Criminal felony and misdemeanor charges against nearly 100 people were dismissed on Monday by a jail magistrate because El Paso District Attorney prosecutors had not taken action on their cases.
Another 300 dismissals are expected this week, said El Paso County Public Defender Kelli Childress, whose office sought the dismissals.
“As a society, we’ve come to consider accusation as some level of proof of a crime being committed, and it’s not,” Childress said. “If we on the inside of the system don’t put value behind the presumption of innocence, we certainly can’t expect juries to. For me, I was shocked that it got to this point.”
The motions to dismiss the charges and discharge bail were filed under Article 32.01 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure that requires prosecutors to indict accused people within a certain period of time — typically 180 days after a person’s initial arrest, according to the motion.
The purpose of Article 32.01 is to prevent citizens from being left in jail or on bail for long periods of time without being indicted, according to the motion.
In the cases dismissed on Monday, the District Attorney’s Office had not filed the case with the district clerk or sought a grand jury indictment for well over six months to more than a year, the public defender said.
As of April 20, the DA’s Office had more than 5,300 cases in screening that were waiting for a decision on whether to prosecute, according to information gained from an open records request.
Monday’s dismissed charges ranged from DWIs to assaulting police officers to drug possession. About one in four of the dismissed charges were against people accused of assault family violence.
The dismissals also meant that any protective conditions imposed on someone as part of their bond were removed — which could have immediate implications for alleged victims without protective orders in place.
Assistant District Attorney Adam Chevrier did not object to the motions to dismiss.
Even with the dismissals, “the District Attorney’s Office is still capable of filing charges as the cases are still within the statute of limitations, which can range from 2-10 years for most cases,” El Paso District Attorney Yvonne Rosales said in a written press statement.
“Victim advocate services are still assisting victims while the cases are pending filing,” Rosales’ statement said.
Childress called the pending cases “accusations by arrest.”
Speaking after the morning hearing, she noted: “There’s a lot of people who have bond conditions that they’ve been following all along, waiting to see if they get charged. And those can be really disruptive to people’s lives and families. So the goal right now is just to relieve them of the burdens of the bond conditions while the DA decides.”
When cases are waiting for prosecutors to decide whether to move forward, defense attorneys “are not entitled to discovery,” she added. “We don’t know who the witnesses are … you’re unable to preserve different forms of evidence that we might use at trial. Over time, those things diminish. It makes it really hard to try a case when the arrest happened maybe a year earlier.”
Another 100 dismissal motions are expected to be heard on Tuesday, along with 100 more on Wednesday and 100 on Thursday.
Monday’s hearing started late because the District Attorney’s Office did not initially send a prosecutor to be present at the hearing. A paralegal from the DA’s Office arrived roughly five minutes after the hearing’s scheduled 9 a.m. start time.
“The prosecutors are slammed right now, that’s why they sent me up,” she said.
El Paso Jail Magistrate Humberto Acosta, who presided over the dismissals, told her that a prosecutor had to be present at the hearing.