High Court: Warrantless DWI Blood Draws Are Unconstitutional

Categories: Courts

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Be careful out there.
Just in time for the holiday weekend, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has upheld a lower court's ruling that warrantless blood-drawing in DWI cases is unconstitutional.

In a split 5-4 decision Wednesday, the majority justices disagreed with prosecutors' argument that driving on Texas roads is a privilege -- not a right -- and that "the driving public" is presumed to have read the statute outlining no-refusal blood draws. (We must say, there are plenty of roads in Houston that don't really feel like a "privilege" to drive on.)

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Blood in the Streets: Harris County Suing Texas Farm Fresh Halal Over Alleged Violations

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Photo by Dianna Wray
The Texas Farm Fresh Halal Meat

After more than two years of alleged violations, Harris County is suing Texas Farm Fresh Halal Meat.The Harris County Attorney's Office filed a lawsuit against Texas Farm Fresh Halal Meats last Friday requesting an injunction and civil penalties against Irfan Sheikh, the owner of the slaughterhouse. The suit alleges that Sheikh has discharged industrial waste into state waters, improperly stored animal parts and discharged contaminated storm waters without a permit. And according to the recorded violations, this has been going on for years.

It started with blood in the streets.

Well, bloody water, technically. On Dec. 31, 2012, someone called in to complain about a slaughter house, Texas Farm Fresh Halal Meats, located on 13221 Old Richmond Road out on the very edge of Harris County. Bloody water was filling up the parking lot and slopping into the streets, the caller reported, according to court documents.

A Harris County Pollution Control investigator went out to the scene and "observed blood and smelled a metallic odor" in a ditch in front of a property just east of Texas Farm Fresh Halal. There must have been about 500 gallons of blood, she figured, according to court records. She noticed a small pool of blood, just a few inches wide, next to the fence bordering the two properties, with a 25-foot trail connecting the small pool of blood to the larger amount in the ditch, according to court documents. And this was just the beginning.

The investigator continued following the gory trail, tracking pools of blood to the animal holding pens and then to the kill floor. She watched the blood flowing from the site at a rate of about a quarter of a gallon per minute. And then a violation was issued against Texas Farm Fresh Halal Meats. A couple days later the investigators came back and managers of the company said that the kill floor waste is set up to flow into a septic tank, but the septic tank was clogged, hence the blood in the streets.


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Worker Sues BP Over Handling of Algerian Terrorist Attack

Categories: Courts

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Did BP endanger its workers?
An American worker who survived a 2013 terrorist attack at an Algerian BP plant is suing the oil giant in Harris County District Court for $100 million, saying BP did not disclose security threats to employees or increase security at the plant.

Steve Wysocki's suit is the third Houston complaint filed against BP over the attack, which killed 40 people at the plant in In Amenas, near the Libyan border.

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Embarrassing Emails Filed in Legal Battle Between Galveston County Commissioners and Judges

Categories: Courts, Whatever

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Galveston County Judge Mark Henry sure knows how to spice up dull legal dispute over the hiring and firing of court staff. Mix in some backroom sniping, a bit of rumor-mongering, and just a hint of public sex and you've got the awkward mess that's now before the state's First Court of Appeals.

At issue in the case that's pitted Henry and Galveston County commissioners against local district court judges is Henry's July firing of Bonita "Bonnie" Quiroga as director of the county's Justice Administration Department, a title she'd held for more than a decade. The local judges, already peeved with commissioners for supposedly meddling with their budget, were furious about the firing. In an order blocking Quiroga's termination in September, Administrative Judge Lonnie Cox wrote, "The authority to appoint and terminate court personnel lies with the courts, not the county judge nor the commissioners court."

So the county appealed to the First Court last month, asking that Cox's order barring commissioners from firing or replacing Quiroga be overturned. And late last month Henry filed an affidavit in the case that includes a number of email exchanges that, as far as Henry's concerned, prove Quiroga reported to commissioners court and not local judges. (H/T to local attorney Greg Enos, who first noted the emails in his awesomely-titled newsletter "The Mongoose" earlier this month.) "The tone and content of Ms. Quiroga's communications to me about the judges are wholly inconsistent with a supervisory relationship between them," Henry wrote in the affidavit.

That's quite an understatement. Notwithstanding that Quiroga regularly wrote to Henry with all the tact and professionalism of a tween slumber party gossip circle, the emails Henry filed in court show that, at the very least, Quiroga had quite the strained, unhealthy relationship with the very judges who are now fighting to save her job.

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Scott Wizig's Shell Companies File for Bankruptcy in Baltimore

Categories: Courts

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Seven shell companies managed by Houston-based absentee landlord Scott Wizig, who was ordered to repair 49 dilapidated properties he owns in Baltimore, filed for bankruptcy Tuesday in an apparent bid to sidestep the circuit court judge's order. (Wizig is the subject of this week's cover story).

Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Pamela J. White had given Wizig 90 days from July 31 to fix up the vacant properties that she said suffered from "unsafe and uninhabitable conditions." But attorneys for the Community Law Center, who sued Wizig on behalf of six non-profit neighborhood groups, discovered at a court hearing today that seven of the nine LLCs named in the lawsuit sought last-minute bankruptcy protection.


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Former Constable Victor Trevino Avoids Jail Time, Sentenced to 10 Years Probation

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Longtime Harris County Precinct 6 Constable Victor Trevino won't face jail time but will remain a convicted felon.

Trevino, who pleaded guilty earlier this month to misapplication of fiduciary duty, a felony that could have put him behind bars for 10 years, will instead face 10 years probation, along with a $1,000 fine and 150 hours of community service, a judge ruled at his sentencing hearing Monday.

Prosecutors had claimed that Trevino siphoned cash from his well-known charity, Constable's Athletic Recreational and Education Events Inc. (CARE), to buy Lotto tickets and fund gambling trips to Louisiana casinos. Early this year, the Harris County DA's Office had offered Trevino what, to the rest of us regular non-elected folk, seemed like the deal of a lifetime: avoid four felony indictments by simply resigning and copping to the equivalent of a traffic ticket (a class C misdemeanor). Trevino, for whatever reason, rejected the deal, but then pleaded guilty to one felony count early this month after only one day of trial.

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Two Companies Settle Over San Jacinto River Waste Pits, Jury Clears Lone Holdout of Liability

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Image by Andrew Nilsen
Harris County's years-long legal battle to wring billions of dollars out of companies the county says are responsible for the San Jacinto River's toxic legacy ended with whimper Thursday. Following a four-week trial, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan's office settled with two of three defendants just as the case was set to go to closing arguments. The two companies agreed to pay $29.2 million, which, after attorneys fees and expenses, amounts to just $20 million that will be split between the state and county -- a far cry from the $3.7 billion the county initially sought in its lawsuit.

Mix in the fact that after the settlement was reached a jury cleared the lone holdout company of any responsibility, and it's hard to chalk this up as a clear win for the county in its bold fight to make companies pay fouling the San Jacinto River.

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Is Scott Panetti Too Mentally Ill for Execution? Does Texas Care?

Categories: Courts

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Scott Panetti has been in that will-they-or-won't they execution limbo for about a decade.

However, by this time next month, Panetti will be dead, unless someone -- Gov. Rick Perry with a stay of execution or the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles with a commutation -- steps in. That's what a variety of people and organizations, including Christian evangelicals, the American Bar Association, the American Psychiatric Association and a whole bunch of legal experts and lawyers are requesting so that it can at least be determined whether Panetti, a diagnosed schizophrenic who has been documented with mental illness for more than 30 years, is mentally competent enough for execution. The clemency petition was filed Wednesday.

He's scheduled to be executed at 6 p.m. on Dec. 3, 2014, the final punishment for the murders of Joe Alvarado and Amanda Alvarado, his parents-in-law on September 8, 1992 in Gillespie County. The thing is Panetti has suffered from mental illness for more than 30 years. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1978 and was in and out of mental hospitals years before he committed the murders, and he didn't exactly get less erratic after.

"I'm sure there are people that say, 'Why do we care about this?' But when you run a criminal justice system and you're punishing people, it's important for people to understand why they're being punished. That becomes particularly complicated with the mentally ill," Kathryn Kase, a lawyer representing Panetti through the Texas Defender Service, says.


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Judge Drops Charge Against Officer Who Kicked Man During Traffic Stop Gone Haywire

Categories: Courts

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See if you can follow this one.

A Harris County Precinct 4 deputy constable out on patrol says he saw a young man blow through a stop sign on September 10, 2011 near his far north-side home, so he pulled up behind the guy and flashed the lights when the man turned into his driveway. The man's mother walked outside, asked what was going on, and the deputy told her to get back inside the house or else he'd throw her in a squad car; she refused, arguing that she was on her property, so the deputy put her in cuffs.

The rest of the family then came out to investigate and, for some still-unclear reason, things quickly spun out of control. The deputy called for backup. The driver's father was slammed to the ground, cuffed, arrested, and later charged with assaulting a police officer. Deputies grabbed and arrested an aunt with enough force that she suffered a broken hand, according to a lawsuit that was later filed. The sister, who tried to record all of this on her cell phone, was arrested and charged with assaulting a police officer; the sister says the cop tripped during the course of her arrest, while her criminal complaint says she pulled her arm while the officer was trying to detain her "causing him to hurt his foot."

As for the man who ran the stop sign, three deputies wrestled him to the ground, and he was later charged with criminal mischief.

After nearly two years and thousands of dollars in legal fees, prosecutors had dropped all charges against David Scherz, who was 25 at the time of his arrest, and his family members who came out to see why a deputy followed him into their driveway. The family filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging police brutality, and a dash-cam video soon surfaced showing then-deputy constable Jimmy Drummond kicking and kneeing Scherz while he was already cuffed and face-down on the ground. The video was enough to prompt the Harris County District Attorney's office to rush to charge Drummond with official oppression the day before the statute of limitations was set to lapse.

But this week, Drummond got off on an apparent technicality. State District Judge Denise Collins ruled that prosecutors didn't properly charge Drummond before the time limit, effectively ending the case just as it was set to go to trial.

The Scherz family, meanwhile, hasn't had such luck over at the courthouse. Scherz's mother and father are again fighting criminal charges that prosecutors dismissed two years ago but then refiled after the family sued in federal court last year (so no statute-of-limitations problem there).

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Convicted Riverside CEO Tells His Side of the Story

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Photo by Susan Du
Earnest Gibson III, former CEO of Riverside General Hospital, is in the process of appealing his conviction.

It's been two years since FBI agents burst into the Third Ward office of Riverside General Hospital's longtime CEO, Earnest Gibson III, and accused him conspiring to scam Medicare and Medicaid out of $158 million. Judge Lee Rosenthal ordered Gibson not to discuss Riverside business or speak to Riverside colleagues, so his side of the story went unheard. But since a jury convicted him on October 20, he's now filing a motion for a new trial and firmly maintaining his innocence as he awaits sentencing.

Federal prosecutors accused Gibson and others of paying illegal kickbacks to group homes owners to send their patients to Riverside so Riverside could then bill the government for medical services they it never intended to deliver. The hospital claimed to employ marketers who were really acting as patient bounty hunters, prosecutors said.

"The former president of Riverside Hospital, his son, and their co-conspirators systematically defrauded Medicare, treating mentally ill and disabled Americans like chits to be traded and cashed out to pad their own pockets," said Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell in a statement. "For over six years, the Gibsons and their co-conspirator stuck taxpayers with millions in hospital bills, purportedly for intensive psychiatric treatment. But the 'treatment' was a sham - some patients just watched television all day."

Gibson, speaking out against his conviction, claims prosecutors and their witnesses took the jury for a ride. He says the government's witnesses were all confirmed criminals who stood to gain from falsely accusing him.

Gibson says he's rather "go down to Guantanamo Bay and be waterboarded to the point of death" than claim that Riverside ever paid for patients. "I want the jury to remember that, that one day I may be dead and gone, but it's gonna come up. Somebody will come out and tell the truth."

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