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Channel 2 investigates personal bonds in felony court

HOUSTON – Law enforcement officials and victim advocates have repeatedly expressed concerns over what they see as low bonds being granted to violent, repeat offenders. One area of particular concern are personal bonds. The Texas Code of Criminal procedure states defendants can be released on personal bonds “without sureties or other security.”

When Channel 2 Investigates downloaded data from the Harris County District Clerk’s website, we analyzed 8,202 felony cases filed from Jan. 1 through April 5. According to the clerk’s data, personal bonds were granted in 2,494 of those cases, or 30.3%.

Victims uneasy

“Caused me to lose a lot of sleep, you know,” Raymond Balcerowicz said.

He owns a barbershop and gun store in Crosby. He will turn 80 years old in August.

“I worked my whole life and then it’s frustrating that somebody come along and just take it from you,” Balcerowicz said.

His gun store was robbed over Thanksgiving and again in January. Court documents read the January robbery turned into a shootout.

Balcerowicz lives next door to the business and said his alarm alerted him to the pre-dawn break-in. He said he walked outside with a gun in hand and issued a warning to the men in his gun store.

“I said, ‘if you come out, I’ll shoot. Stay in there till the police get here,’” Balcerowicz said.

Balcerowicz said what he didn’t notice were more men were waiting outside. He said the robbers opened fire on him. He said he was forced to take cover behind a tree while he returned fire.

“You can see the bullet holes here and kind of wild shooting,” Balcerowicz said.

Bullet holes can still be seen on the store’s walls and outside Balcerowicz’s house. Amazingly, Balcerowicz was only nicked during the shootout. Court documents read one of the suspected robbers was shot and died a short time later in Baytown. Sheriff’s officials said the man was hit by one bullet from Balcerowicz’s gun and one bullet from his cohort’s gun.

Angel Cardenas, 17, was arrested and charged with murder and tampering with evidence. Investigators wrote Cardenas tried to burn some of the weapons taken from Balcerowicz’ store.

When Cardenas was originally booked into the Harris County jail, prosecutors asked for a $200,000 bond.

“This defendant is a threat to society, quite frankly,” a prosecutor said during a probable cause hearing before a magistrate.

Fast forward to March and Cardenas was released from jail on a personal bond. Court documents show he was charged a $1,500 fee on the murder charge and a $300 fee on the tampering with evidence charge. Among other restrictions, court documents read Cardenas is required to be monitored by GPS.

“I probably shouldn’t say what I think but, he need to be stayed locked up,” Balcerowicz said when learning Cardenas had been released.

The Judge who granted the personal bond is DaSean Jones, the same Judge who also granted David Cruz, 29, a personal bond last month. Cruz is accused of murdering Christian Tristan, 27, in August. Like Cardenas, Cruz paid a fee and was placed under GPS monitoring. Tristan’s family was devastated.

“It’s like my son’s life had no value,” said Ruth Tristan.

Victim’s rights advocates also expressed concern.

“So to go from $200 (thousand), to being punted out with chump feed bond. I don’t know how you can justify,” said Houston Crimestoppers’ Andy Kahan.

Kahan has long argued against these type of bonds for violent felonies.

“There is a disaster waiting to happen,” said Kahan.

Judge Jones did speak with KPRC 2. While the law prevents judges from speaking about specific cases, the judge told us “We are bound by the law, we have to follow the constitution. A person is presumed innocent before trial and has a constitutional right to bail. You can’t keep someone locked up just because they can’t afford bail.”

Jones further said the fees charged to these defendants are on par with some of the percentages bondsmen charge for surety bonds.

“If a defendant violates the conditions of release then that person will go back to jail,” said Judge Jones. “It’s not like it is a new thing for a murder suspect to be released on bond.”

Law enforcement expresses concerns

“We don’t support coddling violent criminals,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said during a news conference on Wednesday.

Chiefs of police and high ranking officers from 20 law enforcement agencies in Harris County gathered to express concern over what they saw as low bonds given to violent, repeat offenders.

“There’s a train wreck coming for Harris County if we don’t change what we’re doing here,” said Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman.

Not all cases equal

Kahan said he is not opposed to personal bonds, just in cases of violent crimes and repeat offenders. Kahan called attention to the case of Adan Campuzano.

Court records show Campuzano has a lengthy criminal history dating back to the mid-90s that includes convictions for violent crimes. Last month, Campuzano was charged with being a felon in possession of a weapon and evading arrest.

Prosecutors argued for no bond during a probable cause hearing, “knowing the defendant is a true habitual offender.”

A magistrate pointed out only a district court judge can deny bond after a formal hearing is held. Campuzano was then granted a personal bond, charged $90 in fees on the evading charge, $750 in fees on the weapons charge and released.

“You better go to court, you better not do anything in any way shape or form that can get you arrested again,” the Judge said.

Court records show since Campuzano was released he picked up two new charges -- aggravated assault of a family and another felon in possession of a weapon. Court records indicate he has not yet been arrested on these new charges.

“Yet, we’re continuing to release the same offenders time and time again to do what they do best and that is to continue their criminal career,” said Kahan.

Decisions vary

The judges presiding over felony courts are individually elected individuals and the number of personal bonds granted can vary widely from court-to-court. Below is a breakdown of the personal bonds granted in each court for the felony cases analyzed by KPRC 2.

351st-114 personal bonds

339th-107 personal bonds

338th-76 personal bonds

337th-51 personal bonds

263rd-139 personal bonds

262nd-128 personal bonds

248th-142 personal bonds

232nd-116 personal bonds

230th-98 personal bonds

228th-124 personal bonds

209th-119 personal bonds

208th-113 personal bonds

185th-129 personal bonds

184th-134 personal bonds

183rd-117 personal bonds

182nd-106 personal bonds

180th-141 personal bonds

179th-106 personal bonds

178th-146 personal bonds

177th-90 personal bonds

176th-82 personal bonds

174th-116 personal bonds

Judge Herb Ritchie presides over the 337th district court and is the judge who signed the order blocking Judge Lina Hidalgo’s order to release certain non-violent inmates from the Harris County Jail during the COVID-19 pandemic. Judge Ritchie did not respond to our request for comment.

Judge Kelli Johnson presides over the 178th district court.

“The law of Texas requires each and every case to have bail and bond conditions to be reviewed on an individualized basis. The Texas Constitution requires that bail be set in all cases but for few very particular situations and further those require very particularized findings of fact,” Judge Johnson wrote in a statement to KPRC 2.

“A defendant’s ability to meet the financial burden of making bail is a factor that Texas law mandates be considered in every case and NO person should ever be held in custody merely because they lack the funds to make bail. Personal recognizance bonds and non-monetary conditions are very powerful tools that provide for the constitutional protection of people accused of crime alongside the security of alleged victims and the entire community. Cash bond alone cannot provide that same protection and security. As the judge I review every case in the same way. Justice has to be equal across the board regardless of wealth.”