His attorney told him he could be out of jail in ten days if he took the plea deal — but 58-year-old Gilbert Cruz refused, saying he wasn’t going to plead guilty to something he didn’t do.
He had just been booked on charges of interfering with the duties of a public servant, after a former neighbor, whom Cruz says was recently homeless, called the police on him when Cruz told her he wouldn’t allow her to stay with him. Then she accused Cruz of beating her.
The arrest that would lead to more than two months in Harris County Jail and cause Cruz to lose his job and his car and almost his home, however, had nothing to do with assault — an accusation police and prosecutors agreed did not withstand scrutiny.
On May 14, after a Harris County sheriff’s deputy arrived at Cruz's northwest Houston apartment, he asked Cruz to leave the apartment so he could interview the woman alone. Cruz, explaining that the woman did not live there, said he did not feel comfortable leaving his own home, and he asked the deputy to interview the woman outside instead — an idea that apparently did not sit well with the officer. When Cruz would not leave, Deputy R. Delgado forcibly removed him — then punched him in the face. Delgado cuffed him, and backup showed up to haul Cruz off to jail for interfering with the investigation.
Despite the woman’s claims that Cruz hit her in the face and threw her on the coffee table, Cruz was cleared of any wrongdoing: According to the deputy’s offense report, the woman had not a mark to show for it, and everything on the table, including a chess set, was neatly in order. In his report, the deputy mentions he punched Cruz to “get control of the scene.”
“I thought once a judge saw me, and especially after seeing my eye, she would think, What was the reason for all that?” Cruz said. “I did not hurt that [officer] — I did nothing to him. When he punched me, I did not look at him as a police officer anymore. I looked at him as a thug.”
Even though Cruz spent more than two months in jail before prosecutors dismissed the interference case against him for lack of evidence, Cruz would see a judge only one time. He would not even be present at his own bail hearing, where defendants are — in theory — constitutionally guaranteed the right to tell a magistrate they can’t afford that bail amount or to ask for a personal bond. Unable to pay the $3,500 bail, Cruz waited in jail, and was actually quarantined in his pod with more than 20 others for the better of two months after one of them contracted shingles. Cruz could not leave to go to the rec room, the library, the chapel, not even to court, trusting that his court-appointed defense attorney would handle it.
Nine weeks later, he would find that his Infiniti car had been repossessed, that he owed $15,000 to the company that auctioned off the car because it sold undervalue, that the apartment management was threatening to evict him and he owed $954 in late fees, and that his job as a contractor with the U.S. Census Bureau was gone.
“When I'm accused of doing something wrong, they hit me in my pocket," Cruz said. "I feel the same thing should be done to them."
As countless attorneys and criminal justice advocates have told the Houston Press in the past, few people have the resolve to withstand months in as bleak and dangerous a setting as jail, away from their families and jobs and lives, to fight a conviction — even if they believe they are innocent. It’s a big part of the reason the Harris County District Attorney’s Office is sitting on nearly 300 wrongful drug convictions dating back to 2004: Innocent people, itching to get out of jail, pleaded guilty before the lab results that proved their innocence could be processed.
"On the misdemeanor side, people often feel a lot of pressure to plead," Amalia Beckner, a public defender, told us last week. "A lot of times, people can't afford to fight their cases because if they stay in jail they'll lose their homes, they'll lose their jobs, they'll lose their support system, which is often already somewhat tenuous. So it's difficult to watch when you realize we're keeping people just because their lack of ability to pay a few hundred dollars."
Cruz’s case, however, also presented additional problems: For one, why was he never afforded a bail hearing, which, as Texas Criminal Justice Coalition attorney Jay Jenkins said, is supposed to be a constitutional right. Apparently, this happens to people every day, according to DA’s office spokesman Jeff McShan. Here is how he explained it:
“The Houston Press wants to rag on the DA’s office and the criminal justice system, but this is actually good: For example, if you're arrested in Dallas on a Friday afternoon, your first court appearance is not until Monday. Here, it goes pretty freaking fast. Sometimes, though, it’s too fast. It doesn’t happen very often, but three or four times a day, there’s a person who’s still being booked and processing takes a while, or he went to the jail medical clinic, and his time came up for probable cause court. But [even if he was present at the hearing] they can’t talk anyway. When they go in there and stand in front of a judge, they don’t talk.”
Yes, even if the defendant was afforded his right to this bail hearing, it is highly unlikely in Harris County that he or she would be given the chance to ask for a lower bail or a personal bond anyway, which is why a group called Equal Justice Under The Law has filed a lawsuit against Harris County.
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The group, which has filed 17 such lawsuits across the country and won eight times and so far lost none, argues that Harris County magistrates at these hearings violate the constitution by failing to consider each defendant’s ability to pay bail. Instead, magistrates set bail according to a convenient bail schedule —apparently, whether or not the defendant is even present. And even if Harris County Pretrial Services recommends someone for a personal bond, according to Pretrial Services’ 2014 report, magistrates ignore that recommendation 64 percent of the time for people charged with misdemeanors and 98 percent of the time for those charged with felonies, keeping roughly 15,000 people behind bars when Pretrial Services thought they were better suited to go home to their families.
Perhaps they, too, lost their jobs, cars and homes.
Gilbert Cruz said he does not want an apology from the Harris County sheriff’s deputy who punched him in the face and arrested him. He said he does not want an apology from his court-appointed defense attorney, Abel Izaguirre, for failing to put more pressure on prosecutors to drop the case sooner. And he does not want an apology from anyone on the outside world who stripped him of his livelihood.
Cruz wants to win a civil lawsuit against the county so he can be repaid for everything he has lost, and he wants his arrest expunged from his record so that he can go on with his life.