Federal Judge Hoyt rules Houston Destroyed Evidence in Jail Lawsuit
Originally Published; Sep. 5, 2018
Houston city officials intentionally destroyed evidence, wiping crucial data from the computer drives of top police commanders that is potentially relevant to a lawsuit about the detention of suspects beyond the 48-hour deadline for a magistrate hearing, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt’s rare ruling last week means that if the case goes to trial, jurors will receive an “adverse instruction” about the records destruction. 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.
The judge did not accuse the city of destroying evidence specifically to help it gain an advantage in the lawsuit, but the action is a blow to any defense the city could mount.
“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.”
A spokesman for Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city is examining legal remedies available to challenge Hoyt’s order. Former Houston Police Chief Charles A. McClelland said that he was not aware of the suit.
City Council Member Brenda Stardig, who chairs the public safety committee, said she has requested a formal briefing from the city’s legal staff about the case.
The 2016 class-action lawsuit challenged the city’s treatment of thousands of people jailed for days after warrantless arrests between January 2014 and December 2016. The complaint accuses officials of false imprisonment and alleges that they violated defendants’ constitutional rights to equal protection and a determination of probable cause by a judge. The case was brought by Civil Rights Corps and the Texas Fair Defense Project — the groups that led the landmark suit challenging Harris County’s bail practices — and lawyers from the Houston firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP.
Background: City, county face more civil rights lawsuits over detention, bail
The suit was filed after the January 2016 arrests of Juan Hernandez, who was held 49 hours before seeing a magistrate on an assault charge, and James Dossett, who spent 59 hours in custody before facing a hearing officer via videolink on a charge of possession of a controlled substance. After a week in custody, Hernandez pleaded guilty. Authorities ultimately dropped the charges against Dossett when police failed to prove he had drugs.
The lawsuit also cites arrests in which defendants were held for more than 10 days before receiving a probable cause hearing. Overcrowding at the county jail creates a bottleneck at the city facility, the suit said.
The plaintiffs’ 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, and that the city failed to provide thousands of records relevant to this policy and practice.
Prior to last week’s 13-page ruling, Hoyt said at an April hearing that the city’s conduct in misleading opposing counsel bordered on “obstruction of justice.”
Jay Jenkins, an attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, called it “an extraordinary ruling” against the city.
“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,” Jenkins 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.”
Background: Harris County sued again over alleged civil rights violations
“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 the city handled this case.”
Elbogen said the city’s conduct was particularly surprising given the number of inmates whose rights were potentially violated or the economic strain the case might place on the city.
“I’m wondering how seriously they’re taking this case and whether they understand the potential damages,” Elbogen said.
Charles Gerstein, who also represented the inmates, said, “Instead of seeking to remedy (the delay) 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… They exhibited callous indifference to the rights of poor people.”
City lawyers maintained that the plaintiffs were asking for sensitive police data. They said they were confused about the scope of information that opposing counsel wanted. But the judge held that the city misrepresented what information it had and failed to deliver thousands of documents it promised.
The judge ruled that the jury would be required to accept as true that the city had a pattern and practice of detaining people longer than allowed.
Of the 72,000 documents the city initially said it had, officials at Mayor Turner’s office only delivered 126 files in February. The judge said that all 126 were off topic.
City attorneys told the court in April that they had gathered 2.6 million documents, which would take about 17,000 hours to review. But the judge said the city later admitted it did not collect the documents and had “wiped” the hard drives of McLelland, former Chief of Police Martha Montalvo, former Executive ex-Assistant Chief George T. Buenik, former Lieutenant Patrick Dougherty, ex-Assistant Chief John Chen and former Assistant Chief Charles Vazquez, all of whom no longer work for HPD.
Officials acknowledged that once the inmates sued, the city had an obligation to preserve these documents. Instead, records custodians failed to retain data on hard drives and continued a practice of deleting data. Information about these inmates’ detentions was unrecoverable, Hoyt said, making it fair to presume the data contained evidence that the city violated the constitutional rights of the inmates.
“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.”
Sandra Guerra Thompson, a law professor at the University of Houston, said the ruling was notable because the judge plans to tell the jury that the inmates’ lawyers have already established all the points they would need to prove.
“There’s still a chance a jury could rule in the city’s favor, but basically, the judge is instructing them that plaintiffs have won,” she said.