Tuesday, August 1, 2017

For the Lazy, Yet Ambitious Prosecutor


As most of you know, the Harris County District Attorney's Office is staffed 24/7 with prosecutors working as intake attorneys.  When a police officer makes an arrest for anything higher than a Class C misdemeanor, he or she has to call a prosecutor and get approval to file that charge.  I wrote about how it worked back in 2008, when this blog was young and I was still a prosecutor.  As far as I know, it hasn't really changed all that much.

One component that I didn't cover back in 2008 was that of the Probable Cause "P.C." prosecutor.  The prosecutor working this position was tasked with collecting a group of newly filed cases and then taking them to Probable Cause Court.  At Probable Cause Court, recently arrested defendants are brought before a magistrate, and the Probable Cause prosecutor would read a short summary of why they had been arrested.  The magistrate would then make a finding of whether or not Probable Cause existed to continue to hold them.  Other collateral matters would be taken up, as well.  Bonds would be set.  If a Magistrate's Order for Emergency Protection needed to be filed, that could be done in P.C. Court, as well.

None of that is too tricky for the P.C. prosecutor.  Back when I had the job, we described it as being a "reading monkey," because all we had to do was read a paragraph to the magistrate.  There were no persuasive legal arguments.  No legal research.  Basically, the prosecutor just needed to be literate to be qualified to do the job.  The trickiest part was making sure that you brought the right files to court.

For some strange reason, the position of P.C. prosecutor was a senior one.  A prosecutor had to be a Felony District Court Chief to do the job.

Like the Intake Division, P.C. Court also operates 24/7, with dockets at regular intervals throughout the day and night.  Prosecutors were assigned to the Reading Monkey job for the 8 to 5, 5 to Midnight, or Midnight to 8 shifts.  The 5 to Midnight or Midnight to 8 shifts got paid extra money for working the extra hours.  Other than the crappy hours, it was a pretty cushy gig.

Apparently, recent budget cuts at the Office have led to an issue with funding for the overnight P.C. gigs, which has led to some idiotic creative thinking from the upper administration.

Today, prosecutors received an e-mail from Intake Chief Jim Leitner, offering a solution to the P.C. Chief crisis.  His introductory paragraph was interesting:
What is your goal as a Harris County prosecutor?
Over the years, the most common aspiration I have witnessed is that prosecutors hope to rise to the level of District Court Chief.  However, given the employment situation in our legal community, the sheer number of competing prosecutors, and the time it takes to acquire the requisite skills, reaching this goal can seem daunting. [Emphasis added]
Okay, so you gotta give Jim credit here.  He's being honest that pretty much every prosecutor hopes to make felony chief some day.   He's also being honest when he says that it can take a long time to get there.  I spent seven years working my way up to Chief, and it was hard work.  It was also very necessary work.  Those seven years gave me the "requisite skills" to become a Felony Chief.  A Chief prosecutor is both a supervisor and a teacher to those under him or her.  How can you supervise or teach without having first acquired those "requisite skills?"

But Jim's intro paragraph here is talking about those "requisite skills" as if they are annoying conditions just designed to keep a prosecutor down.  Wouldn't it be nice if you could just skip all of that "experience" crap and get right to being a Chief?

If so, boy, does Diamond Jim have a deal for you!
In the Intake & Grand Jury Bureau we are presenting an opportunity to become a District Court Chief on a "fast track."
That "fast track" involves holding down the job of the Reading Monkey for 18 months.
The position will be open for application by qualified Felony #2 prosecutors who are prepared to accept the responsibilities of Felony Chief work in the Probable Cause Court setting at beginning Felony Court Chief level pay.  The assignment will then guarantee the selected attorney Felony Chief promotion at the conclusion of the 18 month assignment.
So, let me get this straight.  You can be a Felony Two, with very little trial experience, and start getting paid like a Chief immediately?  And then all you have to do is work P.C. Court for 18 months and you are guaranteed a Chief slot?  I mean, sure, your peers (who are also trying to make chief) will be working their asses off trying murders, aggravated robberies, and sexual assaults, but who needs that hassle?  What a bunch of suckers!

Perhaps Jim (or whoever came up with this idea) didn't think about all of those opportunities to get "requisite skills" that the potted plant P.C. Chief will be missing.  Maybe it was an oversight?

Oh no, wait.
While the assignment is challenging, imagine 18 months without trials or the accompanying pressures of a trial lifestyle.
What?!  He's actually advocating for avoiding the "pressures of a trial lifestyle?"  Are you freaking kidding me?

He might as well have written this:
Hi kids!  Tired of being a prosecutor and having to learn all that crazy trial stuff?  Does the idea of working get you down?  Would you rather just be in charge of everybody instead?  Well, come be a P.C. Court Chief!  We'll pay you like you were a chief immediately and after 18 months, you can supervise people -- just as if you had actually been a real prosecutor!
This idea may literally be the dumbest administrative one that I've seen come out of the Ogg Administration.  I mean, I know that putting people like John Denholm in supervisory positions doesn't exactly set the bar real high when it comes to expectations, but seriously?  This plan is basically asking for a prosecutor to be lazy and then promising them a supervisory payoff if they do it.

It will be interesting to see who all applies for the position.  I'm sure there will be quite a few just because of the salary hike alone.

What will be more interesting, however, is how the winner of the position will be regarded by his or her peers that actually stay in the Trial Bureau and earn their way to the position of being a Felony District Court Chief.

23 comments:

Anonymous said...

First time commentator, long time reader. Holy shit that is funny!

Anonymous said...

Wow! I cannot believe the incompetence that has taken over that office. I can now understand why everyone that could leave, has left. Hopefully people outside of the CJC realize how bad it really is there.

Anonymous said...

Dumb question but can they pay a felony 2 as much as a chief without actually making the 2 a chief? I thought there were caps on salaried positions.

Anonymous said...

It is not funny at all but very disappointing when you understand that in the past anyone being promoted to the vaunted position of Chief Prosecutor in Felony District Court was recognized across the Criminal Bar as unusually qualified to handle any criminal jury trial and any criminal issue in at least a competent manner and usually in an above average manner and also was vetted to be at least a competent supervisor of younger prosecutors.

The selection was by merit as determined by the vote of several supervisors, not by political favor or convenience to solve a perceived administrative complication.

There were a few situations where people who had not yet qualified as District Court Chief were needed to run Intake Chief shifts. Those people were designated Chiefs for Intake purposes only. The theory was they were qualified to make intake decisions but not yet qualified to run a court or supervise prosecutors.

The current plan risks diminishing respect for the Felony District Court Chief position.

Anonymous said...

"The current plan risks diminishing respect for the Felony District Court Chief position"

You're catching on. When we elect a defense lawyer as District Attorney, and her only obvious agenda is to do the bidding of the defense bar -- whether that be to fire particular prosecutors, to hire defense lawyers into government positions for no other reason than to help them get a pension, or to alter office policy to reduce the amount of overtime pay career prosecutors can earn -- previously respected positions in the office will become less respected. That's part of the plan.

Anonymous said...

If you think that's bad come check out how the largest three ring law enforcement circus is being run at the HCSO.
Additionally, I find it absolutely absurd that law enforcement in Harris County still has to call and obtain "permission" or "acceptance" to file a charge. Maybe some day, certified law enforcement in Harris County will be allowed to make big boy or girl decisions.

Anonymous said...

People outside of the CJC community have no way of knowing what is going on in the D.A.s office because the liberal media in Houston, Harris County does not report how badly Boss Hogg is running that place into the ground. The only way to get information out is through social media because the media is treating the citizens unfairly by not reporting any of Kimmee's misgivings and basically covering for her. Just keep digging your hole and before it is too late, you will not be able to climb out!!

Anonymous said...

Anon August 2, 2017 at 12:59 AM, that is the way it used to be and like many things in life, the sheer ineptitude of many in law enforcement back in the day led to everyone getting the added layer of scrutiny that other counties don't generally get. While I think the major police agencies have improved greatly since then, just stop by to read the charges some submit that lack everything from the probable cause to key details to just about everything else. This is not just from the constables hiring semi-qualified rejects nobody else would take either but even the HCSO or HPD, every single day there's a large stack or problem submissions causing some to lose more hair as they wonder what's going on. Again, it's not everyone but it's enough people that should know better ruining it for everyone else.

Anonymous said...

Responding to 7:59 and 8:05 Aug 1 -- There were times a #2 felony prosecutor was designated to work as Chief at Intake and paid Chiefs Intake Pay but was already making Chief pay in a non trial position (like appellate etc) being paid a Chief salary for regular hours at regular job but with clear written stipulation that they were not Felony Chief for regular Trial Bureau purposes. There were also appellate etc. prosecutors who had made Felony Chief earlier in their careers who obviously worked as Chiefs at Intake.

Anonymous said...

Murray, Kimbra has been busy - she had a float in the Bellaire 4th of July Parade. I don't recall that the HCDAO has ever had a float in the Bellaire parade before, but I suspect this childish stunt was intended as a retaliatory move, aimed at the past DA who lives in Bellaire. This mental stupidity is what gave rise to this new, stupid scheme of quick promotion to Felony Chief.

And no, 6:56, there are damn few people outside the CJC who realize how awful things are in the DAs office. 6:36 pegged it, the Houston Comical will never report on the real activities going on there. This is even more pitiful than the situation under Pat Lykos. I have nothing but complete sympathy for the victims of crime in Harris County....

Anonymous said...

My thought is that no one will be allowed to take the passion as PC Chief unless the office already believes him or her to have sufficient trial experience and good judgment in order to make a good district court chief. That said, a lot of things can change in a year and a half, and nothing takes the place of a year and a half of trial and docket experience.

Reading PC does not require a chief. It was originally given to a chief in order of a chief to make some more money to help improve the poor salary structure. (If you don't believe me you can ask Bert to explain the pay slot structure.) :)

This appears to be a very poor decision. When the dust settles the year and a half PC position will probably be done away with and swept under the carpet, or perhaps under the Bellaire Float.

Anonymous said...

I'm interested to see who becomes Little Jimmy's Junior Chief. Whoever chooses to do so should weigh whether the additional money and guaranteed undeserved promotion is worth the scorn of your colleagues and forever having an asterisk next to your name. Those of us that worked our way up through the trial bureau trying murders and sexual assaults will not look at such a person as an equal.

Or Kim could finally just admit that this whole destroying intake endeavor is a bad idea, is not saving any money (they already admitted this), and maybe, just maybe, the intake system that was developed over 30 years or so might have worked alright. You know, make an evidence-based decision.

Anonymous said...

DA Carol Vance created Intake to prevent the filing of BS charges by law enforcement. Prior to Intake, felony charges were filed in JP court where they remained until an indictment. No one screened the cases.
The idea was to get some prosecutorial discretion into the system of taking charges. The ADAs not only ensured there was probable cause that a crime was committed but that there were sufficient facts to get a conviction. They also were to weed out cheap shit cases even if there was probable cause.
Over the years, the ADAs bowed to law enforcement and stopped using discretion in determining whether we really want to prosecute THIS case and instead started filing every BS case cops could put on citizens. Ask Pat Lykos what happens when the DA's office clashes with the cops over what charges to file.
Maybe a long term "chief" of probable cause court and long term assignments to Intake will bring back of this prosecutorial discretion so that cases like failure to identify are scrutinized before being filed.

Anonymous said...

response to 9:02 am -- You are correct on your history except initially Carol set it up for a permanent prosecutor to work intake on at least one of the 8 hr shifts. That was an utter failure. The full time Intake prosecutor had no risk of running into any of the junk he filed in his day time court since he only worked Intake and he was also less aware of current issues in the courts. He filed anything the police brought to him. The system of using court prosecutors working extra Intake shifts to actually reject some charges was born of that failed beginning.

Anonymous said...

Only law enforcement officers in Harris County need permission to arrest someone for violating the law; how embarrassing it is to the rest of the free world. What's next? law degrees for peace officers?

Anonymous said...

Law enforcement officers can arrest, but they need an ADA to file charges and prosecute the case.

Anonymous said...

Anon @9:02, you and @10:28 are mostly correct but there has always been some degree of tension between local law enforcement and the DA's office over intake. Since Vance initiated the policy, a great many charges have been declined which led to a secondary policy under Holmes to personally review any charges declined that the officer requested a refusal for. In many cases, he would sit down with or call the party he thought could use a lecture, a few timid ADA's applying less discretion than trying the case by phone afterwards but Holmes was supportive even when they made huge mistakes, acknowledging that officers were tasked with arresting based on probable cause, not on minutia.

After Holmes, the ADA working felony intake took on the role of quality control for the misdemeanor ADA, many times that junior employee being fresh out of law school and needing guidance. The only time a sitting DA reviewed declined charges after Holmes was when one of the upper management of a policing agency or other influential people from the area took it up with the DA personally.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:44, many big and medium sized cities have emulated our intake system. We're not the only place where officers need "permission."

Let me point out a benefit of intake that few note. If an officer knows that charges aren't warranted but he's got a complainant in his face demanding charges, requiring him to call intake gives him an out. He can call us, we'll deny charges, then the complainant gets mad at us and lets the officer get on with his job instead of making a bad arrest. Intake isn't about making officers get "permission," it's about using the DA's office together with police to make sure we don't waste resources pointlessly arresting people. And it's about us being resources to the police so that they know what they need to do to make marginal cases into good ones while the evidence is still fresh.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how any new prosecutor gets any trial experience in Harris County. If intake actually accepts a charge nowadays...and that's a big IF...they always cut a plea deal. Criminals are not going to jail. Prosecutors are not getting any experience. Harris County is a much more dangerous place to live. Thank you, Kimbra...

Anonymous said...

Things are getting even worse. Chiefs are now being conscripted into working intake. Who would work intake at the reduced pay? And they wonder why nobody signed up? Let The Hunger Games Begin. And we all know how that ended.

Anonymous said...

And Intake is getting worse. Chiefs were threatened with being conscripted into working intake shifts yesterday because nobody is signing up. Why would they work until late at night for a greatly reduced pay rate? Let The Hunger Games begin. They are coming for you Kimbra. And how was that meeting today with HPOU?

Anonymous said...

Hey maybe Palmer will come back to finally make chief. On another note, will the new PC chief record all phone calls with officers the way Denholm does?

Anonymous said...

I feel bad for whoever takes that position. The rest of their career from that point on would be questioned and they probably would not be well received by any peers.