When the full scope of the Hurricane Harvey tragedy became evident, I was struck by the enormity of the disaster. I wondered how people like me—people in the law business—could survive such a challenge. I wondered how people like me could deal with loss of homes and property, perhaps the loss of loved ones, and the possibility of not being able to practice law for many months.
What are they doing to make a living without a courthouse? What about the tall-building lawyers with lots of employees depending on a paycheck? How are they handling the financial stress? What does the future hold?
How are they juggling the lawyer stress with the personal stress? Does insurance cover the losses? I sent many dispatches asking these questions, but I learned little about how lawyers were coping with post-Harvey Houston. There were no whiners.
Some shared the initial shock of dealing with the crisis, some were grateful for relief efforts, but most who responded were more concerned with the plight of others affected by the storm.
Hurricane Harvey heroes emerged.
—Chuck Lanehart, Lubbock
One House Saved
My neighbor was a young guy, his wife from Venezuela. They had no idea about these storms. By Sunday, his back yard was trapping water and it was less than an inch from his back door. I organized a party with shovels, and we dug a ditch to relieve the pressure. No flooding. Nothing heroic, but there it is. One house saved.
—Joseph Varela, Houston
An Anderson Cooper Encounter
Special thanks to Anderson Cooper for taking the time to talk to and encourage Houstonians to volunteer. He was very kind, and it is very appreciated.
As I am a longtime resident of Houston, this past week has been a roller coaster of emotion. The devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey and the overwhelming flooding has caused human suffering on a level that even in my wildest dreams I never thought I would ever witness, much less experience. To see so many people, friends, and neighbors suffer such devastating grief has left me at a loss for words.
But with such pain, I have also seen the humanity of this great city and country. I remember how proud I was in 2005 to see how this city rallied to provide housing and assistance to our neighbors in New Orleans. It is something in the American spirit, where we step up to help others in need. Twelve years later we are the ones in need, and to see people come to help us is an emotional thing.
That act of kindness brought upon me a surge of emotion. At a time when this country has such deep divisions in so many areas, our true humanity shines in times like these. It’s just too bad that it takes such tragedy for us to all realize that on the base level all of us want the same thing—to live a happy life.
—Yong J. An, Houston
A Message to NACDL
Executive Director NACDL
Dear Mr. Reimer:
I appreciate our phone conversation yesterday and NACDL’s willingness to help our fellow criminal defense lawyers here in Texas. Many of our brothers and sisters have suffered devastating losses in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. With their offices and homes damaged or destroyed, they are struggling to regain their ability to defend the citizen accused.
In the face of such adversity, the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association is committed to assist our members and other fellow criminal defense lawyers. At TCDLA, we have set up a page on our website to receive donations to help us in this worthy endeavor. Your members who wish to assist may do so at the following link: https://www.tcdla.com/harvey.
TCDLA has a long, cherished history with NACDL with several of TCDLA’s past presidents having served in the same capacity with NACDL. We have many lawyers who, like me, are members of both organizations. Please join us in our commitment to those who have suffered such loss by donating to the TCDLA Hurricane Harvey Lawyers Assistance Fund. We appreciate so much all assistance from NACDL and its members.
—David Moore, TCDLA President
Making a Difference in a War Zone
This is a heartfelt shout-out to the greatest warriors imaginable. These folks showed up at our wrecked house, which had been in water for ten days, and got busy with sledgehammers, wheelbarrows, shovels, dollies, hammers, chisels, etc. You all worked so hard and made such a difference in the middle of the war zone that was once our community:
|Thuy Le (the organizer)||Nick Hughes|
|Andrea Ionescu||Shirley Cornelius|
|Damon Parrish II||Cynthia Henley|
|Hilary Unger||Tyler Flood|
|Gordon & Kay Dees||Windi Pastorini|
And thanks also go to Jordan Lewis, who made us dinners to eat later (delicious).
Thank you so much for all that you did.
—Judy and Ken Mingledorff, Houston
How to Be an Effective Volunteer
Hurricane Harvey dumped nearly a trillion gallons of water and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage to Houston, Beaumont, and other cities. Usually, when a natural disaster strikes, people jump into action donating supplies, money, and time. This was evident in the thousands of stories and images of people getting into their personal boats to rescue neighbors, the millions of dollars donated to relief organizations, and the hundreds of volunteers who showed up to emergency shelters to help.
However, for the people affected by the hurricane, the rebuilding of their homes, businesses, and lives is a fight that will take months—if not years—to complete. It’s important for us to remember not to forget those affected by Harvey, especially weeks from now when the news trucks have gone, the fundraising campaigns have stopped, and people have stopped coming by to volunteer. The following are ways all of us can continue to help our colleagues.
5. Donate to a Local Nonprofit Organization. So often, local charities get overlooked for the more glamorous and well-known national charities when disaster strikes. However, local nonprofits are usually the first ones on the ground helping residents. Consider donating to local organizations like TCDLA’s Hurricane Harvey Lawyers Assistance Fund. Money raised from that fund goes directly to assist lawyers displaced by the hurricane. Local nonprofits are often more aware of the immediate needs of their community. This helps them figure out the best way to allocate the funds to help those in need.
4. Donate Your Time. I often hear lawyers tell me they don’t have time to volunteer because they’re busy running a business, they have kids, or they’re traveling to teach a CLE. But donating your time doesn’t mean you must spend a whole weekend as a volunteer. Many organizations will take people who can come in for an hour or two every week. There is an organization out there that needs your help whether you want to help with animals, children, or answering the phones.
3. Make Your Own List. If the local nonprofit organizations do not excite you, or if you have a special talent, offer your services. After the hurricane, I recruited groups of volunteers to help their fellow attorneys by making home-cooked meals for those living in hotels, calling the courts to reset cases for the affected attorneys, and going to people’s homes and helping them remove damaged property. Some lawyers couldn’t physically help with the renovations, but they were able to buy supplies, which helped us help others. We sometimes forget that other than being awesome lawyers, many of us have talents in other fields. Use that talent to help others.
Proposing your own way to help always takes the burden off the people affected, because it’s one less decision they must think about. They’ve been evacuated from their home. They’ve had to figure out how they’re going to eat, where they will sleep, and what forms they must fill out. Asking them what they want you to do might be overwhelming for many. Instead, go into every situation with a plan, explain your plan to those affected, and then get to work!
A week after the hurricane, I was following up with one of the people whose home we helped to clear. I was talking to this person and I was told he felt like everyone had moved on and he was just stuck “wallowing.” He described how he was at a restaurant and the people next to him were talking about their weekend plans and what the work week was like. The people affected by the hurricane were still drying out their home and weren’t even sure if they could go back to work soon. What happened with Hurricane Harvey is very much like the grief felt by someone who has experienced the death of a close friend or relative. They are in mourning. And sometimes when you’re in mourning, it feels like the whole world has moved on and you’re just stuck.
Don’t let people feel like they’re stuck! You can help your fellow lawyer with a simple text or email. Or phone call. Or even PM on Facebook. Don’t ask permission. Just do it. It takes seconds to remind the people who have lost so much that you haven’t forgotten about them and that you still care. Don’t be afraid to bother them. In our lowest moments, I don’t think any one of us have ever thought, “Wow, I wish people would stop thinking of me and loving on me.”
2. Take Care of Yourself. It’s wonderful to help your fellow attorneys. But it’s too steep a price to pay if it’s at the expense of your physical or mental health. If you’re going to be clearing out houses that have been sitting in raw sewage for days, you need to make sure you’re wearing proper clothing and have the right gloves and facemasks. You also need to make sure you have your tetanus shot. HEB is giving out free tetanus shots to anyone in the areas affected by Harvey. I often had to yell—yes, yell—at attorneys who were clearing waterlogged homes without the proper respirator masks or gloves. The equipment is there so you don’t hurt yourself. Use it.
1. Know your limitations. An attorney volunteer I know ended up developing respiratory problems because he didn’t take the proper precautions. There’s nothing wrong with saying that you can’t help or that you’re taking time for yourself. If you just want to sit in your underwear and watch Netflix all weekend because you’re mentally or physically exhausted, do it. There is no shame in taking care of yourself to recharge. What good are you to anyone else if you’re too sick to help? No one is going to give you gold stickers for unnecessarily endangering your life because you wanted to help.
—Thuy Le, Houston
“Our House Is About to Take on Water!”
In 2005, I watched television images of Hurricane Katrina flood victims in New Orleans. All I could say to my husband Brian was that we would leave in a heartbeat if one headed our way.
So, as Hurricane Rita came a few weeks later, we packed our toddlers with our bags and our dogs and sat for hours in our car, mapping routes. We endured ten hours from Houston to Dallas. Rita never hit Houston, causing more damage and suffering to those who tried to evacuate. Thus, Houstonians have learned to “hunker down” and ride out the storms here at home, as so many times these things change course or can be managed better from our homes.
On August 26, 2017, my toddlers, now teenagers, had friends over that Saturday night, despite the onslaught of pouring rain outside. It was forecast as a huge “rain event” that we would suffer through for five days. We had enough food and water, and we were prepared for possible power outages.
Our home was built high enough that it had not previously flooded. With the preparations we made, we felt secure. We enjoyed the company of friends, allowing two of our children’s friends to sleep over, since some of the streets had become impassable that evening.
Early Sunday morning, Brian shook me awake. “Our house is about to take on water!”
I ran downstairs, screaming for the five teenagers to wake up. We began scrambling around looking for irreplaceable items like photo albums and family treasures that could be taken to higher locations.
Our garage was flooded, trapping all the extra food and ice stored in the outside refrigerator. We watched as water began to enter our home from every doorway. My daughter cried as the boys tried to mop the flood water with towels.
I grabbed food from the pantry and refrigerator and told the kids to bring it all upstairs as fast as possible. We salvaged anything that did not need refrigeration: peanut butter, jelly, bagels, crackers, chips, apples. We assumed the power was about to go out and we would be up there for a while.
We settled upstairs—five teenagers, two dogs, Brian, and me. We took a long look at each other, and I shook my head with disbelief. We watched TV news accounts of incredible rescues of neighbors trapped in one-story homes. The kids played video games, and the dogs enjoyed feeling the warmth of a close-knit 1,000 square feet of space.
We called our family and checked on our neighbors. It was 8:00 o’clock Sunday morning, and we began to evaluate where to focus our energy.
Our greatest fears had come true. We were stuck upstairs with water inching up the staircase. The kids called out as each step became covered with water. We questioned our decision to stay.
As the day wore on, the news reports of heavy rain continuing were daunting and frightening. Reading our friends’ accounts of near drownings in their homes and the rescues taking place on nearby streets, hearing helicopters and car alarms, then eerie silence—these things added to our discomfort.
Our family in Dallas begged us to call for rescue boats. But we had power, food, and shelter, with probably at least another 12 feet of dry space before our lives would be in danger. I felt it was selfish to take the rescue resources from others who were in far worse shape. Nevertheless, at one point I called for help, but no one answered. Now I am happy they didn’t answer, because I would be embarrassed if we had been evacuated from our dry upstairs.
I was fearful of the unknown forecast. The seven of us were tired, grouchy, and sick of eating PB&J sandwiches and getting a little frustrated at the thought of waking to another day of the same routine. We tried to reassure our children that the water would recede the next day, but they could sense our insecurity.
I created a group text with neighbors on our block who were all in the same unfortunate situation—all upstairs with kids, little food, scared and wanting to leave, but unsure what to do next. We promised to keep in touch and stick together, which made us feel more communal and less alone on an island.
When we retired for the night, three feet of disgusting black sewage-tainted water had flooded our beautiful home. When we awoke, miraculously, the water had receded. We have no idea how or why, because the rain was still falling and continued all day. We never lost power, but the street flooding began to go down and the water inside our house began to drain.
Friends appeared, and we began the process of clearing out our damaged property. The biggest mess was a burst 40-pound bag of dog food mixed with a tub of hundreds of my business cards, floating all over the house. What a smelly, funny sight!
We began bagging all the trash and taking photos to document the damage. We needed to find a rental home to live in during the next few months, so we began delegating tasks such as these to friends who had the experience in these fields.
We feel so blessed to be surrounded by such an incredible community of friends who rushed to our side, eager to help us those first days, which gave us so much hope that we would survive this disaster.
All our vehicles were dead, so we were not able to drive anywhere. However, we were all safe and together—and that was the most important outcome.
I had that “flutter” in my tummy where I truly was worried that I may find myself standing on the roof of my house waiting to be rescued at some point, life in danger. After feeling that flutter, none of the physical property damage we sustained really mattered. I faced that fear head on, and I cannot explain how awful it was to have that in my gut, especially knowing my children and two other children depended on my decisions.
The Harris County Criminal Courthouse has flooded, and we have been told it will be a year before it is back up and running. We are waiting for an update on where we will have court, but we have all been suffering in our everyday practice since the storm.
My husband is the rabbi of a large Houston synagogue that flooded, so we are in limbo there as well. Many people are suffering in both their jobs and their homes. Everyone has learned their own lessons from this experience and will come away from it changed in their own way. I personally will value my possessions less and my people more.
—Lisa Shapiro Strauss, Houston
Law Office Transformed
Looney & Conrad, PC, a Waller County criminal defense law firm, turned their office into a drop-off/collection site for donations (baby/kid clothes, diapers, baby formula, water, blankets, pillows, toiletries).
As soon as the roads were passable, they loaded up trucks with trailers and delivered supplies to Harvey victims in coastal cities that got hit the hardest (Rockport and Port Lavaca, Texas).
After handing out supplies, they helped flood victims clean out their damaged homes as well.
—Christina Appelt, HCCLA Executive Director
Hurricane Harvey Diary
Friday, August 25—Harvey is almost here. I live on the ninth floor of a high-rise apartment building. My 87-year-old mother is safe but nervous, so I bring her to stay with me during the storm. My friend Christina lives in an area that may flood. She comes over as well. Mom gets my bed, Christina gets the couch, and I get the floor. This is not as much fun as I thought it would be.
The three of us sit together in my den tonight watching it rain. The rain does not stop.
It seems it will never stop.
Tornadoes are dropping from the sky. If a tornado comes, we plan to move to the common hall and then to the stairwell. Our three phones go off simultaneously, issuing flood and tornado alerts. As the relentless warnings continue, the sky outside grows very dark, and I see the winds picking up.
I think I hear a tornado! I shout for Mom and Christina to get up. They get up as I study the sky, but no tornado materializes. A false alarm. We are all on edge.
For two days, we watch our city take a pounding. We watch in relative comfort as others suffer.
The rain continues.
I feel I must do something.
Sunday August 27—I put on my raincoat and walk down to 59th and Wesleyan. Remarkably, the streets are not flooded but I do see stranded cars. The freeway is all but empty. On the northbound side, I see almost no traffic. On the southbound side, I see lonely vehicles traveling in opposite directions.
Monday Aug 28—I decide to go to the George R. Brown Convention Center to volunteer. I am lucky to get there. Inside, there are people everywhere. I volunteer with the Red Cross, and I end up in one of many kitchens in the basement. People are preparing meals for the evacuees in giant vats. They need someone to mop the floor. For the next three hours, I mop the kitchen from one end to the other.
I am done mopping, and I walk out of the Convention Center. I see police vehicles and a truck with a boat. A big fellow is lifting evacuees from his truck. One evacuee is a paraplegic. I am struck by how gentle the big fellow is to this stranger he has just rescued. Suddenly my mopping doesn’t seem enough.
I approach and talk to the big fellow. He is from Louisiana. He is working with other volunteers and a couple of deputy constables. They are going back out. I ask if I can go back out with them. I tell him I won’t get in the way and I will help. He agrees I can go along.
We are a group of first responders and volunteers in vehicles with some boats. Headed north, I am riding in the lead vehicle with a deputy constable. He leads the way and a half dozen vehicles and boats follow. The constable, a Vietnam veteran, has been working 16-hour days. He is focused. There is no small talk.
We follow back roads to the worst area in Kashmere Gardens. Some of the boats deploy, and we park on the highest point. We are now alone: the deputy, a firefighter cadet, a guy from the neighborhood, and me. The others have gone in other directions.
The deputy gives me a yellow vest to signify I am part of his rescue group. We are to walk down the streets and look for anyone in need of help. We begin to wade through the water, waist deep and deeper.
Rain continues to fall. I am soaked.
On our left is a house high off the ground. Through the rain, we see several young men waving at us from the porch.
Inside the house we find a very sick older woman. She is lying down and is wrapped in blankets. She has a feeding tube. She needs to be evacuated. The deputy calls for an ambulance and for a nearby boat. We discuss how to get the women to the ambulance. We are a block away from 610 North.
The street is flooded and the rain won’t let up.
We will have to carry the woman in a gurney down the stairs and put her in a boat. The boat will take the woman down the street to the ambulance.
Carefully, we carry the woman down the steps and lay her in a boat, which slowly motors down the street. At the end of the street across a marsh is 610. We can see the ambulance on 610. We follow the boat down the street to the marsh. There the woman is carried across the muddy marsh to the ambulance.
Six or seven of us lift the gurney with the woman strapped in. I gently put the blanket partially over her face to protect her feeding tube from the rain while allowing her to breath.
The woman is put in the ambulance, and there is a sense of joy among the ten or twelve of us who are involved in her rescue. We are very grateful that the ambulance made it. Very soon after the woman is loaded, they are gone.
The rain pounds us.
We see a young man struggling to help his mother wade down the street to 610. The young man looks worn out. We relieve him and help his mother wade down the street. She is distraught in the rain and in a panic over the high water. We reassure her that all will be okay. Her son walks near us. I try to cheer her up. I tell her she should be very proud of her son for taking such good care of her. He says he would never leave his mother, and she says he is the best son.
At the end of the street we find a military-style truck that is picking up evacuees. A ladder is being used to get people into the back of the truck. We help the woman up the ladder. Her son follows. I am very happy when they are safely in the back of the truck.
It is still raining.
Many of the younger volunteers drift away. I ask the deputy constable “What’s next?” He says we are to keep looking for people who need help. “You don’t quit in the middle of the mission.”
A man from the next block appears. He tells us there are elderly people on the next block who need help. A small group of us cross the marsh and head to the next block.
On the next block in a weeded area, I see a lean-to made from a large piece of blue plastic. Under the plastic, the deputy finds a homeless woman who has ridden out the storm. The deputy gently cajoles her, and she reluctantly comes out. She is very thin and in desperate need of medical care. Her hands shake. She is almost incoherent. We try to calm her. She does not want to leave her dog and two puppies. A small group of us walk her up to 610. One of the HPD officers takes the puppies.
Now more police vehicles arrive on 610. A police officer agrees to take her to the Convention Center, where her diabetes can be treated. We promise her that her dogs will be brought there as well. The officer cannot take the dogs. A young man from the neighborhood has a truck. He volunteers to deliver the dog and puppies to her at the Convention Center. She and her dogs depart.
It continues to rain, and the image of this poor woman remains stuck in my head.
We return to the street and go door-to-door to tell folks we are here to get them out. There is great relief on their faces. One woman is afraid we are leaving them. I promise we will be right back. The street is flooded and is not safe. But the water may be too shallow for a boat. We backtrack and find the large military-style truck. The truck pulls into the middle of the block. Our group helps elderly citizens make it to the truck from almost every house. They each climb the ladder and seem greatly relieved once on the truck.
It is starting to get dark. I think we helped evacuate 15 people and three dogs today. It has rained the entire time, and now it is raining heavier. The other officers convince the deputy that with the new rain and without night lights we can do no more. We make our way back to 610.
I shake hands and part company with the deputy. We make our way to the staging area and catch a ride back to the Convention Center. I climb a ladder to get on the truck, but the ladder slides off and falls. I take a dive.
The officers rush to check on me. I quickly stand up and say, “I’m a defense lawyer, I’m used to getting knocked down.” Most of the officers laugh.
—Robert Fickman, Houston
The Most Damaged Harris County Government Building
The 20-story criminal justice center, which serves Texas’ largest county by population, has suffered several million dollars of damage for the second time in its history, Harris County’s engineer said.
The Harris County Criminal Justice Center, at 1201 Franklin St., is the most damaged government structure in the county after Tropical Storm Harvey dropped more than four feet of rain over the Houston area, County Engineer John Blount said. The building also received about $19 million in damage after Tropical Storm Allison struck Houston in 2001.
The structure will be shuttered for about eight months, Blount said.
“There’s damage on every floor, some of it significant,” he said.
Flood wall inserts, a measure created after Allison, prevented water from entering the building directly through doors, Blount said. But Harvey’s water built pressure along the sides of the building, soaked its way through the bricks and flooded the basement.
Then, the flood water disrupted the electrical controls and fooled the building into injecting super-chilled water through the building’s water lines, Blount said. That broke the lines, causing water damage throughout the building.
Mold hasn’t been detected in the building, Blount said.
Regular dockets are tentatively expected to resume on Sept. 11 as various courts are moved to other buildings. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a Sept. 5 press conference that her agency is relocating from the center to another building. She didn’t say where the new location will be.
In addition, contingency plans have been enacted throughout the Harris County government system to make sure government services are being deployed, Blount said.
“The vast majority (of Harris County) buildings are operational,” Blount said. “The (affected buildings) were all above the 100-year floodplains. This was a historic flood.”
The $95 million center first opened in 2000. Damage after Allison in June 2001 forced the building to close until about April 2002.
—Jack Witthaus, Houston Business Journal
The People vs. Hurricane Harvey
The case of The People vs. Hurricane Harvey was called to order in Houston, Texas on August 25, 2017. The initial predictions described Harvey as a tropical storm, but he beefed up as he traveled through the Gulf. A few days later, Harvey came out swinging and landed a hard Cat-4 hurricane blow on Rockport, Texas. The People of Houston were told to prepare for worst part of any Hurricane—being stuck on the dirty side. No one expected how truly dirty Hurricane Harvey would be. After days of rain, flooding, and devastation, the people of Houston and surrounding areas were ready to fight back. Hence, the facts of The People vs. Hurricane Harvey are as follows:
Hurricane Harvey made a strong opening statement by producing an estimated 9 trillion gallons of water in a 36-hour period in the Houston area. After his opening statement, Harvey put on multiple witnesses to bolster his case. The biggest points made by Harvey were in the areas of property losses, monetary damage, displacement, disruption to the justice system, and death. During closing, Harvey reminded the jury that he was responsible for $30 billion in property damage, including almost 1 billion dollars in automobile losses alone. He flooded 50 counties total, killing 82 people, destroying almost 40,000 homes, and forcing 30,000 people into shelters.
Although Harvey’s case seemed to be a slam dunk, the People of Houston immediately fought back towards the overpowering oppressive hurricane. The People argued in opening that despite Harvey’s attempt to destroy the City and displace the People, Houstonians pulled together to overcome Harvey’s devastation. The People pulled out their boats and rescued their neighbors from flooding homes. The People provided each other with food and shelter. The People opened their arms to everyone in need to provide love, comfort and support. The city leaders made sure that all resources were made available to the People. The George R. Brown Convention center, NRG stadium, and several other shelters were opened to house the People as the recovery process began. The entire city came together for the greater good. When Harvey hit hard we were Houston Strong.
The courthouse, our usual battleground, was closed, but it was now time for defense attorneys, the People, to take on Harvey. Harvey’s attempts to displace the defense bar from office space fell flat when lawyers like Chris Tritico, Paul Tu, Norm Silverman, and so many others opened their office spaces to anyone that needed space. In cross-examination, The People pointed out that Thuy Le had a crew of 40 lawyers that assisted in repair crews all over the city, doing clean up, tear down, build up, and even meal prep. The People even called in a few experts. Robert Fickman, a defense favorite and leader of the F troop, was the People’s first expert, and he testified about his work out on the ground saving lives and doing rescues. The People also called expert David Ryan, a volunteer firefighter who refused to sleep and worked several days non-stop doing rescues for the People. In closing, the People showed that the spirit of Houston was stronger than Hurricane Harvey, or any hurricane, could ever hope to be.
Hurricane Harvey has changed Houston, the people, the defense bar and currently the criminal justice system as we know it. Despite Harvey taking away our home we have not allowed Harvey to take away our heart or our fight. We will adjust and we will help each other get through. TCDLA and TCDLEI, have a committee for Harvey Relief, chaired by Danny Easterling to assist anyone in need. In the case of The People vs. Hurricane Harvey, the victory goes to the People.
—Monique Sparks, Houston
Notes Amid the Chaos
The Harris County Criminal Justice Center is like a pile of decaying dead animals. Opossums had been living in the walls, and now their little bodies litter the sidewalks. The sewage backed up to the sixth floor, and the stench is terrible. People wear masks and protective clothing to get inside.
The courts have been relocated to other buildings. People are carrying boxes away. Watching from a drone view, it looks like a huge West Texas red ant pile.
The courthouse is like my home and has been since 1974. It is sad to see my home in chaos. I see many people that I have seen every day since 1974 in turmoil and confusion.
There are morning dockets, afternoon dockets, and talk of evening and Saturday dockets. The courts are not bringing prisoners to court. I will try to resolve my cases in person with prosecutors—or by phone, email, or text. Many are working from their homes.
The investigators who work for the district attorney are not investigating. They are carrying boxes from one building to the other. The police are still busy with rescue and finding looters. There have been many looters. Looters go from street to street in groups on both sides of the street breaking into houses and cars while the driver slowly drives down the street. Almost every citizen has a gun, and the rest want a gun to protect themselves.
We have friends in shelters and clients and lawyers homeless. Our offices have been shut down. The town is still mild chaos. Bodies are being found in flooded areas. All of us are trying to salvage our businesses since the courthouse is flooded. We are doing the best we can, but we need a little more time.
Yes, it was a great storm, but we have faith in our Creator. I was trapped in Abilene for a week in a snow/sleet storm, but this hurricane was way beyond that event.
—Robert Pelton, Houston
The newly formed Galveston County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association gathered a team of volunteers to help their colleagues in Dickinson, where many neighborhoods flooded.
Susan Criss led the efforts. She is a former Galveston judge turned defense lawyer.
—Christina Appelt, HCCLA Executive Director
“I’m a Lawyer: I Rescue People in Trouble”
[BBC Reporter] Laura Trevelyan: And what made you decide to get in your boat and help?
Robert Fickman: I’m a lawyer, so I guess I rescue people when they’re in trouble, I guess one could argue. I’m just a citizen here in Houston.
. . .
This is our city and we’re very proud of our city and there’s been a lot of ugliness. It’s our city and it’s our duty to help people in our city.
. . .
It’s a flotilla of volunteers. Now, no one’s shooting at us so you don’t have the heroics of Dunkirk, but it is a flotilla of volunteers. We’re inspired by our friends from Great Britain.
—excerpt from BBC interview
TCDLA Harvey Relief Fund
Many of our brothers and sisters up and down the coast have suffered devastating losses in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. With their offices and homes damaged or destroyed, they are struggling to regain some semblance of normalcy and their capacity to continue to defend the citizen accused.
At TCDLA, we formed a committee to explore how we can best assist our members and other fellow criminal defense lawyers in their time of need. The Hurricane Harvey Lawyers Relief Fund Committee, chaired by Danny Easterling, is comprised primarily of members from the Harvey-affected area. Our local affiliates from the region are represented on the committee by their presidents. In short order, we have come up with a variety of excellent suggestions as to how TCDLA can help alleviate some of the burdens that this historic storm has placed on our fellow criminal law practitioners.
In an effort to immediately implement a portion of those plans, last Friday we established a page on the TCDLA website to receive donations to help us in this worthy endeavor. These are two ways that you can give.
First, you may make cash donations. Those donations will be used for legal education through scholarships and to replace lost legal publications and educational materials.
Secondly, we are collecting donated gift cards, which will be distributed through our TCDLA affiliates in the affected areas to our brothers and sisters identified as having been impacted by Harvey. Those gift cards are intended to assist those affected to meet their immediate needs in getting their practices back up and going.
You may access the donation page by clicking on this link: https://www.tcdla.com/harvey. Please visit the page for more details about the donation options. Also, if you need assistance, or if you know a colleague who does, please contact Danny Easterling at , another committee member, or contact the TCDLA home office.
TCDLA stands firmly committed to help our fellow members in their time of need. Please join us in that commitment by donating today.
—David Moore, TCDLA President
Heroes of Harvey
Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on our city. Some 30,000 citizens suddenly became homeless, thousands more suffered severe flood damage to their vehicles, homes, and offices.
The technical snag, being raised by defense attorneys across Houston, means 56 people who are in jail suspected of felonies, including armed robberies and causing drunk driving wrecks, could be released on personal recognizance bonds because they were not indicted, or formally charged, by a grand jury within the 90-day window required by law.
“This is not a procedural nicety,” said Troy McKinney, a past-president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. “This is substantive. People who do not have other holds are being held unlawfully, and they need to be given PR bonds or a bond they can make.”
Prosecutors at the district attorney’s office are trying to keep these accused criminals behind bars. They will be filing motions arguing to trial judges to extend the deadlines because Texas was under a state of emergency during the flood. The record storm closed the county’s courthouses, canceling court proceedings since Aug. 28. Grand juries, which typically meet twice a week, have not been able to convene. “The bottom line is that I don’t believe that anyone is getting out of jail because of the delay caused by the hurricane,” said David Mitcham, the chief over the DA’s trial bureau. “We believe this is an issue that we are going to be able to resolve without any exposure of the public to any danger.”
He is basing his argument on an order issued Aug. 28 by the Court of Criminal Appeals saying, “All courts in Texas should consider disaster-related delays as good cause for modifying or suspending all deadlines and procedures—whether prescribed by statute, rule, or order—in any case, civil or criminal.”
If an attorney pursues the issue, they will have to go before a judge and request their client be released because their client has not been indicted.
If that happens, the district attorney’s office will argue that the high court’s order inoculates them against missing the deadline.
“The reason the deadline wasn’t met was because it couldn’t be met,” Mitcham said. “We were in an impossible situation, there were no grand juries, there was no court.”
HCCLA lawyers said they want the law followed as it is written.
McKinney, one of Houston’s most respected criminal law scholars, said Mitcham was making “a creative argument but one that has no legal basis in reality.”
“Neither the Texas Supreme Court nor the Court of Criminal Appeals have blanket authority to override the Constitution or state statute, no matter how much they want to,” he said.
He said the Texas Constitution limits the government’s ability to hold people in custody without cause, and state laws have been written with that in mind.
“The statute is there for a reason,” he said. “It is there to ensure that people are not held excess periods of time without cause, and if the state hasn’t indicted somebody in 90 days—the law has been clear for decades—that they are entitled to a PR bond.”
A personal recognizance bond, which is sometimes called a free bond because no money changes hands, allows people to get out of jail with just the promise to return for court. They may sign documents making them responsible for a money bond if they don’t make their court appearance, but no money is required to get out. It is generally reserved for low-level non-violent offenders with no criminal history.
The issue is expected to linger until next week when Harris County courts re-open on Monday. Since the criminal courthouse will be closed for the next 6 to 9 months, the county’s 22 felony courts will be re-open in courtrooms in the civil courthouse at 201 Caroline. Grand juries began convening Thursday in Houston’s historic 1910 Courthouse.
After judges are back in courtrooms, defense lawyers will be able to get to court to argue that their clients should be released on personal recognizance bonds. Some are expected to argue that even if their clients were indicted after the 90-day window, it does not matter.
They are also expected to argue that the district attorney’s motion to suspend deadlines is unconstitutional.
“There are procedural rights, and there are fundamental rights,” said Tucker Graves, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. “The fundamental rights include the 4th, 5th, and 6th Amendments and that’s what this falls under.”
Graves said individual lawyers in HCCLA are trying to determine the best course of action for their clients. He said lawyers will be in contact with specific prosecutors to work on the issue in light of the havoc wrecked by the storm.
“We want to digest this and talk among our members because we understand we are in a unique set of circumstances,” he said. “And we are trying to work hand-in-hand with the district attorney’s office to help everyone in this time of crisis.”
Members of the defense bar were also circulating a list of almost 100 possible suspects who appeared to have missed the deadline.
The district attorney’s office drafted a motion late Wednesday with a preliminary list of 96 defendants, but that number fell Thursday as officials reviewed the files and determined that 56 people may be affected. The others are either being held because they were lawfully indicted on other charges or were not in custody for 90 days before the storm began, according to a breakdown provided to the Houston Chronicle.
Two of the suspects on the longer list are Philip Battles, 18, Ferrell Dardar, 18. The two teens with 17-year-old Marco Alton Miller are accused of a crime spree last year that included several armed robberies and two capital murders allegedly committed while two of them were out on bail for other crimes. Since they have other cases that have been lawfully indicted, they will not be eligible for release.
—Brian Rogers, Houston Chronicle