Victoria deserves district attorney who avoids unnecessary trials
By Constance Filley Johnson - Guest Column
Feb. 21, 2018 at 4:33 p.m.
Updated Feb. 22, 2018 at 3:06 p.m.
T hree years ago, I volunteered to be the local chairperson of an annual reading of the Declaration of Independence. Members of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association had read the Declaration on Independence Day for several years in Harris County and were attempting to establish a new statewide tradition. Members of the public joined the Victoria County Bar Association on a balmy Thursday morning in DeLeon Plaza to read the Declaration in conjunction with hundreds of other attorneys throughout the state.
It was July 2015, a little more than a year after the tragic death of a local woman in a motor vehicle collision caused by a repeat drunken driver. The young repeat offender was ultimately sentenced to life in prison. In a knee-jerk response to public criticism, the District Attorney implemented a "No Plea Bargain" policy for misdemeanor DWI cases, forcing all pending cases to trial. The first wave of those cases had just begun to be tried in our County Courts at Law.
I had recently tried the case of a retired gentleman with no previous criminal history whatsoever. Two months after the DWI Trial Policy began in March 2014, he had been pulled over for driving 68 mph in a 55 mph zone. He admitted to the officer that he'd had some beers and probably should not have been driving.
He cooperated fully throughout the investigation, and the officer described him at trial as "the nicest man he had ever arrested." Though he was never given the chance, that defendant would have readily accepted his punishment a year earlier because he knew he had used poor judgment by driving while impaired. Forcing his case to trial was a gross misuse of the time and resources of courthouse staff, prosecutors and jurors.
Following his trial, the man was given a probated sentence similar in scope to one he would have received prior to the policy's implementation. This absurd process was scheduled to repeat itself every other week into the foreseeable future.
As I read my assigned section of the Declaration that July morning, the phrase "a long train of abuses and usurpations" had new meaning.
The DWI Trial Policy was the latest installment in a long series of exasperating policy decisions and high-profile disagreements with other community leaders since the current District Attorney took office in 2007.
The degree to which our public servant would refuse to consider the voices of his constituents had yet to be seen however.
A week later, eight misdemeanor DWI cases were set to go to trial; several more than the two County Court at Law Judges could possibly reach in the week scheduled to hear that batch of cases. District Court judges stepped in and offered to assist by hearing some of the cases that were to be tried. Over the DA's objection, several defendants on the trial docket entered pleas of guilty and were sentenced by the presiding judges. The DA filed Writs of Mandamus with the Thirteenth Court of Appeals to force the judges to vacate their sentences and proceed with full blown trials, since the State had not agreed to waive its right to jury trials in those cases.
Ultimately, the Appeals Court acknowledged the trial courts' frustration with the "extreme backlog and waste of economic and judicial resources," but upheld the DA's right to force misdemeanor cases to trial nonetheless. Despite repeated requests from the public to end the DWI Trial Policy, it was kept in place for two years. Meanwhile, the DA ended his office's participation in the Victoria County DWI Court Program, a high intensity supervision program for repeat offenders. Oddly, felony DWI cases continued to be settled by plea bargains in District Court.
One year after this ill-conceived policy, first time arrests for DWI were up slightly; therefore, any claim that this unconventional publicity stunt was a success is inaccurate.
Moreover, significantly fewer misdemeanor cases were filed while the DWI Trial Policy was in place because assistant DAs were busy preparing for unnecessary trials rather than reviewing new cases submitted by law enforcement. In addition, 21 assistant district attorneys resigned from the DA's office since the policy was first implemented.
This unprecedented turnover led to a lack of consistency and multiple delays while new prosecutors learned the ropes and became familiar with their caseloads. In short, the DWI Trial Policy was a costly and ineffective experiment.
The big picture that should concern voters is that there is nothing to stop the DA from pulling a stunt like that again - nothing except the voting booth.
The citizens of Victoria County deserve a District Attorney who will prioritize the aggressive prosecution of violent criminals, but avoid unnecessary and costly trials when possible; one who will work with law enforcement to improve communication and streamline case submission procedures; one who is willing to collaborate with other agencies in our community to reduce recidivism; and one who can assemble and retain like-minded prosecutors to assist in these goals.
In the absence of these qualities in our current District Attorney, "it is my right, it is my duty to throw off such Government."
If you agree, I humbly ask for your vote in the Republican Primary on March 6th.
Constance Filley Johnson, a native Victorian, is a former classroom teacher, Safe and Drug Free Schools Coordinator, and Municipal Court Judge. She has been a criminal trial attorney for the last 12 years and teaches in the Victoria College Police Academy. She may be emailed at Constance@ConstanceFilleyJohnson.com.