After deputies were indicted last week for ordering the search of a woman's vagina for marijuana in public, it's safe to say Sheriff Ron Hickman's response was rather jarring.
First, the Harris County Sheriff's Office said in a press release that it believed the deputies, who were charged with official oppression, did nothing wrong, which was also the conclusion of HCSO's own investigation.
Then, the sheriff's office turned the heat on the Harris County District Attorney's Office, saying that the grand jury's indictment was based on nothing more than “a local news report,” as if no other evidence —like video footage of the entire incident — was presented. (It also misleadingly attributed this assertion to the DA's office, which did in fact say the investigation into the incident, not the indictment, was prompted by a local news report.)
The sheriff's department's statement closed by criticizing the media, insinuating that the narrative journalists have circulated about the woman's nightmarish traffic stop has been based solely on “rumor, innuendo and sensationalism” — not facts.
Yes, this response comes after male deputies claimed they smelled marijuana on a 21-year-old woman after pulling her over for rolling a stop sign, though they couldn't find any in her car. They then called in female deputies to take off the woman's pants, put her on the ground and spread her legs while one deputy stuck her fingers into the woman's vagina. In the parking lot of a Texaco gas station. Without a warrant.
This isn't the first time Hickman has gotten defensive about “media reports” that have shed light on alleged wrongdoing among jailers or deputies, then tried to shift the blame onto someone else. Like, say, the DA's office. In a rare case of public infighting within the Harris County criminal justice system, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson blasted Hickman for attempting to discredit the indictments.
Anderson's office called Hickman's response to the indictments “disappointing on many levels,” before walking the sheriff's office through a lesson of Prosecution and Grand Juries 101. The DA's office said that “the suggestion that the grand jury had not reviewed the evidence is spurious and uninformed,” adding that the misdemeanor indictments were certainly not based on “a local news report.”
While HCSO tried to back its deputies up by saying the DA's office originally accepted the possession of marijuana charges (deputies recovered a whopping .002 ounces; the woman was also charged with resisting arrest for being squeamish about a stranger violating her genitals in public), the DA's office said Hickman's office “overemphasized” that portion of the judicial system — the decision to accept charges is based merely on a brief conversation with police.
“After the trial prosecutor investigated the facts in Ms. Corley’s case,” Anderson's office wrote, “she found that the search was offensive and shocking, and this office immediately dismissed the charges against Ms. Corley.”
A sheriff's office spokesman did not return requests for comment as to why Hickman actually believes the search was legal. University of Houston Law professor Sandy Guerra Thompson, however, said that regardless of what Hickman believes about media reports, she found his defense of the deputies “puzzling,” given that she, along with many experts we interviewed last year, believed a warrantless body cavity search in public view is unconstitutional.
"[The search] is not only inappropriate," Thompson said. "It's also — and I believe the Supreme Court would agree — rather outrageous."
HCSO's response to the indictments and its invocation of what it believes are “sensational” and untrue media reports are similar to another defensive reaction to news reports last fall. Following the Houston Chronicle's six-part investigation into conditions of the Harris County jail — detailing excessive use of force, lack of medical care and fraternizing among jailers — Hickman released what he called “The Op-Ed the Houston Chronicle Refused To Publish.”
In it, Hickman accused the Chron reporters of publishing a host of “factual inaccuracies” and claimed that conditions from 2009 to mid-2015 are not reflective of the current jail conditions, since Hickman was not in office when many of the incidents the Chron investigated took place. (Apparently, as Hickman suggests, nothing of this nature is happening at the jail under his watch.)
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That time, he blamed the administration under former sheriff Adrian Garcia, saying in his op-ed that he has since fixed Garcia's core shortcomings that resulted in bad conditions, primarily by raising the minimum age of jailers to 21. (Find what the sheriff's office considered to be “inaccuracies” in our story about it here.) As we wrote back then, “Evidently anything that happened before Hickman was appointed sheriff in May 2015 is ancient history and irrelevant to both the jail’s current operations and the challenges the next Harris County sheriff will face.”
Attorney Jay Jenkins, with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said that "these reactions are emblematic to his overall attitude to reform, which have been, to some degree, hostile."
"The first step in fixing anything is to admit that something is wrong," said Jenkins, who was also shocked when Hickman refused to admit the search was wrong. "When he came in, he projected all the issues of the jail on sheriff Garcia, and now, with ample time to address these issues, problems have only gotten worse. His defensiveness and willingness to blame other people has left a lot of people unwilling to work with him."
Hickman is up for re-election in the fall. He will face Democratic candidate Ed Gonzalez, a former city council member with 18 years of law enforcement experience.