Archive for the ‘Travis County’ Category

Bagatelle (#5).

Tuesday, June 20th, 2017

Could it be…SATAN?!

No. Actually, it wasn’t Satan at all. It was mass hysteria and a doctor who made a mistake.

I’ll throw this in just for fun: if you are a “dancer” who performs “in paint, latex, wax, gel, foam, film and coatings”, are you a nude dancer in the eyes of the law?

And why does it matter? Because clubs with “fully nude” dancers have to collect a state-mandated $5 entry fee.

…n January 2017 the comptroller amended its rules to include clubs that employ latex and paint-covered dancers as sexually oriented businesses.

Quick update.

Monday, May 8th, 2017

The new cop shop for Lakeway (which I mentioned in a previous post) passed.

By eight votes out of about 2,100 cast. According to other sources, 2,100 votes is about 18% of the total registered voters in Lakeway. I don’t know if that’s higher, lower, or about average for an off-year election with only bonds, city council elections, and a sales tax re authorization on the ballot.

Knee deep in the schadenfreude.

Friday, April 28th, 2017

I should have worn waders today.

(Fun fact: “Knee Deep In the Schadenfreude” was Starship’s working title for “We Built This City”.)

Local elections are coming up. I’m not sure what’s on the ballot for Austin specifically and Travis County in general. But in Lakeway, where I’ve been spending a lot of my time, three city council seats are up. Also, the city is considering a proposition to issue $23 million worth of bonds so they can build a new police station.

The new cop shop is kind of a big deal. I haven’t heard a lot of opposition to it, but most of the people I’ve been around in Lakeway are police or police supporters. I’ve been down and toured the current police station, and it is small and cramped and crowded: there’s no room to grow. On the other hand, the figures I cam up with for a certain property owner I know came out to around %6 a month more in property taxes. This is someone who is on a fixed income: six dollars here, six collars there, pretty soon you’re talking about City of Austin property taxes.

Reasonable people can differ on the merits of the proposition and the candidates. But here’s the problem: Lakeway’s mayor, Joe Bain, who is active on NextDoor (and has a blog on the city website) decided he’d be smart.

“John Smart” on NextDoor, to be exact.

Posts made under the name “John Smart” included advocating that residents vote for incumbent City Council candidates Bridge Bertram and Ron Massa.

“Vote for Bridge Bertram and Ron Massa – they actually volunteered for the City and worked hard to make it better, unlike the other candidate that hasn’t attended a council meeting for a long time nor has every [sic] done any work to try to improve the city – no committees, commissions or any other volunteer work,” a post by John Smart reads.

The mayor has confessed and deleted the account.

Bain confirmed by phone Thursday evening that he was behind the “John Smart” account, adding, “The city really doesn’t have anything [to do] with this … there are reasons behind all this.”

I’m not currently on NextDoor, but looking over their rules, Mayor Bain’s behavior is a pretty clear violation. I had thought that NextDoor actually did some validation on signups to make sure you were a real person and lived in the place you signed up for. (I know, I know, silly me: expecting a website on the Internet to do validation.) The one person I’ve heard from so far who is on NextDoor says they didn’t go through any validation process, but they used an invite code provided by their local neighborhood association. Maybe that bypasses the validation?

The first question this leads to is: how did he get a fake NextDoor account? Was someone else…helping him out?

The second question: how is this going to impact the election? Early voting started Monday. I can’t vote in Lakeway, but if I could, I’d be looking cynically at Mayor Bain’s endorsed candidates. Perhaps it is time for some new leadership? (I’d also be thinking about my support for the new cop shop. But honestly, I’d probably end up voting for it anyway.)

Annals of law (#12 in a series)

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

Section 29.03 of the Texas Penal Code defines “aggravated robbery”:

Sec. 29.03. AGGRAVATED ROBBERY. (a) A person commits an offense if he commits robbery as defined in Section 29.02, and he:
(1) causes serious bodily injury to another;
(2) uses or exhibits a deadly weapon; or
(3) causes bodily injury to another person or threatens or places another person in fear of imminent bodily injury or death, if the other person is:
(A) 65 years of age or older; or
(B) a disabled person.
(b) An offense under this section is a felony of the first degree.
(c) In this section, "disabled person" means an individual with a mental, physical, or developmental disability who is substantially unable to protect himself from harm.

Seems mostly clear, right? Except: what constitutes “a deadly weapon”?

Is “a pellet gun” a deadly weapon?

Dustin Clark and two other men are suspected in a string of convenience store robberies in Travis County. They were stopped by the Lakeway PD in December of 2015, shortly after allegedly robbing a store in Spicewood, holding “pellet guns” to the clerk’s head, and threatening to kill him. The police found the pellet guns, money, ski masks, other identifying clothing, and a pack of Starburst allegedly stolen by Clark in the car. (The police also found “two deer rifles” in the trunk. I have seen contradictory reports about whether these were airsoft guns or real rifles. However, the “deer rifles” were not used in the robbery, and were not part of the criminal case as best as I can tell.)

Mr. Clark went on trial this week. There seems to have been little doubt about his guilt: his own attorney conceded that it was his client on the surveillance video from the store. The main legal issue was is it plain old robbery, or aggravated robbery?

The pellet guns were found unloaded and not carrying a C02 cartridge that would have made them operable.

Mr. Clark was offered a plea deal of 40 years before trial. The maximum for plain old robbery is 20 years, and 99 years for aggravated robbery. I don’t know enough about Mr. Clark’s background to be able to estimate what the likely sentences would have been.

Mr. Clark turned down the 40-year deal and chose to go to trial. His attorney moved to include robbery as a lesser charge for the jury to to consider, but the Travis County DA successfully fought that motion. So the only charge the jury was allowed to consider against Mr. Clark was aggravated robbery.

And they acquitted him.

But the jury could consider only one charge — aggravated robbery — and after more than six hours of discussion they finally united and ruled that the pellet guns the men used to scare two employees are not deadly weapons. Therefore, several of them told the American-Statesman, they had to acquit Clark. About half of the 12-person jury granted an interview request saying they wish they had the option to convict Clark of the lesser charge.
They said there was no proof the guns contained pellets or the CO2 cartridges that power them at the time of the robbery.

I personally wonder how the clerk was supposed to know that. I’d also really like to see photos of the pellet guns. And I wonder what else this means, legally? Not that I would, but if take the firing pin and cartridges out of a Smith and go hold up a Stop’N’Rob, is it just robbery? The gun can’t fire, right? So it’s not a deadly weapon, at least if I understand the logic here correctly.

[Travis County Assistant DA Amy] Meredith added she still believes aggravated robbery “was the appropriate charge.” State district Judge David Crain denied the defense’s motion to include the robbery charge after taking a break in chambers to research the law. Prosecutors had made Crain aware of a ruling from a case 11 years ago in which pellet guns had been found to be deadly.

I don’t feel too bad for ADA Meredith. Even though she didn’t get a conviction in this case, she did make an interesting legal point. I don’t think this rises to the level of precedent because Judge Crain’s ruling hasn’t been reviewed by a higher court, but perhaps this is something the Texas legislature could offer some additional guidance on. Also, Mr. Clark is still facing charges in six other robberies, so it isn’t like the TCDA whiffed on their only chance to convict him.

I thought about blogging this when the first story appeared Tuesday, but didn’t get to it (this is a busy week). But RoadRich emailed the print version of the story yesterday, which led to a lively discussion between him, myself, Mike the Musicologist, and Lawrence.

MtM observed that he recalls one of the northern states changing the law some years back so that if you brandish a fake weapon with the intent of making your victims think it is real, you get treated like it was real. Spray paint the end of that airsoft gun black and use it to hold up a liquor store? Big boy rules apply.

I think both MtM and I are on the same side of the divide when it comes to the increased tendency to criminalize everything and sweep up more people in the web. But I also think we’re both in agreement that this is the kind of “play stupid games, win stupid prizes” law that we could get behind.

(On a related side note, I’m halfway tempted to start a podcast with the four of us sitting around eating dinner and talking about legal issues. I even have a name for it: “I’m Not A Lawyer, But…”. I figure it should be easy to get sponsorship from SquareSpace, at least. If it proves popular enough, I might even offer to fly Ken and/or Patrick in as special guests for barbecue. That is, if their heads haven’t already exploded. Episode 1 is going to called “Rule of Parties be damned”.)

Quick update.

Saturday, March 18th, 2017

The guy who killed two people and injured a third near Lakeway?

Randall Burrows, 54, shot himself in the head just outside of Summit, Miss., after a short chase with Mississippi highway patrol, Travis County sheriff’s officials said. He was taken to a hospital, and he was pronounced dead soon after 5 p.m., roughly 15 minutes after the U.S. Marshals had found him and the chase began, Travis County sheriff’s Capt. Craig Smith said.

Memo from the police beat.

Thursday, March 16th, 2017

The past few days have been busy ones for law enforcement in and around Austin, and not just because of South By So What. Here’s a quick survey of some things that I’ve found interesting.

There’s a new plan for the APD DNA lab: get Texas DPS to run it.

Under a proposed contract, the city of Austin will pay the Texas Department of Public Safety $800,000 a year to manage all aspects of the lab, including procedures for analyzing forensic evidence and the oversight of employees hired by the DPS to work there.
The newly named Department of Public Safety Capital Area Regional Lab will focus exclusively on Austin police cases, Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay said.

I suppose this is better than nothing, or the current state of affairs. And $800,000 sounds like a reasonable amount of money if the new management from DPS is going to fix all the problems and claw through the backlog. But I still think we’d be better off with an independent lab like Houston’s, or making the existing lab am arm of the courts.

Speaking of the DNA lab, here’s a story I haven’t seen reported anywhere else:

In the first legislation of its kind, the lawmaker, State Representative Victoria Neave, a Democrat from Dallas, introduced the bill in February to solicit donations of $1 or more from people when they renew or apply for driver’s licenses. The money would underwrite a grant for the Department of Public Safety to test what are commonly called “rape kits,” which consist of evidence samples including hair, semen, fabric fibers and skin cells.

(Note that the paper of record characterizes this as “crowdfunding”, which I find a bit misleading.)

If adopted, it could generate an estimated $1 million a year, based on similar donations collected for veterans from driver’s license applications, according to a legislative budget document. When administrative costs are deducted, that would leave more than $800,000 every fiscal year that local governments could tap to push through testing of evidence collected from the victims of sexual assault during a physical examination that can take four to six hours.

Where have I heard $800,000 recently? Oh, yeah.

The donations are intended to supplement rather than replace a budget for the testing, which can cost $1,000 to $1,500 for each kit. The Legislature, which is now in budget talks, is also considering allocating $4 million to fund the process, said Rebecca Acuna, Ms. Neave’s chief of staff.

You know what I’d really like to see? A breakdown of where that “$1,000 to $1,500 for each kit” goes. I’m not against rape kit testing – quite the opposite – but I’m curious why it costs that much. I’m also curious if this cost has increased or decreased over time, with improved technology. And are there possibly better, faster, and cheaper ways of testing rape kits without sacrificing accuracy?

Two people shot and killed last night, and a third airlifted with “critical, life-threatening” injuries.

If you look at the Stateman‘s handy Google map, you’ll see this took place not terribly far from the Lake Travis High School/Education Center complex. My mother and I were down there last night with a bunch of other people….attending the Lakeway Police Department’s Citzens Police Academy class. As a matter of fact, right around the time of the shooting, we were out in the parking lot looking at the Lakeway PD patrol cars (Chevy Tahoes. This led someone to ask, “Why the switch to SUVs?” I suspect most of my readers know the answer already, but in case you don’t: “Because Ford stopped making the Crown Vic, the greatest patrol car ever given to us by God.”) and the Lakeway PD police motorcycles (Harley Davidsons). I don’t recall hearing any shots or even the Starflight helicopter.

Even better, we had just finished listening to a presentation from one of the people who does the Lakeway PD statistical analysis about how safe Lakeway was, how many calls for service/stops/arrests there were year to year, and what the major categories were. “Homicide” didn’t even register. (Technically, it’s probably still true that Lakeway is relatively safe, even though the shooter is at large: I believe the shooting happened near, but outside of, the Lakeway city limits, so it would be chalked up as “unincorporated Travis County”.)

The first we knew about it was when we were breaking up for the night: the second in command of the department (who also runs the classes, and who usually jokes around a lot) came in and said “I want everyone to listen to me very closely. Two people have been shot near here and the shooter is still at large. We are going to walk everyone to the parking lot and make sure you all get into your cars safely. I need for you to leave the area as quickly as you possibly can.” That will put some spring in your step.

Reports are that this was “an isolated incident”, possibly a “disgruntled contractor” who shot these people because he didn’t get paid. Which is just stupid: if you shoot people, they can’t pay you.

And speaking of the Lakeway CPA, for reasons: a interesting and contrarian point of view from Grits For Breakfast in opposition to a statewide ban on “texting and driving”.

Speaking of Travis County…

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

I’ve updated the county commissioners page as much as I can. Jeff Travillion’s page still has staff and contact information “coming soon”.

As always with any of these pages, if you detect errors or omissions, please contact me.

Half a million dollars.

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

This is slightly old news that I’ve been meaning to note for a couple of days now. I still think it’s worth mentioning, because it seems to me there’s something buried in the press coverage.

The Travis County Commissioners Court has voted to pay Judge Julie Kocurek $500,000.

“Does this have something to do with her being shot?” you might ask.

Indeed, it does.

“But why? The county didn’t shoot her. The cops didn’t shoot her. She was shot by a bad guy.”

Indeed, this is true. The money is being given as a settlement for “any claims against the county that Kocurek could have sought in a lawsuit”. Some of this is spelled out in the Statesman stories, and some of this is me reading between the lines, but it looks like the argument is:

  • There was a credible tip that Chimene Onyeri was targeting a judge.
  • The tip was investigated by the Travis County DA’s office.
  • Apparently, the investigators thought that the judge being targeted was both a male judge and one that wasn’t in Travis County.
  • It isn’t clear to me if the investigators knew that Onyeri had an appearance coming up in Judge Kocurek’s court (where he likely would have been sent back to prison) and ruled her out as a target because she wasn’t a male judge, or if they weren’t aware of his upcoming appearance.
  • In any case, they decided there was no “credible threat to any Travis County district judge”.
  • Judge Kocurek was shot three weeks later.

It’s hard for me to tell if anyone was wrong here. On the one hand, it seems like there was a credible threat: was it dismissed because the investigators screwed up and didn’t realize the subject of the threat might not have a been a male judge? And a big question is: why didn’t they warn all the judges? On the other hand, there’s an argument that the investigators did the best they could with limited information. And if they sent out warnings to all the judges every time some jackhole shot his mouth off, pretty soon it’d be “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” all over again.

No matter what, though, taxpayers are going to be out $500,000. I don’t begrudge Judge Kocurek the money: if you offered me $500,000 to let someone shoot at me, my response would be three words (two of those being “go” and “yourself”).

But it still bothers me.

You’re going down in flames, you tax-fattened hyena! (#35 in a series)

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

Lawrence beat me to it, but only because I have to wait until my lunch hour to blog.

According to “a person with knowledge of the case”, state representative Dawnna Dukes has been indicted by a grand jury.

Dukes, an Austin Democrat, faces two misdemeanor counts of abuse of official capacity and 13 felony counts of tampering with public records, said the person, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

She could get 28 years in prison, but we all know there’s no way in heck she’s going to get that much of a sentence if she is convicted. (I know, these are state, not federal, charges, but Ken’s principle still applies.)

You may remember Rep. Dukes was playing “Let’s Make a Deal” with DA Lehmburg late last year. Ms. Dukes decided she wasn’t going to resign after all because “the people” wanted her to stay (in spite of her poor attendance record).

Politics.

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

I’m working on getting the lists updated, but I’m a little frustrated.

If you go to the city’s list of council members, they’re all there.

But if you click on Alison Alter or Jimmy Flannigan, you still get the information for Ann Kitchen and Don Zimmerman. I’m doubtful the street addresses and PO boxes have changed, but I can’t be sure of that, so I’ve struck through those temporarily.

The “contact council member” pages for the two new members do look like they’ve sort of been updated, in that the links now show “Send Email to District (X)”. The pages for the other council members still show ‘Send Email to (Council Member Name Here) District (X) Council Member”.

So I’m not just being a lazy, shiftless blogger. I am working on these pages, but I’m in “waiting on the city council and the webmaster” mode right now.

(I probably need to work on the county commissioners and the legislators, too. I’m hopeful I can get that done this weekend.)

Lab watch.

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016

Lawrence forwarded a story from “Community Impact”, one of those free neighborhood papers, that I thought was worthy of note.

The gist of it is that the Capital Area Private Defender Service (CAPDS from this point forward because I don’t want to keep typing that) is willing to get involved with fixing the DNA testing issues in the APD forensics lab.

CAPDS is proposing a 5-year process to review the city’s DNA cases to determine how what happened with the lab will affect past and pending court cases, and to look forward at best practices for DNA testing, Strassburger said.

Well, that sounds great. But what do they need? Money. And what does Travis County not have a whole lot of? Money.

[county judge Sarah] Eckhardt said she has asked the city to take $1.4 million identified in the city’s budget process for additional personnel in the DNA lab and apply it toward these efforts.

Meanwhile, the Statesman is saying that fixing the DNA lab problems could cost…well…

According to records obtained by the Statesman, models for such reviews involve varying levels of expert input and use of appellate attorneys. The most expensive carries a $14.4 million estimated price tag while the least expensive is about $6 million.

More:

According to the organization, county officials could assign an attorney to each case that used DNA evidence analyzed by the lab to review it and “file appropriate motions” for a minimum cost of $13.2 million. Or it could choose a more expensive option in which attorneys would do a deeper review of cases using two attorneys from the outset to learn which might have potential issues — for $14.4 million.
The last option — at a cost of $6 million — would involve the county or city hiring new lawyers to handle the cases instead of using outside attorneys.

Oh, by the way, this doesn’t include the costs associated with actually getting the lab up and running again.

And, in an also related story: after the lab was closed, the APD asked the Texas DPS crime lab to do retraining of some of the DNA analysts.

But Monday, DPS officials told the department they had lost faith in most of the staffers they were working with — and wouldn’t be returning.
Instead, according to a one-page letter obtained by the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV, only a select two from a staff of six DNA analysts are invited to a state facility to continue training in a “supportive environment.”

More:

In a letter to the Travis County district attorney’s office, Brady Mills, deputy assistant director of the DPS crime lab, wrote that the last four months of working together have shown that “there are significant challenges that impact confidence in the work product” of some of the lab’s DNA analysts.
“This has been demonstrated through our personal interactions with the group as well as the practical work product that has been completed and reviewed thus far,” Mills wrote. “Coupled with the expressed belief by your office that those senior analysts may no longer be utilized for expert testimony, APD and DPS plan to move forward with a new course of action.”

The position of DNA analyst (which requires a bachelor’s degree) in the APD lab starts at $23.44 an hour. I believe when I started doing enterprise tech support at Dell, I was making $22 an hour and that was in 2006: I would expect that by now, Dell’s paying closer to $23.44, if not more, and I also suspect enterprise tech support is easier than DNA analysis.

I want to be very very careful with what I say here. I don’t want to seem like I’m sneering at anyone. I couldn’t do this work, and I believe the people who do are motivated by things other than pay. But when DPS says 2/3rds of the people sent over for retraining, can’t be retrained? Is the DPS training that much more demanding than APD’s? Is there something else going on here? Or is the simple explanation also the correct one: APD’s been hiring people who are wrong for the job, and it finally caught up with them?

On the legal beat.

Wednesday, December 7th, 2016

Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg, as promised, did not seek re-election. Margaret Moore is the new DA, and will take over January 3rd.

But she’s already making her mark: she’s fired 27 people.

Seventeen attorneys, 12 investigators and six administrative staff are retiring or have been told they will no longer have jobs when Moore takes over on Jan. 3. Additionally, 13 lawyers are being bumped to a lower classification and will take paycuts. And more changes may be coming. Moore told the American-Statesman on Tuesday she still has decisions to make on some administrative positions after wrapping up interviews this week.
in all, 48 people in the 238-employee agency have been affected by the moves. Twenty-seven were told their services will no longer be needed; they will not receive severance pay.

Is this good or bad? The DA’s office seems to want to spin it as “good”:

The shakeup marks the most sweeping personnel shift at the DA’s office in decades, with Moore carrying through on her campaign promise to reorganize after 40 years of a continuous administration that began with Ronnie Earle and continued with Rosemary Lehmberg.

And it isn’t unprecedented for a new DA to want their own people. See Pat Lykos. Okay, maybe that was a bad example…

But there also seem to be some possibly legitimate concerns:

District Judge Karen Sage questioned Moore’s decision to reassign a prosecutor who had been tasked with handling complex mental health cases. Others in the legal community were surprised when Moore appointed defense attorney Rickey Jones to a key mid-management position despite Jones’s two bar sanctions — one for giving questionable legal advice and another for questionable advice as well as intermingling his money with his clients’ funds held in a trust account. The sanctions were lifted in 2007.

,,,

Moore said she will reassign the attorney who prosecutes mental health cases, Michelle Hallee, which caught the attention of Judge Sage, who says the move has her “deeply concerned.” Several years ago, Sage had a hand in creating a court program for mentally ill people accused of minor crimes that decreased the time they spent in jail by 50 percent. Sage said it would be a mistake for Moore to assign mental health cases to prosecutors who are not sensitive to the needs of the defendants and are more interested in securing a conviction than creating a path for rehabilitation and reducing recidivism.

In other news, here’s an idea: why don’t we separate the crime lab from the APD? This makes a lot of sense to me: one of my ideas for criminal justice reform is to make crime labs arms of the court system itself, reporting to the judiciary, rather than arms of law enforcement. I’m sure that the vast majority of people who work in these labs remain independent, but it still looks and feels unseemly to me to have that kind of reporting relationship.

It seems like Grits agrees, though he calls for the lab to be “truly independent, as was done in Houston“.

I could live with that. They might need a new building, which probably means more bonds and more taxes, which does not excite me. But I think I could vote for that, too, as long as they put two quotes over the doorways:

Fiat justitia ruat caelum.

I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.

(See also.)