Harris County bail case argued before federal appeals court in New Orleans

Bail presser

NEW ORLEANS — Amid a stream of pointed questions from the bench, lawyers for Harris County Tuesday asked panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to toss a lower court ruling that the county’s criminal justice system violated the constitution by holding poor defendants on low level offenses simply because they could not afford bail.

The arguments challenge an April ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal in Houston that the county’s bail system violated due process and equal protection by discriminating against poor misdemeanor defendants, when people with the money to could await trial at home.

A trio of appellate judges heard 30 minutes of oral arguments from the county, which has spent $4.2 million combating the lawsuit, and another 30 minutes from lawyers for a group of indigent defendants who languished in jail for days because they couldn’t afford to post bail.

Hearing the matter at the stately white courthouse on Layfayette Square were Judge Edith Brown Clement, a New Orleans jurist appointed by President George H.W. Bush, and two Texas judges, Judge Catharina Haynes, of Dallas, a former civil court judge in Dallas, and Judge Edward C. Prado, who worked for both the district attorney and public defender’s office in San Antonio, both of whom were tapped for the 5th Circuit by President George W. Bush.

Dubbed “the nation’s most divisive, controversial and conservative appeals court” by the American Bar Association, the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit, hears appellate cases from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

The judges appeared to be questioning whether the bail hearings were substantive for defendants, whether the sheriff had the authority to release people on bond and whether 24-hour limit Rosenthal set for holding indigent defendants without holds or detainers was arbitrary.

Of the three, Haynes commanded the questioning throughout the morning, including when Chuck Cooper, a seasoned appellate lawyer who heads the Washington, D.C. law firm Cooper & Kirk, argued for the county that the bail hearings were not perfunctory.

Haynes interrupted Cooper mid-sentence, with a rhetorical question, “Now they know they’re under scrutiny so they add an extra sentence to their rubber stamp?”
To Alec Karakatsanis, director of the Civil Rights Corps in D.C, who represents the indigent defendants who sued the county, Haynes repeatedly asked about why the defendants needed to be released from jail by the 24-hour mark.

“I’m asking a very specific question you’re not answering,” she said. “Where in the U.S. Constitution does it say you’re required to release… within 24 hours.”
“It doesn’t,” Karakatsanis said.

Haynes also asked what’s the value of the affidavit inmates sign to swear they can’t afford bail.

“What if they’re lying on this affidavit–I don’t know, if they’re a millionaire or something?” she queried.

Karakatsanis said they could face further prosecution for contempt if they misrepresented their means.

The panel of judges is not expected to rule immediately.

Following an eight-day hearing, Rosenthal ruled on April 28 that the county’s bail practices were unconstitutional., and she ordered the county to release indigent inmates arrested on low-level charges within 24 hours if they do not have detainers, holds or competency hearings pending.

Rather than putting cash upfront, these individuals are now permitted to await trial on personal bonds.

The judge found defendants were exposed to rushed hearings and those who tried to speak were commanded not to, shouted down or ignored She said the judges did not do the analysis to conclude that cash bail is better than unsecured bail.

The case was initially brought on behalf of Maranda ODonnell, a young mother who was held in the Harris County Jail because she could not afford to post $2,500 bail after being arrested for driving with a suspended license. The class-action suit will affect other inmates in the jail.

Prior to the morning session, Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps, said she was ready for the appeals.

“We’re looking forward to answering the panel’s questions and explaining why this is a simple case that upholds fundamental principles of liberty enshrined in the constitution,” she said.

County Attorney Vince Ryan said the 24-hour timeline Rosenthal set was problematic.

“The judge’s order shifts judicial functions—the setting of reasonable bail and conditions of release for misdemeanors—to an affidavit by the defendant which must be accepted by the sheriff,” he said. “The order applies regardless of the number of times a person is arrested and fails to appear for court. A system that promotes speedy release without real accountability over public safety is not a system that Harris County can embrace.”

This story originally appeared 10/3/2017 in the Houston Chronicle.

Protesters demand more from FEMA to help Houston’s most vulnerable recover from Hurricane Harvey

FEMA presser

HOUSTON – There are still a lot of Houstonians in need more than a month after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, but not everyone says they’re getting what they need from FEMA. On Saturday, The Texas Organizing Project protested outside of the Greenspoint Mall and gave a list of demands they say are necessary to help the city’s most vulnerable recover. Check out the video to hear what needs they say the agency is not meeting.

This story originally appeared 9/30/2017 on CW 39.

Local group holds FEMA demonstration outside Greenspoint Recovery Center

Screen Shot 2017-10-03 at 4.30.35 PM

HOUSTON – Among the lines of people gathered outside of Greenspoint Mall to get assistance from the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Texas Organizing Project (TOP) gathered to demand that FEMA provide better assistance to those affected by Harvey.

The Texas Organizing Project Education Fund organizes Black and Latino communities in Harris, Bexar, and Dallas counties.

“Demand justice for black and brown Houstonians after Hurricane Harvey,” said Robert Holley, an organizer with TOP.

Members of TOP called on FEMA to increase transparency for the community by creating a comprehensive web-based map and data set of Hurricane Harvey damage that includes a geographic view of all pending and approved applications for assistance.

This comes after complaints throughout the community that FEMA’s help hasn’t been felt by those affected by the storm.

“I haven’t seen any FEMA money,” said Chantelle Jones, who was in line at Greenspoint. “I only got $2,000 when we went through Katrina — and we lost everything … $2,000 was not enough.”

TOP is also asking FEMA to ensure safe and healthy housing for people affected by Hurricane Harvey by keeping hotel vouchers and rent assistance and other housing support in place until people’s homes are livable.

“We need more housing. We need vouchers. We need stuff like that here in the city of Houston,” said Jermaine Anderson, a flood survivor who will not have a place to live come October. “They’re wanting us to relocate 100 miles from home. We can’t go that far from home.”

A main concern with TOP is transportation. TOP is asking FEMA to ensure dependable transportation for working families by providing taxi, Uber, or Lyft vouchers for workers who have flooded cars, or who are relocated and have more than an hour to commute to work by foot and public transportation, as well as run shuttle buses connecting outlying areas and work with METRO to provide free services for victims to get to work and other appointments.

“Mold is collecting in their houses, and they’re having to stay in their houses because there is nowhere to go. No way to go. Many of them need medicine and can’t get out to get their medicine,” said Betty Gregory, an organizer with TOP.

TOP is also asking that FEMA provide intentional focus on disadvantaged communities by hiring more navigators and sending them to historically disadvantaged communities, conducting seminars for FEMA benefits in multiple languages and working to dispel rumors that discourage people from applying.

Members of the community expressed their concern and emphasized that Harvey survivors are in desperate need of assistance.

“FEMA has come and visited people, and that’s all that they’ve done,” said Oscar Thomas, a community organizer with TOP.

TOP is also asking that FEMA’s solutions be more “appropriate,” saying that giving money for one month’s rent is not feasible for those who are dealing with relocating and insurance.

Lydia Balderas, who lost her home to the flood, said the community is tired of dealing with FEMA.

“They come and stand in line. (FEMA closes) the lines. They won’t talk to them. They say, ‘Come back. Come back,’ and it’s been hurting. The community is tired,” Balderas said.

FEMA told KPRC that it is reaching out and serving all people, regardless of race, religions, or socioeconomic status. FEMA also said it has hired extra positions locally to help with inefficiencies, and is working on longer term housing. As for transportation, FEMA is asking people to rely on volunteer organizations to meet those needs.

FEMA representatives said the best and most efficient way to apply is online and by calling during non-peak hours — the early morning or afternoon.

This story originally appeared 9/30/2017 on KPRC.