Houston Accused of Illegally Detaining Arrestees

HOUSTON (CN) – Two Texans claim in a federal class action that Houston unconstitutionally detains people it arrests longer than 48 hours without giving them a probable cause hearing.

Lead plaintiff Juan Hernandez, 43, says Houston police arrested him without a warrant in January after he pushed his family member. He was charged with misdemeanor assault and booked into a city jail.

Hernandez claims in a class action filed Monday in Houston federal court that the city doesn’t provide probable cause hearings for its arrestees right away, instead only offering them the option of immediately getting out of jail by paying bail based on a set fee schedule.

“The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Texas state law require that anyone arrested without a warrant be released promptly—after 48 hours at the longest—unless a neutral magistrate has concluded that there was probable cause for her arrest and continued detention,” the Dec. 5 complaint states. “Houston has a policy and practice of disregarding this simple obligation.”

Houston arrestees don’t start the pretrial hearing process until HPD transfers them to Harris County Jail, where they appear before a magistrate judge via video feed.

“The arrestees remain in the jail and a hearing officer and an assistant district attorney participate in the hearing from a room in the courthouse. The assistant district attorney reads the alleged facts supporting the charges against the arrestee, and the hearing officer determines whether there was probable cause for the arrest,” the complaint states.

Hernandez says that after he was booked into a Houston city jail on Jan. 7, a female staffer told him the Harris County Jail was full and his transfer there would be delayed. “She told Mr. Hernandez to ‘be patient,’” the complaint states.

More than 49 hours later, Hernandez says, he was taken before a magistrate, who set his bond at $1,500, court records show. He pleaded guilty five days later and was sentenced to deferred adjudication, a form of probation under which he will not be jailed if he doesn’t commit any crimes within one year.

Hernandez’s co-plaintiff, James Dossett, claims he was also arrested on Jan. 7 of this year and was held for 56 hours without receiving a probable cause hearing. He says the charges against him were ultimately dropped.

According to the lawsuit, hundreds of Houston detainees were illegally held without a hearing in July and August because the county jail didn’t have room for them.

Hernandez and Dossett seek damages for alleged violations of the Fourth and 14th Amendments. They also seek certification of a class of those arrested without a warrant by Houston police and held longer than 48 hours without a probable cause hearing in the last two years.

The two plaintiffs are represented by Rebecca Bernhardt with the Texas Fair Defense Project in Austin, Charles Gerstein with the Civil Rights Corps in Washington, D.C., and Patrick King with Kirkland Ellis in Houston.

Houston’s city attorney didn’t immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

Booking an average of 330 people per day, the county jail in downtown Houston is the biggest in Texas and third biggest in the United States, according to a federal class action filed in May that accused Harris County of illegally jailing misdemeanor arrestees who can’t afford bail.

Overcrowding, partly due to a revolving door of the mentally ill, is a constant problem for the jail. To prevent a crisis, Harris County shipped 133 inmates to jails in East Texas in April.

Lame duck Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman has told local media outlets he has little control over the jail population because it depends on how many people are caught committing crimes and how quickly low-level offenders can post bond.

A city-county processing center is under construction across the street from the Harris County Jail.

When the new facility is done, Houston will close its jails and take all arrestees to the processing center, which should speed up the bonding-out process for misdemeanor offenders and provide mentally ill inmates with in-house treatment options.

Hickman is a defendant in the class action over Harris County’s bail system. He has unsuccessfully argued he should be dismissed from the suit because he is only complying with orders from judges to jail people who can’t afford bail.

Harris County Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez, a Democrat, filed an affidavit in the bail case, in which he announced he plans to support the plaintiffs.

“Though I respect Sheriff Hickman, I respectfully disagree with his and his lawyers’ position that the sheriff should not even be a party to this case,” the Nov. 22 affidavit states. “I believe that the current operation of the money bail system, including the sheriff’s active participation in that system, violates the United States Constitution. I believe that the sheriff should be a party to the current lawsuit, and I look forward to participating in the lawsuit in my official capacity once I am sworn into office on January I, 2017.” (Emphasis in original.)

Painfully aware the crowded jail is a festering problem for Harris County, officials are working on reforms.

The Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, made up of judges, law enforcement officers and prosecutors, is devising a data-driven tool to determine which county inmates should be released on bond before their cases are disposed. The council is partnering with Luminosity Inc., a St. Petersburg, Fla., criminal-justice consulting firm.

The system, which is expected to go live in March 2017, will assess the risk of an arrestee not showing up to court, committing new crimes and committing violent crimes.