In most cases, the Empty Suit style of shaking hands and kissing babies is innocuous enough. I mean, if a vote is earned because someone agrees with your gutsy stand that babies are cute, more power to you. Sadly, the voting public has proven time and again to not be all that hard of a sell when giving up its vote to style over substance. I could expand on this, or you could just switch over to any major news channel and you'll get the point.
Try as I might, though, I just can't get past the frustration of watching elected officials allow political pandering to seep into the criminal justice system. As I've written time and time again, partisan politics have no place here. If a candidate wants to sit on a criminal court bench or run for District Attorney, his or her position on abortion, gay marriage, foreign policy and taxes are irrelevant to their job description. In theory, those who hold elected positions in the criminal justice system should be governed by the law and only the law. What they do should be insulated from politics of any kind.
Unfortunately, the horrific events in Minnesota, Louisiana and Texas over the past weeks have practically begged for hardcore Republican politicians to prove to the electorate how pro-police they are. There's nothing wrong with being pro-police, mind you. I've never been shy at expressing my admiration for police officers and the jobs they do. I admired them as a kid. I admired them as a prosecutor. And even though I've heard them grumble about my move to the "Dark Side," I continue to admire them now as a defense attorney.
The killing of eight officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge hurt my heart and they make me worry for my friends who are police officers locally and around the country.
And before someone starts asking, "Why are you only talking about the deaths of police officers and not the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile?", bear with me. I'm not writing this particular post to compare the worth of competing tragedies, but I will talk about them in a moment.
Today, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that he would be proposing what he called the Police Protection Act, to the cheers and accolades of all police-loving Republicans everywhere. If the Act passes (and what good politician would ever oppose a law that protects the police?), if a crime against a police officer is proven to be motivated by the hatred of police officers in general, then that crime can be found to be a "hate crime" and raised to a higher degree of crime.
Uh huh. Now, let's talk about that for a minute.
As noted in the Governor's press release, police officers (in their capacity as public servants) are already treated as a protected class under the laws of the State of Texas. If you punch me in the face, the worst you are looking at is a year in the county jail, and perhaps an enthusiastic hug from Pat Lykos. If you punch a police officer in the face, you are looking at spending the next ten years in prison.
If you were to take a gun and shoot me in the leg, you would be looking at a maximum of twenty years in prison. If you shoot a police officer in the leg, you would be looking at Life in prison. If you shoot me and kill me, the worst thing that could happen to you is Life in prison. If you shoot and kill a police officer, the Death Penalty is most likely going to be sought.
The point is, Texas Law already has very harsh upgrades in punishment when the victim is a police officer. Abbott's proposals under the Police Protection Act will have very few practical upgrades in punishment, but damn, it sure does show how much he loves police officers, doesn't it? Okay, if you punch a police officer in the face solely because you hate police officers, you could be looking at up to twenty years rather than ten. Of course, the prosecutor is going to have to prove up that hatred of police officers was your sole motivation -- not as easy as it might sound.
But it isn't as if an Aggravated Assault on a Public Servant can be upgraded from a first degree felony to a capital offense without a fatality. The big thing that Abbott's proposal does is call for police officers to be treated as a "protected class." However, police officers already are a protected class. The Act is 99% pure pandering and Republicans are loving it.
Although I'm not a big fan of Governor Abbott in general, one can forgive him for his pandering. Even though he is the former Attorney General of Texas and should be a little embarrassed over it, "Feel Good Legislation" is part of a Governor's job description, I suppose.
That can't be said for Criminal District Court Judges, however. An honorable Criminal Court Judge is the one guided by the law and only the law -- public opinion be damned. Law above politics no matter what the fallout, right?
Apparently not if you are Judge Kerry Neves of the 10th District Court of Galveston County, who made a post on his Facebook page today, which read as follows:
I have just signed an Order which goes into effect immediately in this Court. No plea bargain agreements for deferred adjudication or probation involving Assault on a Public Servant, Evading Arrest, Resisting Arrest or any other offense in which a member of Law Enforcement is threatened or placed in danger will be approved. In the event the State and the defense attorney believe there is compelling evidence to support such an agreement, the Court may consider it if presented with such evidence. Approval will require a sincere written statement of apology to the officer or officers involved, and agreement from the officer or officers involved to the plea bargain agreement. Prior criminal history will play a big role in whether any such agreement is approved.
If approved, the defendant will be required to read the statement in open Court.
I may only be one person, one Judge, but I will do what I can to stop the disrespect and aggressive behavior against our police officers. If you are an officer, spouse of an officer or know an officer, make sure they know of this change in my Court.
I love the last paragraph. "I may only be one person, one Judge . . ." Martyrdom is a lonely business. "If you are
a registered voter an officer, spouse of an officer or know an officer, make sure they know of this change in my Court." At some point, there seems to be a very fine line between showing solidarity in the wake of a tragedy and capitalizing off of it.
What better way for a judge to announce that he has prejudged the credibility of absolutely every officer that will ever testify in his court and graded that credibility as Immaculate? What better way to announce that, as an elected judge, you cannot be open to the full range of punishment on any case where a law enforcement officer is the victim?
So, the kid that runs three feet from a police officer before getting tackled doesn't get probation, huh? The guy that elbows the officer in his bulletproof vest is looking at a minimum of 2 years TDCJ in your court? That Facebook post pretty much assures us that there are no shades of gray in Judge Neves' court. As my friend Jeremy Gordon pointed out, if you are a defense attorney in Judge Neves' court, you better have a Motion to Recuse ready, unless you want to be ineffective. Politics have forced out any minimal appearances of judicial neutrality.
Which brings me to the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
I've watched the videos on both shootings and I've read the different articles (and multitude of personal opinions) on them. My personal opinion is that it looks pretty damn bad for the police officers involved. I'm not a police officer and I wasn't there, but what I've seen merits a trial. I've been disappointed in those who have tried to drag Sterling and Castile's reputations through the mud rather than address the actions of the police officers.
I recognize that police officers have dangerous jobs and risk their lives on a daily basis. They also have special training and equipment that is designed to minimize the risk of death for all parties involved in a police encounter. Just as a surgeon would be held accountable if he or she were to act outside of his or her training and cause a death, so should a police officer. This isn't a call for conviction. It's a call for examination and accountability.
I can't imagine any rational mind looking at the videos of the deaths of Sterling and Castile and thinking that neither of them deserve any level of scrutiny. To feel that way exposes a level of bias that is contrary to the principles of criminal justice.
It's apparently a level of bias that Judge Kerry Neves is quite comfortable with.