Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg sent a letter to members of the Houston Area Police Chiefs Association Wednesday suggesting that Harris County judges and magistrates are stopping too many cases in their tracks by ruling that no probable cause exists to prosecute the suspect. That finding of probable cause is one of the critical early hurdles a case has to clear before it can ever see a courtroom.
An increase in these rulings, Ogg wrote to police chiefs, “may be negatively impacting public safety. It is also indicative of a trend in judicial discretion that directly affects our overall community and your law enforcement officers.”
So far in 2019, she wrote, 985 felony cases and 2,232 misdemeanor offenses were determined by courts to lack probable cause. The total of 3,217 cases represents a 101% increase since 2015.
According to Ogg’s letter, 107 of those cases were from the Baytown Police Department. About half of the cases involved were from the Houston Police Department, which, with more than 5,000 officers, is by far the largest law enforcement agency in the county.
Baytown Police Department spokesman Lt. Steve Dorris said BPD has seen the same trend Ogg referred to. “It seems over the past year or so we have noticed an increase in cases being dismissed; however these things usually take some time to become noticeable.”
He continued, “Our officers effect thousands of arrests annually and we have an obligation to everyone involved to investigate each of those cases thoroughly and gather all the facts.
“We at the Baytown Police Department are absolute in our commitment, when we arrest and/or charge a suspect in a case, that we have more than ample probable cause, not just enough to support a criminal charge, but ideally enough to convince a judge or jury to render a guilty verdict, should the case go to trial.”
Dorris pointed out that the police department cannot file charges without the approval of the District Attorney’s Office, so an attorney from the DA’s office has to agree that the department’s probable cause it sufficient before the case ever makes it to a judge.
In her letter to police chiefs, Ogg suggested that, while some rulings of insufficient probable cause come from inadequate presentation of the case, others come from prejudice by magistrates and judges.
In those cases, the finding comes from “increasingly vocal, personal perspectives about the crimes and offenders themselves as stated by the magistrates and judges.”
In his response for BPD, Dorris said, “Our system of justice has layers which are designed in part as checks and balances, a way to ensure that all cases are looked at through the unbiased lens of justice, based on fact, absent personal bias, prejudice or partiality; a deviation from that certainly would be concerning.
“We are confident that working with Ms. Ogg and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, as well as our other partners in the criminal justice system, we can remedy this issue so that we are able to provide those adversely affected by crime in our community the justice they deserve.
“In the meantime, our officers will continue to work hard to provide the absolute best service and quality of life to our citizens and community as possible.