Harris County public defenders raise concerns about processing of mass arrestees by HPD during protests

HOUSTON – The Harris County Public Defender’s Office is sounding the alarm about how the Houston Police Department is processing the hundreds of people arrested since Friday during protests against police brutality, possibly in violation of their Constitutional rights.

In a letter obtained by KPRC 2 that was sent to several officials in the law enforcement and justice community, Sarah Wood, policy director for the public defender’s office (PDO) wrote,

“It has come to my attention that HPD may be holding large groups of protest arrestees at 51 Reisner for extended periods before bringing them to JPC (Joint Processing Center).”

Wood wrote that PDO attorneys had "reviewed statements indicating that HPD put protesters in a gymnasium room, removed their masks, zip-tied their hands, and left them overnight without food or water."

She added that the PDO had not yet been able to independently confirm the statements.

One protester who was arrested in the early hours of Sunday and has since been released told KPRC 2 the letter described what he and others went through. He was charged with obstructing a highway/passageway.

“It seems intentional, this is just gross negligence,” said protester Rafael Acosta.

“I am seeing people on OMS (Offender Management System) who have been held for over 24 hours on misdemeanor charges of Obstructing a Roadway,” the letter read. According to the PDO, a person must be released by law within 24 hours of being arrested if probable cause has not been found on a misdemeanor charge.

“We’re especially concerned about people being (detained) beyond what’s legally required. They should have been out in 24 hours. Most don’t have criminal histories and would have been immediately eligible for release,” said Alex Bunin, Chief Public Defender at the PDO.

Wood noted that HPD has a history of holding offenders in substations and “illegally delaying their presentation before a magistrate.”

"They were found civilly liable for these violations less than two years ago in Hernandez v. City of Houston, 4:16-CV-3577, 2018 WL 4140684 (S.D. Tex. Aug. 30, 2018) where the court also held the city deliberately destroyed evidence subject to discovery. We are concerned that this same course of conduct could happen with the protesters," she wrote. "The PDO also has concerns because we are unable to identify any arrestees who are held at 51 Reisner. We have no way of monitoring any delays. We have no way of responding to requests from family members who are worried because they cannot find their loved ones in custody."

HPD spokesperson Kese Smith told KPRC 2:

"Just taking them to the Joint Processing Center is not a viable option because of number of arrestees at one time. We have made it the highest priority to make sure individuals are given water, are given food and are humanely treated. We believe that we are doing everything to ensure Constitutional rights are met. The PDO is free to contact the city legal department if they have any concerns."

Smith said HPD has already identified ways to make the processing of arrested protesters more efficient.

Other groups, including the newly formed Houston Protestors’ Defense Team, have also expressed concern. You can read more about it here.

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