In March, 2021, Governor Greg Abbott announced Operation Lone Star, (OLS) a law enforcement initiative aimed at arresting single males for Class B criminal trespass upon their entry upon private property along the Texas-Mexico Border. At the same time, he declared 42 counties as disaster areas. The Department of Public Safety was charged with sending between 500 and 1000 State Troopers to the border to enforce state trespass laws at a cost of approximately 2.5 million dollars per week. The DPS executed memoranda of understanding with private landowners along the border so they could enter the property and arrest anyone they saw on the property without permission. Initial arrest rates were projected at 200 arrests per day. According to Governor Abbott, from the outset, the purpose of the initiative was to stem the tide of dangerous human and drug traffickers crossing the border. See: CNN’s @RosaFlores reports https://t.co/UPtF19o9NZ.
Enter the Lubbock Private Defender Office
In July, 2021, the Texas Indigent Defense Commission approached the Lubbock Private Defender Office (LPDO) to act as the central hub for providing defense services to those arrested under OLS. LPDO agreed and virtually overnight became the central authority to receive requests for attorneys and assign those cases to attorneys. Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) took over 560 of the first round of cases. Private counsel and other private defender organizations were recruited to handle the remainder of the cases flowing in. Thankfully, the projected 200 arrests per day has yet to be realized, but currently, over 1,500 cases have flowed through LPDO to various defender organizations and private counsel. Thirty-Seven (2.4%) have been felonies with the majority of those being American citizens, not foreign nationals.
While the majority of clients have been Mexican Citizens, we have seen clients from Venezuela, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Columbia, Cuba, and various other countries of origin.
In order to implement these measures, the Texas Supreme Court issued an Emergency Order suspending various provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure to allow for LPDO to act as the appointing and payment authority for OLS cases. The Court modified 26.04 to allow TIDC to approve procedures that differ from the Indigent Defense Plans of the various counties involved and authorize alternative methods of appointing counsel. It also allows, contrary to 26.04, for appointment of any counsel from any county in Texas to represent an OLS client on a felony charge. In short, TIDC tapped LPDO to provide indigent defense services for all OLS cases and is fully funding that effort.
A special process has been established to handle the magistration and processing of all OLS cases. Once arrested, all OLS arrestees are taken to “The Tent” in Del Rio where they are magistrated remotely by retired judges recruited by the Office of Court Administration. Once magistrated, LPDO receives a referral for appointment of counsel, and the arrestee is transferred to the Briscoe Unit of TDCJ in Dilley Texas or the Segovia Unit in deep South Texas to be held in one of these repurposed prisons until disposition of their case.
The prison units are having to be air conditioned and up-staffed to meet jail standards and accommodations for Zoom conferences and Zoom hearings are being increased to handle the additional requests for attorney-client meetings as most of the attorneys involved are dozens if not hundreds of miles from the unit. LPDO has had to contract with interpreters to handle interpretative duties, as most of the attorneys recruited do not speak Spanish, the primary language of those arrested.
For those attorneys not a part of an organization, LPDO has contracted with investigators to assist in the necessary investigations in some cases. Also, TIDC has increased funding for myPadilla to offer immigration consults on all cases under the OLS umbrella.
Most of the cases have been from Val Verde and Kinney Counties, overwhelming the capabilities of local clerks, judges and prosecutors. Most of the cases, over 97%, have been misdemeanors, and most of those have been criminal trespass. With the involved counties being declared a “disaster area,” the cases are all enhanced to class A punishments. (Interestingly, Throckmorton County, north of Abilene is counted as one of the 42 Counties in the Disaster Declaration.)
Because of the overwhelming numbers, TRLA and other defenders have been successful in securing the release of hundreds of clients under Article 17.151 of the CCP. The prosecuting authority has been unable to meet the 15 and 30 day deadlines of 17.151 for filing cases.
I have told the media that, like Pearl Harbor, this initiative came as a complete surprise to us. The difference in 1941 and now is, it was as much a surprise to the other side as it was to us. Fortunately, we have been able to build capacity quickly to stem the tide of casualties. Between TRLA, Restoring Justice out of Houston, and the many private counsel and small firms who have stepped up to assist, we have been able to assign counsel in a reasonable time in nearly all cases.
Going forward, we are contracting with at least one additional public defender office. A recently signed contract will bring a team of 19 lawyers, social workers, investigators, and paralegals to San Antonio to work exclusively on OLS cases. Salaries will be competitive, and they will be looking for courtroom-ready, Texas-licensed lawyers to fill those slots. You can send your resume to me if interested in applying. I will forward it to that office.
Additionally, we are looking for a resource attorney to help oversee and serve the attorneys working OLS cases. The application and job description for that position can be found at www.LPDO.org.
We are passionate about ensuring every individual arrested under the OLS umbrella has access to quality counsel who will aggressively represent them in these charges. If you want to be one of those lawyers, please let us know.