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Midterm Report For Bexar County District Attorney Reflects On Progress Of Policies

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Joey Palacios / Texas Public Radio
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Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales

The Bexar County District Attorney's Office has released a two-year self-compiled report on the status of established programs and new initiatives during Joe Gonzales’ first term as district attorney.

The report highlights the slowdown of essential functions during the COVID-19 pandemic but also the developments made on high-profile policies like cite-and-release, family violence and the newly created civil rights division.

Gonzales, who was elected in 2018, said on Monday that he has a strong policy of putting violent crimes at the top of his list for prosecution.

“What keeps me up at night are cases involving murder, capital murder, sexual assault, aggravated robberies — those are the ones that we need to focus on,” he said.

It’s that stance that’s led to a trend of declining to take some drug cases where violence is not a factor. That’s most apparent in the DA’s decision not to take most cases of low-level marijuana possession.

According to the report, the previous DA’s administration took on more than 4,500 cases for possession of less than 2 oz. of marijuana in 2018. In 2019, under Gonzales, that number dropped to 1,700, and in 2020, only 16 cases for a small amount of marijuana were taken up by the DA’s office.

“A large part of that has been because either those individuals are participating in a diversion program like cite-and-release or because of our declination policy, or some other reason,” Gonzales said.

One of those reasons is the county's lab policy to determine if the THC content in the substance qualifies it as marijuana or legal hemp, Gonzales said.

“That has slowed down the process of prosecuting these kinds of cases and so because of that, it has had a huge impact on the speed of which we can prosecute a case,” he said.

He said it’s up to the law enforcement agency to pay for the testing.

Tied into that is what Gonzales says are successful cite-and-release policies. Different law enforcement agencies around San Antonio signed onto it at varying times over the last three years. Gonzales made it a priority during his campaign.

From July 2019 until the end of 2020, about 3,500 citations were issued countywide for low level offences such as possessing small amounts of marijuana or low-level theft of property, or service. According to the DA’s office, that’s saved the county about $2.6 million in booking costs.

In 2019, the DA’s office reviewed a backlog of more than 2,000 family violence cases for a total of 6,400 that year. Gonzales said the majority of those cases were felony cases ranging like sexual assault, strangulation and injury to a child.

“We restructured our office to pull prosecutors from other divisions and reassign them to the family violence unit to attack these cases,” he said.

Previously, Gonzales’ predecessor had processed about 3,000 of those cases in 2018. Last year, the office reviewed a little under 5,000 family violence cases, but Gonzales hopes that anyone who had been sheltering in place with potential abusers during the pandemic comes forward.

“So, we hope now the victims come out of the shadows and file cases against their abusers, we know that we have to prosecute those cases and so that’s going to be a daunting task for us,” he said.

About 2,700 family violence indictments were filed in 2020 compared to 3,300 the year before. Misdemeanor family violence courts saw their dockets increase by 50% during the pandemic. At the time, only two courts were hearing these cases, but in November, several more County-Court-at-Law judges agreed to hear family violence cases to help reduce this backlog.

“Before the pandemic you saw our prosecutors going to court every day, and having in-person hearings, having probation violation hearings, bench trials and jury trials, but we haven’t had a jury trial in over a year,” Gonzales said, adding that having no jury trials has slowed down the process of some domestic violence cases.

Last October, the DA’s office introduced one of it’s newest divisions: the Civil Rights Division, focused on handling cases when officers shoot people, custodial deaths and excessive use of force by law enforcement.

“It’s a unit that’s independent from any other division. These prosecutors, the staff will not have day-to-day encounters with law enforcement to create independence,” Gonzales said. “We are also reaching out to the… family members in situations where someone has lost their life. We want the families to know that we’re going to be engaged with them and monitor the progress of these cases.”

It’s unclear which cases the Civil Rights Division has been involved in so far. The death of Darrel Zemault, Sr. is the most recent high-profile police killing, but it took place before the division was created. Gonzales said he couldn’t comment on the specifics of that case since it's ongoing.

Gonzales did say, however, in cases where a grand jury does not indict an officer in these cases that his office would provide a statement on the facts of the case in question.

The full midterm report from the DA’s office will be released to the public on Tuesday.

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