Harris County: Bad Magistrates, Bad Bond Hearings
December 8, 2016 (Fault Lines) — If you are arrested and charged with a criminal offense, you may be required to post a bond to ensure your return to court. Texas has very detailed laws concerning bonds, including specific factors a judge or magistrate must consider before setting a bond amount. Apparently Harris County, Texas’s magistrates have yet to read these laws or do not care. Their laissez-faire approach to setting bond has a State Senator filing judicial misconduct complaints on three magistrates and a federal suit in progress.
Magistrates Eric Hagstette, Jill Wallace, and Joseph Licata are tasked with setting bond amounts for defendants in Harris County. They are required to exercise discretion when setting the amount, or determining if a defendant is eligible for a personal release bond. Let’s see how Magistrate Wallace sets bond where an elderly man with a history of dementia and homelessness is accused of criminal trespassing, a misdemeanor in Texas.
A prosecutor rattles off information about his arrest as [Anthony Wayne] Goffney, stooped and gray-haired, appearing confused, gazes over his shoulder.
Court records show Goffney has dementia and a history of homelessness, yet his poverty is not discussed as hearing officer Jill Wallace, appearing via a video link, decides whether to jail him or let him go free.
Wallace says, rapid-fire: “Bond is set at $5,000. You’re denied a pretrial release bond.”
This bond hearing takes no consideration of the factors for determining bond. It ignores the requirement that a person with dementia, a form of mental illness, be released on a personal bond. There’s no discussion of Goffney receiving inpatient treatment at a mental health facility as a condition of his personal bond, which Magistrate Wallace could require under the law. Magistrate Wallace’s actions are not an isolated incident.
Our gaze now rests on Magistrate Hagstette’s court and a bond hearing of a woman charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession.
Hagstette doubled a woman’s bail amount because she kept answering him “yeah” instead of “yes.” Hagstette had asked the woman, charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession, whether she wanted a court-appointed lawyer:
“I asked a question that calls for a yes or a no. I don’t expect anything but a yes or a no. Not a ‘mhmm,’ ‘maybe so,’ or a yell or anything else,” Hagstette said, according to video of the hearing.
“I said yeah,” the defendant clarified a third time.
“I heard what you said. Your bond just went up to $2,000.”
Doubling a bond amount because a defendant didn’t say “yes” reeks of violating Article 17.15(2) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, which says:
The power to require bail is not to be so used as to make it an instrument of oppression.
Defendants are required to respect a judge’s orders, but disappointing Magistrate Hagstette’s expectations because one said “yeah” instead of “yes” isn’t allowed under the Texas Rules for setting bond. One wonders if Magistrate Hagstette even considered the defendant’s ability to post a $1,000 bond. That’s not a consideration in Magistrate Licata’s court, where repeat offenders are “job security.”
The driving infractions and fines had piled up on Robin Clearey, who stood before Magistrate Joe Licata after she was ticketed for driving without working taillights, a license or valid registration.
She had been through this many times before, she told the judge, and at that very moment she also had a criminal case pending for driving with an invalid license, for which she would stay in jail unless she paid a $3,500 bond. Licata warned her that, if she didn’t pay the fines for these tickets and renew her license after paying surcharges to the Department of Public Safety, “you’re gonna get arrested every time you get pulled over.”
That was nothing to her, Clearey responded — because she had already become trapped in a cycle of arrests.
“It’s nothing to me either,” Licata told her. “It’s job security.” (Emphasis added.)
Calling a defendant trapped in a cycle of arrests over driving infractions and fines “job security” violates at least three canons of Texas’s Code of Judicial Conduct. It doesn’t uphold the integrity of the judiciary. It reeks of impropriety and is an action that does not promote “public confidence…of the judiciary.” Finally, it is not an action “faithful to the law” or “dignified and courteous” to a defendant. It’s a statement equating a human being’s worth to that of cattle.
Fault Lines contributors have discussed the countless problems with the systematic ignorance of bond factors in various jurisdictions. Every defendant is different, and every circumstance must be considered when a judge or magistrate decides the only thing that can ensure a return appearance to court is cold hard cash. In Harris County, Texas, at least three magistrates made the decision to throw those factors aside and set bail in whatever amount they fancied. The only patch to this crack in the criminal justice system is swift and decisive action. Turning a blind eye to this bad behavior, or allowing it to continue, will do nothing but obliterate the people of Harris County’s trust in the legitimacy of the system.