Following Hurricane Harvey, the Harris County Criminal Justice Building remains closed until further notice. This has forced the criminal courts to share courtroom space at the Family Law Center leading to scheduling challenges and delays.
At the same time, there are people who face even harsher penalties for alleged theft crimes as well as other minor offenses committed during or after the hurricane. The fear was mass looting, but this was largely unfounded. Reports of looting were limited to a liquor store and shoe shop.
Texas law allows for sentencing enhancement (stricter penalties) for crimes committed during disasters. An example is a minimum sentence of 180 days in jail for a Class A misdemeanor.
With the lack of information compounded by “fake news” reports, some people in the wrong place at the wrong time could face serious penalties.
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office provided the Houston Press with data on the number of charges filed. Enhanced Harvey-charges were filed against 196 people for everything from DUI to assault and trespassing. Approximately 20 percent of the cases were for thefts that involved property valued at less than $750. Marijuana possession and disobeying a warning sign also received enhanced charges.
Curfew violations also resulted in a number of arrests and citations – 338 (many of these were on the following weekend nights as the overnight curfew stayed in effect until Tuesday, September 5).
This brings us to the next topic, it is broader that enhanced penalties during a disaster. The prosecution has wide discretion when deciding which cases to pursue and the charges to file. This carries through to plea-bargaining.
With the hurricane, prosecutors will review the facts of each offense to determine if there was a link to the disaster or aftermath to support an enhancement. This standard is going to vary based on the prosecutor reviewing the facts of a case. And the difference in a sentence can be months in jail.
Another issue was that some misdemeanor suspects stayed in custody for longer than they should have after arrests. A June court order requires the Sheriff’s Office to release misdemeanor defendants no later than 24 hours after an arrest. Apparently this was not happening in every case.
These hurricane-related issues illustrate why it is important to seek a criminal defense immediately.
How can you identify mistakes, if you only have one or two experiences with the criminal justice system? You probably can’t, so get a free consultation with an experienced defense attorney who has spent a career defending others who have faced similar situations.