Lawsuit: Houston holds people for days without seeing judge

HOUSTON (AP) -- Two civil rights groups say Houston routinely detains people for days without seeing a judge as required by law in the latest legal challenge over the incarceration of inmates in area jails.

The same groups earlier this year filed a lawsuit accusing the Harris County bail system of unfairly keeping poor defendants arrested for minor offenses jailed because they cannot pay even nominal bail amounts. Houston is located in Harris County and the city's detainees are eventually taken to the county jail if they don't post bail.

The latest lawsuit, filed Monday by Washington, D.C.-based Civil Rights Corps and Austin-based Texas Fair Defense Project, alleges Houston is violating people's constitutional rights by routinely holding them for more than 48 hours without having them appear before a judge to determine whether there was probable cause for their arrest.

Records show that in July and August, Houston held hundreds of inmates in the city jail for longer than three days before transferring them to the Harris County Jail, where they appear before a judge to determine probable cause, according to the federal lawsuit.

One person arrested July 23 did not get a probable cause hearing until seven days later, and another arrested July 25 waited six days, the lawsuit said. At least 35 other people arrested in July and August waited more than four days to appear before a judge.

"The Constitution requires a hearing within 48 hours of arrest before a neutral judicial official. The city of Houston does not provide that in a timely fashion. And it is the poor who suffer the consequences of Houston's decision to do that," said Charlie Gerstein, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps.

City spokeswoman Janice Evans declined to comment Thursday, due to the pending litigation.

The county jail has had problems with overcrowding for years, with officials housing inmates at other facilities or delaying transfers of arrestees to the county jail. Last month, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards approved a request by the county jail to allow it to let nearly 200 inmates sleep on plastic cots on the facility's floors.

"It is not an excuse that the county jail is full. It is the responsibility of the arresting agency to make sure the person (arrested) has adequate procedures in place" to appear before a judge, Gerstein said.

A similar lawsuit was filed in September against Illinois' Cook County, where Chicago is located, accusing its Juvenile Justice Division of detaining juveniles for more than 48 hours without probable cause hearings. The suit prompted officials to hold hearings on weekends and holidays to prevent such delays.

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