One of the issues that I have not written about on the blog over the past several months is the epic battle being waged in the Federal Courts over the Harris County Bail Bond System. It isn't because I don't find the issue important. It is tremendously important and will have far-reaching consequences for the way all cases are handled in Harris County.
I didn't write about it because I didn't have a firm grasp on all of the details involved. The information that I had on the issue, I largely learned from reading Meagan Flynn's articles in the Houston Press about the lawsuit. I also heard concerns from some judges and prosecutors about what would happen after U.S. Chief District Judge Lee Rosenthal declared Harris County's bail bond system to be unconstitutional.
The primary criticism against Judge Rosenthal's ruling was that it basically handed unsecured bonds to people who were not likely to come back to court. Since the ruling dealt with misdemeanor cases, and my caseload primarily consists of felonies, I wasn't really all that affected. I did presume that a bureaucratic nightmare was about to ensue as the number of bond forfeitures were probably going to skyrocket in the County Courts.
And, I've heard, anecdotally, that this prediction was accurate. I had one prosecutor tell me that in the course of one day, over 100 defendants had bond forfeited while on their unsecured bonds. I don't know if that's true, but I wouldn't find it all that surprising.
The other concern to those who opposed Judge Rosenthal's ruling was the danger to society created by giving undeserving people unsecured bonds. Somebody who hadn't previously been entitled to an unsecured bond was going to hurt somebody while out on bond. I agreed that this scenario was bound to happen eventually. It was just a matter of time.
As it turns out, it didn't take much time at all.
On July 5th, 2017, Jonathan Mendez was arrested for the offense of Driving While Intoxicated. His criminal history was lengthy, consisting of many felonies and assaultive offenses. On a previous felony case, he had a bond forfeiture thrown in for good measure. Based on this, his bond was initially set at $5,000.
But, Mr. Mendez couldn't make that bond, and the Sheriff's office was forced to release him on an Unsecured Bail Bond on July 6th. Mr. Mendez signed the paperwork and agreed to appear in County Court at Law # 12 on August 16th.
Unfortunately, on July 28th, Mr. Mendez was driving with a female passenger, Victoria Reyna, when he was involved in a minor accident. According to court documents, he fled the scene of the accident at a high rate of speed, but lost control of his SUV. He crashed into a tree and a utility pole, killing the female riding in the front passenger seat of Mr. Mendez's vehicle.
Following a blood test result, he was charged with Intoxication Manslaughter.
Like I said, it was just a matter of time before something like this happened. That being said, it doesn't mean that Judge Rosenthal's ruling was wrong. The entirety of the bonding system in Harris County has needed reevaluation for quite some time. The bonding system should never be used to hold someone in custody to induce a plea, nor should it be used in a way that penalizes the poor. Both of those things were happening with regularity before the ruling.
But there are downsides to every tough decision, and tragedies will occur, like they did in this instance. The bond system needs to be reevaluated and quickly, but its new incarnation needs to focus on those issues that bonds are actually designed for -- assuring that an accused appears for court and protecting public safety. That plan is currently in the works for Harris County.
Unfortunately for Victoria Reyna, its arrival will be too late.