State Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) has filed a judicial misconduct complaint with the state against three Harris County magistrates, who were caught on video supposedly failing to use discretion when setting bail for defendants charged with low-level misdemeanors. Those magistrates, who include Eric Hagstette, Jill Wallace and Joseph Licata, were also sued in federal court in May for the same allegation.
Until the State Commission on Judicial Conduct can complete its investigation into the magistrates, Whitmire asked that they be prohibited from conducting any more hearings.
"Texas governing statutes clearly state that a magistrate should exercise their full discretion when conducting probable cause hearings and setting bond amounts," Whitmire said in a statement. "It is clear from the video of their hearings that this is clearly not the case with these magistrates. It appears the probable cause hearings in Harris County not only violate the intent of these statutes, but also the letter of the law."
As first reported by the Houston Press in a November 16 story after the Texas Organizing Project provided hours of courtroom footage, the magistrates generally appeared curt and matter-of-fact during these hearings, which lasted anywhere from ten seconds to a few minutes. But in some cases, they not only appeared unwilling to consider a poor defendant's inability to pay bail as the Constitution requires, but sometimes punished defendants further.
In one case, Hagstette doubled a woman's bail amount because she kept answering him "yeah" instead of "yes." Hagstette had asked the woman, charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession, whether she wanted a court-appointed lawyer:
“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.”
In another case, Wallace set a $5,000 bail for a man charged with trespassing, who appeared severely mentally ill with no understanding of his predicament. Saying she was denying him a pretrial release bond, Wallace then asked whether he wanted a court-appointed lawyer.
"Who, me?" he answered.
When the man simply answered by giving Wallace his name and could not answer her question, Wallace shooed him away with the deputies.
"The total disregard for citizens and the complete lack of judicial temperament and professionalism are unacceptable," Whitmire added in his statement.
Hagstette also denied a pretrial release bond to a man who was charged with driving with a suspended license, who politely begged Hagstette for the pretrial release bond because his wife had also been arrested during the traffic stop, and no one could look after his 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.”
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The Houston Chronicle also compiled a highlight reel of these incidents, which was published this week and cited in Whitmire's complaint. Magistrate Joe Licata is seen warning a defendant that anything she says to him will be used against her in criminal court. The woman, charged with possessing less than two ounces of marijuana, tells Licata she starts the hiring process for a new job next week and could she please have a personal bond so she can be there. Licata says no, because she has two priors for the same offense.
In another video, published by the Press, Licata had told a woman who was ticketed for driving without a license or registration and with broken taillights that if she didn't pay surcharges to the Department of Public Safety to take care of her license suspension, “you’re gonna get arrested every time you get pulled over.”
The woman told him it was nothing to her — she had already been caught in a cycle of arrests because of it.
“It’s nothing to me either,” Licata told her. “[It’s] job security.”