Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg — who campaigned on promises to go easier on low-level drug offenders — is under fire for plans to change the way her office handles misdemeanor marijuana cases. …Even before her plan was officially rolled out, however, news of the change prompted Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon to attack Ogg, saying was trying to legalize marijuana.“Unlike Harris County, Montgomery County will not become a sanctuary for dope smokers,” Ligon said in a press release. “I swore an oath to follow the law — all the laws, as written by the Texas Legislature. I don’t get to pick and choose which laws I enforce.” …Ligon, a Republican, said Ogg is trying to legalize pot instead of pursuing violent criminals.“Despite a rise in violent crime rates in Harris County, Ms. Ogg chooses to focus her attention on the issue of legalization of marijuana,” Ligon said. “I hope it’s a mistake in judgment on her part and not a sign of things to come.” …Ligon said he found out about her plans from fliers that went up around the Capitol in Austin this week from Texans for Responsible Marijuana. He said he doubts the study that the organization touts regarding the dismissal rate for misdemeanor cases.“Experienced prosecutors know that misdemeanor possession cases are usually filed in combination with other charges and are likely dismissed as part of a plea to another matter, or disposed of through pre-trial diversion programs, only after the defendant has had the opportunity to receive drug and alcohol treatment and counseling,” he said.
Where to begin? Let’s start with “I don’t get to pick and choose which laws I enforce.” In fact, most prosecutors do. The reason: No DA’s office has the resources to enforce every law, all the time. So they prioritize. So, yes, some laws get more attention than others.
Which brings us to the next point, Ligon’s language about “despite a rise in violent crime in Harris County.” It’s true. Murders increased by about 23 percent in 2015 over 2014 in Houston, and by about a similar margin in unincorporated Harris County. Yet this is precisely why a conscientious prosecutors ought to choose to spend more resources on actual violent crimes, and fewer on low-level pot offenses.
As for the fact that pot charges are often filed in conjunction with other charges then negotiated as part of plea bargain or used to send a suspect to counseling or treatment, well, I suppose if Ogg’s office thinks that strategy is appropriate on a case-by-case basis, that’s what it will do. But not every person who smokes or is caught with pot needs treatment.
Brett Ligon is no reformer. He’s perhaps most nationally known for handing out gold coins when one of his assistant DAs wins a life sentence. Or perhaps as the DA who prosecuted football star Adrian Peterson for child abuse, excoriated the judge in the case, and then wanted to arrest and jail Peterson parole for smoking pot.
To understand why what Ogg does in pot cases is any of Ligon’s business, it’s worth exploring some recent local history and context, because this story also illustrates just how difficult it can be to reform a criminal-justice system as entrenched as the one in Harris County.
As we’ve reported before here at The Watch, the Harris County criminal-justice system has a bit of a good-ol’-boy problem. In 2008, Republican Pat Lykos was elected DA, the first woman to ever hold that office. Lykos was something a reformer and ruffled a lot of feathers. One of her main reforms was to stop charging suspects with felonies when police had found only a trace amount of drugs in the suspect’s possession. That policy angered a lot of people, including in Houston law enforcement. When Lykos ran for reelection in 2012, she was heavily opposed by the police union and the general law enforcement establishment. She was soundly beaten in the primary by Mike Anderson, a judge who promised a more tough-on-crime approach to the job.
Mike Anderson died in 2013, not yet a year into his term. Then-Gov. Rick Perry then appointed Anderson’s wife, Devon, also a judge, to replace him. Devon Anderson continued her husband’s policies. She eventually came under fire for a number of scandals under her watch, including continuing to hold a man after his conviction was tossed out, blaming Black Lives Matter for the murder of a Houston police officer, and jailing a rape victim in order to ensure her testimony.
Ogg ran against Anderson last year. Even with all of the scandals, Ogg faced an uphill battle. She was heavily opposed by the police union and law enforcement establishment. She faced a whisper campaign (eventually fueled by Anderson herself) that attempted to discredit her because of her sexuality. And she was trying to unseat a Republican, in Texas, in the year of Donald Trump. But Ogg not only won, she won by campaigning on a reform agenda. The voters of Harris County clearly stated their preferences last year — and they aren’t the preferences of Ligon.
Which brings us to his broadside attack on Ogg. As I mentioned back in 2012, Mike Anderson was endorsed by the Houston police union in his bid to unseat Lykos. The union also endorsed Devon Anderson and heavily campaigned against Ogg last year. Want to know what Ligon did before he ran for Montgomery County district attorney in 2008? He was an attorney for that very police union.
If you read The Watch regularly, you know that Harris County (and other parts of Texas) until just recently populated its grand juries with an antiquated process called the key-man system, which tended to select whiter, more conservative jurors. Harris County grand juries have had some curiously cozy relationships with law enforcement. They’re given free time on police shooting ranges, go on ride-alongs with officers, and until recently were even given rides on police helicopters. You’d think this might, just might, bias grand jurors to favor police testimony, especially when an officer is contradicted by other witnesses, and most especially when the grand jury is investigating a shooting by a police officer. In fact, the key-man process not only produced more law-and-order grand juries, many included actual police officers, both retired and active. It happened even in a case in which a man was accused of shooting an officer. (He was indicted, despite relatively little evidence, thanks in large part to aggressive questioning from an officer, who was the grand jury foreman. The man was convicted. He was also recently exonerated.)
This is the way the establishment in Harris County liked it. It’s why the city didn’t indict a police officer for an on-duty shooting for over a decade. Ligon at least had to be happy about that.
Ligon hasn’t put away his police union days since taking over as DA. See, for example, this press release put out by the Houston police union touting the fact that Ligon, 10 other prosecutors, and investigators from his office all attended a seminar put on by the Force Science Institute in Minnesota. That organization and its founder, Bill Lewinski, were recently profiled by the New York Times:
When police officers shoot people under questionable circumstances, Dr. Lewinski is often there to defend their actions. Among the most influential voices on the subject, he has testified in or consulted in nearly 200 cases over the last decade or so and has helped justify countless shootings around the country.His conclusions are consistent: The officer acted appropriately, even when shooting an unarmed person. Even when shooting someone in the back. Even when witness testimony, forensic evidence or video footage contradicts the officer’s story …Dr. Lewinski says his research clearly shows that officers often cannot wait to act.“We’re telling officers, ‘Look for cover and then read the threat,’ ” he told a class of Los Angeles County deputy sheriffs recently. “Sorry, too damn late.”A former Minnesota State professor, he says his testimony and training are based on hard science, but his research has been roundly criticized by experts. An editor for The American Journal of Psychology called his work “pseudoscience.” The Justice Department denounced his findings as “lacking in both foundation and reliability.” Civil rights lawyers say he is selling dangerous ideas.“People die because of this stuff,” said John Burton, a California lawyer who specializes in police misconduct cases. “When they give these cops a pass, it just ripples through the system.”
That Houston police union press release noted that Ligon “thinks Lewinski’s research is in its infancy. He felt like he was court side watching the future of where law enforcement training must trend.” Keep in mind, this is the guy who would presumably head up an investigation into a shooting by a Montgomery County police officer.
In fact, Ligon’s office has investigated misconduct by officers outside his county, too. Back in 2014, Houston police officer Ryan Chandler was under investigation for botching a number of murder investigations. Chandler potentially faced criminal charges. But he was also married to one of Devon Anderson’s assistants. Anderson correctly perceived a possible conflict, so she asked another DA’s office to investigate. Unfortunately, the office to which she passed the case to was — you guessed it — that of former police union counsel Ligon. (Chandler was never charged.) As a local politics blogger pointed out, at the time, Anderson, Ligon and the police union all shared the same political strategist.
In short, Houston has just elected its second reform-minded DA. The first lasted just one term. For Ogg to do better, she’ll have to fight not just the police unions, the law-and-order types, and even one or more of her fellow prosecutors. As I wrote at the start of this post, it’s a rare thing for one prosecutor to publicly ridicule another prosecutor. One would think it would take a pretty monumental threat for a DA to violate that sort of professional norm. Ligon apparently thinks the (possible) de facto decriminalization of marijuana in Harris County represents that sort of threat. And that says quite a bit about Ligon.
I’ll close with this footage of Ligon from a campaign event: