Veteran prosecutor Bill Exley working with police officers To put felony teeth in what he terms ‘Predatory Theft’ law

Tom Kennedy

Bank juggers have too much incentive. They commit frequent crimes that have big rewards – sometimes as much as $150,000 – with little risk.

Investigators and prosecutors believe arrest and conviction usually net little jail time, enabling them to return to free society and repeat the offense numerous times with little fear of being caught.

“What we need to do is put the fear of the Lord in bank juggers,” leading HPD crusader Christian Dorton told the Badge & Gun. “Officers are motivated and we’re looking at ways to hit them even harder. Right now we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got.”

‘Predatory Theft’

Presently, a bank jugger might be looking at a few months, even a year or so, of being incarcerated for offenses such as burglary of a motor vehicle, theft from a person, robbery and aggravated robbery. Some judges are adding more time for repeat offenders but current sentencing guidelines stand in the way of terms lengthy enough to put enough fear in these clever criminals to realize the risks are higher.

Harris County prosecutor Bill Exley has been working with Dorton and other members of the HPD Northeast Tact to put together what is being called a “Predatory Theft” law for consideration in the 2017 session of the Texas Legislature.

Exley said this measure would increase the first offense for what is informally defined as bank juggin’ from a misdemeanor to a third degree felony. This way, the veteran prosecutor emphasized, a second conviction would increase the penalty range to up to 20 years and a third to 25 years to life – as an habitual offender.

This new measure would amount to quite a bit of additional risk than three misdemeanor thefts.

Today’s bank juggers – most of whom grew up on Houston’s Northeast side – remain the centerpieces of repeat juggin’ operations despite being caught and convicted of lesser offenses over and over and over again.

The 17-year prosecutor appreciates the enlightenment Dorton and Northeast Tact has supplied him and his colleagues in the DA’s office so much that he shares the officers’ frustration and commitment to strengthen the laws and heighten the risks.

He pointed out as he answered questions in an interview that “as we speak” juggers are in a number of bank parking lots stalking potential victims. If one doesn’t work out, there will be another at a bank across town or in another city or state.

“We can’t do anything about it until they commit a crime, either a BMV or a robbery,” Exley said. “It’s not illegal to sit in a parking lot at a bank. It’s not illegal to follow someone around in a car. A police officer can’t do much to stop it before it happens.”

Operating undercover in plain clothes does increase the risks – for officers, who don’t relish approaching a suspect without identifying himself or herself as a police officer, Exley said, pointing out that “a shootout is possible.”

Juggers have many advantages with their basic operations. They use cars with illegal tint to better enable stalking. Undercover “baiting” operations pose another serious hazard, again for officers. For example, to increase the crime to a third degree felony – if the bait is taken – that “bait” has to be more than $30,000.

“You run the risk of tens of thousands of bait money to be stolen by the crooks,” Exley said.

And don’t forget the danger to the civilian victims. Two years ago, he said, two bank juggin’ operations turned into capital murder cases when the perpetrators killed their victims to get the money. This way, of course, a misdemeanor or aggravated robbery graduates to capital murder.

Exley believes this is one condition of the crime pattern that should get the attention of legislators everywhere, especially since juggin’ has become a popular crime to commit in small towns with smaller police forces.

As a matter of fact, some of those juggins that might have occurred “as we speak” very likely happened in places like Conroe, Baytown or Sugar Land, etc.

Exley described the typical case results when a jugger is captured and charged, quote often but not always with BMV, a non-violent property crime which routinely carries a maximum two-year sentence. He said a bank jugger will serve more real time serving a state jail felony than if he went to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice on a felony conviction.

Steeper Penalty Ladder

Even so, with overcrowded jail conditions the convicted jugger will be out sometimes far less than two actual years of calendar time.

“The crooks realize they can go out and commit 200 or 300 BMVs,” Exley said. “If they get caught once, it’s a misdemeanor. They have to get caught in the act. Sometimes they get lucky and get $10,000 or a gun” from the car they break into.

Besides the low risk, there are a multitude of opportunities. Banks can’t afford to patrol all the bank parking lots in the Greater Houston area and, if they could, it would be difficult to make cases on people just sitting in cars on parking lots.

Whether it’s Dorton or Exley describing bank juggin’ operations, they keep repeating the high-reward, low-risk ramifications.

Exley outlined a new plan for enhancing state statues to create a punishment ladder that will increase the risks for these criminal beasts of prey.

If evidence established that the suspect was acting as a stalker on the premises who eyed his target as he or she entered a bank and returned to the car with a bank bag (likely filled with cash) and followed that person out of the parking lot, then grounds for violating the “predatory theft” law would be taking place.

Unlike the misdemeanor BMV laws, a charge of Predatory Theft would amount to a third degree felony.  “It changes the risk factor,” Exley explained, “if we have evidence that we know can be generated to make air-tight cases.”

Now comes the math and an enhancement of the risk.

Today three or four convictions of charges filed on bank juggers amount to low-priority charges and sentences for crimes.

Exley pointed out that a second conviction for Predatory Theft would increase the penalty from two to 10 years to two to 20 years.

Then, if the heretofore brazen jugger gets caught a third time, he would be looking at 25 years to life as an habitual offender.

“That’s the game-changer,” the prosecutor said. “The high-reward, low-risk conduct changes to a higher risk.

“It may take us a lot of time to get them primed but at least we’d be in the position to do it for the crooks who exhibit the same conduct yesterday, today and next year.”

Exley calls the proposed Predatory Theft law “a pet project” that needs necessary tweaking. He knows District Attorney Devon Anderson must pass on the specifics as part of a stern vetting process that’s needed before the Legislature opens next January.

Both he, Capt. Greg Fremin at Northeast and Dorton and the Tact units all over HPD feel they will have a receptive audience.

For, you see, banks and bank customers are just a small portion of the potential juggin’ audience. These juggers are known to operate outside jewelry stores, electronics stores and other retail locations where customers have highly desirable valuables in their possession.

Investigators believe juggers are like international terrorists – they constantly recruit followers who believe in their cause.

The best way to put the quietus to their kind is a stronger law designed to help the good guys win.