are pretrial detainees who have not been convicted of a crime. The vast majority of pretrial detainees are jailed because they cannot afford bail.”

For misdemeanor cases, accused people are once a day brought to a “jail docket” before a misdemeanor judge, according to the lawsuit. The judge assigns two defense attorneys who attempt to represent everyone on the jail docket over the course of the week, according to the lawsuit

The attorneys meet with clients in the hallway outside of the hearing and attempt to communicate the prosecutor’s plea bargain offer, according to the lawsuit. The defendant sees the judge for a hearing only if he agrees to a plea bargain, the lawsuit asserts.

“For people who are steadfast enough to maintain their innocence, misdemeanor judges maintain policies that require arrestees to wait about a week after jail docket before their first status conference before the judge assigned to their case,” according to the lawsuit.

Felony cases do not appear on a jail docket, according to the lawsuit. The first appearance before a judge is for appointing defense counsel and eliciting guilty pleas, which typically occurs several days after the arrest or sometimes more than a month, according to the lawsuit.

“Under this policy, the vast majority of people are booked into Galveston County Jail for more than a week unless they plead guilty or pay the secured bail listed in the applicable bail schedule,” the lawsuit stated. “Of course, every one of these people is presumed to be innocent.”

‘WEALTH-BASED SYSTEM’

The lawsuit claims the county lacks any legitimate reason for refusing to release people who cannot make a payment and rarely considers whether defendants are flight risks or dangers to the community.

The use of secured bail disproportionately affected poorer people accused of crimes and research shows it makes people more likely to enter into a plea bargain or face losing their jobs or custody of their children while jailed, according to the lawsuit.

“Galveston County’s wealth-based system of imprisonment locks poorer — and presumptively innocent — people in jail, while allowing wealthier individuals accused of the same crimes to go free until trial,” the lawsuit asserts.

SEEKING RELIEF

The lawsuit asked the federal court for an injunction against Galveston County and requests the county judiciary promptly begin inquiring about whether accused people can afford bond.

The lawsuit also requested prompt appointment of defense counsel for indigent people and advanced written notice of the critical questions of the hearing, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit asked for “reasoned written finding, by clear and convincing evidence, that secured money bail in the amount set is the least restrictive means of achieving the government’s interest in mitigating the arrestee’s risk of flight or danger to the community.”

The lawsuit advocates for alternative measures to ensure people show up for court, such as offering cheaper personal bonds.


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Boat show could bring 40,000 spenders to League City

LEAGUE CITY

Boats on trailers arrived Monday at South Shore Harbour Marina in preparation for the South West International In-Water Boat Show, a major event for League City, which has ambitions to increase its profile in the tourism industry.

The boat show, which begins Thursday, is the largest in the southwest, said organizer Marion Daly, who is expecting 300 boats and 200 vendors for the 10th annual show.

Most years, the show attracts 20,000 to 40,000 people over four days, said Bridget Bear, director of sales and marketing at South Shore Harbour Resort.

“It is a boost to the economy because the out-of-towners who come to the show stay at the area hotels, eat in the local restaurants, buy gas from the local stations and shop locally,” Bear said. “The area hotels get about 300 to 400 rooms nights from guests of the show.”

The show is League City’s biggest annual cultural event, based on hotel rooms booked, said Bryan Roller, Convention and Visitors Bureau administrator.

The show features boats, many for sale, marine accessories and, this year, RVs, said Shawna Reid, marketing and visitors center manager for Bay Area Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“It is one of our larger events,” Reid said.

More than 573,000 boats are registered in Texas and the industry has a $6 billion a year economic impact, underpinning more than 31,000 related jobs and more than 2,000 related businesses, the National Marine Manufacturers Association said.

Annual retail sales of new boats, engines and marine accessories is about $1.4 billion in Texas, the association said.

The show will feature 300 boats ranging in size from 10-foot to 100-foot freshwater and saltwater vessels, including new designs and models making a Texas debut, Daly said.

National unit sales of new powerboats were up 6 percent in 2017, marking an estimated 260,000 new powerboats sold last year, the National Marine Manufacturers Association said.

The association is predicting another 5 percent to 6 percent increase in 2018 for new powerboat sales, the association said.

“The close of 2017 marked our sixth consecutive year of growth in new boat sales and recreational boating expenditures, and we expect that trend to continue through 2018, and possibly beyond,” association President Thom Dammrich said. “If economic indicators remain favorable to the recreational boating market with strong consumer confidence, a healthy housing market, rising disposable income and consumer spending, and historically low-interest rates, the outlook is good for boat sales.”

Boat shows can generate as much as 50 percent of annual sales for manufacturers and dealers, the association said.

The event highlights one of the city’s main priorities.

The city is working with Washington-based consultant Destinations International to make a reliable formula to calculate the economic benefit of sporting events, meetings and cultural events, Roller said.

Even without the formula, city officials believe the boat show will continue to play a big part in attracting visitors and getting them to stay in town and spend money, Roller said.

“It’s exciting they keep coming back,” Roller said.


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With few takers, state to end Harvey repair program

After only five months, the state is ending a program meant to help repair houses damaged by Hurricane Harvey, citing an inability to find eligible homeowners. The much-awaited program served only a few hundred Texans.

State officials on Monday announced April 20 would be the last day to schedule an inspection under the Direct Assistance for Limited Home Repair program. The program is one of five post-Harvey short-term direct housing programs the Texas General Land Office manages.

The program will be closed to applicants who don’t schedule an inspection by April 20, the land office said.

The program, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and administered by the land office, granted eligible homeowners who lacked flood insurance between $17,000 and $60,000 for repairs.

The program struggled because officials haven’t been able to find 282 applicants, including 15 in Galveston County, land office spokeswoman Brittany Eck said.

Contractors are waiting to work, but officials can’t get in touch with homeowners, Eck said.

The program began Nov. 3 after weeks of negotiation between state and federal officials. Statewide, 307 homes are in some phase of the program, Eck said. Of those, 149 are complete, 132 are under construction and another 26 are in a pre-construction phase.

In Galveston County, seven houses were completed and another nine are in the process.

Hurricane Harvey struck in late August, flooding more than 20,000 houses in the county.

“The Direct Assistance for Limited Home Repair program has provided valuable repair opportunities for Texans struggling to rebuild after Harvey,” Land Commissioner George P. Bush said. “As the program comes to a close, applicants who have not yet scheduled an inspection to discuss what repairs might be available need to do so as soon as possible to avoid missing this critical deadline.”

The land office has completed processing all cases to determine whether the households qualify for the program. The Federal Emergency Management Agency makes final eligibility determinations, the land office said.

The land office and FEMA were unable to reach some applicants even after numerous attempts through phone calls and home visits, officials said.

Officials reached out between three and five times to those households but did not hear back from them, Eck said.

Applicants notified they are potentially eligible for the program can contact the land office at 888-958-0877 to schedule an inspection before the deadline.

For those who miss the April 20 inspection deadline, the manufactured housing unit and travel trailer options are still a possible short-term housing solution, as well as the Direct Lease program, Eck said.


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County wants federal funds for higher-income homes

GALVESTON

County leaders are preparing to argue that federal housing dollars for Hurricane Harvey recovery should be accessible to homeowners in more affluent areas than allowed under federal law.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Ken Clark said Monday the county should be prepared to ask for a waiver on rules about how some $5 billion in federal money will be distributed to Harvey-affected communities.

“I’m concerned we may not get the help that we need for our residents,” Clark said.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allocated $5.02 billion to Texas in November to repair houses, businesses and infrastructure damaged by Harvey, which struck the Texas coast in late August. More than 20,000 homes across Galveston County were damaged by the storm.

About one-fifth of the federal money already been promised to Houston and Harris County, with the rest being split among other Texas counties, Clark said. Local shares haven’t been decided, but Clark said one federal rule could limit the money for Galveston County residents needing assistance, he said

Federal law requires that 70 percent of Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery money go to low- and moderate-income households.

Local communities most damaged by Harvey, including League City, Dickinson and Friendswood, have lower concentrations of people who would qualify for the money, Clark said.

Without a waiver, people who may deserve money — like homeowners who lived outside the 500-year floodplain and were uninsured — might be denied assistance, Clark said.

“I would submit to the court that 60 percent of the people impacted by Hurricane Harvey lived outside the 500-year flood plain,” Clark said. “They might not be eligible for help.”

Under housing department rules, households earning 50 percent or less of an area’s median income are “low income.” Households earning 80 percent or less are “moderate income.”

In Galveston County, the federally recognized median income for a family of four is $74,900. That means a household earning less than $37,450 would qualify as low income, those earning less than $59,900 would qualify as moderate income.

Clark also worried infrastructure projects meant to benefit qualifying low-income areas might be disallowed because they would also benefit surrounding higher-income areas, which might skew the benefit calculation.

The state action plan could be released this week, Texas General Land Office spokeswoman Brittany Eck said. The agency is working to translate the document into five languages — another federal rule — before it is released for public comment, she said.

When it is, people will have 14 days to respond to the proposals. The plan would then go back to the land office to be finalized. Clark said he would also like the public comment period to be extended from 14 days to 30 days.

The issue was discussed during a workshop meeting and commissioners did not take a vote on the topic on Monday.