May-June 2012

Montgomery County’s domestic violence rocket docket

Echo Coleman

Assistant District ­Attorney in ­Montgomery County

A new court dedicated to misdemeanor family violence cases was launched last fall; here’s the story on how it’s working.

When former Assistant District Attorney Claudia Laird ran for judge of County Court-at-Law No. 2 in Montgomery County, she ran on a platform aiming to curb domestic violence. After Judge Laird won the election, I sat down and talked with her—she’s a former colleague at the DA’s office—about starting a dedicated domestic violence misdemeanor docket. She was enthusiastic, to say the least.

    I started my legal career as a prosecutor in the El Paso District Attorney’s Office under District Attorney Jaime Esparza, who has passionately focused on domestic violence and made many advances in how to handle these potentially dangerous and difficult cases. (See the story on page 25 for more on how El Paso’s family violence program works.) I knew that the more quickly we contacted victims, the more likely they would cooperate with the case and the more likely the State would obtain a conviction. Thus, it would be vital for this court to have a dedicated prosecutor with the time, training, and compassion to effectively see these cases through to completion. At the time Montgomery County was desperately behind other counties in winning convictions for domestic violence cases; only about half that went to trial ended with a conviction.

    Domestic violence is an area near and dear to the hearts of our elected district attorney, Brett Ligon, and his first assistant, Phil Grant, but we didn’t have enough money in the budget to pay for a dedicated prosecutor in this court. Montgomery County is one of the fastest growing counties in Texas, but our budget is not growing at the same rate. So with the help of our county grant writer, I found a federal grant through the Violence Against Women Act, which is disbursed through the Office of the Governor. The grant pays for 65 percent of the position and our office matches the remaining 35 percent.

    Once the grant was approved in the fall of 2011, Montgomery County’s first dedicated domestic violence misdemeanor docket premiered. I was equally excited and terrified about the new venture because I had no idea how this new program was going to work.

    Our first step to get up and running was a Domestic Violence Warrant Roundup. District Attorney Ligon started the roundup program after his election as a way to utilize the media and bring attention to our efforts to crack down on crime while serving outstanding warrants in the county. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month and it was also the first full month after receiving our grant funding, so we found it to be the perfect time to kick things off. Investigators in our office pulled a variety of open arrest warrants for domestic violence cases, both felony and misdemeanor level. We invited all of our local law enforcement to get involved executing outstanding arrest warrants. We ended up with the largest multi-agency participation we’ve ever had; law enforcement officers from every local agency in the county showed up to support the domestic violence cause and to serve the warrants. Local news agencies rode along with our officers, which put the word out in the community that a new court was in place and we were serious about handling these difficult and dangerous cases. The roundup was a success with more than 40 defendants arrested (out of 200 attempted; these were our best results on a warrant roundup to date), the community was behind us, and our court was off and running.

    Previously, Court No. 2 exclusively handled probate matters. Once Judge Laird took office, she instituted the criminal docket to handle misdemeanor assault-family violence cases. Our docket currently handles only half of such cases for the county so that we can compare how the remaining cases fare on a regular court docket in Montgomery County.

How the new court ­differs

Most cases on a regular docket are not set for arraignment until at least a month after the offense, and even then they are given a reset for another month after that. The prosecutors assigned to those courts work all misdemeanor offenses so they handle hundreds of cases, and the victims in domestic violence cases get their required phone call but often not as much attention as we prefer. There just isn’t as much time in a busy and fast-growing county to handle each case with the specialized attention we would otherwise like to provide.

    This new, specialized docket aims to change that. My position covers all of the County Court-at-Law No. 2 cases from start to finish. As the sole prosecutor, I handle intake, screening the cases for enhancements, contacting the complainants prior to filing the case, and maintaining contact with the complainants through the duration. I always make my own contact calls to the complainants. After I have talked to them, I may refer them to one of our victim assistance coordinators for services or other referrals, but I always encourage them to call me if they need something. So far, I have found that my personal contact with the victims is often what will make or break the case.

    Due to the dedicated docket, the cases are fast-tracked. Defendants have court arraignment within a couple of weeks on average after an arrest. The cases have only two settings: arraignment and a pretrial hearing two weeks later. At the pretrial setting, the parties either reach a plea agreement, or the case is set for trial. Once it is set for trial, the court no longer accepts a plea bargain. This method is definitely different from other courts in our county: No longer are defense attorneys able to set cases on the trial docket to “bluff” us into a better plea.

    The accelerated docket seems to have a strong effect on both sides of the table. I had to figure out how to get my case files from intake quickly, review them, call the victim, file charges, procure the evidence from the law-enforcement agency, and review it all in time for court. At the same time, the defendant doesn’t have time to wear the victim down with a pending case until she changes her mind about cooperating. When I talk to the victim before defense counsel does—and oftentimes before the defendant has had a chance to pressure her—I get to explain a lot of things: that she has some power to keep herself safe while the case is pending, that she can call me if her abuser threatens her into dropping the charges, and that our office can help her relocate if she needs to. In a lot of cases, by the time the case is set for trial (often about a month after the offense), the emergency protective order is still in place, the victim is still emotionally involved in seeing the case through, and memories are still very fresh. In the vast majority of my cases, when I walk into arraignment I have already talked to the victim, listened to the 911 call, and have the photographs in the file; I know exactly what the case is worth. And that is usually two weeks after the offense occurred.

    As for the defense bar, it has also quickly adjusted to the accelerated docket. Those attorneys who handle a lot of domestic violence cases have already figured out to sit down with me between dockets and work the case out early. Both parties have to labor just as hard to keep up with the court’s pace, and nobody really gains an advantage from the quick docket. Judge Laird is firm and fair and does not give either side any room to push her rules. Once everyone realizes this, a general atmosphere of working within the rules takes over, and everyone adjusts accordingly.

    Part of my job is to improve relations with our law enforcement community. I have started training officers on how to investigate and document a domestic violence scene, determine the aggressor, get information from witnesses, write more details into their reports to avoid hearsay, comply with Crawford, and deal with recanting witnesses. Better contact with law enforcement can be the key to proving a case that I otherwise couldn’t, so I give out my number and tell officers to call me if they have questions while on the scene. They appreciate having a contact with our office they can call, and I have seen a difference in attitude since we began working with them to improve communication.

    Thus far, the docket has started with good success. Initial results from our dedicated domestic violence court show an average conviction rate of around 85 percent. Prior to this docket, the county-wide conviction rate for such cases was hovering around 50 percent. While there have been many kinks to work out of the new system, we are cautiously optimistic that we can extend our early success into long-term stability. One of the early issues was simply getting the cases transferred by the court, jail staff, and county clerk’s office from the originating court into Court No. 2 at the time of arrest. I also had to figure out the logistics of making my call to the victim, file the charges, get the case to the investigator and victim assistance coordinator, then have the case file back in my office in time for the docket, all within just a few days. Getting the evidence into my file and reviewing it in time for docket was also an issue. In our county, the wait for a 911 recording takes between four and six weeks, so we had to work out a system to get those more quickly for this court. I had to sit down with every person involved in the chain and decide on a course of action based on how long it takes everyone to complete each part. I must say I am fortunate to work with a wonderful team of individuals who are all dedicated to their jobs, and that made the transition much easier! After the first couple of months, we started getting the basics down, and then it became simply a tracking game of staying on top of the docket and making sure the files were moving smoothly through the system.

    While we count our initial conviction rate as a success (including Class C assaults with family violence findings that we can use later for enhancement purposes if defendants commit a future DV offense), we also count as a success that we are getting to some of the root causes of the violence in the home. This is especially true when the case is not one that we can prove and we know the victim will stay with her abuser. We keep track of the number of defendants taking the Batterer’s Intervention and Prevention Program (BIPP) and whether it is part of a probation term, in return for a reduction in charges, or even as part of an agreement to dismiss the charges. We are also at the very beginning stages of implementing our own BIPP program in our county jail for inmates who accept jail sentences (although this BIPP will not be state-certified because it’s condensed and shortened). Eventually, our goal is to expand our domestic violence division to handle all misdemeanors, adding more dedicated misdemeanor and felony prosecutors, and allowing Montgomery County to better prosecute these difficult cases. We hope that our initial success in our first dedicated court will push us farther down the path toward that goal.