From the Houston Criminal Law News

A team of federal inspectors is checking out the Harris County Jail. Harbingers of adult supervision for the Harris County Criminal Justice System?

Widow charged 23 years after her husband’s murder. She claimed at the time that an intruder had entered the house, tortured her, and shot him with her pistol. The dead guy’s daughter contacted cold case investigators every year until they reopened the case. (“No ma’am, not quite cold enough for us yet”?) The widow’s son is a cop; she worked for HPD. I’m betting there’s much more of a story here.

Speaking of intruders, when we heard this story of an intruder stabbing a couple, killing her and wounding him, Jen’s response was “yeah, right. I’ll bet he killed her and cut himself.” Cynical? Sure, but also apparently correct — he confessed.

Speaking of confessions, I’ve been told that there’s more to this story of Chronicle reporter Jennifer Latson claiming a First Amendment right to talk to an incarcerated defendant even over the defendant’s objection. I don’t think that right trumps the sheriff’s power to regulate jail visits and, as it turns out, the sheriff has a media visitation policy:

Inmate Interview Requests

  • On camera interviews, if permitted, will be done within the hours of 9:00 A.M. and 5:00 P.M.
  • Requests for interviews must be made in writing. These requests can be made directly to the Public Information Officer, who is located at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office Headquarters, 1200 Baker Street.

The request must be accompanied by a signed letter, on letterhead stationary, from the defendant’s attorney of record (faxed letters are acceptable, but the fax must be from the attorney’s office) in the criminal proceedings, reflecting the attorney’s approval of the interview request. The letter must also state that the judge having jurisdiction over the criminal proceeding has been informed, and that the judge has approved of the interview.

  • Any media representative who conducts an interview within the boundaries of the institution waives their personal right to be free from search of his/her person or property so long as he/she remains within the boundaries of the institution grounds.
  • A release signed by the inmate from whom the interview is requested must be obtained prior to the dissemination of any photos, recordings or any personal information derived from the interview forms are on file with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office).
  • If the above criteria is met and the inmate wishes to be interviewed, the facility staff will accommodate the media by arranging a safe, secure area for the interview to be conducted away from the general inmate population.
  • Only one interview will be arranged and granted. If the inmate returns to custody for a proceeding related to the original charge or charges (bond forfeiture, bench warrant) subsequent interview requests will be denied.
  • Every member of the news crew must have media credentials, identifying them and their employer, before they will be allowed to enter the interview room.
  • A deputy sheriff must be in the interview room with the inmate at all times. The deputy may intervene or halt the interview if the inmate or reporter fails to follow the stated guidelines.

If the Sheriff followed this policy, lawyers wouldn’t have to worry about Jennifer Latson extracting damning statements from their clients. I wonder if the Sheriff’s dereliction of policy might make Latson a de facto agent of the government, or if Latson’s violation of the policy might be grounds for a successful 38.23 challenge to the admissibility of the statements.

Speaking of the Sheriff, he defends himself and his policies. “You know I’m not perfect, and I don’t pretend to be perfect, but I have the best interest of Harris County and this department.”

Speaking of Harris County, the Chron has an online database of city and county employees’ 2007 salaries, and it’s searchable. Mmmmm, searchable data goodness! I’m like a kid in a candy shop, and very happy with the Chronicle right now. Harris County prosecutors — especially chiefs — really get paid very well, if you count the benefits. I think it’d probably be hard for all but the luckiest or most business-savvy to make comparable money in criminal defense.

Same with cops, really. HPD Officer Javier Calvillo made $71k in base and $91k in overtime last year, for a total of $162k; those wages (just shy of Chuck Rosenthal’s $163k and just over Tommy Thomas’s $159k) made him the 78th highest-paid Harris County or City of Houston employee.

Calvillo, like other police officers, gets paid overtime money for attending court on arrests he’s made. Youve got to wonder whether the potential of overtime money might entice cops to maybe make DWI arrests here and there that they wouldn’t have made if they didn’t stand to gain financially.

On second thought, no, you don’t really have to wonder. You pay cops to make arrests, and you’re going to get some lousy arrests.

Caveat juror.

16 Comments

  1. ” Harris County prosecutors — especially chiefs — really get paid very well, if you count the benefits. I think it’d probably be hard for all but the luckiest or most business-savvy to make comparable money in criminal defense.”

    Lol. That’s the most unintentionally funny thing you have posted all week long.

  2. Wait a minute, Mark! Is that comment SC quotes above coming from the same guy who won’t do $94/hr federal public defender work because “it isn’t worth my time”? Chiefs make less than $60/hr, and even intake pay is only $91. Benefits and retirement are fine, but I know a lot of criminal defense attorneys who are neither lucky nor business-savvy who seem to make more than we ever could in their sleep! (No reference to Joe Cannon intended.)

  3. Coupla things. I’m lousy at keeping track of my time. If I have to, I always wind up leaving a lot of money on the table, so that $94 an hour somehow turns into $64.

    Benefits and retirement sure are fine! That’s a 7% bump for retirement, and health insurance is brutally expensive in the real world. Two weeks of paid vacation? Add another 4%. Comp time? If it’s real, add another 2%, maybe. The private lawyer has to pay an additional 7.5% of salary (above what you pay social security) for self-employment tax.

    Call your $120k government salary roughly equivalent, conservatively, to at least $150k in private practice. Sure, those biglaw pukes are making that from day one, but in the criminal courthouse (where, as we know, the real lawyers do their work) many (probably most) of the people you’re trying cases against make less money than you.

    $150k a year? That’s only $3000 a week. Piece of cake, right? A first-DWI case every couple of weeks, and anything more is gravy.

    Except that you have to get the cases in. You have to have an office. And advertise. And probably hire staff. And buy supplies. And pay for a telephone line. And a hundred other things. It gets very expensive very quickly. And there are lots of weeks when nothing comes in. What if the courthouse floods and is shut down for a month? What if your office floods and your phones stop working? You have to have a backup plan.

    Government practice has no financial risk and no “off” weeks or months (when you notice the criminal defense bar behaving as though there’s a full moon, it’s probably because we’re having a shared bad month).

    I suspect you probably hear some hyperbole from people who have left the office about the money they’re making. I make pretty good money myself; if you knew, it might seem enticing . . . until you considered that it’s the result of two smart lawyers going out on a considerable limb for 13 years, spending as much time building the practice as practicing law, and living each month with the risk that there’d be no money coming in the next.

    There are other benefits to private practice, of course, as there are other benefits to government lawyering, but not all of them are of universal appeal.

  4. Can you question the police officer on the stand about how much overtime he’s making or how much he’s made this year? Also, can you bring it up in closing or in any other part of the trial in front of the jury? I think it would only come into play when the officer is the only witness. Just curious.

  5. Inmates should have greater access to the press. It’s wrong to shtu them off, and in many states that’s exactly what happens. Governments don’t like it when the general population has access to the lives of those discarded from society.

  6. jp, I don’t know. In a DWI case it’s often true that there is only one incriminating witness, but even if there weren’t, the arresting officer makes the arrest decision that leads inexorably (unless the accused pleads guilty) to overtime pay.

    JT, I agree, but when there is a case pending there’s no harm to the accused in giving his lawyer veto power over a press interview.

  7. Sir,it seems DUI is a money maker for most involved(except of course the accused).I’ve been a barber for years(self employed like you) and have noticed an increase in clients who have gotten a DUI in the last 8-10 years.Most have good jobs,families and never been in trouble.Most,not all, were pulled over for a minor mistake and ended up arrested.Only a few were involved in a crash.I’d like to ask you.How many of your clients are a true danger,or cause a wreak and how many were not driving recklessly.

  8. Mark – don’t forget having health insurance. We’ve had to have fund raisers for some family lawyers who didn’t have coverage and came down with catastrophic illnesses.

    I’m lucky in that I have a wife who is a city employee. With my various health issues, there is no way I could be self employed if I were single.

  9. I’ve got news for you: those salaries don’t reflect actual chief pay – it’s much higher. In September ’07, commissioners court approved pay slot equalization for the DA’s office after the DA got a July raise — they bumped the pay slots 14%. Chief’s pay is now 120,000 and division chief pay is 126,000. And, retirement is much more than 7% — the county contributes something like 14% of the employees pay to the retirement system – the employee contribute 7%.

    This 14% bump was not implemented until Jan ’08 – in part because the payroll clerk quit and no one else entered the raises . . . . .so it’s not reflected in the database which only includes 2007- so the sheriff and DA actually make more than what it says and so do their top staff.

    Here’s something else for you: part of what the DA’s office relied on to get the September bumps was the pay of the highest paid court appointed lawyers. The top court-appointed lawyer made around $350,000 for 2007 – and the top 10 or so on the list were all around $200,000 plus or minus $50,000.

    Considering how long you have to work for much much less than $120,00 and all the crap you have to put up with to actually get chief’s pay – it’s not that great of a deal.

    Am i wrong – you never worked at the DA’s office – did you? You have no idea.

  10. Hi, Qeenie. No, I never worked in the Office. $150-200k a year is probably equivalent to chief’s pay, except that these court appointed lawyers have office and administrative expenses. And they’re doing better than the bulk of criminal defense lawyers, private or hired.

    I’d like to know who made $350,000 off the government teat in 2007. If anyone knows, please share. I’m not convinced that it can be ethically done. Anyway, banish the notion that these top 10% of court-appointed lawyers are representative of the private criminal bar generally.

    No, I have no idea about the Office. I didn’t mean to suggest that the DA’s office was a great deal. But I know as much as anyone about building a criminal defense practice in Houston.

    I think the better practice is to start one’s own practice as early as possible, but that reflects my own preferences, and lots of people would probably prefer ten (?) years of crap before making chief (or, in a firm, partner) doing one thing to a lifetime of entrepreneurship doing another.

    The chiefs have made the investment already; they’re not deciding whether to join the Office, but whether to jump ship. I would expect them to want a steely-eyed evaluation of the costs and benefits of private practice.

  11. I know who the highest paid court appointed lawyer is – he made about 365,000 (or maybe 356,00 don’t have it front of me and can’t remember exa0tly) in 2007.
    I think he’s a good lawyer and busts his hump – a know of a few not guiltys from juries in 1st and 2nd degree cases in2007. He’s a good lawyer. So are #2 and #3

    Since you’ve already concluded he couldn’t have done so ethically – I’m not throwing his name out. I’ll tell you #2 and #3 (can’t remeber the order) are Jim Leitner and Skip Cornelius. Think they’re unethical?
    You seem to make a lot of harsh conclusions without really knowing all the facts.

    Are you even on the felony appointment list? And if so, what level?

  12. Qeenie, I pick my words carefully, and I prefer commenters who actually read what I’ve written.

    Jim and Skip are outstanding lawyers. I’m glad they’re making $200k plus; they well deserve it.

  13. OK – if you want to talk pay –>
    I’m redacting the names- but here are the top 25 amounts paid to court-appointed attorneys by Harris County in 2007. Keep in mind – these attorneys may work in other counties and probably generate fees from retained work as well.
    $356,225.00
    $288,015.50
    $280,432.40
    $263,831.93
    $248,686.50
    $230,040.00
    $226,237.50
    $212,477.73
    $212,420.50
    $211,644.25
    $211,355.00
    $200,515.50
    $198,937.77
    $189,434.48
    $186,670.00
    $168,185.00
    $167,569.31
    $167,195.30
    $165,525.00
    $160,790.00
    $156,649.21
    $156,586.52
    $155,010.00
    $154,634.08
    $154,393.39

  14. Hard to say – generally, appointed attorneys in Harris County district courts are paid per day depending on the work done – hearing, trial, etc. You can be paid for 3 cases/appearances per day. There is a rate for out of court hours -$75/hour – but I think the majority of appointed counsel submit vouchers for appearances (the set fee)- out of court hours require more “billing” in that they have to document their time somewhat.

    The more interesting comparison – defense attorney v. prosecutor is in the courts who use contract lawyers – contract lawyers on the first degree list get $2,200 per week.

  15. I’m writing concerning my attorney friend that is currently awaiting sentencing for a 2nd degree felony. Does an individual have any recourse when a court appointed attorney fails to put forth the effort to defend his client’s case? Are the efforts and charges submitted to the county public record? In other words, who’s watching over them to make sure they are doing their job properly? Also, how much weight does a PSI report have at the sentencing hearing or does it depend on the Judge? Is it typical for the Prosecutors to insist that the defendant waive his rights to an appeal as part of the “deal”?

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