Here’s what’s happening in Harris County now that the sheriff issues bail bonds

The Harris Co. Sheriff's Office and Detention Facility in Houston.

When a federal judge ruled this year that Harris County wrongfully held poor misdemeanor defendants in jail while awaiting trial, she placed the responsibility of issuing her mandated bail orders in the unpracticed hands of the county sheriff’s office.

The county courts, which usually make bail decisions, were largely untargeted in the order, and have focused their efforts on reforms they implemented a month after the judge’s ruling took effect.

That combination has led to confusion within the state’s largest pretrial system, and the blame for any failure shifts, depending on who’s talking. One thing is clear, though — more than 40 percent of the defendants released by the sheriff under the court-mandated bonds aren’t showing up to their hearings, new data shows.

In an injunction that went into effect in June, U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal mandated that virtually all those in Harris County accused of misdemeanor offenses — which include shoplifting and driving with an invalid license — must be released from jail within 24 hours of their arrest, regardless of their financial ability to post bond. She sided with the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state’s most populous county, saying its bail system unfairly detained poor people while releasing similar defendants who could afford to pay their bonds.

The order, under review by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was complicated by the county’s own reforms. In July, the county switched to a nationally accredited risk-based bail system where low-risk defendants — those deemed likely to stay out of trouble and go to their court hearings — are usually released on a no-cost “personal bond,” whether they have money or not. Other, higher-risk defendants must generally pay a bond amount for their release or stay in jail.

But Rosenthal has required the release of those higher-risk defendants, too. So while the county courts focus on low-risk arrestees, it has fallen on Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to ensure Harris County is following the federal order, releasing higher-risk defendants who can’t afford their bond within a day of their arrest. Under the injunction, his department has issued about 6,000 unsecured bonds — where no money is due upfront.

“It gets complicated,” said Major Greg Summerlin of the sheriff’s department, who oversees processing at the Harris County Jail. “There’s a big process that’s brand new to the sheriff’s office, so we had to create a new policy, our own forms.”

County reports on misdemeanor bonds show the people released on these sheriff-issued bonds are less likely to show up to court. From June to October, 45 percent of those bonds were forfeited or revoked, almost always because the higher-risk defendants did not show up for court hearings. That’s compared with a 26 percent failure rate of judicially set personal bonds for those deemed low-risk.

Elizabeth Rossi, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said those numbers should be taken “with a huge grain of salt” because of complications in setting up the new release system and a criminal justice system that has been scattered after Hurricane Harvey.

“Many people released were told wrong court dates,” she said. “With the hurricane, people have gone to different court rooms — it’s a huge mess.”

Still, county officials have pointed to the high failure rates for sheriff-issued bonds as proof that a risk-based bail system works better than a financial one.

Supporters of the lawsuit argue that blame lies on the judges and magistrates resisting the court order and focusing on the risk-based bail system, leaving execution of Rosenthal’s order to the sheriff’s office, which has never previously issued bonds and has no system in place to monitor released defendants.

Melissa Spinks, an attorney representing the county in the lawsuit, said the county is committed to its new risk-based system, which was endorsed by all criminal justice officials in the county and cost millions of dollars. Judges and magistrates are making bail decisions based on risk with this new tool, called the Public Safety Assessment (PSA), not based solely on a defendant’s finances, she said.

Converging reforms

The implementation of the PSA has garnered praise from most reform advocates and even Rosenthal. Data shows it has led to the release of more low-risk defendants on judicially ordered personal bonds. But Judge Darrell Jordan, the county’s lone Democratic misdemeanor judge among 15 Republicans, said it doesn’t address the lawsuit.

“They’re talking about a risk assessment tool, but we’re being sued for jailing poor people and letting rich people go,” he said.

Since Rosenthal’s order relies largely on the sheriff to ensure defendants are released within 24 hours, magistrates have been particularly hands off. Alex Bunin, the county’s chief public defender, said that even though judicial officers often know the defendant will not be able to afford their bond amount, they stick to the risk assessment and leave it to the sheriff to carry out the court order.

“I’ve never heard a magistrate say, ‘I have to release you based on the court order,’” Bunin said.

He said he doesn’t think that the “passive resistance” by magistrates is ill-intentioned, but rather because they believe the risk system is a better reform than the court order.

“We think a risk-based assessment tool is far better than just saying, ‘Can you afford to pay this or not?’” Spinks said.

The federal appellate court also appeared to take issue with some of Rosenthal’s order. In an October hearing, judges seemed skeptical of the injunction’s 24-hour deadline, especially because defendants sometimes have not yet seen a magistrate before that time. It is unknown when the court will issue a decision on the ruling, and the merits of the lawsuit have yet to be scheduled for arguments.

But since high-risk defendants are having money bail set for them by judicial officers, the ones who don’t pay their bonds are being released by the sheriff’s office at no cost. And that means fewer services to help them get back in court.

Defendants who are ordered for no-cost release by a judge or magistrate are entered into the county’s Pretrial Services department, which works to ensure those out on personal bonds know the date of their next court appearance and can provide additional conditions like drug testing, mental health services or GPS ankle bracelets. Those released by the sheriff aren’t monitored once they leave the jail, Summerlin said.

“The Sheriff’s Office is not really set up to do that,” Bunin said.“The best way to do it is to have a magistrate issue the conditions and have Pretrial [Services] implement them and monitor them. When you have the sheriff just having to release them, you kind of skip those services that are set up specifically for that.”

Jordan, the county’s only misdemeanor judge who has voiced support of the order, likens the actions of the magistrates and his fellow judges to those of Republicans in Congress weakening the Affordable Care Act.

“It’s like when you want something to fail, then you’re not going to be as likely or as willing to have a clear plan or to work to fix something,” Jordan said.

Spinks said the politics that have gotten involved over the PSA and the court order has made reform efforts awkward because “all the people are trying to do the right thing.”

Not only that — it’s also complicated any future analysis of how reform efforts are going, Bunin said.

“What role do you give the new risk assessment? What role do you give the effect of the lawsuit?” Bunin asked. “There are so many things going on that I can’t really tell you which is affecting things most and which is not.”

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Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halts state’s last execution of 2017

Juan Castillo

Texas’ last scheduled execution of the year has been canceled.

On Tuesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed the Dec. 14 execution of Juan Castillo and sent his case back to the trial court to look into claims of false testimony.

Castillo, 36, was sentenced to death in the 2003 robbery and murder of Tommy Garcia Jr. in San Antonio, according to court records. Prosecutors said Castillo and three others planned to rob Garcia after luring him to a secluded area with the promise of sex with one of the women involved in the plan. But when Garcia tried to run, Castillo shot him, according to the accomplices.

One of the witnesses at his trial, Gerardo Gutierrez, bunked near Castillo at the Bexar County Jail and testified that Castillo had confessed to the crime in jail. But in 2013, Gutierrez signed an affidavit saying that he lied in his testimony “to try to help myself.”

Even though Castillo had already gone through appeals and lost, the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled on Tuesday that his case was now applicable for further review because of a nearly decade-old ruling. The court had previously held that it was a constitutional violation when the prosecution knowingly uses false testimony to obtain a conviction. And in a 2009 case, it went further to say that even if prosecutors are unaware testimony is false, it still violates a defendant’s due process rights.

“Although the present case involves unknowing, rather than knowing, use of testimony, we see no reason for subjecting the two types of errors to different standards of harm,” the court ruled.

Since the 2013 admission from Gutierrez came after this new precedent, Castillo’s execution was stopped. The prosecution argued against the stay, stating that Gutierrez’s testimony was corroborated by multiple other witnesses.

Castillo has had multiple execution dates set and stopped. In August, his September execution was rescheduled by the Bexar County district attorney because some of Castillo’s defense team was based in Houston, which was suffering from Hurricane Harvey flooding.

His execution was the only one remaining on the 2017 calendar in Texas. The state has executed seven people this year, the most in the country. Seven people were also put to death in Texas last year, and five executions are already scheduled in the first three months of 2018.

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Houston church threatened by gunman at Sunday’s service

A 20-year-old Houston man is in jail after investigators say he used a pistol to threaten church members worshipping in the 5th Ward.

Officers charged Keanu Randolph with carrying a weapon after a disturbance at the Greater Sunrise Missionary Baptist Church on Bringhurst Street near Highway 59 and Liberty Road.

A church deacon who didn’t want his name used was one of the first people to confront Randolph after he was asked to leave yesterday for cursing and being disrespectful to the church’s pastor. Little did they know Randolph had a handgun and a butcher knife inside a backpack he had brought into the church.

Witnesses said he pulled out the gun while standing on the street after he was forced to leave the church.

“He really could have gone off at any time and we have a lot of elders there,” the deacon said. “There was kids there. Someone really could’ve gotten hurt.”

The deacon called 911 and followed Randolph in a truck for several blocks until police arrived and chased down the suspect.

In light of high-profile church shootings — including the shooting in Sutherland Springs a few weeks ago in which a gunman killed 26 people — this church’s pastor is considering new security measures, including the arming of his staff.

“I’m thinking of that,” the pastor John Horton, said. “I hate to do it, but something has got to happen.”

Police also charged Randolph with evading arrest and retaliation. He is in Harris County Jail on a $7,000 bond.

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As Bayer and Monsanto push for merger, Texas farmers fear rising prices

Dumas-area farmer Dee Vaughan checks the ground after a short test run in one of his combines. Vaughan has been farming since 1978 and worries increasing corporate control of agriculture may price farmers out of their jobs.

Two of the world’s largest agricultural firms plan to merge, and some Texas farmers fear the move will diminish competition in an already shrinking market and cause prices for seeds and other essential products to spike.

German conglomerate Bayer, a global distributer of seeds best known for its pharmaceuticals like aspirin, hopes to buy Missouri-based agricultural firm Monsanto, which sells agricultural chemicals. But the merger must first gain approval from European antitrust regulators.

The market for seeds and other agricultural materials has been dominated by six firms, including Bayer and Monsanto. Recent mergers — one between Dow and DuPont, and another joining ChinaChem and Syngenta — dropped that number to four, and a Bayer-Monsanto merger would leave just three giant companies in the sector.

A Texas A&M University study released in September 2016 — before the most recent mergers — said the mergers would lead to higher crop prices due to lower competition. The study predicted the price of cottonseed would increase by about 20 percent if the mergers happened — a dramatic increase for farmers in a state that dominates national cotton production.

The European Commissioner for Competition is investigating the merger and doesn’t plan to rule on it until at least next year. Activists and members of Congress have called on the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct a similar investigation. Mark Abueg, a Justice Department spokesman, said in an email the department does not confirm or deny if a matter is under investigation.

Dee Vaughan, chairman of the Texas Corn Producers’ Issues Committee and a Dumas-area farmer, said he is concerned research and development will stagnate without “competition forcing them to stay innovative.” He added that less competition will increase seed prices and could prompt firms to start charging for services that are currently free, like delivery.

Ultimately, farmers may be priced out of the profession, he said.

“We have to buy seeds; they have us in a situation where we have to buy their product,” Vaughan said. “But they still have the ability to go even higher on their prices.”

Bayer spokesman Chris Loder said in a written statement that the market will remain competitive after the buyout and that the merger will increase research and development opportunities by consolidating the firms’ resources. The statement said Bayer has cooperated with regulators and is confident the merger will go forward.

“As we’ve said from the beginning, this opportunity is about combining highly complementary businesses and bringing new innovative solutions to our customers,” the statement said.

Monsanto spokeswoman Christi Dixon said the firms are “two very different but highly complementary companies.” She said there is little overlap between the two firms and Bayer will address the overlap through divestitures.

But Judith McGeary, executive director of farmers’ advocacy group Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, said the firms’ products rely on each other, with Bayer’s genetically engineered seeds needing Monsanto’s patented chemicals to thrive, effectively forcing farmers to rely on the firms for every step of production. Ultimately, higher prices for farmers means higher prices for consumers, she said.

“It’s important to realize how much agriculture contributes to Texas — we’re talking about $100 billion annually for Texas’ economy,” McGeary said. “So anything that takes out of the pockets of the farmers and puts it into large corporations that are headquartered elsewhere is a drain on our economy.”

Several states’ attorneys general previously joined a Justice Department investigation into the merger between DuPont and Dow, which was approved by the department and finalized this summer. Some activists hope Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton will do the same for the proposed Bayer-Monsanto merger.

McGeary said her organization asked Paxton’s office to join in the investigation in October, but they have not heard back from the office. Vaughan said he met with staff from Paxton’s office requesting the same thing, but they “basically took no action.”

A spokesperson from Paxton’s office said in an email to the Tribune that she could “neither confirm nor deny” there was an investigation.

Disclosure: Texas A&M University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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Civil Offenses: Those Calling for Political Civility Often Have the Least to Lose

Everyone thinks there’s something amiss in the American political system falls into one of two camps — they either have a stylistic critique or a substantive one. Stylists think the way we do politics is corrupting things from the top down, while the Substantivists believe structural problems are rotting politics from the bottom up. It’s a cross-ideological divide. Many conservative Never Trumpers agree with the president on most issues, but think he’s a pig. They share a stylistic critique with many liberals who seek communion with moderate Republicans. The problem, the Stylists believe, has to do with individual responsibility; particular political actors are gross and venal.

Those who hold substantive critiques think the problem is collective, that it’s about institutions, trends and incentives — gerrymandering, political polarization, the breakdown of procedural consensus, court packing, permanent war, campaign finance, the nationalization of local politics, Breitbart, etc.

The stylistic critique is especially prevalent among centrists because it’s simple and easy. Stylists of late include George W. Bush, who recently lamented that “We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization.”

Jeff Flake, in his lauded Senate speech, focused almost entirely on style, decrying the “indecency of our discourse” and the “coarseness of our leadership.” The 51 percent of Democrats who now hold a positive opinion of W. are Stylists too, because they remember his personal decency but not his actions. Stylists, in short, would be more than happy to return to our previous mode of doing politics, with its familiar refrains and patterns, before the great orange Hindenburg crashed into the White House. But what led us to this moment if not the previous mode of doing politics?

To paraphrase Anton Chigurh, if the norms you followed brought you to this, of what use were the norms? Bush revisionism is particularly telling — historians will remember his failed presidency as key to the development of Trumpism. The Republican Party’s ideological collapse, xenophobia, authoritarian fervor and love of conspiracy theories all have roots in the Bush years.

But Bush was civil, it is said. The key word in the stylistic critique is civility, of which it is imagined we once had but no longer have. But political incivility rises in America when something important is at stake. The republic’s early years, Reconstruction, the 1960s: These were rough times to do politics. Assassinations, terror attacks, congressmen beating each other nearly to death on the floor of the Senate. It was that way because the country stood on a precipice. It is not unreasonable to think that we do so again.

It is good to be nice, and civility in a vacuum is a fine attribute. But it’s also worth noting who subscribes to the stylistic critique most strongly — people with relatively less at stake. Many political consultants adopt this framework. The grand game’s not fun anymore, and they wish it were. The media adopts it too, because stylistic critiques are “safe,” according to the unwritten rules of objectivity.

Trump gives the State of the Union address.

Other civility fetishists include those who feel touched by a kind of political insanity they had previously been insulated from, especially people who live in blue states. “Before Trump was elected, the United States was a deeply imperfect democracy. Afterward, it became a shitty kleptocracy,” Slate’s Michelle Goldberg wrote. “Overnight, the very texture of reality changed, becoming surreal and dystopian.”

But of course, a great many people have been living in this America all along. If you’re a kid in Dan Patrick’s Texas terrified every day that your father is going to be deported, or you’re a sick mother in the Medicaid gap, you’ve lived in a surreal and dystopian place for many years. Your problem isn’t that Trump ignores norms.

But the most dangerous thing about stylism is that the superficial critique of political dysfunction allows us to ignore its causes. When Flake, after his speech, told the press that he believes the “fever will break,” that voters will eventually return to being rational, it invalidated everything he said on the floor because it made clear that he doesn’t understand the political moment at all. He, like us, is stuck in a do-loop, in which our politics is systematically worsening and we seek only to change its appearance.

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Without recovery funds, more than 50 Texas day cares close after Harvey

Jacqueline James looks over at infants playing in the only building in her child care center that did not suffer severe damage from Hurricane Harvey. 

ORANGE — With her husband incarcerated on a murder charge, Jacquene Fontenot single-handedly wakes and dresses five kids under the age of 5 every morning, drops them off at a local child care center and drives two hours to her job as a custodian in central Louisiana.

Fontenot, who lost her furniture when her apartment in Orange flooded during August’s hurricane, could not imagine what she would do if she lost her child care. “I really don’t have a second option,” she said.

During Hurricane Harvey, the James Hope Center, her children’s for-profit day care, took on water and a layer of mold began carpeting its walls, leaving owner Jacqueline James floundering for a solution that wouldn’t leave more than 100 families, many of them low-income, stranded.

Across Harvey-affected counties, 52 child care centers have permanently closed and an additional 65 are voluntarily suspended and expected to reopen with three months, as of Nov. 10, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Those facilities had the capacity to serve almost 5,000 children.

With so many day cares closed and more in danger of closing, parents face difficulty moving back to their homes and getting back to normal, with no one to take care of their kids when they’re at work. Private child care centers, often run by individuals, churches or nonprofits, are struggling to recover from the hurricane’s destruction, especially in rural communities where they are among few options.

“For communities to be able to recover economically, you have to get your child care and early education programs up so people can get back to work,” said Jeanne-Aimee De Marrais, senior director for U.S. emergencies at Save the Children, a nonprofit international aid group working to help child care centers recover from Harvey. “The communities are not going to get fully back up until the child care is back.”

Many child care centers are small, for-profit businesses that don’t qualify for federal disaster funding despite the crucial services they provide to families, De Marrais said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency only provides public assistance to nonprofit centers, including those run by churches, according to a FEMA spokesperson. Directors of for-profit centers can apply for federal disaster loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration, but they often do not qualify, De Marrais said.

In the Houston region, many of the damaged centers accept children from families who received subsidies through the Texas Workforce Commission, according to Christina Triantaphyllis, chief officer of public policy for the early education nonprofit Collaborative for Children. Almost 40 percent of 977 centers the nonprofit surveyed had no flood insurance.

“The uncertainty is probably the number one challenge for both families and child care programs,” Triantaphyllis said. “Are [child care centers] going to replace materials and move on and then hope that there’s reimbursement later, or do they operate at the level they can with the materials they have left?”

Anna Lingo sorts through salvaged items from the James Hope Center after it was flooded during Hurricane Harvey.
Anna Lingo sorts through salvaged items from the James Hope Center after the Orange facility was flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Pu Ying Huang for The Texas Tribune

In Orange, James plowed forward with the resources she had. She got the state to let her shut down her family’s restaurant and use the open eating space as a temporary center for about 60 older children. She and her husband own an additional building already in use to care for about 25 infants. And she found a former bakery up for lease in West Orange and put her family members to work replacing ceiling tiles and ripping out walls to create a permanent center.

Last week she started offering day care and after-school activities in the new building for kids 18 months to 12 years old.

“Children have to know safety, and they have to know you’re consistent,” she said. “We are still right now feeding kids who are going home with nothing to eat. We’re still clothing kids who still don’t have any.”

The new normal for James is a building with a smaller capacity. Many families were forced to leave Orange after three low-income apartment buildings flooded and shut down, and not all are back, she said. Just seven of 15 staff members are back in Orange; the others remain displaced after Harvey.

Lack of child care is one of many factors keeping families from returning to their homes, De Marrais said.

Farther south along the coast, LaVeta Rodriguez, director of Little Lights Learning Center in Rockport, drained the day care’s savings — more than $10,000 — for renovations after major water damage in the roof and ceiling. Most of the community around the day care has not yet returned.

Dependent on the tourism industry, many Rockport residents can’t count on employment now that restaurants and hotels are out of service, said Timothy Baylor, the day care’s founder and pastor of New Beginnings Ministries, which houses Little Lights.

The day care lost eight of 10 staff members and a larger percentage of its students. With not enough staff or students to operate, Rodriguez and Baylor surrendered Little Lights’ child care license, hoping to reapply and reopen once Rockport is rebuilt. They are using money they’ve raised to host a full-day program of activities and meals twice a week, taking children off their parents’ hands while they look for work.

The families who are back, rebuilding their homes, are asking for child care.

“In the relief tent, they’re asking, ‘When are you going to open? I can’t work because there’s no child care,'” said Jose Alvarado, a volunteer for the church and a parent at the daycare. He’s the founder of a small local business repairing and detailing yachts.

Few in Rockport are thinking about their yachts, with walls of debris turning rural roads into labyrinths and homes stripped down to skeletons in battered lots. Even if Alvarado wanted to work full-time, he’d have a hard time. He and his wife, who works full-time at a medical office, are fostering an 11-year-old girl who had attended an after-school program at Little Lights Learning Center. Now, Alvarado picks her up from school every afternoon.

There aren’t many other day care choices in the area. State records show just four other licensed child care centers in Aransas County, including one that is temporarily closed.

LaVeta Rodriguez, director of the Little Lights Learning Center, stands among the unused cribs, toys and equipment in the baby room at the center.
LaVeta Rodriguez, director of the Little Lights Learning Center, stands among the unused cribs, toys and equipment in the baby room at the Rockport center. Eddie Seal for The Texas Tribune

In rural areas, “there might not be another child care center within 20 or 30 miles of them,” said Anna Hardway, director of programs for Save the Children. She recalled speaking to a school principal who begged her to help get the local child care center up and running so teachers and parents could get back to work.

Children at least 3 years old who meet the federal definition of homelessness, which includes many of those displaced by the hurricane, are eligible for free public pre-K in local school districts, according to the Texas Education Agency. But parents, educators and experts interviewed by The Texas Tribune said they didn’t know that option was available.

With limited assistance coming from the state and federal government, some day care owners have found creative solutions.

When Harvey swept through the coastal town of Portland, Methodist Day School’s flat roof turned into a “swimming pool,” and water leaked into the building, said the day care’s director, Jamie Hartley. “Our building isn’t really old and it’s in good condition, so we weren’t expecting for the building to be damaged at all,” she said.

As they wait for their roof to be rebuilt, the day care’s directors are indefinitely leasing space from the Gregory-Portland school district for $3,259 per month.

Paul Clore, superintendent of Gregory-Portland ISD, said the day care is welcome to lease the space for as long as they need. “It’s important to us to support them,” he said. “Those youngsters will eventually be students of ours.”

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13-year-old robbery suspect shot in the head by apartment tenant, police say

A teen accused of attempted robbery, is in critical condition after he was shot in the head by an apartment tenant, Houston police said.

The shooting happened just after 2 a.m. in the 300 block of North Vista Drive in north Houston.

When officials arrived on scene, they found a 13-year-old boy with a gunshot wound to the head, police said.

Police said a woman was home alone when she heard someone breaking into her residence and grabbed her gun. Police said she walked into her living room, where she found people in her home.

She fired at the intruders with a small-caliber handgun, striking the 13-year-old boy.

Police said the teen was taken to Texas Children’s Hospital.

Police are not releasing the number of people involved in the burglary until after the investigation, officials said.

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Man Mistaken for Burglar, Shot by Police then Shackled to Hospital Bed and Barred from Seeing Family

Lyndo Jones in the hospital. Jones was handcuffed to a hospital bed for nearly a week and barred from seeing his family after police shot and charged him with evading arrest.  Attorney Justin Moore

After mistaking him for a burglar and shooting him twice, police charged Lyndo Jones with evading arrest, shackled him to his Dallas hospital bed and blocked family members from visiting him for six days.

At first, Mesquite police erroneously called Jones, 31, a “burglary suspect” because of a 911 caller who’d spotted him in a parking lot on November 8 while he was struggling to turn off the alarm in his truck. Police say officer Derick Wiley arrived around 7 p.m. to investigate the possible burglary and shot Jones in a “confrontation” that ensued. A press release the Mesquite Police Department issued afterward offered no details on the confrontation but seemed to endow Jones with almost superhuman strength — claiming it took three officers to subdue the unarmed, 130-pound man with two fresh gunshot wounds. After police learned the vehicle indeed belonged to Jones, they still called him a suspect and charged him with evading arrest.

Authorities barred Jones’ family from visiting him at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, where doctors treated him this month, because of his misdemeanor charge. At one point, deputies escorted Jones’ attorney, Justin Moore, out of the hospital after he tried to stop Mesquite police investigators from questioning Jones alone. According to Moore, Jones’ family didn’t even get to see him until six days after the shooting, when police dropped the misdemeanor charge against Jones just as he was being discharged from the hospital.

Jones’ family contacted an attorney after they said they were threatened with arrest for trying to visit Jones in the hospital.  Attorney Justin Moore

“They shot this guy because of a mistake and then chained him to a hospital bed away from people who care about him, people who are wondering whether he’s going to survive,” Moore told the Observer. “Victims of police brutality and their families should not be treated this way.”

Mesquite police won’t say much about the “confrontation” that led to Jones’ shooting, but in a press conference with reporters last week, Lieutenant Brian Parrish blamed Jones for not giving the officer who shot him “ample opportunity to start an investigation.”

Moore, however, says that in Jones’ version of events, Officer Wiley approached him with his gun drawn, ordered him out of his truck and then fired when he got out of the vehicle. Moore says Jones blacked out from the pain sometime after that and doesn’t even remember the second gunshot, let alone any subsequent struggle with other officers. Moore told the Observer that police were wearing body cameras, and that Jones and his attorneys were scheduled this week to review footage from the shooting, which hasn’t been publicly released. The Observer requested the video under open record laws.

Mesquite police say that two days after the shooting they transferred Jones into the custody of the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department, which guards the county’s hospitalized inmates. Moore says he was eventually contacted by members of Jones’ family, who claimed they’d been threatened with arrest for trying to visit him in the hospital. Melinda Urbina, a sheriff’s department spokesperson, told the Observer that it’s “protocol” to deny family visits for hospitalized inmates in county custody.

Moore says he visited Jones in the hospital for the first time the night of November 11, three days after the shooting, but couldn’t exactly speak with him because “he was heavily sedated at that time, with tubes going out of his nose.” Moore says he visited Jones again a couple days later, just as doctors were starting to reintroduce solid food, but that he wasn’t yet well enough to discuss the shooting.

Lyndo Jones recovers in the hospital after being shot twice by police. His attorneys, Lee Merritt (left) and Justin Moore.  Attorney Justin Moore

Moore says that on a conference call the morning of November 14 with Mesquite police and Dallas County District Attorney’s Office representatives, all parties agreed that investigators wouldn’t question Jones at the hospital without an attorney present. But when he arrived at the hospital a few hours later, Moore says two Mesquite detectives were questioning Jones in his room. Moore says he started shouting when it became clear deputies guarding the room weren’t going to allow him to stop the interview.

“I guess you could say I caused a scene,” Moore told the Observer. “I started yelling, ‘You’re violating his constitutional rights,’ just anything that he (Jones) might be able to hear and encourage him to try and stop that interrogation.” The deputies threatened to arrest him if he returned, he says. Urbina with the sheriff’s department says that deputies escorted Moore outside the hospital “as a result of his behavior.”

Jones was treated at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. His family didn’t get to see him until six days after the shooting.  Attorney Justin Moore

Later that day, the Mesquite Police Department changed course and announced it would drop the charge against Jones just in time for his release from the hospital. Sgt. Joseph Thompson told the Observer in a statement this week that the department would now rather “prioritize” the investigation into the officer who shot Jones over the misdemeanor evading arrest charge.

“It is more important to us to investigate and determine whether a more serious crime was committed,” Thompson said in an emailed statement. “If after the investigation is complete and the officer’s actions were found to be justified, then filing the evading charge will be reevaluated at a later time.”

Moore says subpoenas have already gone out for a grand jury investigation into the shooting. A spokesperson for the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office said she wouldn’t comment on any pending investigation and wouldn’t answer our questions about the case. If the investigation leads to any charge against the officer, the case would be the third police shooting captured on body camera this year that Dallas County prosecutors shepherded to criminal indictment.

The post Man Mistaken for Burglar, Shot by Police then Shackled to Hospital Bed and Barred from Seeing Family appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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Coyote attacks increasing: What you should know

Scared, stapled and badly shaken, 10 year-old Penny is lucky to be alive after being viciously attacked by a coyote.

“She quit barking. hen I heard her yelping, like she was hurt,” the dog’s owner said.

The owner asked to not be identified.

The attack happened Monday night, at dusk, in a Fulshear community off Buffalo Hills Lane while Penny’s owner briefly let her out in the backyard.

She didn’t expect a coyote to get over a nearly 8-foot-tall fence.

“I opened the back door and a huge coyote was standing over her and has her pinned to the ground,” said her owner.

The homeowner said she scared the coyote away and then helped Penny, who was severely injured and bleeding, before rushing her to the vet.

“She has two lacerations about an inch and a half on one side of her neck and four puncture wounds on the other side,” Penny’s owner said.

As it turns out, this wasn’t the first time coyotes had been spotted in the neighborhood or in the wooded area just behind them.

“I felt like he could’ve killed me last night. He was a huge, huge coyote,” the dog’s owner said.

Now, the homeowner is warning other neighbors.

She’s asking them to be on the lookout, because she said she’s now living in fear every day when the sun goes down.

“Something needs to be done about the coyotes out here because I don’t feel safe in my own backyard anymore,” said the homeowner.

Here are some things to know about coyotes:

What are precautions to take to manage coyotes?

Do not feed coyotes
Keep pet food and water inside.
Keep garbage securely stored, especially if it has to be put on the curb for collection; use tight-locking trash cans or wrap the cans with bungee cords t make sure they cannot be easily opened.
Keep compost piles securely covered; correct composting never includes animal matter such as bones or fat, which can draw coyotes even more quickly than decomposing vegetable matter.
Keep pets inside, confined securely in a kennel or covered exercise yard, or within the close presence of an adult.

What should you do when you encounter a coyote?

Make noise and do other things to scare the coyote.
Portable air horns, motor vehicle horns, propane cannons, starter pistols, low-powered pellet guns, slingshots and thrown rocks can be effective.
Check with local authorities regarding noise and firearms ordinances.

How do coyotes become an issue in communities?

Urban and suburban coyotes, like urban deer, are symptoms of a broader problem.
People continue to expand housing subdivisions and other human development into what used to be open range wildlife habitat, especially on the expanding fringes of large metropolitan areas.
This is increasing the potential for encounters and conflicts between people and wildlife.

Who can help out with the problem of coyotes?

Texas Wildlife Services, in partnership with local governments, provides nuisance coyote control services in some urban areas.
In some cities, such as Austin, the Texas Cooperative Extension assists by coordinating nuisance coyote control and public education.
Call the main Texas Wildlife Services office in San Antonio at 210-472-5451 to get the number of the local office nearest you.

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Postal worker accused of kidnapping, choking and fatally shooting co-worker girlfriend

A Houston man is facing kidnapping charges after authorities said he shot the mother of his children in the head on Sept. 11.

Don Gaines is accused of taking the woman, who was an employee with the U.S. Postal Service, from Texas to Louisiana for the purpose of killing her or disposing of her body, according to authorities.

Gaines worked at the same location as the woman at the time of the crime, officials said.

Officials said Gaines choked the woman in her car and thought she was dead. While he was driving her, she regained consciousness, authorities said. Gaines stopped the car on the feeder road of I-10, took the woman to the woods and shot her in the head, according to federal officials.

He abandoned her body, authorities said.

If convicted, Gaines could face the death penalty.

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Medical marijuana in Texas: What you need to know

Texans can now access medical marijuana legally because of a law signed by Governor Abbott.

In compliance with the Compassionate Use Program, the first dispensary will soon open in Schulenburg, Texas.

Knox Medical officials said the Department of Public Safety makes weekly inspections as they prepare to open.

Founder and CEO of Knox Medical, Jose Hidalgo, said they chose Schulenburg because it is almost right in the middle of San Antonio, Austin and Houston. They are on schedule to begin deliveries next month.

“We’ll go to the major treatment centers and talk to the physicians and find out, ‘Do any of your patients qualify for medical cannabis?'” Hidalgo explained.

What will they be licensed to make?

According to DPS, they are authorized for Low-THC Cannabis as the plant Cannabis sativa L., and any part of that plant or any compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, preparation, resin, or oil of that plant that contains:

A. Not more than 0.5 percent by weight of tetrahydrocannabinols; and
B. Not less than 10 percent by weight of cannabidiol.

Who will get access to cannabis?

The Compassionate Use Program is limited to patients in Texas with intractable epilepsy of any age.

However, Texas Children’s Hospital is planning a different approach.

“A pharmaceutical-grade medication in a clinical trial, with the proper regulations and safety considerations, is something that we would propose as a better pathway than just making an oil and giving it to children,” Dr. Clark said.

Clark said he thinks it’s only a matter of time before a drug showing promise in clinical trials (Epidiolex) will be approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Clark said he will wait and prescribe something like that instead of ordering something from a licensed dispensary.

“There is an abundance of studies done out there. None of them are going to fit what an FDA clinical type trial are,” Hidalgo countered. “The reason why the Texas legislature passed CBD cannabis like other states is because the parents of these very, very sick children are demanding it.”

Who determines if you’re eligible for cannabis?

A patient may be prescribed low-THC cannabis if:
The patient is a permanent resident of Texas;
The patient is diagnosed with intractable epilepsy;
The qualified physician determines the risk of the medical use of low-THC cannabis by a patient is reasonable in light of the potential benefit for the patient; and
A second qualified physician has concurred with the determination.

Dr. Clark warns that just like all medications, CBD oil has limits. It’s not a miracle cure and does not work for everyone.

Clark said researchers are not sure why it shows benefits in some patients and not in others.

The FDA still classifies medical marijuana as unsafe.

Is smoking the plant legal in Texas?

No. Smoking is specifically excluded as a medical use, according to DPS.

What do Houston parents think?

Max and Kelly Beatty’s daughter is currently taking Epidiolex in a clinical trial.

“Given the choice, I would take the FDA drug and give that to Scarlett every time but that’s not an option for everyone right now,” Max Beatty said about his daughter with a severe form of epilepsy. “I just want the other families in Texas who are dealing with what we’re dealing with and worse, I want them to have a shot at what we get. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t.”

The Beattys said Epidiolex is helping their daughter, Scarlett, to maintain smaller doses of her medication.

She has fewer seizures and she’s more alert.

“She gets to do so much more now than she ever did before so she’s happy now, I think,” Kelly said.

For more frequently asked questions, click here.

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Harris County deputy suspended after striking handcuffed man after chase

A veteran Harris County Sheriffs Office Deputy will face disciplinary action and re-training after an incident that happened while a suspect was in custody.

Deputy Tu Tran, currently assigned to the Gulf Coast Violent Offenders Task Force, will face a three-day unpaid suspension because of his actions following a multi-agency police pursuit Oct. 12 that covered 85 miles and ended with the suspect’s arrest in Jefferson County.

WATCH: East Freeway suspect apparently punched in throat

“Deputy Tran also has been ordered to undergo additional training and he is on a 90-day probationary status,” wrote Harris County Sheriff’s Office Senior Deputy Thomas Gilliland.

On video captured by Sky 2, Tran appears to strike the handcuffed suspect, Mohmed Abu-Shlieba, 25, in the throat as he is places him into an unmarked police vehicle.

“Obviously, my thoughts are the officer overreached his boundaries. It wasn’t necessary. The man was in custody and handcuffs,” Brian Coyne, Abu-Shlieba’s defense attorney, said by phone.

Tran has not been charged with a crime, and the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office declined to file charges, according to Gilliland.

Abu-Shlieba, who has prior criminal convictions, is most recently charged with evading arrest.

Tran shot and killed a man with a gun outside a Houston nightclub in July 2015.

A friend of the man said at the scene that Juan Adolfo Ibarra, 24, was trying to leave the scene and should not have been shot.

A Harris County Grand Jury declined to indict Tran in March 2016.

 

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Woman with F-Trump sticker adds Sheriff Troy Nehls to display on truck

The driver of a truck featuring a sticker with an expletive directed toward President Donald Trump made some new adjustements by adding, “F*** Troy Nehls and F*** You for Voting for Him” after being arrested on an unrelated, outstanding charge.

Karen Fonseca, 46, walked out of the Fort Bend County Jail with her husband Thursday night after she was taken into custody just an hour after KPRC spoke with her Thursday.

She was released on a $1,500 bond.

State Rep. Ron Reynolds and Fonseca will be holding a press conference at 10 a.m. Monday to discuss the injustice against Fonseca at the Fort Bend County Justice Center.

‘We have to protect people’s First Amendment Right to Free Speech,” Reynolds said. “A difference in political views does not give Sheriff Nehls the right to target citizens. These actions by Sheriff Nehls could be an abuse of his law enforcement authority.”

Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls said he was “not surprised” by the sticker, and “thinks it’s disgusting.”

Fonseca’s truck was pictured in a post on Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls’ Facebook page. Nehls posted a photo of the back of a white pickup truck with a tinted back window and a large sticker that reads, “F*** Trump, and f*** you for voting for him.”

Here was Nehls’ caption of the photo:

“I have received numerous calls regarding the offensive display on this truck as it is often seen along FM 359. If you know who owns this truck or it is yours, I would like to discuss it with you. Our Prosecutor has informed us she would accept Disorderly Conduct charges regarding it, but I feel we could come to an agreement regarding a modification to it.”

WATCH: Fort Bend County sheriff speaks about Facebook post on anti-Trump sticker

The post went viral, gaining more than 10,000 shares within hours.

Just a day after the post was made Thursday, Nehls had deleted the post. His office issued this statement:

“The Sheriff made the post on his Personal page. The objective of the post was to find the owner/driver of the truck and have a conversation with them in order to prevent a potential altercation between the truck driver and those offended by the message. Since the owner of the truck has been identified, the Sheriff took down the post. Due to the hate messages he has been receiving towards his wife and children, the Sheriff will not be commenting on the matter further.”

WATCH: Full interview of truck owner with F Trump sticker

Fonseca said in the 11 months that she has had the sticker on the truck she has had no problems.

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Abbott calls White House’s latest disaster aid request “completely inadequate”

President Donald J. Trump and Gov. Greg Abbott.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday panned the White House’s latest disaster aid request, calling it “completely inadequate” for Texas’ needs in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

Unveiled earlier Friday, the request seeks $44 billion from Congress to assist with the Harvey aftermath, as well as the recoveries from other recent hurricanes in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. While not final, the number is far less than the $61 billion proposal that Abbott had submitted for Texas alone to Congress last month.

“What was offered up by Mick Mulvaney and [his Office of Management and Budget] is completely inadequate for the needs of the state of Texas and I believe does not live up to what the president wants to achieve,” Abbott said at a Capitol news conference called to unveil a $5 billion grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“The president has told me privately what he’s said publicly, and that is that he wants to be the builder president,” Abbott added. “The president has said that he wants this to be the best recovery from a disaster ever.”

Abbott said the $44 billion request is less than what was offered in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy — which hit the East Coast in 2012 and was “half the storm of what Hurricane Harvey was.” If Trump wants to see through the “biggest and best recovery ever,” Abbott added, the effort is “going to necessitate both more funding but also better strategies.”

Abbott was joined at the news conference by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who also made clear he was less than pleased with the White House’s latest disaster aid request. Asked whether he was ready to free up a top OMB nominee whose confirmation he has been blocking as leverage to secure more Harvey aid, he replied: “I’m not satisfied. We have to have further conversation.”

At the press conference, Pam Patenaude, Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, announced that the department will award Texas $5 billion for Harvey recovery. The money will be used to rebuild hard-hit areas throughout the state and be overseen by Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush. Apart from the new grant, Bush’s General Land Office is currently managing six other community development block grants that total about $4 billion.

Bush said the preliminary plan of action for the $5 billion HUD grant is complete. As of now, the money is planned to go toward temporary housing and fixing damaged homes.

“We are now tasked with the largest housing recovery in American history,” Bush said.

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Former United Airlines pilot pleads guilty to running prostitution ring

Former United Airlines pilot Bruce Wayne Wallis appeared before Harris County Judge Jim Wallace to plead guilty to running a prostitution ring.

The judge gave Wallis five years’ probation. He could have faced up to 20 years in prison if found guilty at trial.

“Even though what you did is certainly despicable, you didn’t endanger, as far as I know, anyone’s lives. You didn’t force anyone to do anything that they didn’t want to do,” Wallace said.

As part of the agreement, Wallis agreed not to ask that his commercial pilot’s license be reinstated while he is on probation.

He also must complete 150 hours of community service and pay a $2,000 fine.

The judge allowed him to keep his flight school open. If he successfully completes the probation, he will avoid a criminal conviction.

“I think that he recognized that while there was a crime committed, that Mr. Wallis should have an opportunity to make a living and contribute, so we’re happy with the result, absolutely happy with it,” defense attorney Dan Cogdell said.

Wallis was arrested in 2016 in one of the 17 raids across Houston in connection to a prostitution ring. Prosecutors said the ring involved 20 female prostitutes at more than six brothels.

“We’re hopeful that he will learn his lesson and that he’ll move on from there. It’s been a long road to get us to this point. There’s been a lot of work and difficulties and there’s been a lot of harm that’s taken place. I’m glad we’re getting to an ending point,” prosecutor Lester Blizzard said.

 

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Abbott, Patrick push back on TxDOT’s plans for financing new toll projects

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick before hitting the gavel to begin a Senate session Aug. 15, 2017, the day before the end of a first called special session of the 85th Legislature. 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told state transportation leaders Thursday they should abandon plans for using an accounting maneuver to get around a constitutional prohibition on some toll projects. Patrick said the idea has left lawmakers “very unhappy” with Texas Transportation Commission members, who appear “to be going in a direction that opposes the will” of legislators and Texas drivers.

Comments from Abbott and Patrick came hours after The Texas Tribune reported that the commission, which oversees the Texas Department of Transportation, is considering funding highway rebuilds and expansions in corridors that would also feature managed toll lanes.

Some of those projects could be partially funded with billions of tax dollars that Texas voters overwhelmingly agreed to spend on highway projects. Ballot language that steered those funds to TxDOT also said the money would not be used on toll roads or toll lanes.

TxDOT, though, is considering accounting maneuvers that would still allow toll lanes to be built. Their idea: Voter-approved funds would be spent on the non-tolled main lanes, while the new toll lanes next to them would be funded through gas tax revenue or federal loans that don’t come with restrictions on using them for toll projects.

“It is surprising and disappointing to learn that TxDOT created a plan to add managed toll lanes to virtually every major roadway under consideration,” Patrick told transportation officials in a letter Thursday.

Bruce Bugg, who chairs the transportation commission, told the Tribune Wednesday that Abbott’s office is aware of the idea to use accounting maneuvers to help fund rebuilds that would be next to toll lanes. He also said that he believes the practice would not violate the state constitution.

Abbott appoints the five commissioners that oversee TxDOT and promised Texans that highway capacity would be added throughout the state without new toll lanes financing construction.

“The governor and his staff have been in constant communication with members of the Texas Transportation Commission and TxDOT staff to express their desire to not include new toll roads” in long-term state transportation plans, Abbott spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said Thursday.

TxDOT officials could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday.

Meanwhile, State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, has asked the state attorney general’s office to weigh in on whether the accounting idea is legal.

Lawmakers in recent years have fiercely opposed toll roads and managed toll lanes as their constituents have complained about the increasing number of such projects, especially in North Texas. Collin County lawmakers successfully got regional planners there to drop plans for turning carpool lanes on Central Expressway into managed toll lanes. And the Texas House earlier this year killed a major transportation funding bill, largely because projects within it would have included toll lanes.

TxDOT officials’ idea comes as they prepare to update the state’s long-term transportation plan next year. Many of the projects being proposed for the plan include managed toll lanes, which run alongside non-tolled main lanes and generally charge drivers rates that vary based on usage. The tolls increase as more people use the managed lanes. Those increases are meant to prevent the lanes from becoming more congested.

Transportation officials say funding the managed lanes with federal loans backed by toll revenues, while adding non-tolled main lanes with tax dollars, would help the agency build more capacity with limited funds. In meetings, TxDOT documents and interviews, state officials have also indicated that regional planners from the state’s major urban areas are pushing the idea of using managed toll lanes.

Once toll revenues pay off construction costs, the excess funds that drivers would still pay could then be used to maintain existing roads or pay for expanding or building roads in the same areas.

“These local communities are trying to identify solutions to manage and mitigate their traffic congestion throughout their respective areas,” TxDOT project planning and development director Lauren Garduño told transportation commissioners last month.

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Trial dates set for ex-deputy, husband charged in John Hernandez’s death

The trial dates have been set for a former Harris County deputy and her husband who were arrested in connection with the death of John Hernandez.

Chauna Thompson, who was fired from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, and her husband, Terry Thompson, were in court Thursday, where a judge set the trial dates – May 18, 2018, for Terry Thompson, and June 1, 2018, for Chauna Thompson.

There was a heavy presence of law enforcement at the courthouse as the Thompsons arrived. The couple ignored questions from reporters as they walked to a waiting elevator.

Family, friends and supporters of Hernandez were also present. They said they believe the trials could take up to two years to complete, and are willing to be there every step of the way.

The Thompsons were each charged with murder in connection with the May 28 confrontation with Hernandez outside of a Denny’s restaurant. Video of the incident appeared to show Terry Thompson using a chokehold and lying on top of Hernandez while Chauna Thompson held down one of Hernandez’s arms.

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Cities race to annex land before new Texas law goes into effect Dec. 1

A road sign outside of Mesquite city limits in Dallas County. Mesquite has rushed to annex land outside its city limits before Dec. 1, 2017, when a new law would require some cities to get the consent of residents before annexing their property.

DALLAS COUNTY — On a recent afternoon, Michelle Singleton played with her dogs behind her house. The pets’ barks and the chirps of crickets were the only sounds on the 15-acre property, which Singleton and her husband, Stan, bought more than 30 years ago. There, outside the North Texas city of Mesquite, they have hosted bonfires, hunted doves and watched their three children grow up.

But now, Mesquite plans to annex their land, and the Singletons are afraid it will ruin their way of life.

Mesquite is among several cities across Texas, including McKinney and Pearland, that have tried to annex land before a new law goes into effect Dec. 1, requiring certain cities to get the consent of a majority of property owners before annexing their land. City governments have said they are responding to the needs of urban growth and normal development. But residents say they just want to be left alone.

“We’ve survived this long without them,” Michelle Singleton said of city officials. “And we don’t need them to survive now.”

Against the clock

City officials in Mesquite and Pearland acknowledge the law has rushed their annexation plans but say annexation had been on their radar long before Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law in August. Mesquite Mayor Stan Pickett said developers who own land outside the city asked early this year to be annexed in order to provide city services to future subdivisions.

Mesquite City Council members added that the annexation was aimed at controlling inevitable development in the area, not taking over current residents’ homes. The city has dramatically reduced the amount of land under consideration for annexation in response to the negative outcry from private landowners. During an Oct. 26 public meeting, Mesquite City Council member Bruce Archer said if he could annex land without any independent homes, he would.

“Our desire has never been to take in a bunch of homes out here,” Archer said at the meeting. “But I think all of our desire is to do something very nice out here and to make sure things we don’t want don’t come out here.”

Pickett said Mesquite has reached out to residents, offering city staff to help them navigate the annexation.

But state Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, a House sponsor of the new law, Senate Bill 6, said he and his constituents in Kaufman County would not negotiate with city hall because “they don’t have anything we want.” Gooden said the point of the measure — which applies to cities in nine of the state’s most populous counties, plus Henderson County — was to protect Texans who do not want to be annexed by neighboring cities.

“This is the first issue in my three terms of office that I have ever seen 100 percent of people on the same side,” Gooden said. “There’s not one person in this area in Kaufman County that wants to be annexed.”

City codes on country homes

In the Houston area, Caye and Gerard Hauser are in a situation similar to the Singletons’. The couple first moved to a plot of land outside of Pearland almost 40 years ago to escape the city and start afresh. They, like most of their neighbors, started with a small mobile home on a few acres and eventually constructed a house.

Like the Singletons, the Hausers have raised their children on their land and hope to pass it on to future generations. Caye Hauser said they also have livestock and fear annexation could force urban codes on a rural setting.

“These are not just places that we just popped out two or three years ago and lived and hoped that somebody would annex us,” Hauser said. “We’ve been out here. And we’ve been surviving on our own all this time.”

Mesquite Mayor Stan Pickett speaks during a public meeting on annexation on Oct. 26, 2017.
Mesquite Mayor Stan Pickett speaks during a public meeting on annexation on Oct. 26, 2017. Laura Buckman for The Texas Tribune

Residents around Mesquite have similar concerns over potential city regulations. At the city council meeting about annexation last month, property owner Mack Beam said that after his land was annexed into Mesquite 11 years ago, officials cited him for violating codes based on “city living.”

“Within 72 hours after we were annexed, we got our first heaping helping of city services, which were code enforcement people coming in up and down the road out there because our hay meadows weren’t cut to suit the city,” Beam said.

Pickett said that was before his mayoral tenure and that he has no desire to change people’s ways of life. Pickett added that it’s “just not practical” to enforce the same codes used in the Mesquite city center out in rural areas.

In Pearland, however, council member Keith Ordeneaux had a different take. In an email to Hauser’s family obtained by the Tribune, Ordeneaux disputed Hauser’s characterization of their land as “country.” While he said people in annexed areas will have to abide by city codes, prohibiting bonfires and fireworks, he disagrees there will be a serious effects on residents, as the land has already developed into a suburban area. Ordeneaux said in an email to the Tribune that the land had always been subject to possible annexation and the new law simply sped up the process.

Several residents have said annexation will increase their taxes for services they will not use. Property taxes for both Mesquite and Pearland are about 69 cents for every $100 of property value, so about $690 per year for the average Mesquite household, in addition to county and school district taxes.

Ordeneaux added that areas planned for annexation already receive some city functions, such as fire and emergency medical services, without paying city taxes.

“I … do not understand the argument of country living ending once you are annexed into a city,” Ordeneaux wrote in the email to the Hausers. “Besides having to pay city taxes, what concerns do you have about your way of life?”

The state intervenes

The office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has intervened in some annexation efforts. The office sent a letter on Nov. 6 to officials of the North Texas city of McKinney, arguing they did not properly follow state annexation procedure. McKinney has since canceled its annexation plans.

Pickett received a similar letter on Nov. 9 from Paxton’s office, arguing Mesquite may have failed to properly notify residents and hold public meetings with sufficient notice. Some property owners said they never received notifications and learned of the annexation efforts through friends and neighbors. Pickett said the city mailed notifications to property owners in early September and posted announcements on its website, as required by state law.

Shortly after Paxton’s office sent the letter to Pickett, a state district court ordered Mesquite to delay its annexation efforts in Kaufman County. But the order does not apply to Dallas County, including the Singletons’ property.

This week, a Texas appeals court denied a request from Mesquite to cancel the order. A delay could cause the city to miss the Dec. 1 deadline — precisely what residents and Gooden hope will happen.

“They say you can’t fight city hall,” Gooden said. “But we are, and we’re winning and we plan to win.”

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A “glitch” on U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s website asked for visitors’ Social Security numbers

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn joins fellow Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Tribune CEO Evan Smith for the closing day of The Texas Tribune Festival on Sept. 24, 2017.

An error on U.S. Sen. John Cornyn‘s website last night required constituents to submit their Social Security number when filling out the comments box on the website.

Normally, Cornyn’s website only requires people to submit their Social Security numbers when they are requesting help with a federal agency. The error last night required it, along with their name, address and contact information, even when leaving the Texas Republican a comment.

A spokesperson for Cornyn said the required field was a “glitch.”

“It was an inadvertent glitch and our website vendor has fixed it,” Drew Brandewie wrote in an email.

As of Tuesday morning, the field has been removed from Cornyn’s website on the “Discuss an issue” page but remains if constituents are seeking help with an agency.

Most other members of the Texas delegation in Congress have similar forms to submit comments on their webpages but do not require a Social Security number for those solely trying to contact the member’s office. However, many use a specialized privacy form that requires a Social Security number for those requesting help with a federal agency.

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Greg Abbott Declares War on Moderate Republicans

Representative Sarah Davis, Governor Greg Abbott  via Sarah Davis, Patrick Michels

In the latest episode of Texas Politics, God’s dumbest reality show, Governor Greg Abbott celebrated the beginning of Republican primary season by going to war — against a popular incumbent lawmaker in his own party, in a district that Hillary Clinton won by 15 points. On Monday morning, Abbott issued a fatwa of sorts, calling for the replacement of state Representative Sarah Davis, a moderate pro-choice Republican, with primary challenger Susanna Dokupil, a right-wing lawyer and board member of the Seasteading Institute, which exists to build libertarian cruise ships and permanently station them in international waters, free from the laws of man.

If that information is hard to make sense of, so are most recent events on Texas Politics. Conservative activists hate Davis, the least conservative Republican in the House. Davis is a generally reliable vote for abortion rights, gay rights, public schools, vaccines, etc. But Abbott’s decision to weigh in against a party incumbent breaks an unwritten rule, and the political logic behind it is hard to parse. House District 134 covers much of Houston’s upscale west side, including Bellaire and West University Place, went for Clinton by 15 percentage points in 2016, and was held by Democrat Ellen Cohen before Davis won it in 2010. Davis is probably the GOP’s best chance to retain the seat, so Abbott’s decision to join the fight seems to put his own desire to unseat Davis ahead of the party’s interest.

Furthermore, Dokupil does not appear to be a particularly strong candidate. In many ways she’s a fairly run-of-the-mill party hack, a lawyer with ties to the Federalist Society, the American Enterprise Institute, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and the Harris County Republican Party. She co-chaired the national finance committee for Ted Cruz’s 2012 Senate campaign. Then there’s the Seasteading Institute, a political project of Silicon Valley’s chief cryptofascist, Peter Thiel. Seasteaders seek to construct “floating communities in the ocean based on the principles of contract and radical consent” — Burning Man meets Waterworld.

Susanna Dokupil  Courtesy

Dokupil is an enthusiastic supporter of the project. In December 2015, she interviewed the Seasteading Institute’s chief guru, Joe Quirk, who calls himself a “seavangelist” and an “aquapreneur,” for an episode of the institute’s podcast, “Seasteading Today.” Over the course of a surreal half-hour, Dokupil exhorts listeners to join in on the creation of Quirk’s new “seavilizations,” utopian leviathans with “start-up mentalities,” ranging the “floating frontier,” free from the harsh yoke of “land-based government.”

We’ll see, in time, how that flies in west Houston. So, again, why is Abbott getting behind this? It may simply be that he knows Dokupil personally — she was an assistant solicitor general when he was Texas attorney general. Or it may be that he’s keeping his promise from the session that any legislator who crossed him would be put on a “list.”

But it’s worth considering the broader conservative political project here. If Abbott’s goal is an ideologically uniform House caucus, then it’s genuinely preferable to lose Davis’ seat than to allow her to continue to win. Beating Davis in the primary — even if it cedes the seat to a Democrat — removes the only openly pro-choice Republican voice from the caucus, and it pushes other lawmakers who show an independent streak back in the herd.

Because the Republicans are in no real danger of losing their overall House majority anytime soon, it’s better for Abbott and friends to have a smaller, purer GOP caucus. And in Davis’ case, a gentle nudge might be enough to do it — for years, Democrats have talked idly about convincing her to switch parties, a prospect that may now be more enticing. (Harris County Republicans had been set to debate a motion to censure Davis for her too-liberal voting record on Monday night; it was apparently withdrawn after Abbott’s endorsement.)

House Speaker Joe Straus’ retirement gives Abbott and others the opportunity to try to force conformity on the House. That’s going to lead to a lot of strange dynamics in the next four months, as the Republican primary heats up. For one thing, Straus has promised to use his ample campaign funds to push hard for his candidates this cycle, which means Davis’ district provides an opportunity for Straus and Abbott to butt heads.

Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio on May 6.  Sam DeGrave

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of the speaker’s election in 2019 on Texans’ lives, and the outcome of that depends entirely on what happens in the next six months of the Republican primary and next year’s general election.

What makes the outcome of the next speaker’s race so difficult to game out — apart from the fact that our world broke at some point in the last couple years — is that there are three strong competing phenomena in the House right now. The first is simply that Democrats may be approaching a wave election. The Democrats have a meaningful chance of winning more seats in the House next year than they’ve won since 2008. That could be helpful in the effort to select a Straus-type speaker.

The second is that Republican primary fights between moderates and conservatives will be especially vicious this year, particularly if Abbott puts the weight of his political machine behind it. That could be good for Democrats, but it also diminishes the chances of selecting a moderate speaker, because the casualties of the primary will include at least a few more experienced moderates, replaced in the ranks by pliable freshmen, as they always do.

The third is that the Republican circle is tightening. The GOP and affiliated organizations, such as Texans for Lawsuit Reform, are pushing hard for Republican candidates to pledge to select the next speaker without Democrats. This leads to a paradox: It’s plausible that House Democrats emerge from next year’s election stronger than they’ve been in years, yet more powerless than ever before.

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