One year ago today, I wrote “Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should” to discuss the discretion of prosecutors. Prosecutors can and do choose which offenses and people they will prosecute. It’s a matter of resources. It’s a matter of proof. It’s a matter of discretion. Every case that is prosecuted requires some portion of an amount of limited resources. Just like policing – a heavy presence in one geographical region necessitates less presence in another – heavy focus in one prosecution results in a lesser focus on another.
In the past, Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos decided to discontinue the general prosecution of “trace cases.” This involved freeing up prosecutorial and court resources which were being used to prosecute residue cases so that those same resources could be better utilized for other serious violent crimes. And that made sense: many resources were freed up. In fact, drug court backlogs were alleviated and impact courts were created in their stead. This meant that more serious cases were being taken to trial instead of using those same resources for low-level, almost non-existent offenses.
Even today, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson has decided to discontinue the general prosecution of first offender small amounts of marijuana. She expanded this to also include low-level thefts like shoplifting. By diverting these offenders from the jail and the court, she freed up resources to concentrate on other more serious offenders.
A year later, I am left wondering about other resources that may be better utilized. Today on Legally Speaking, John and I discussed the progression of cases in the local courts. Often, people are arrested and cases are filed, necessitating the use of substantial prosecutorial and court resources, even before evidence is available. Take for example, some DWI cases. If the accused exercises his right to refuse a breath test, the police will rely on search warrants for blood in an effort to prove intoxication. It can take 3 months or more before the results of that test blood will be revealed. Yet, the arrest is most often made and the accused is charged and supervised under pre-trial conditions for the next several months while we all wait on the results.
Incidentally, some blood tests (estimated to be between 10-15%) reveal a blood alcohol level lower than 0.08. Yes, that means in a percentage of the cases filed, the accused is actually and legally not intoxicated. Yet, they are arrested, have likely posted bond, have been placed on courtesy pre-trial supervision, paid the fees for intoxilyzer devices on their persons or vehicles, and have appeared in court every 3-5 weeks while waiting to be cleared.
The same is true of drug cases. Before anything can be done with a drug case, the evidence must be sent to an accredited lab and analyzed. This process can take 2-4 months. During that time, the prosecutor is not able to move forward with prosecution. The DA in Harris County has a standing policy against plea-bargaining these cases unless the substance is confirmed to be an illegal substance. So there is essentially a standstill. Yet, the accused is perhaps sitting in jail waiting, returning to court regularly, or maybe released on bond but still returning to court regularly.
This is an absurd use of resources. There is no reason charges must be filed in every instance up front. There is no reason to tie up police, jail, and court resources for each and every case. Counties outside of Harris have aptly figured this out. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
In Nueces County, prosecutors are actually agreeing to the release of accused of possessing synthetic marijuana. Knowing it will take more than 6 months to have the substance analyzed, they are recommending the release of those accused. With analysis taking an average of 9 months to one year, they recognize the accused could remain in jail longer than the maximum punishment of 180 days in the county jail. This is a matter of resources, and perhaps justice. Jails are routinely overcrowded. The Nueces County jail has been at or near maximum capacity, and this is an opportunity to ease the overcrowding and refocus prosecutorial resources unless and until a lab confirms an actual illegal substance.
Yet, Harris County clings tight to the notion that prosecutions must be immediate and linger, even where evidence will not be available for some time. Yet, Harris County faces the same jail overcrowding. Yet, Harris County prosecutors have the same discretion: they do not have to file the case unless or until evidence is available.
But, apparently, that’s how we’ve always done it so it is most likely to continue. Because they can, they will. And not much will change.