Samantha Ketterer, Staff writer
Sep. 16, 2021Updated: Sep. 17, 2021 8:51 a.m.
A visiting misdemeanor judge this week reproached Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg for practices he believes contributed to a crisis-level backlog of pending criminal cases.
Judge Mike Fields, sitting on Darrell Jordan’s bench, is the latest person to redirect blame over a clogged docket that threatens to cripple justice for people accused of crimes.
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In a bluntly worded letter to Ogg on Wednesday, he contended that the DA’s office’s own policies delay evidence and automatically place County Criminal Court at Law No. 16 out of compliance with standards that misdemeanor cases be disposed within six months.
“These rules are causing our docket to grind to a near halt,” Fields wrote in the letter.
The number of pending cases has grown to 94,000 in Harris County, including 41,000 misdemeanors and 53,000 felonies, according to county data. Closures from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 spurred the backlog and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 worsened it, overloading judges and attorneys with cases they can’t clear fast enough.
Judges are often at the receiving end of blame for the backlog and problems associated with it — such as increased numbers of people on bond for longer periods. Any criticism at Ogg’s office has largely been deflected, and her spokesman on Thursday denied that Fields’ courtroom is stalled. Since Aug. 1, 439 cases have been resolved with guilty pleas, diversions and dismissals in the court, he said.
“We will be sending an official reply to the judge, but there are so many misstatements of fact and inaccuracies in his letter, that we intend to respond to him in person,” said Dane Schiller, spokesman for the DA’s office.
According to Fields, the delays in receiving discovery fall on Ogg’s insistence on completing unnecessary alcohol tests in certain DWI cases, as well as refusals to expedite requests for body-worn camera and other police footage. Fields, a formerly elected Republican judge, has presided for Jordan for about a year while he is on a military deployment.
Even if the DA’s office agrees no alcohol is smelled or alleged, prosecutors will order alcohol tests anyway — taking up to six months to complete and another half-year to test for the drugs which were actually suspected, Fields said.
Body-worn camera evidence has taken roughly eight months or more for defense attorneys to receive, and the DA’s office won’t expedite the request until six months have passed, the judge said. The same goes for 911 calls in domestic violence cases.
The 11th Administrative Judicial Region of Texas, overseeing Harris County and five others, places standards at six months to dispose misdemeanor cases and a year to dispose felonies, partly because the strength of cases and likelihood of conviction diminishes after that period of time.
“In a perfect world, cases would not be filed by your office until the evidence the defense needs to zealously represent their clients … is available.” Fields wrote.
Schiller denied there ever was a policy — official or unofficial — that kept prosecutors from expediting requests for body camera footage.
“There are more than 1 million hours of body worn video camera footage uploaded and available to defense lawyers across all courts at this very moment,” Schiller said. “Moreover, in accordance with SB 111, which recently took effect, the District Attorney’s Office now requires that law-enforcement agencies, in most instances, to provide video camera evidence and lab test results at the time charges are filed.”
Schiller added that his office is working to comply with a Texas Supreme Court order to do all that is reasonably possible to handle cases, including encouraging courts to embrace technology and use other means to hold trials and reduce the backlog.
“Judges set trials and this judge has overseen just three trials since May,” Schiller said.
Trials have been occurring at limited numbers since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fields’ candidness at first shocked Joe Vinas, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. But he added he was glad the criticism occurred, especially since he has his own complaints about the length of time it takes defense attorneys to receive evidence.
“The DA’s office has tried to point the finger on delays in other directions,” Vinas said. “But to me, the single biggest reason for case backlogs is delay in case discovery.”
Fields has asked prosecutors to review pending cases in Jordan’s court and determine which ones have not produced evidence, he said in the letter.
County Criminal Court at Law No. 16 has the largest docket of any misdemeanor court, with 2,943 active cases pending (the courts average 2,560 cases each, according to county data).
About 55 percent of Fields’ cases have been on the docket longer than six months, exceeding standards and classifying as “backlogged.” Overall misdemeanor court averages are similarly high, at 50 percent.