HPD Doesn't Need a Warrant to Track Your Cell Phone (Nor Should They, Says Prosecutor)

Categories: Courts, Tech

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Matthew Pearce via Flickr creative commons
Back in September, HPD officer James Taylor lamented how the Edward Snowden leaks had spooked the public into thinking that even local law enforcement agencies were part of a broad, indiscriminate surveillance dragnet that gathers data on unsuspecting Americans.

"We are not the NSA nor the federal government," the HPD officer told members of a Senate State Affairs Committee. A PowerPoint slide he'd prepared for the occasion flashed up on the screen: "STATE AND LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT DO NOT 'SNOOP!'"

Maybe, maybe not. The problem, privacy advocates say, is we don't know. What we do know -- actually, what we've known for quite some time -- is that HPD has the technology to sweep up cell phone data in real time, deploying a device that essentially mimics a cell phone tower and tricks your phone into communicating with it. And, according to local prosecutors -- who, it should be noted, admit they don't know how local cops are using the technology, either -- HPD doesn't need a warrant to use it.

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The State Killed Cameron Todd Willingham, But His Case Won't Die

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TDCJ
At this point, more than a decade after Cameron Todd Willingham's 2004 execution for the arson deaths of his three young daughters in Corsicana, there's something marrow-deep exhausting about the whole saga. Willingham went to his execution protesting his innocence, and in the years that have followed his death, the case has routinely reappeared in the news cycle with new revelations about either the junk arson science or the key witness used to convict him. The stories just keep coming.

Right now the focus is on the key witness against Willingham, Johnny Webb, and a letter that indicates the lead prosecutor on the case may have made a deal with Webb in exchange for Webb's testimony, according to a new report from the Marshall Project.

For years John Jackson, the lead prosecutor in Willingham's case, insisted that Webb wasn't coached on his testimony and that he got no special treatment or perks of any kind for agreeing to testify against Willingham. Webb ultimately testified that Willingham had confessed to the murders while they were in lockup together. That jailhouse confession, coupled with the "arson science" of the time, eventually led to Willingham's conviction and death sentence.

However, in addition to everything uncovered last year in a story by Maurice Possley, published by the Washington Post and the Marshall Project, a new letter written by Webb has surfaced, Possley now reports.

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Animal Cruelty Charge Filed in Dog Park Shooting

Categories: Courts

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An animal cruelty charge has been filed against a man who shot and killed a dog at a Clear Lake-area dog park in January.

Joseph Potts, 27, is not yet in custody, according to a Harris County Sheriff's Office press release. But the real lesson here, according to what has to be the most tone-deaf press release of the year so far, is to keep your dog or cat "under restraint."

That's right: the take-away from this unfortunate incident is not that you shouldn't fire a gun multiple times at a dog park, but to make sure your dog is on a leash. Even at a dog park.

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Fifth Circuit Court Disses Houston Federal Judge, Reassigns Case

Categories: Courts

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What a cluster...
In January, we took issue with U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Hughe's bizarre ruling in a suit against a Houston police officer who shot and killed an unarmed man in 2011, and now the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is taking issue with another Hughes ruling.

Texas Lawyer reports that, "in an extremely rare move," the circuit court has for the second time reversed Hughes' decision in a suit accusing Shell Exploration of withholding at least $19 million in royalties owed to the U.S. government -- only this time the higher court has ordered the case remanded to a different judge.

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Family of Woman Injured in Houston Rodeo Golf Cart Accident Settles

Categories: Courts

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Just over two years after Bonnie Herndon was injured in a golf cart accident at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in February 2013, the Herndon family has settled.

Herndon and her husband attended the Toby Keith concert that was put on in conjunction with the 2013 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo on opening night. After the show ended, the couple used the golf cart transportation service to return to their parked vehicle. Herndon was in the front seat with the driver and her husband was in the row behind her. The driver, operating on behalf of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, made a quick left turn, ejecting Herndon from the modified golf cart where she landed head-first on the pavement of the Reliant Stadium (now NRG) parking lot.

Herndon suffered a serious head injury and has remained comatose ever since.


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Judge Has to Remind HCC That Board Trustees Are Representatives of the Public

Categories: Courts, Education

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HCC
As it fought to seal some internal records in a legal fight against its former general counsel, lawyers for Houston Community College trotted out a strange argument in court earlier this month.

Along with a swath of internal memos, emails and transcripts HCC wanted to seal or redact, the publicly-funded college system also argued against disclosing certain communications between college lawyers and HCC trustees. Here was the college's basic argument: The HCC Board of Trustees are "representatives of the college," and anything shared with them by an HCC attorney remained attorney-client privileged information, and therefore isn't public.

It was an argument Harris County District Court Judge Jeff Shadwick literally scoffed at when HCC attorneys and lawyers for Renee Byas, the college's former general counsel who was fired and ultimately sued by the college last year, showed up in court on February 9 to argue over a temporary injunction to keep certain records in the lawsuit hidden from public view.

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Bill Calls for Outside Prosecutors to Present Cop-on-Civilian Shootings to Grand Juries

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Courtesy of Janet Baker
Jordan Baker was unarmed when HPD officer Juventino Castro shot and killed him last January
Jordan Baker was riding his bike near a strip mall off 5700 West Little York last January when he encountered Juventino Castro, an HPD officer of over a decade. Castro was moonlighting as a security guard, hired by a group of stores that had recently reported a string of burglaries. Police say Castro, who was in uniform, flagged 26-year-old Baker because he looked suspicious and matched the description of the robbery suspects -- the "description" being that Baker was a black man wearing a hoodie.

Investigators would later say there's no reason to think Baker had anything to do with the robberies at the strip center. He had a kid at home, was studying to become a welder, and had no criminal record to speak of (he'd been charged with misdemeanor pot possession and evading arrest when he was a teenager, but those charges were dismissed). Yet for some reason, "a brief struggle and foot chase ensued" when Castro tried to stop and talk to Baker, according to police. Castro later claimed that, for some reason, Baker stopped running at some point, turned toward the officer and reached for his waistband, even though he was unarmed. Castro fired once, killing Baker.

As with all officer-involved shootings, the Harris County District Attorney's Office presented the case to grand jury in December to decide whether Castro was justified in shooting and killing an unarmed man. According to the DA's office, there were no witnesses to the shooting; it was Castro's word against that of a dead man. And, as has been the case in every single HPD-involved shooting for over a decade, the grand jury cleared Castro.

Invoking Baker's name, Missouri City state Rep. Ron Reynolds has filed a bill to take officer-involved shootings out of the hands of local district attorneys, and would instead call for a special Attorney General-appointed prosecutor to investigate and present such cases to a grand jury. "Jordan Baker. Mike Brown. Eric Garner. There are blatant problems with the criminal justice system, and many of you have demanded change," Reynolds said in a statement announcing his HB 1840.

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Teen Victim to Teen Madam: Among All the Kids Money Mike Handed $100 Bills For Sex, One Was Charged With a Felony

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Cara had just jumped out of the shower, thrown on a T-shirt and plopped down on the couch to finish some homework when she heard someone pounding at the front door. She was stunned by what she saw when she peered out the window: Several uniformed police officers had gathered on her lawn, some, she thought, with guns drawn, "like I was some killer or something." Police cruisers swarmed the front of her father's League City home.

Cara (not her real name) recognized one officer in particular, Webster police detective David Nettles, who shouted that he was there to arrest her. As soon as she saw him, Cara knew why Nettles was at her doorstep.

Weeks earlier, Cara had lied to the detective about what happened with Money Mike, the nickname Cara and her friends gave the 62-year-old big-tipping regular at her old restaurant job. She met the Friendswood businessman the summer of 2013, right before her sophomore year in high school.

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Texas Has Quite Literally Run Out of Places to House Violent Sexual Predators

Categories: Courts, Crime

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Kevin Trotman via Flickr Creative Commons
...of course they would
According to the head of the bluntly named Office of Violent Sex Offender Management, the agency has run out of room to house the worst of the worst sex offenders who have been sent to the state's controversial civil commitment program.

At least two convicts are currently finishing their sentences and are slated to enter the program by next week, agency director Marsha McLane warned the Senate Finance Committee yesterday. More than two dozen are set to enter the program by August. And there's nowhere to put them. McLane told lawmakers she's actively searching for places willing to house the offenders, but that "everyone I've called, no one has come up with a building we can move into."

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UPDATED A Closer Look at Maurice Williams, a.k.a. Enzo Weinberg, a.k.a. Mr. Iggy Azalea

Categories: Courts

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Photo by Jack Gorman
Azalea got fancy at the Bayou Music Center in 2014.
An attorney for Maurice Lasel Williams, the Houston ex-con claiming to be rap star Iggy Azalea's common-law husband and mentor, says two bond companies illegally revoked Williams' bond in a power-play to keep Williams out of divorce court.

Federal filings in another case suggest Williams -- who legally changed his name to Enzo Weinberg, but which we can't bring ourselves to actually call him -- is full of shit. Azalea sued him in a California federal court for allegedly stealing demos she saved on her laptop in 2008, then allegedly forging a recording contract allegedly giving him the right to sell the songs.

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