The city of Houston and the Houston Police Department are named in a lawsuit alleging that police held suspects beyond the mandated 48-hour hold. The suit states Houston cops along with the city had a pattern and practice of detaining people longer than allowed and then covering its tracks. All the evidence related to the allegations were “accidentally” deleted after the lawsuit was announced. By law, once the lawsuit was filed, the city had an obligation to preserve these documents. They did not.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt ruled Thursday that that Houston officials intentionally destroyed evidence. They did so by wiping crucial data from top police commanders’ computer drives. The judge did not outright accuse Houston cops of destroying evidence specifically to help it gain an advantage in the lawsuit, but the actions of the officials ring loud and clear.
Should the lawsuit go to trial, the judge’s ruling requires that jurors receive an “adverse instruction” about the records destruction. They will be informed of the destruction but will not be told that the destruction was in attempt to cover their butts and beat the lawsuit. “The jury must infer as fact that authorities destroyed evidence, knowingly and routinely detained people more than 48 hours without a probable cause hearing, and acted with deliberate indifference to the fact that they were violating defendants’ constitutional rights,” the judge ruled.
“It’s very rare to have a judge overtly and explicitly call out bad behavior by city officials,” said Sharon Dolovich, a UCLA law professor who is an expert on jail and prison policy. “It’s troubling in a rule of law society that prizes liberty to the greatest possible extent.”
The city is looking to challenge the judge’s ruling. A spokesman for Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city is examining legal remedies available to reverse the Hoyt’s decision. The former chief of police, Charles A. McClelland, claims he is unaware of the suit.
The class action lawsuit filed in 2016 puts the spotlight on the city’s conduct toward thousands of people jailed for days after warrantless arrests between January 2014 and December 2016. The complaint accuses Houston cops of false imprisonment and alleges they violated defendants’ constitutional rights to equal protection and a determination of probable cause by a judge. The Civil Rights Corps and the Texas Fair Defense Project — the civil rights groups who led the landmark suit challenging Harris County’s bail practices — and lawyers from the Houston firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP are bringing the lawsuit against the city.
The arrests of Juan Hernandez and James Dosset sparked the class action lawsuit. Hernandez was held 49 hours before being brought before a hearing judge on an assault charge. Dosset spent 59 hours in lock up before seeing a hearing officer via video link on a charge of possession of a controlled substance. Hernandez spent a week in jail before pleading guilty to the assault charge. Dosset ultimately had his charges dropped when Houston cops were unable to prove he had drugs.
The suit also alleges that defendants were held against their will more than 10 days before receiving a probable cause hearing. Lawyers argued that the city had a “broad, longstanding, and consistent policy of refusing to release warrantless arrestees” even when more than 48 hours had passed since their arrests. Records of these arrests were destroyed when top police commanders’ hard drives were wiped. The destruction of the evidence bordered on obstruction of justice said Judge Hoyt.
“Rarely do federal courts issue such rulings, but in this case it seems warranted – the opinion goes into great detail about the city’s inability to get its story straight, leaving no doubt as to whether this remedy was necessary,” Jay Jenkins, attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said. “Local taxpayers now have the privilege of footing the bill here – putting them on the hook for two separate, multimillion dollar defenses of an unconstitutional, immoral bail system.”
“It was pretty stunning,” said Amanda Elbogen, a lawyer for the inmates. “This case was about this city’s callous indifference to people’s rights and we saw that in the initial violation. And then we saw that all over again in how city handled this case.”
“Instead of seeking to remedy that either by letting people out of jail or making sure they got their constitutionally compliant hearing, the city jailed them and let them suffer the consequences of the problems at the county and city jail,” said Charles Gerstein, who also represented the inmates. “They exhibited callous indifference to the rights of poor people.”
The city stated that it had 72,000 documents in relation to the case. Officials at Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office only delivered 126 files in February. All of those files were deemed “off topic” by Hoyt.
City attorneys than said they amassed over 2 million documents. They argued that it would take thousands of hours to go over all the documents. According to Hoyt, city attorneys then came back stating they didn’t gather all aforementioned documents. Instead, all records were wiped clean. The hard drives of former Chief of Police Charles McLelland, Chief of Police Martha Montalvo, Executive Assistant Chief George T. Buenik, Lieutenant Patrick Dougherty, Assistant Chief John Chen and Assistant Chief Charles Vazquez. None of the named Houston cops work for the department any longer.
Information about these inmates’ detention was unrecoverable, Hoyt said, making it fair to presume the data contained evidence that the city violated inmates’ constitutional rights. The judge said the city misrepresented what information it had and failed to deliver thousands of documents it promised.
“Their legal counsel department is either in disarray or incompetent or possibly unethical or all three,” said Elbogen. “As the fourth largest city in America, you can’t claim you don’t know how to do these basic things when it comes to discovery and turning over documents and not destroying documents. This is something they should know how to do.”