Denise Garcia was rushing to get her eight-month-old baby to a clinic before it closed last November when a Houston police cruiser rolled up next to her at the corner of T.C. Jester and I-10. Over the loudspeaker, an officer told her to pull over.
Ostensibly, the officers stopped Garcia, 32, because she changed lanes without signaling. She would not consent when they asked to search her car, saying, “I’m on my way to take my son to the doctor.” She claims that when she asked what probable cause the officers had to search her vehicle, the officers threatened to take her to jail and ordered her out of the car. A female officer patted Garcia down and stuck her hands inside Garcia's bra and underwear. Garcia says officers then handcuffed her and her boyfriend, the father of her children. They watched officers search the vehicle as their children sat inside, crying.
Nearly an hour and a half later, Garcia was released without so much as a traffic ticket. The children’s father, who police claimed had been at a known drug house earlier that day, was arrested on some outstanding municipal warrants. A few days later, Garcia filed a complaint with the Houston Police Department, claiming she’d been subjected to an illegal, warrantless search.
That's when an HPD officer involved in the stop contacted the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, where Garcia had worked as an administrative assistant for nearly six years. According to an internal memo from the DA's office, Garcia was then questioned about the traffic stop, not by an HPD internal affairs investigator but by her own employer (an HPD spokesman on Tuesday said an internal review concluded the officers involved in the stop committed no wrongdoing).
Garcia was put on paid leave shortly after her complaint to HPD and ultimately fired one month later. While the DA’s office will say little about the case publicly, an internal memo claims Garcia was “dishonest and evasive” when prosecutors started questioning her about the traffic stop and her boyfriend. In her memo to Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson before Garcia's firing last December, first assistant district attorney Belinda Hill also claims Garcia was “dishonest” about her boyfriend’s criminal record.
Garcia alleges she was retaliated against because she complained to police about her traffic stop. On Friday Garcia filed a complaint against the DA’s office with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming the DA’s office retaliated against her because she exercised her constitutional rights.
Garcia’s attorney, Randall Kallinen, also says she’s the victim of racial discrimination. The complaint filed with the EEOC (see below) lists five white DA’s office employees, mostly assistant district attorneys, who faced criminal charges yet managed to keep their jobs.
Earlier this year, Garcia won her case before the Texas Workforce Commission and was granted unemployment benefits over the objections of the DA’s office (the commission’s sentence-long explanation: “Our investigation found that your employer fired you for a reason that was not misconduct connected with the work”).
Garcia says she was never even officially told why she was fired. The DA’s office on Tuesday issued a statement vehemently denying Garcia’s allegations of retaliation and race-based discrimination, but would not say why Garcia's bosses fired her.
The interoffice memo from Hill to District Attorney Anderson only came to light, Kallinen says, during the TWC process. Kallinen says he filed a public records request after Garcia’s firing but was never given that document.
In her memo, Hill says an HPD officer involved in the case contacted the DA’s office sometime after Garcia’s traffic stop. It’s clear from the memo that the officer told prosecutors that police had been suspicious Garcia’s boyfriend was hiding drugs, or had just come from a known drug house.
According to HPD’s version, as told to the DA’s office, there was some sort of back and forth between the cops and Garcia’s boyfriend:
“Ms. Garcia’s boyfriend told officers they messed up a 3-4 month investigation because as soon as he was allowed to make a phone call he was going to advise the drug house. Additionally, [Garcia’s boyfriend] told the officers that they had stopped him after he dropped off Garcia and the kids they would have caught him after he ‘re-up coming from that house.’”
The HPD officer told the DA’s office that Garcia identified herself as a DA’s office employee during the stop. After being contacted by the HPD officer, according to Hill’s memo, prosecutors began to question Garcia about the traffic stop and her boyfriend. Hill claims Garcia gave inconsistent statements about the stop to prosecutors. She also claims Garcia lied about the father of her children having a criminal history (prosecutors even searched her work computer history to prove that she once ran her boyfriend's name through the office's criminal history database back in August 2013).
The DA’s office fired Garcia two days after Hill’s memo to Anderson.
It's unclear whether the DA's questioning of Garcia was part of a criminal investigation or simply an employment matter (Garcia was never charged with lying to investigators). Kallinen claims Garcia was denied due process and was never given the opportunity to respond to the HPD officer's narrative, which she of course contests.
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"She was never told why she was fired," Kallinen says. "Never given an opportunity to tell her side."
"Her termination from employment had nothing to do with her exercise of constitutional rights or with her complaints to the Houston Police Department," Anderson said in a prepared statement Tuesday. "The decision of the District Attorney's Office to terminate Ms. Garcia was based on a careful factual review of Ms. Garcia's conduct in which she was accorded an opportunity to be heard. At no point in this process was her Hispanic heritage a factor of any kind in the office's decision to terminate her employment."
Garcia's EEOC complaint against the Harris County District Attorney's Office: