One of the most frustrating aspects of the local criminal justice system for Defendants is showing up for court setting after court setting when nothing appears to be getting done. This is a reasonable response to an unreasonable system that requires their presence for no reason other than to facilitate guilty pleas.
Local Defendants on bond are required to come to court for a number of settings between arrest or first appearance and any trial or other
final disposition of their case. These may be noted in various ways on their "resets"
- THA (To Hire Attorney)
- ARRG (Arraignment)
- NTRL (Non-Trial)
- NI (Non-Issue)
- DISP (Disposition)
- MOTN (Motion)
- PTRL (Pre-trial Conference)
- MAJ (Motion to Adjudicate Guilt Hearing)
- MRP (Motion to Revoke Probation Hearing)
- PSI (Pre Sentence Investigation)
- PLEA (Plea)
- BTRL (Bench Trial)
- JTRL (Jury Trial)
- J&S (Judgment & Sentencing)
The various fifteen Harris County Criminal Courts at Law and twenty-two Criminal District Courts each have their own preferences, personalities, and schedules, but one thing is true - Defendants are required to be at every pretrial setting unless their appearance is specifically waived. These policies inconvenience Defendants most because the lawyers and judges are typically at the Courthouse everyday.
Unless they are lucky enough to have their case dismissed or enter into a plea agreement, there is usually nothing for the Defendants to do at these settings other than risk having their bail revoked for being late or violating another condition of bond. When this happens, the accused risks being taken back into custody and often quickly enters into a plea agreement they would not otherwise. Court fatigue has the same effect.
Court fatigue is when a Defendant has used all available time off from work and has the choice of cutting a deal or losing a job. Or their frustration and impatience wears them down into accepting a plea agreement they wouldn't otherwise.
All of these things work to the State's advantage. But it need not be this way. Federal court certainly isn't. (The Feds have many other advantages, though).
As in federal court, in many counties an accused only appears at their first and last settings. (Detention, Arraignment, trial or a plea and sentencing). Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 14 has a similar policy. In Dallas, by contrast, an accused on bond need not appear at the non-trial settings if he has counsel. Why? Because there is nothing for the accused to do. Lawyers do not need their clients present to perform discovery or plea bargain. I can discuss plea agreements over the phone, online, and in my office. Similarly, I can perform discovery - and usually do - outside of Court.
And performing discovery is the most time consuming aspect of all litigation.
Many criminal lawyers like to quip that they don't do civil work because they hate discovery. While there may be the perception that there is less discovery and relating fights in criminal law, it's often not true - if you're doing it right.
Discovery Takes Time Because It Doesn't All Happen at Once
As a defense lawyer, I spend more time chasing down discovery materials than anything else. Often, these materials are only available from the District Attorney's Office because even when I subpoena them, the police deliver them to the State of Texas rather than to me.
Once a report or recording makes it into a prosecutors file, it often isn't copied for me until the night before or at the next court date. This is because the prosecutors frequently don't have time to do things until then because their support staffs (secretaries, investigators, etc.) have been cut and there are only three lawyers per court.
I subpoena, request, and obtain court orders for materials from a variety of agencies and sources in many cases that are delivered directly to me at the responding agency's whim. (By the time I can get to Court to raise cain about a compliance date in an order or subpoena, I typically have the stuff). Even then, reviewing it with the client or the prosecutor (if I choose to disclose it pretrial) takes even more time. Sometimes, getting someone who a) knows what they're doing; and b) has the time to look and listen only happens with a jury in the hallway. Other times, I learn things I wish I hadn't.
Either way, it is almost never a good idea to resolve a case prior to learning what the evidence is. Discovery is just as important in a criminal case where reputations and freedom are on the line as it is in a civil case about money - perhaps more so. Meaningful discovery takes time and money - which is part of why not all lawyers are created or compensated equally.
There are approximately a bakers' dozen types of materials that are available and discoverable in many common Texas state criminal prosecutions.
- TCLEOSE on the Officers;
- Criminal Histories on Defendant and Witnesses;
- Employment Records on the Officers;
- Expert / Lab Reports; (DA, Subpoena, Order)
- Departmental / Lab Standard Operating Procedures;
- Incident Reports;
- Audio & Video Recordings;
- Mobile Data Terminal Logs;
- 911 Calls;
- Dispatch Tapes
- Witness Statements;
- Accident Reports;
- Administrative License Revocation Reports;
If that looks like a lot, that's because it is. Knowing what to look for when and knowing what to look for within requires time, expertise, and experience - Which is what I sell.