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Was This Man Really Arrested Because He Wouldn't Pay His Water Bill?

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A 64-year-old retired man was confused when three police officers showed up at his house one Saturday morning in April 2014, asking about the junk in his yard and why his water was still not running.

Larry Gaston had stopped paying the bill a few months earlier after it inexplicably shot up a few hundred dollars, and since he was living on social security, Gaston couldn't afford to pay. He had even tried to have the city come out and see if they could find the source of the problem, but the city didn't find one, and so ultimately, the city turned Gaston's water off. When he tried to explain that to the officers at his doorstep, however, Gaston wrote in a complaint, it only escalated from there, the officers wouldn’t hear him out and then they arrested him. Gaston claimed he had no idea why he was arrested, not until he was at the station and asked another officer, who told him it was for “not having utilities.”

Now, a lawyer who grew up in Hitchcock, Fread Houston, is defending Gaston in a wrongful arrest lawsuit against the city and the Hitchcock officers who arrested him, claiming the officers had no grounds to arrest Gaston simply because he didn't have any running water — because the city had turned it off. In fact, Houston's mother, who is in her eighties, owns the house Gaston lives in and lets him live there rent-free, just to be nice. She doesn't actively manage the property, though, Houston said, and utilities would have been up to his client. Houston tells us Gaston was simply borrowing water from neighbors for months. "It's just a regrettable and pretty awful scenario," Houston said. "[The police] are clearly picking on him."

"The bottom line is, they never should have arrested him for this."

But Hitchcock Police Chief John Hamm said that there is another side to this arrest that isn't laid out in the lawsuit or in other media. “It appears like the city has gone after this individual and turned this into a nightmare for him,” he said. “That's not the case at all.”

Hamm says that everybody in town knows Larry Gaston. He's a guy who likes to collect junk such as old trucks and bikes and knickknacks, brush them up, then give them away or sell them. But back in 2014, when all this started, apparently neighbors across the way thought his yard had grown to become an eyesore, and so they filed a complaint, leading Hitchcock officers to go talk to Gaston about sprucing things up and getting his utilities back on. They promised not to cite him if he complied.

For a while, Hamm said, Gaston was cooperative and began clearing the yard. Hamm said that the police helped him out and that there is a “really good human interest story” behind how they did that, but that he could not disclose those details at this time because of the lawsuit. In any case, Hamm says that Gaston eventually “quit and gave up” on the house, and that's when the three officers showed up on his doorstep with a citation. He was arrested, Hamm said, not because he had violated city codes or wasn't paying his water bill, but because he refused to sign a summons to appear in court.

“They had no other legal precedent than to take him into custody,” Hamm said.

According to a municipal court judge, this is rare, but legal: If you get pulled over and refuse to sign the ticket, yep, an officer can take you to jail. Some people, the judge said, may not understand that a summons to appear in court is not an admission of guilt, and that's why they refuse to sign. The problem here, however, is that the piece of paper Gaston wouldn't sign on the day he was arrested was not a formal citation but a “notice of violation,” which gave him ten days to fix his house up before police came back out. Apparently, had Gaston not been let out of jail one day later on a personal bond, he probably would not have been able to comply with that in jail. Houston said he had not even heard Hamm's explanation for the arrest until we told him about it.

To Hamm, though, given Houston's strange relationship to the house Gaston lives in, this lawsuit is about nothing more than an attorney trying to make a name for himself. “It's very strange that someone would allow someone to live in their house under the conditions they're in, but then turn around and sue because of it," Hamm said. 

For the man at the center of it all, though, he just wants to know why he was arrested after the city shut off his water, who has so far found no other way than to sue, Houston said.

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