Houston Man Who Refused to Plead Guilty Files Wrongful Arrest Lawsuit

A man who spent more than two months in jail after refusing to plead guilty for a crime he did not commit is now filing a wrongful arrest and imprisonment lawsuit against the county and the deputies who arrested him.

Gilbert Cruz, 58, was arrested in May for interfering with the duties of a public servant, but couldn't afford to pay his $3,500 bail upon being booked. According to the lawsuit, prosecutors later dropped the charges against him for lack of evidence. But not before Cruz lost his job with the U.S. Census Bureau, was threatened with eviction for failure to pay his rent while jailed, and had his car repossessed, as the Houston Press reported in an August story. Once he was released, a repossession company also sent him a bill for $15,000, since the car it seized sold under value at auction.

Now Cruz is seeking an unspecified amount of damages in federal court — and is still undergoing therapy to grapple with the trauma of not just being imprisoned, but also being quarantined in his general- population pod the entire time he was in the Harris County Jail. An inmate in his pod, which he shared with more than 20 others, apparently contracted shingles, putting Cruz and others at risk. He could not leave to exercise or to go to the cafeteria, the library or even the chapel.

“It's been taking group [therapy] to help me work through this,” Cruz said. “It takes time and patience to get justice from the courts and everything. But in another sense, I've already lost even if I'm right, and I've already lost if I'm wrong. The groups are helping me deal with all of that.”

Cruz was arrested by a Harris County sheriff's deputy after the officer, Rolando Delgado, was dispatched to his apartment for a domestic disturbance call.

According to the lawsuit, Cruz had been allowing a woman who had recently become homeless to stay with him for a few days while she looked for a more permanent solution, but asked her to leave after the two had an argument. At that point, Cruz had called the sheriff's department and asked them to remove her from his home, which deputies did — but the woman returned two days later. She then threatened to call the police on Cruz and claim that he assaulted her if Cruz did not allow her to stay — which she did.

When Deputy Delgado arrived at Cruz's apartment, he observed no marks or bruises on the woman, and though she claimed Cruz threw her on the coffee table, a chess set remained undisturbed on top of it, according to the police report. Delgado asked Cruz to step outside so he could interview the woman — but Cruz refused, saying he was the one who lived at the apartment and he did not trust her in his home. When Cruz grew “irate” and “continued to move his arms aggressively up and down,” the deputy threw him outside and then punched him in the face “to get control of the scene,” Delgado wrote in the report.

Cruz was then charged with interference, because of “yelling” and “waving his arms,” court records showed. He spent more than two months in jail, refusing to take a plea deal his defense attorney suggested, because he believed he was innocent. His arrest record has since been expunged.

The Harris County Sheriff's Office referred us for comment to the Harris County Attorney's Office; in a request for comment, a spokesman said in an email that the office was reviewing the facts of the case.

Cruz's attorney in the civil suit, Jerry Friedman, said this was a case of a thin-skinned police officer abusing power and lacking understanding of a citizen's constitutional rights. Instead of diffusing a tense situation and simply interviewing the woman outside the apartment, Friedman said, the deputy chose to escalate the situation and use excessive force on a man who had not touched nor threatened him.

“This is similar to other cases I've seen or had, where the statute of 'interference with public officials' has been used by police who are frustrated and under-trained,” Friedman said. “They have something that they feel is wrong, but they don't understand people's rights — so they go with their feelings and arrest people who defy them.”

Cruz says that while he puts his life back together, he is riding the bus, and is still unemployed.
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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