Pubdate: Fri, 17 Jan 2003
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2003 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: Thom Marshall


SEVERAL PEOPLE have e-mailed with an interest in joining the Harris County 
Grand Jury Association. I hope someone soon e-mails with plans for actually 
organizing such a group.

Just this week I would have referred a caller to the association. She was 
upset about the way constables responded to her attempt to help her husband 
deal with some mental and drug issues.

She said she had gone to Harris County probate court to get "a mental 
health and chemical dependent warrant so that he could be forced to go for 
treatment provided through my health insurance plan."

She said she was assured her husband would not be treated like a criminal 
"and he would merely be taken to the hospital that I had already made 
arrangements with to receive him."

Instead, she said, the constables who came to pick her husband up at home 
did treat him like a criminal and, because they found some drugs before 
they got him in the hospital, took him to jail instead.

Not about law, but justice An association could look into situations like 
this, not for the purpose of determining whether laws were broken or 
department policies were not followed, but to determine whether society and 
justice might be better served.

Are the constables who execute such warrants sufficiently trained in 
handling cases that involve mental illness? What factors determine whether 
someone gets treatment or jail for chemical dependency? Do those factors 
need clarifying or changing?

Former grand jurors could look for answers. True, they would not have 
powers to subpoena or indict anyone or change laws or policies, but they 
could make recommendations.

A review of events that started the discussion of a grand jury association:

A law-abiding, middle-aged resident got aggravated after county officers 
ordered him out of his house, handcuffed him and stuck him in the back of a 
patrol car. Then, after a while, they turned him loose because it was all a 
big mistake.

He could find no county official to provide him with an acceptable 
explanation why the mistake occurred. High-ranking officials said the 
officers were only doing their duties.

He was told that he could file a complaint with the Internal Affairs 
Division, but that is a maddening and often futile exercise. Several people 
through the years have told me they simply gave up because it was so 
difficult to pursue a complaint about unacceptable actions of officers.

One man recently told me that after filing a complaint with Internal 
Affairs at one of the constable's offices, he was told he would have to 
file a formal freedom of information request before he could learn the 
disposition. Departments employ a variety of roadblocks to delay and 
discourage complaints.

After reading about the frustrations of the man who was mistakenly taken 
prisoner at his home, Sam Houston State University criminology professor 
Raymond Teske suggested he ask a grand jury to look into it.

Panel would educate jurors "The average citizen has no idea just how 
powerful and independent a grand jury is in Texas," Teske said. "First, 
they stand between the government officials and improper use of the 
criminal justice system. ... Second, it opens a door to prevent cover-up."

However, grand juries get involved when it appears laws are broken. While 
they may have independent powers, they mostly deal with matters brought to 
them by the district attorney, who exerts tremendous influence over them. 
And, since Harris County has five grand juries in session all the time, the 
district attorney can simply choose to ignore any that fail to deliver the 
goods for him.

After reading the discussion about grand juries, T.W. Weston suggested 
forming a modern version of the old Harris County Grand Jury Association 
that operated in Houston four decades ago. Weston was a vice president in 
that group back in the 1960s.

The association helped to educate new grand jurors about their powers "so 
that they could serve effectively from the start" and it also formed 
several committees to work toward community improvement. It had a lot of 
political muscle, Weston said.

Never having served on a grand jury, I couldn't belong to such an 
association. But if any former grand jurors who have expressed interest 
decide to call a meeting to discuss organizing, I could help spread the word.
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