Time to Re-Think Harris County’s Probable Cause Magistrates

As some of you may know, we have a unique criminal justice system in Harris County. No, I am not referring to our constant revolving door, although that continues to be an issue.

But I am referring to the existence and use of PC (Probable Cause) magistrates. That may be the first time you have ever heard of or seen the term PC magistrate but make no mistake about it, they play a very influential role in our criminal justice system.

You see a PC magistrate is not elected by the people; he or she is simply hired by a judge that is in place. There is no accountability to the voters, just to the current sitting district judges.

Let me let you in on a little secret: Their sole existence is to make the elected judges’ jobs easier. It’s so a judge doesn’t have to sit there 24 hours a day to conduct hearings on new arrests and it certainly means that judges don’t need to be on call 24 hours a day to sign warrants. So they defer this power to a PC magistrate.

I mean heaven forbid that a judge elected by the people be put on a rotational list with their other elected judicial colleagues to do the job that the people elected him/her to do.

Let’s unpack for a second the vast amount of power that these PC magistrates have over our cases. They can simply find that an arrest has no probable cause when the PC is clearly spelled out in the charges and police report. They can completely torpedo a case at the outset based on their opinion of the case. These decision-makers are not elected judges – just attorneys or former judges hired to be a PC magistrate. They are the first to set the all-important bond amount for a defendant.

Most times they simply follow a bond schedule with no thought whatsoever to the criminal history, whether they are already out on bond, the nature of the crime or the serious risk the person may pose to the community. That’s how you get an average bond amount of somewhere around $50,000 for a murder and suspects getting bond after bond after bond.

They can also refuse to sign warrants when it seems like there is no basis for them to do so. Let me stress once again: these people are not elected by the people but make monumental decisions on cases that effectively initiate the criminal justice process.

Here at the HPOU we are never ones to point out a problem and not provide a solution. In this case the solution is staring us right in the face. The PC magistrate concept needs to be ended in Harris County. The elected judges in this county need to DO THEIR JOBS.

These judges work very hard to get elected. Now they need to do the jobs that they campaigned so hard to get.

There should be a rotating schedule of judges that can handle PC hearings, set the bond amounts and sign warrants, etc. This practice would be similar to the elected district attorney’s practice of rotating prosecutors around the clock to accept charges.  Like this practice there needs to be accountability to the voters who elected these judges. This way those judges who are letting people go based on opinions and not on facts can be readily identified – and not able to hide behind hired guns who answer to no one but their bosses.

 

Prop B

No secret to anyone at this point that Proposition B passed on Election Day.

Where do we go from here?

Was this election even legal, based on the collective bargaining Houston’s firefighters requested and campaigned the voters for in 2004?

The HPOU is exploring several legal arguments that we believe hold merit and have very strong legal standing. Any action taken should not be considered to be a slap in the face to voters. We only want to make sure the law was followed.  Due to case law, the HPOU was prohibited from any challenge unless the voters passed the measure.

Our actions are separate and apart from any actions that may be taken by the City of Houston.

Mayor Turner has already begun the reorganization of the Fire Department by identifying the firefighters who could be laid off. Our position throughout the mayor’s process has been clear: we will not sit idly by and watch a single cadet/young police officer sacrificed to pay for this and we will fight with every means available to protect our family.

 

Christmas Dinner

Every year our board member, Sgt. Luis Menendez-Sierra (along with his family), opens the doors of the HPOU on Christmas Day and serves a free lunch/dinner to HPD officers from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. A number of other board members assist every year as a way for us to give back to every officer who won’t be able to enjoy a home-cooked meal with their family on Christmas Day – and likely can’t even find a restaurant that is open.

If you’re working Christmas Day, please stop by the HPOU and pick up a meal on us.

 

Badge and Gun going digital

More and more newspapers and magazines around the country are digitizing their content. The monthly Badge & Gun now is no different.

Effective with the January issue, we will be moving the B&G to a fully online format. This means you will no longer receive a paper copy. It will have all the same content; it will just be on our website.

Of course, we will email out links as well so that everyone knows where to find it. The simple fact is we lose money every month printing the B&G. We cannot justify this loss simply to print hard copies when we can do it cheaper and quicker online.

 

As always, be safe out there and if you need anything I am only a phone call away, text (832-283-9492), or you can also reach me at the following: email (jgamaldi@hpou.org), message on Facebook, DM on twitter (@JoeGamaldi).