Harris County Judge Says Arrests of Poor People Good for Job Security

The driving infractions and fines had piled up on Robin Clearey, who stood before Magistrate Joe Licata after she was ticketed for driving without working taillights, a license or valid registration.

She had been through this many times before, she told the judge, and at that very moment she also had a criminal case pending for driving with an invalid license, for which she would stay in jail unless she paid a $3,500 bond. Licata warned her that, if she didn’t pay the fines for these tickets and renew her license after paying surcharges to the Department of Public Safety, “you’re gonna get arrested every time you get pulled over.”

That was nothing to her, Clearey responded — because she had already become trapped in a cycle of arrests.

“It’s nothing to me either,” Licata told her. “It’s job security.”

Job security: That’s apparently what poor people’s inability to pay off traffic tickets and surcharges with DPS, resulting in jail time and more fines, means to Joe Licata, who, along with hearing these petty driving infraction cases, is also a probable cause magistrate for the criminal courts.

His harsh manner with this woman, however, was no stray anomaly — nor is Licata the only magistrate of the five in Harris County to speak that way to people charged with low-level, nonviolent offenses. A review of dozens of magistrate hearings in May of 2016 — provided to the Houston Press by the Texas Organizing Project — revealed that, while most of the time the magistrates are curt and matter-of-fact, sometimes they are needlessly cruel.

In one case, Magistrate Eric Hagstette raised a woman’s bail from $1,000 to $2,000 because she kept responding “yeah” instead of “yes” when Hagstette asked whether she wanted a court-appointed attorney.

“I asked a question that calls for a yes or a no. I don’t expect anything but a yes or a no. Not a ‘mhmm,’ ‘maybe so,’ or a yell or anything else,” Hagstette said, according to video of the hearing.

“I said yeah,” the defendant clarified a third time.

“I heard what you said. Your bond just went up to $2,000.”

The Texas Organizing Project put together a highlight reel of these cases, including that of a mentally ill defendant who is denied a personal bond for trespassing and who appears to have no idea what is going on. 
Licata, Hagstette and the other three probable cause magistrates — also called bail hearing officers — have been sued in federal court for allegedly failing to consider people’s ability to pay bail, as the Constitution requires. The group that filed the suit, Civil Rights Corps, is using these videos in an attempt to show the magistrates' pattern of indifference toward defendants' inability to pay. The hearings, which last anywhere from ten seconds to several minutes, can have grave effects on someone’s life, depending on whether the magistrate decides to release a defendant on a personal bond or continue to detain him. As we have reported countless times in the past, if someone can't pay bail for even the most petty offense, it can lead that person to lose his job, his home or his car. Only about 8 percent of defendants are lucky enough to receive a personal bond.

And as these videos show, the magistrates are almost always unwilling to consider lowering defendants' bail or providing a personal bond if they ask — and, sometimes, instead cut them off mid-sentence, shooing them away.

One man, named Willie Love Watson, with no prior criminal history, was arrested for driving with an invalid license. Hagstette sets his bail at $1,000. Politely, Watson asks for a personal bond, since his wife, who was in the car with him, was also arrested — and who will look after the kids?

“If I could get a PR bond, if it pleases the court, it would really make me happy and my family happy,” Watson says. “We’re trying my hardest to get my family back together.”

“It would make me happy if you could get out of jail on your own,” Hagstette responds, saying $1,000 is the lowest he would go and he would not give him a personal bond.

“Well, my father and my mother passed away, and I have no one in the world, sir,” Watson says. “But I promise you with everything in the world that I would be in court.”

“Bond is set at $1,000.”

The Harris County Attorney's Office, which represents the magistrates in the lawsuit, declined comment on the magistrates' conduct because of pending litigation.

Tarsha Jackson, Harris County director of the Texas Organizing Project, said that the magistrates' treatment of some of the defendants in these videos struck her as “inhumane,” likening their treatment to that of a “herd of cattle.” The nonprofit has been pushing for bail reform for years, but Jackson said that if these are the people who would be tasked with executing that reform, it may be out of reach.

“There has to be a total culture shift,” she said. “Having like-minded elected officials that see the need to change the culture of our criminal justice system, we would be successful in bail reform. But with these individuals? I don’t think it’s possible at all.”

District Attorney-Elect Kim Ogg has been vocal about her desire to reform the bail system, and so has Sheriff-elect Ed Gonzalez. Current Sheriff Ron Hickman and District Attorney Devon Anderson have voiced support too, but reforms have not materialized.

As for failure to pay traffic tickets, as in the case of Robin Cleary, the ACLU of Texas recently released a report finding that thousands of poor Texans are jailed every year for inability to pay their tickets, which continue to pile up and grow more impossible to pay each time a person is pulled over. The ACLU recommended the Texas criminal code be amended to prohibit jailing people under these pretenses.

But if it were up to hearing officers like Joe Licata, perhaps such a reform would be no good for their careers.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn