Some Options for Out of Towners Who Run into the Law While on Vacation
It’s probably not the best idea in the world to get in trouble when you are on vacation, or visiting another city. It makes it very hard on you both logistically and financially. I have run into this problem quite a bit as of late. On average I might get 1 or 2 cases a year from out of towner’s who either partied too hard, or made a dumb mistake while they were here. The problem ends of being that we lose a lot of potential options when you cannot commit yourself to living in Harris County.
Harris County Pre-Trial Diversion Program
Sometimes, especially for first offenders, there are programs available that can lead to dismissals. One of the programs, the pre-trial diversion program, requires individuals to complete all of their conditions in Harris County. A Pre-Trial diversion is a type of program that allows you to complete a probation-like program while your case is still open and pending, and allows you to earn a dismissal. Because the pre-trial diversion is a Harris County specific program, it cannot be transferred to another county (unlike some probations can be).
I had a client who lives 4 hours away, and while that isn’t too far, it’s just far enough to where it would make it tough to travel to Houston 2 or 3 times a month. Before, out of towner’s were not considered at all for the program, but I was told in this case that he is eligible for the program, but would have to commit to coming down for monthly meetings, random drug tests, community service, classes, etc in Harris County.
The Issues Around Living Far From Harris County
While this option is a no brainer for residents of Harris County and surrounding communities, it is a much tougher decision when you live out of town. To make it worse, you cannot transfer a probation that is 6 months (what he was being offered). So if he wanted to do a deferred adjudication to try to avoid a conviction, we actually would have had to ask to do MORE probation just to allow him to do his probation in his home town. My client has expressed interesting in just paying a fine because it is the easiest thing to do. That is the worst idea possible as it is a lifetime conviction, and something that will potentially keep an individual from getting jobs/apartments for the rest of their life.
It’s unfortunate that people feel stuck in these situations. It is never a good idea to get in trouble, but it’s a horrible idea to get into trouble far from home.
Earlier this year Harris County unveiled a new First Chance Intervention program. It is intended for first time offenders charged with Class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana for up to 2 ounces. The purpose of this program is to give first time offenders a free chance at a dismissal for possession of a small amount of marijuana. This will also hopefully help with the cluttered court rooms in Harris County.
Who is the First Chance Intervention Program for?
This is a great program for individuals to apply for once they have had a chance to hire a lawyer and investigate the case. As a defense attorney, the problem that I see is the fact that defendants are not given the opportunity in court to fully investigate the charges in these cases. Individuals are screened quickly and most are eager to jump at the opportunity for a dismissal, whether they are legally guilty or not.
This is understandable to a point because the program is easy to complete once accepted. The way it works is the person is screened for the program, and if accepted they enter into a contract with the State of Texas, much in the way they enter into a contract on a normal pre-trial intervention. This program however is much easier to complete. Based on a screening, individuals will have to do one of two things:
- 8 hours of community service OR
- A drug class
One top of one of those 2 options, the person will also have to pay a $130 fee for participating in the program. They also have to comply with normal conditions such as staying drug and alcohol free, going to court when told, not breaking the law, etc.
Timeline for First Chance Intervention Program
These cases are being placed on the court schedule 100 days after the contract is signed. Once the fee is paid and the class/community service is done, the case is dismissed off docket. So technically, if you are really serious about the first chance intervention program, you can get it done in less than a week.
Sadly, I have had clients who have signed up for the first chance intervention program and did NOTHING. This is absolutely ridiculous considering how easy this program is. It offers a free dismissal and a chance at a limited expunction in the future. This is a broad overview of the program, if you have specific questions ask an attorney. If you find yourself in the unfortunate position where this is an option for you, then it is best to take it seriously. Even small misdemeanor drug convictions can have a long and lasting negative affect on your life!
There are changes coming for the Pre-Trial Diversion Programs by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. The most important change has to do with the ability of an individual to apply for an expunction on the case.
Changes to Pre-Trial Diversion Program Length
Before, when accepted into a pre-trial diversion (intervention) program they would have to sign a lengthy contract with the State of Texas. These programs used to be 1 year for misdemeanors and anywhere from 1-3 years for felonies. Now, all misdemeanors for pre-trial diversions (with the exception of the DWI program which is very different) are 6 months long.
Pre-Trial Diversion Community Service Requirements
Another change to the Pre-Trial Diversion Program is the amount of community service required. Before, the amount of community service on the contract was 80 hours, which amounted to 10 full days or 20 half days of volunteer work. This was very difficult for individuals who were full time students or those who were working full time. Now the new contracts only require 16 hours, which is only 2 days of community service. This is much more reasonable, and there is no excuse to complete the hours.
Pre-Trial Intervention and Expunction
But in my opinion, the most important change to the Pre-Trial Diversion Program in Harris County has to do with applying for an expunction. On the old contract, individuals were told that by entering the program, they are agreeing to not seek an expunction for at least 2 years from the date they the program is over and their case is dismissed. So on a normal misdemeanor shoplifting case, it would take 3 years (1 year pre trial diversion, 2 year waiting) plus any time in court that it took to actually get into the program, usually 60-90 days. Under the change certain cases, such as theft, will be immediately eligible for expunctions. This means the same person who was charged with theft could now seek an expunction after just 6 months instead of over 3 years.
However, certain cases will still have a 2 year waiting period. Some of those cases are:
- Assault-Family Member
- Terroristic Threat
- Deadly Conduct
- Resisting Arrest
Class A misdemeanors not listed above will have 1 year waiting periods instead of the old 2 year period. And any other class B misdemeanor will have no waiting period.
This is of course always subject to change as it is a policy of the District Attorney’s Office of Harris County. But as is, at the time of writing, this is a great change for those who might be unfortunate enough to be going through this process. If you have specific questions, contact our attorneys regarding your case.
Harris County’s new program, the First Chance Intervention Program has been initiative by the DA’s Office, in cooperation with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and the Houston Police Department. It is for individuals caught with a class B amount (0-2 ounces) of marijuana.
Eligibility for First Chance Intervention Program
A person is considered a first offender and is eligible to participate in the First Chance Intervention Program program if he or she:
- Is detained or arrested for possession of marijuana, 2 ounces or less;
- Possesses sufficient identifying information;
- Has no additional charges out of the instant detention/arrest (other than Class C tickets);
- Has no outstanding warrants or holds (including Class C charges);
- Has no criminal convictions as an adult (Class B offense or greater);
- Has never received probation or deferred adjudication (Class B offense or greater);
- Is not currently on bond, deferred adjudication or probation (Class B offense or greater); and
- Has not previously participated in this program or another pretrial intervention program.
If a person is arrested the arresting officer will advise the person detained about the program. If the person detained is interested in participating in the program, Pre Trial Services will be notified of their interest, they will be provided with program information, and released. The person then has three days to contact Pre Trial Services to schedule an assessment. Based upon the assessment, the person will be offered a 60 day program during which they will be required to perform 8 hours of community service, or offered a 90 day program during which they will be required to participate in an 8 hour cognitive skills class. There is a non-refundable fee for the program of $100. Should a participant fail to comply with the requirements of the program, the charge will be entered into the system and an arrest warrant will be issued for the individual. If the person successfully completes the First Chance Intervention program no charges will be filed related to the arrest.
Since the First Chance Intervention Program program is a pilot with only the Houston Police Department and the Harris County Sheriff’s Department, any individual arrested by another agency who would otherwise be eligible for the program will be arrested and appear on the Misdemeanor Court dockets. At that point they will be assessed at 49 San Jacinto, behind the courthouse, and if accepted they will do a type of pre-trial diversion with the above 60 or 90 day requirement.
Completing the Program
Pre-Trial Services will notify the Harris County District Attorney’s Office if the participant has successfully completed the program or violated the conditions of the agreement. For defendants that violate the terms of the agreement, the criminal case will resume until disposition. If the defendant has successfully completed the program, the prosecutor will dismiss the case and send a letter to the defense attorney advising him that his case has been dismissed, and that he does not need to return to court. The hope is that once the defendant has signed up for the First Chance Intervention program, they will not need to return to court.
There are new deadlines in the timing of pre-trial diversions. This morning in county court 5 of Harris County I had a client’s application denied for the pre-trial intervention program because she did not submit her application on time. As of recently, you must submit your application within 60 days of your first court appearance. My client submitted her application on day 68.
Applications must be submitted 1 week before court and must include a letter accepting responsibility and explaining why you deserve to be admitted into the pre-trial diversion program instead of getting deferred adjudication. I also require my clients to submit a separate letter of apology. Applications also must include 2 to 3 letters of recommendation from non-family members who are aware of the charge. Additionally, there must be proof that the applicant is in school, employed, or in the process of applying for school. And finally in certain cases additional items such as drug tests (drug cases), and anti-theft classes (theft cases), might be required.
Even though my client is in their early twenties, and a prime candidate for the pre-trial diversion program she was denied based on the fact that she procrastinated and did not get me the items I needed in the first 60 days. While I personally do not agree with this time deadline, as it does not give adequate time to the defense to conduct a full investigation of the case, it seems the DA’s office is pushing the deadline requirement hard at the moment.
It is very important to submit your items to your attorney as soon as possible. I always tell my clients that their part (letters, transcripts, proof of employment, etc) is easy. These are things that can be done in an hour or less. The hard part is getting others to give you letters. People are busy, and very rarely can people stop their everyday lives to do someone else a favor. In my experience I have seen over and over that people struggle getting recommendation letters from their friends, co-workers, teachers, etc. If you are in the unfortunate situation of having to apply for a pre-trial diversion it is essential that you ask for your letters ASAP! That way, if your friends take 3 weeks to give you the letter, you still have plenty of time before the deadline hits.
A pre-trial diversion is always a backup plan, but if you are lucky enough to qualify it’s important to take it seriously. It can result in a dismissal, and a clean record.