Rural county courts are facing a huge increase in criminal cases due to the number of arrests being made under the auspices of Operation Lone Star.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has spent $4 billion on this effort, which he has repeatedly said is needed in response to the record number of apprehensions reported by Customs and Border Protection along the southern border.
KPRC 2 Investigates obtained a database of arrest data from the Texas Department of Public Safety. The data involved 26,222 criminal charges stemming from arrests made under Operation Lone Star from March 2021 through June 2022. Many of those arrested faced multiple charges.
According to the data, 54.4% of the cases were felonies, 40.7% were misdemeanors, and 4.8% were listed as federal charges.
The cases came from arrests in 53 counties. Kinney County, west of San Antonio, saw the most charges, 5,251.
Among the types of charges filed, 9,150 were drug-related and another 6,706 involved smuggling, transporting, or harboring immigrants determined to be in the country illegally.
The data shows 4,268 trespassing charges.
KPRC 2 Investigates has asked DPS to provide a clearer definition of what the department considers a border-related arrest since some of the charges aren’t made near the border and involve misdemeanor amounts of drugs that aren’t tied to larger cases such as evading or smuggling. We have not yet received a response.
A Houston man arrested in August on charges of human smuggling agreed to speak with KPRC 2 under the condition we not reveal his identity.
“I’m a traveling merchandiser,” the man said. “I go store-to-store and restock shelves.”
The man said he was traveling through Kinney County when he encountered four hitchhikers who were asking for a ride to San Antonio.
“There was a woman, and it looked like three teenagers. They weren’t threatening at all and just really couldn’t leave them out there, they looked bad,” the man said.
He agreed to give them a ride, but a short time later was pulled over by an officer.
“I asked the officer if I had done something wrong. He said, ‘You’re under suspicion for smuggling humans,’” he said. “I thought ‘What, how am I smuggling anybody?’ I just picked these people up to give them a ride. I didn’t cross the border with anybody, you know? I wasn’t taking anybody. I wasn’t receiving monetary compensation, you know, anything like that.”
“You know some people are going to hear this and go, ‘right, you picked up hitchhikers,’ said KPRC 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.
“I was raised Catholic, and I think one of the things that always stuck with me was that what you do to the least of my brothers you’re doing me,” said. “I couldn’t leave them, morally.”
Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe is skeptical of hitchhiker claims.
“There’s the rare occasion where yes, they did pick somebody up or they got roped into something but 99% of them. It’s all bogus,” Coe said.
The man said he was initially taken to a temporary jail in Val Verde County before being transferred to Briscoe state prison, which is being used to house those arrested under Operation Lone Star.
He said it took several days to get a full account of the charges against him, post bond and find an attorney. His car was also impounded and he said he was told it may take up to a year before the case goes before a grand jury.
“What are you going to do in that time?” Arnold asked.
“I’m going to see what I can do about work and transportation. I’m really starting over; they’ve taken everything and I’m falling behind on bills,” he said.
Coe said his county is facing massive caseloads.
“Years past we have a big court day we might have five, six, eight people,” Coe said. “We’re going to have a hundred people in the courtroom Friday for arraignments and plea deals, and that’s on a regular basis.”
On Oct 3., state lawmakers heard testimony about the ability of the smaller court systems to handle the influx of these cases.
“What I want to emphasize is that many of these courts are experiencing significant volume in case filings, which has created challenges,” said Megan LaVoie, Administrative Director for the Texas Office of Court Administration.
LaVoie used Kinney County as an example of a jurisdiction seeing a rapid increase in caseloads.
“There were 192 misdemeanor cases filed in Kinney County during the last five years and only 35 in the fiscal year 2020,” LaVoie testified during a House Committee hearing. “Under Operation Lone Star more than 4,100 individuals have been arrested in Kinney County alone.”
LaVoie said determining from each county exactly how many cases were conducted under the umbrella of Operation Lone Star has been difficult since courts aren’t required to report that type of data. OCA has been working to help smaller counties streamline the process of handling these cases.
Lawmakers said they would address providing more help to these counties in the upcoming legislative session.