Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Intake

One of the lesser known aspects of how the Harris County District Attorney's Office works is what goes on behind the scenes at Intake.

Located on the second floor of the CJC, the Intake Division is the place where criminal cases are first filed.

It is staffed by at least three prosecutors 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Prosecutors get paid extra money outside of the standard 8 to 5 business day. It's the only possible way that prosecutors can make extra money to supplement their salaries, and the vast majority of them participate in it.

This is how it works:

When a police officer seeks to arrest a suspect on any criminal case (other than a Class C misdemeanor), they must get the charges approved by a prosecutor. A typical example of what the call from a police officer on a case (let's say a DWI for this scenario) goes something like this:

"This is Officer Smith with HPD. Stopped a guy for speeding, failure to maintain a single lane of traffic, and running a stop sign. Smelled a strong odor of alcohol on his breath, so I asked him to perform field sobriety tests. Got all 6 clues on the HGN. 3 clues on the walk and turn. Stumbled during the walk and turn, and swayed during Rhomberg. Took him into custody and down to the station, where he blew a .14."

The prosecutor then will accept or deny charges. Obviously in the above scenario, he or she would accept. The officer will then officially file the DWI charges.

About thirty minutes to an hour later, the Officer will have typed up a brief summary of the case, and entered in the Defendant's identifiers and criminal history. The prosecutor will get the written package on his desk and then "screen" it. They will make a request for a bond that will reflect the level of the offense, combined with the Defendant's criminal history. They give their screened case to the intake secretaries, who will put the case in final form with all the legal paperwork.

Where it gets funny is when a prosecutor doesn't want to take a charge (which believe it or not, happens quite often!). Cops and prosecutors will sometimes end up screaming at each over the phone over whether or not charges should be accepted. Some officers who have charges rejected will have their supervisors call in to argue as well. Nothing will get a prosecutor more fired up than when things happen like that.

In addition to the accepting and screening of charges, the prosecutors on duty at intake are also responsible for doing Grand Jury subpoenas, as well as writing search warrants and arrest (AKA "To Be") warrants for Defendants not in custody. The "To Be's" are usually not that tricky, but search warrants can often times take hours to write.

On some nights, the pace of intake can be relatively slow. But picture the scene on a Friday or Saturday night around, say, 2 a.m. Every last single charge that will be filed has to get the final blessing of a prosecutor. Every line on the phones are blinking. A prosecutor finishes a call and hangs up, and the line immediately starts blinking again.

At times, prosecutors are praying that it will just settle down to "Chaotic" level.

But ultimately, it's a system that speeds up and streamlines the Defendant receiving his or her Due Process rights in a timely manner.

So, if you weren't familiar with it, that's the intake system in a nutshell.

Now, that being said, I now invite all former and current prosecutors to share their favorite intake war stories.

(NOTE: It's also worth noting that the Special Crimes Division also operates as a de facto intake with the more complicated and serious cases. The prosecutors in that Division (headed by Kelly Siegler) are on call 24/7 by cell phone. They get the phone calls in the middle of the night and write warrants too. Just without the overtime pay.)

22 comments:

Leviathan said...

Cogent, lucid, and informative.

Okay, you got me. I have to ask, if only to open up a discussion. If the ADA is requesting a bail amount based on the defendant's charge and criminal history, and the magistrate or judge is setting initial bail based on the defendant's charge and criminal history (i.e., the ordered bail schedules), then what happens to Art. 17.15, CCP (the rules for setting bail)? Is it simply routinely ignored by the judge, prosecutor, and [eventually] defense counsel?

Mark, any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

My favorite stories involve times when you know who is doing intake, and then you get someone to call the prosecutor and pretend to be an officer.

And the faux officer makes up some awful intake facts that are so bad that eventually everybody ends up cracking up because it is so ridiculous.

You know, like the probable cause was that the guy was black.

For the record, DWB is not cool. Jacking with the intake prosecutor at 3:00 am with a DWB story is pretty funny.

A Harris County Lawyer said...

Ah yes, the time-honored tradition of the intake practical joke.

Typically, it involves a poor rookie prosecutor working one of his first intakes, which will always be a midnight to eight shift. His friends, who have been out past midnight get together and call him with an outrageous scenario to freak him out.

A couple of years ago, a prosecutor was rumored to have accepted charges on a person, and then the practical joker informed him that the "suspect" in question was a judge. The prosecutor's judge.

Another classic is for a rookie prosecutor to get a seemingly simple call (like misdemeanor theft or a possession of marijuana), and then the "cop" suddenly starts talking about the homicide case that he forgot to mention at the start of it.

Ah, good times.

pro.victims said...

leviathan,

The judges of Harris County, most of whom have years of legal experience in criminal law, have a bond schedule that they ask the prosecutors to follow. This allows for consistency in bonds being set for thousand and thousands of defendants. The schedule considers the level and nature of the offense. Higher charges that carry higher possible punishments to have higher bonds. The criminal history of each person charged is a factor. Crimes involving weapons and violence can impact the bond.

Generally, defendants appear in their court within hours (2 days, 3 max GENERALLY). At that time, their attorney's can speak directly with the judge who is assigned each case about the specific circumstances of each defendant. Overall, the bond schedule contemplates 17.15, and defendants then have a rapid chance to address their own circumstances.

I've been surprised to see bonds in other counties to be MUCH higher than those in Harris County. I routinely hear about $100,000.00 bonds and higher on murder and child death cases in other counties. In Harris, the standard murder bond for a first offender is $50,000.00, without other considerations. I fairly regularly hear victims' families complain about how LOW that bond is for a murder case, by the way.

If a prosecutor has information to believe a person is a flight risk, or otherwise a danger to the community (or victim in a case) - i.e. the defendant makes specific threats like "When I get out of jail, that b.t.h is DEAD!" - the ADA can request a higher bond.

Each defendant in custody MUST appear before a probable cause judge within 24 hours if in jail on a misdemeanor case, and 72 hours on a felony (that is the law of the land), and the P.C. judge reviews the bonds. That all happens before the defendant even appears in their assigned court.

Overall, the whole process is streamlined in effort to (1) reduce the number of unnecessary charges (in most counties, the cops decide what to charge you with, and weeks later, the DAO decides whether or not to even ACCEPT the charge - in Harris, it's usually instant gratification - the cops are declined on the phone at the moment of the incident - so no unnecessary arrests or bonds have to be made by the 'defendant'), (2) it helps the cops to build better cases since - at the moment of the event, they can interface with an ADA about what types of things they can do RIGHT NOW to make the case better for court (Save that bottle - there might be DNA evidence on it that will help prove who did (or did NOT) commit the crime) - things that would otherwise possibly slip by and never be recoverable (3) it's a way for prosecutors to educate cops on what to do to make the cases stronger (save that bottle!), (4) and for cops to educate junior ADA's about how to make cases better (listen youngster - i've been a police officer for 30 years, and i know my way around a DWI investigation).

All that said - there is a mantra at the DAO - "Nothing good ever comes out of intake." Intake generates criminal charges - if an ADA does a great job there, someone went to jail, rightly, but to jail nonetheless - a crime occurred. Cops sometimes get their feelings hurt (The guy tried to kick you in your naughty parts - but he missed - No, I'm not taking assault on a police officer) - which results in complaints, paperwork, and sometimes bad blood btw cops and ADA's. Sometimes, you take a righteous case, but you know it's a hard case. Another ADA will get that case in court, and it will be a hard case (but a righteous one).

And then there is the time you look at a case, and think it sucks, and say - man, who took this charge. You look, and you realize - Oh. I did.

Damn it.

Anonymous said...

My favorite? And, my friends will know who I am with this one, because I tell it all the time. Officer calls in with a POM. He's not exactly sure how much pot it is. I, of course, am trying to determine what level of crime to charge the defendant with and I need to know how much pot he has. The officer is totally preoccupied witht the fact that our defendant is under 17. He must tell me 15 times that the defendant is a juvenile. I tell him, I understand the defendant is a juvenile, but I need a weight to file the charge. He says: (no kidding) ma'am, you want me to weigh the juvenile? Yeah . . . higher charge for fat kids -- no, you idiot -- weigh the pot.

Ron in Houston said...

First of all, thanks for the insight into how DA intake works. I've known it exists, but never really understood the nuts and bolts.

One of the lessons I've learned from the "streets" is that you should never argue with the cop. It doesn't matter how much you think they're doing the wrong thing, just be nice and say "yes sir, officer."

What I'm saying is I can imagine how testy and difficult those discussions are between the ADA's and law enforcement when the cops think they should be charged and you don't.

It takes a very intellectually brave soul to not just be a rubber stamp. Kudos to those who stick to their guns.

jigmeister said...

My favorite 3 am call to intake occurred years ago during rodeo season. A former DA, who was the head of Special Crimes was chief. A former Da who worked for him and is now a District judge called him representing himself to be "Sgt. Pierpoint from Precinct 4", with a deep Billy Bob accent, working security at the rodeo". After the appropriate introductions, "Sgt. Pierpoint" began in a deep drawl describing a gang billy goat buggering incident inside one of the holding pens that he allegedly interupted.

After a few oh "craps", the chief hit the books trying to figure out if cruelty to animals worked, maybe sodemy, criminal trespass, etc., after describing who the assailants were and the various witnesses, "Sgt. Pierpoint" had the chief totally frustrated and now fully awake. Somehow he began screaming in frustration at the still non-plused Sgt. Pierport, after he mentioned a little goat pooped soaked marijuana found in the pen and parties to the crime, cheering on the buggering from the rails. On and on it went and after 1/2 hour he was finally let off the hook to uproarious laughter by Judge A and the rest of us listening in. There were a lot of, "you SOB's are going to get it in the morning".

Muck said...

Some good stories.

And thanks for the D.A. intake info. I had no idea that there was a prosecutor on hand 24/7 or that was even needed to accept the charges at the time of booking. If I thought of it at all, I just assumed the D.A.'s office looked at it the next morning.

Way to start the morning with an interesting bit of info. Thanks.

Leviathan said...

pro.victims - In no particular order:

I don't take issue with DA Intake. I thought AHCL provided a very good summary, and I'm fine with the process that's in place.

I can appreciate what you're saying about the bail schedules, but the CCP sets out rules that, along with the Constitution, govern the exercise of discretion in bail setting. Succinctly, any bail schedule that assigns a bail amount before a judicial officer can conduct bail review or consider salient factors is antithetical to the CCP rules, permits the pretrial release of defendants with resources before a probable cause hearing and bail review can occur, and prevents the release of some defendants who are good risks, but who are unable to make bond in the scheduled amount. Contrary to your opinion, a preset bail schedule cannot possibly consider individual factors of which the courts are as yet unaware.

The "law of the land" (or, at least in that subdivision known as "Texas") is that, generally, defendants must have a probable cause hearing within 24 hours (for a misdemeanor) or 48 hours (for a felony) after a warrantless arrest, or must be released on a bond of capped amount. If unable to make the bond, the defendant must be released on a personal bond.

If having someone needlessly sit in jail for two or three days doesn't bother you . . . well, okay. On the other hand, I'm not terribly keen on unnecessary deprivation of liberty or the unnecessary spending of public dollars to achieve it. Given the jail issues, it hardly makes sense to do so.

Anonymous said...

As an officer who doesn't take offense to the fact that I sometimes get charges denied, I have found, at times, the situations can be humorous as long as a). the prosecutor is in a good mood, and b). you don't let the crimes get under you skin. I work a specialized crime, and sometimes, the prosecutor that I work with isn't around to accept charges. So, I will call intake and ask for the #2 or the chief. When I tell the prosecutor of the facts of the case, they ALL will invariably yell at me for giving them "THAT" type of case, or will curse the regular prosecutor that handles "THESE" types of cases. In the end, I usually end up having to educate the prosecutors about the elements of this particular crime. That is, unless you are AHCL, and WANT to see my evidence.

Da Texan said...

leviathan--"If having someone needlessly sit in jail for two or three days doesn't bother you . . . well, okay. On the other hand, I'm not terribly keen on unnecessary deprivation of liberty or the unnecessary spending of public dollars to achieve it. "

No one i spending 2-3 days in jail if they can bond out. They can get out anytime they want to, if they choose to post bond. The 2-3 days pro.v speaks of, I believe, is when they will appear in court at the latest, if they choose not to post a bond.

Leviathan said...

da texan -

I think you're absolutely right on one point. Likely, no one who can bond out is spending 2-3 days in jail waiting to go to court.

However, for some folks it's not a choice. For those who can't afford the full bond amount or a bondsman's fee, bonding out isn't an option. That is not the same as choosing to stay.

jigmeister said...

Leviathan, let me clarify. There is a night court judge that is appointed by the other judges. Normally he/she holds a probable cause hearing within 8 hours of the charging decision which is made normally within 4 hours of the arrest. That judge reviews the bond under 17.15 and reviews the charging decision the intake prosecutor makes. He has the discretion based on guidelines the elected judges set for each court as to when Personal Bonds may be given. Then, the very next morning, if a weekday, that same defendant sees the assigned, elected judge who again reviews the probable cause, bond and charging decision. If the case is filed on Friday, however, the assigned judge doesn't get involved until Monday morning.

You still have a valid argument about the granting of Personal Bonds, but not on judicial review.

By the way, talked to Mack today. He is doing better. Thinks his nurses are ugly, but the therapy is beginning to work and he is walking with a cane. His daughter graduates from Columbia in May and has a good job lined up in NYC so that should releave some of the financial strains, though I don't know what kind of student loans she has to pay back. Sound familiar?

Jason said...

I know sometimes cops call up with stupid scenarios looking for charges.

However;

One time we chased a juvenile who took his dad's car without asking, picked up his friends, then went driving without lights (at night) and smoking weed. He fled when he got spotted by a cop. We chased him into a cul-de-sac where he drove up in a yard to get around us, and hit two cop cars head on (that he could have easily gone around). The ADA that night at intake refused agg assault on a public servant. Said the kid probably didn't mean to do it.

An officer stopped two guys who were racing on Bellaire Blvd. One of the racers had a 2-year old in the car. ADA refused endangerment charges because the kid was in a car seat.

A guy caused an accident on the freeway. He had warrants. He left his baby with the other party and took off running. ADA refused endangerment charges because total strangers were 'caring' for his baby.

Officers went to serve a felony warrant on a guy. They found him in a car with his 10-year old daughter. The crook grabbed his daughter, used her as a human sheild while backing away from the officers (playing like he didn't know what was happening). He used her to block the officers when they went to grab him and he took off running. ADA refused charges because the crook left his daughters in the 'care' of officers.

An ADA once refused to take a charge of violating a protective order because the protective order was a "civil matter."

I had to explain to a well-known ADA the family violence statute once because he couldn't understand why I wanted to arrest a boyfriend after he bloodied his girlfriend's lip (and they lived together too).

One time, a guy beat up his wife or girlfriend pretty bad. Pictures were taken, however the ADA refused the charges, wanting a full written confession from the suspect (which he wasn't there). That ADA's supervisor had to be called who agreed with us.

One time, an officer was trying to arrest a woman for DWI and fail to identify (she gave a false name). While trying to cuff her, the woman repeatedly kicked the officer in her shins. The ADA refused charges because she felt the drunk woman wasn't using enough force against the officer to resist arrest.

Even before the email scandal that dethroned Rosenthal, I had little faith in the man mainly over people working intake. That is usually a sore spot with me.

pro.victims said...

Leviathan - my whole point was that intake is designed to stream line the entire process - to make sure that people aren't wrongly charged (thus, wrongly depriving folks of liberty), that they get consistent treatment to similarly situated people, that they get before a magistrate who can review their individual circumstances, despite the bond schedule, as soon as possible (versus other counties where they may not), and ENSURING that people are not unnecessarily deprived liberty.

I consider one of the most important aspects of my job to make sure that people are not locked up when they should be free. I've refused alot of cases with alot of police officers who thought people should be charged. And, I've put my name on it.

Do you think 17.15 kicks in the magical moment someone is arrested, that a judge should appear in a cloud of smoke to set the bond? We get people in front of judges ASAP, but no later than the time limits (24/72 - the law of the land - the subdivision called Texas). Seriously.

Anonymous said...

Jason, I know that sometimes you can end up with a rookie misdemeanor ADA. They do make mistakes. Hell, I'm no rookie and I still make mistakes. The phones are ringing like crazy, you've been awake for far too long and there are officers lined up all the way down the hall waiting on warrants. The only difference is that I have been around long enough to realize that your situation on the streets is much more serious.

Next time, ask for the Chief on duty and if that doesn't work, ask for a written reject. The Intake Division Chief reads every written reject the next day. She will often file a case that was unnecessarily rejected. That is the reason your offense report has to be complete before we will do a written reject. We have to attach the completed offense report to the written decline when we turn it in. If you don't hear back then call the Intake Division Chief during the day and ask her about it. I promise she looks at every single one of them.

As for stupid calls at intake, here is my all time winner. A patrol officer called me when he arrived at a home daycare and found a 4 month old baby dead. He asked me for a reject because the babysitter said she put the baby down for a nap and when she went to get the baby, the baby was not responsive. He assumed SIDS. I asked him if he had talked to homicide and he said no and then again said to me that he didn't see why he couldn't get a reject.

Anonymous said...

JAGJO Writes:

I'm sorry, but seriously -

" the law of the land" and "the subdivision known as Texas"... ?

Sounds like that was taken directly from the 'Unofficial Lykos Rule of Law Dictionary'! Pat,is that you trying to brush up and learn procedural intake policies?

Remember folks, it's not just a blog it's also a learning forum. :-)

While the preliminary substantive due process is interesting, the foibles of late night intake are far more entertaining!

P.S. Pro V and Jig...as always, you rock!

Leviathan said...

pro -

I'm going to assume the "cloud of smoke" thing was humor.

I'm not normally so contentious, but I'm closing in on two decades and my familiarity with probable cause hearings goes back to when they were held in the jail basement. I'm familiar with my topic and I harbor no illusions.

I don't have a problem with streamlining the charging process; that's actually proven to be a good thing. My point (long since obscured) was simply that certain factors are supposed to be taken into account in setting bonds that a bail schedule cannot consider (e.g., the circumstances of the offense, the ability of the defendant to make bond).

Even though most defendants are in front of a magistrate within 12 hours of arrest, we also have streamlined the bail process so much that people who can afford to bail do so before bail review, regardless of whether their quick release without conditions is in the best interests of public safety.

Oh, by the way, 17.15 technically does kick in from the time of arrest, because it addresses the setting of bail, which is a direct result of . . . well, you know the rest.

And, no, not all defendants make it before a judicial officer within your "law of the land" time limits. Pretty much every week, there are some defendants who do not receive a probable cause hearing in a timely manner and have to be released on a personal bond.

Anonymous said...

IIRC, I remember hearing a lot about how Rosenthal's biggest change to intake was removing the officer's ability to demand a written rejection (under Holmes', any officer could insist that the intake ADA make a written rejection, all of which were read by the big man himself). Under Holmes, if charges were denied on a "good case", he'd take care of the ADA with some form of lecture, scolding, or whatever. If the case lacked all the elements, he'd personally call the officer back and hash it out (sometimes quite loudly). Under Rosenthal, officers were second class citizens and had no right to demand a written rejection, never mind expect him to read it/take action.

Most of the time though, the stupid reasons charges were denied were clear to the ADA only (some not knowing much about traffic laws such as no lights at night, driving on the wrong side of the roadway, and a myriad of other offenses not spelled out explicitly in the large three ring binders before them) or not properly explained by the officer.

Jason said...

To be fair;

I hate when officers waste intake's time with stupid calls. Like that anonymous poster who mentioned the officer assuming SIDS. If that were my officer I'd slap him silly for even making that call. That's just plain laziness and/or stupidity.

One thing I gripe to other officers about is calling intake when they do not have enough identifying information on a suspect. It's like calling intake and asking;

"Hey someone robbed this lady can I file charges on the bad guy?"

"Do you have him in custody?"

"No! We're still looking for him"

"Do you know who he is?"

"He goes by T."

"Call me back if you find him!"

That's a true story. I asked the office what the hell was he thinking calling up with that nonsense.

Anonymous said...

As an ADA working intake periodically HPD Vice or another agency's vice squad would conduct raids on various strip clubs or high prostitution areas. When I would get a call regarding a raid of a strip club, and the officer would detail how the stripper violated some city ordinance, such as the three foot rule, and subsequently he would find dope on her or the elements of some other crime, to make the call light hearted I would always ask, "Officer what song was playing as you were getting a lap dance?" Some could tell me, others couldn't. It told me a little something about the officer though.

A Harris County Lawyer said...

I wrote this post at Leviathan's suggestion to focus on something other than politics, and I'm really glad that I did. This is a great discussion with some entertaining stories thrown in, too.

Leviathan, I think you raise some good issues with the bond schedule, and I'm going to do a post on that in a minute.

It's also an interesting point to hear both police officers and prosecutors the opposite sides of a reject. Unfortunately, it isn't just the rookie prosecutors make mistakes.

I can remember a prosecutor who shall, um, remain an anonymous blogger, um, I mean anonymous, who totally screwed up and rejected a charge on a relatively obscure call. The officer went and looked up the code and called me, uh, I mean the proseuctor, and pointed it out to me. After reading it, I realized he was right. I apologized to him and told him how much I appreciated the work he had done to make his case.

But, in the end, it was MY job to have known the difference. I screwed up. And I wasn't a rookie when I did it either.