Hard on the Yard
Just northwest of Heights Boulevard and Memorial Drive is a three-story building with a name that echoes irony: Scotland Yard. Unlike its London namesake, the headquarters of Brits busting criminals, this Scotland Yard houses the offices of some 20 attorneys in the business of representing clients, many charged with crimes.
Legendary defense attorney Richard "Racehorse" Haynes is part owner of the building at 4300 Scotland. While clients bring their legal problems here, Scotland Yard itself is now bringing basic problems to a few of the attorneys' clients. The cause of the trouble is just across the street: serene Cleveland Park, a green space dotted by a pair of ball fields, tennis courts and a jungle gym.
As a result, Houston attorney Sean Buckley can't meet client Doyal Alexander in Buckley's office -- Alexander would be breaking the law. That's because he's a convicted sex offender who is forbidden, under orders of his parole officer, to come within 500 feet of any park, anywhere, anytime, even to confer with his lawyer.
Chris Tritico, one of the attorneys in the building who has clients subject to the so-called child safety zone law, says the ban on such visits reflects how the law has gone to extremes. "The whole thing shows how ludicrous this statute has gotten," he says.
Critics of the law point to Alexander as Exhibit A in their arguments that the law is unreasonable. The 59-year-old former Brown & Root executive admitted to a Harris County jury that, twice in 1987, he had his eight-year-old stepdaughter perform oral sex on him. In 1989, Alexander was sentenced to 25 years for aggravated sexual assault of a child. That was his first offense, and he has had no problems with the law since his parole in 1997.
Alexander has been under superintensive supervision since then. He wears an electronic monitor, and any travel outside his residence must be planned a week ahead and approved by his parole officer.
He'd been living in his own apartment until a heart attack in December hospitalized him for three months. Upon his release from Houston's VA hospital, a friend who knew his past offered to rent Alexander a room in her Memorial-area condominium complex, which was dominated by seniors.
Alexander's parole officer believed he posed a threat to the woman and denied him permission to rent there. The parole officer "said she didn't want me stirring up the neighborhood," says Alexander.
As a result, in March the parole board ordered Alexander into Houston's Ben Reed facility, a guarded residential center whose arrangements are more restrictive than those of halfway houses. Alexander is stuck there until he finds a residence that would be approved by his parole officer.
Later that month, Alexander contacted attorney Buckley about the impasse, which he feels is in effect an illegal civil commitment. He asked the lawyer, who specializes in parole issues, to help him gain authorization to rent his friend's room.
His parole officer approved Alexander's request to meet with Buckley in the Scotland Yard law office three times last spring. Then he was switched to the supervision of parole officer Offiong Esua, who denied his request to visit Buckley in June. Alexander says, "He told me that I could not visit an attorney unless I had pending litigation."
According to Buckley, Esua also said he would refuse to let Alexander meet with the attorney unless Esua knew what the meeting was about. "I told Esua that all he needs to know is that I am an attorney and the visit is legitimate business. If I disclose my client's business to a third party, I could lose my bar card." Since then, Texas parole offices have been cautioned by the legal staff of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that they may not inquire into attorney-client communications.
Buckley says that in mid-July, Esua's supervisor, Keith Warren, brought up the issue of the park when the lawyer contacted him about granting a visit to Alexander. Warren said he would have to deny the request because the client is forbidden by state law to come within 500 feet of "where children commonly gather, including a school, day-care facility, playground, public or private youth center, public swimming pool, or video arcade."
Buckley says he refused Warren's suggestion to hold the meeting at the Hamilton Street parole office. "I'm not trying to be paranoid, but I don't know how thin the walls are over there. I have a duty to maintain attorney-client privilege. Discussing the case in the office of the people we might be suing doesn't do that."
Bryan Collier, director of TDCJ's parole division, says his department cannot approve the visit to Scotland Yard. "There's no legal way," he says, "not unless there's a parole board-approved modification."
Buckley requested such a modification in July. A vote was scheduled last week but was delayed when parole officials did not get the paperwork to the parole board in time. Collier expects that the board will vote this week, and that the request will be granted by reducing the restricted distance that Alexander must keep from the park. The exception would apply only for the time of the visit. Future sessions in Buckley's office would require another vote.
Lawyer Colin Amman, who offices in Scotland Yard, says he is "flabbergasted" by the ban, especially because he and other attorneys there have had regular visits -- and will continue to have them -- from clients subject to the same restrictions.
Tritico says, "This law has become something it was never intended to be. It is written in the fashion of the overbroad."
Buckley argues that the Sixth Amendment guarantees citizens the right to hire a lawyer of their own choosing, and that there is no substitute for being able to meet with clients in his office. He and other defense attorneys say there should be a legislative exception granted.
However, state Senator John Whitmire, the Houston Democrat who co-sponsored the law, thinks it's working just fine. "It's a tough law, but it's to protect kids -- and it does. They need to find somewhere else to meet, maybe go to Denny's or the IHOP." Otherwise, says Whitmire, "He may have to find him another lawyer."
If the statute is applied literally, a convicted child molester would even be in violation for appearing at Houston's federal courthouse, which is across the street from Tranquillity Park.
Whitmire says that although an exemption might be considered for courthouses, "Nobody in Austin is going to exempt a law office."
And the journey itself is not supposed to bring the offender within a child safety zone. Alexander, who relies on public transportation, says parole officers don't enforce that because it's impossible to find a Metro route that doesn't travel within 500 feet of a park, mall or school.
Some attorneys say the Pasadena parole office is close enough to a skating rink and soccer field to be deemed off-limits under the law.
Collier agrees that his department faces "a difficult dilemma" enforcing the child safety zone law. He says the issue of a court appearance hasn't come up, but in such a case, "approval could be gotten overnight. A subpoena from the court is different from a request to visit an attorney."
Buckley says, "I need to know I can see my client in my office on short notice. Sometimes a necessity for a legal visit pops up overnight." Buckley thinks that parole officials "often take their time on something like this. They have no incentive to act quickly."
Buckley and Amman believe there are hundreds of Texas courthouses and law offices located within child safety zones. Before the access problems began for Alexander, the attorneys sued the TDCJ's parole division on behalf of two former convicts who challenged the division's application of the sex-offender registration laws in their cases. The state dropped many of the disputed restrictions that had been placed on them, so the suits were dismissed.
Tritico questions whether the ban on Alexander's visits to Buckley was in retaliation for the lawyer's victory.
"They wanted to do something to Sean because he won," he says.
Collier says Buckley "definitely wasn't singled out." He says the issue has come up before with visits to offices or the clinics of therapists and other treatment providers, but not in the last year or two and never with an attorney.
Buckley says he's not sure there was any conscious connection. "But it reflects a greater problem. Parole officers have a lot of power -- and they should -- but the culture in some parole offices is to continually put up interference," he says. "Often that interference has no common sense."
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