HOUSTON (CN) – The busiest criminal courthouse in Texas will be closed for up to nine months to repair damage from Hurricane Harvey, and 900 criminal trials will be delayed for at least a month, officials said this week.
On a typical morning in downtown Houston – the nation’s fourth largest city – the lines of people waiting to go through the metal detectors in the Harris County Criminal Justice Center snake out the building and down a handicap ramp outside, engulfing the hot dog cart vendor who is there each weekday in a mass of humanity.
On Friday there were no lines, just office workers wearing white face masks, and carrying computer equipment in boxes out of the building to waiting vans, as a large truck pumped out floodwater from tunnels beneath the building, its yellow hose disappearing down a flight of stairs.
The 20-story building houses the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and the Harris County Public Defender’s Office, whose personnel have been forced out for the repairs.
Harris County DA Kim Ogg’s department has around 700 staff members, including 320 prosecutors. They will be moved to multiple county offices near the downtown courthouse, and along Interstate 610, which rings downtown Houston, Ogg’s spokesman Dane Schiller said Thursday.
“Exactly which staff will go where remains a work in progress,” Schiller said.
Harris County Chief Public Defender Alex Bunin said in a phone interview Friday that his 76 employees will be moved temporarily to a new space that still needs to be built out.
Both Bunin and Schiller said the deluge from Harvey didn’t slow down their offices’ operations.
“Our Intake Division has been working 24/7 throughout the Harvey crisis. Persons have continued to be arrested and charges accepted and processed,” Schiller said.
Bunin’s office started a pilot program in July in which it staffs all probable cause hearings with public defenders, where magistrates set bonds, to advise defendants on the bond process.
Bunin said Harvey forced the magistrates to stop the hearings on Sunday, Aug. 27 at 7 a.m., but they restarted 24 hours later.
“I was at the first hearing the next morning at 7 a.m. on Monday after the storm and we continued to cover all those. So we never missed one. … We’ve represented defendants at all the bail hearings,” Bunin said.
Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel told Houston’s National Public Radio affiliate that a $13 million jury assembly room that opened in 2011 is a “total loss” due to flooding from Harvey.
A spokesman for the Harris County Engineering Department’s Facilities and Property Maintenance Division, which is handling the jury assembly room remediation, did not respond Friday when asked if the facility will be reopened after it’s cleaned up and repaired.
Daniel announced on Wednesday that he’s canceling jury duty through Sept. 22, which will give him time to find an alternate gathering space for people responding to jury summons.
He said the assembly room damage will delay 900 criminal cases by more than a month.
Daniel said criminal courts are moving to the county’s civil, family law and juvenile courthouses, which will delay civil and probate jury trials until November 1. Family law, civil and probate courts will be combined to free up space for the criminal courts, officials said.
Bunin called that an “optimistic” timeline. He said he hasn’t seen a specific case where a judge granted bond to a jailed defendant whose trial has been delayed, but he expects the issue will come up in a hearing soon.
“I think [defense] lawyers will be seeking that. There’s a statue in Texas that has time limits on when you can hold somebody in custody without getting them to trial,” he said.
He said he was unsure how a court deadline suspension imposed by the Texas Supreme Court and Texas Criminal Court of Appeals on Aug. 28 due to flooding from Harvey would affect the time limit on holding defendants before trial.
“All courts in Texas should consider disaster-caused delays as good cause for modifying or suspending all deadlines and procedures—whether prescribed by statute, rule, or order—in any case, civil or criminal,” the order states. It expires on Sept. 27.
Harris County judges held a news conference Wednesday where they said defendants out on bond won’t be penalized for missing a court date in light of the damage caused by Harvey.