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Opinion A Texas woman who works with indigent defendants says she was arrested in retaliation for her work

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“Anna slowed down the machine,” says attorney Charlie Gerstein. “And this is what happens to you when you slow down the machine.”

Gerstein is speaking about his client Anna Harris, the founder of JUST-US, a group that works with indigent defendants in Texas. Harris and another organization called the Texas Jail Project aim to provide a more robust and complete public defense — assistance not just with the charges themselves but also with the cascading consequences of an arrest and prosecution. What Harris didn’t anticipate is that her work would lead to her own arrest.

She was apprehended in Victoria, a town of about 67,000 in southeastern Texas. “Part of what I do is court watching,” Harris says. “I sit in a courtroom and take notes on what happens.” Most of the time courtrooms are open to the public. But some judges “in more rural areas … aren’t used to seeing unfamiliar faces.”

Harris says when she starts working in a new county, she typically introduces herself to the chief public defender (where there is one). She’ll then reach out to indigent defendants, informing them of diversion programs for drug addiction or mental health, and the availability of expert witnesses, and offering to write letters on their behalf. She’ll sometimes serve as a conduit between a defendant and his or her family.

While this “holistic” model of public defense has become popular in some larger cities (and early studies suggest it reduces incarceration without any accompanying harm), in many parts of the country judges still refer indigent cases to attorneys in private practice. Critics say this system can create a sort of assembly-line justice, because attorneys who get clients to accept plea bargains tend to get more referrals. Attorneys who slow down the courts with a vigorous defense risk future referrals.

Harris’s group tries to provide services referral attorneys can’t — or won’t. Sometimes her help is welcomed. But often it isn’t.

Back in 2019, Victoria County considered a proposal to contract indigent defense to Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, a group that uses the holistic approach, and whose bid would still have saved the county more than $400,000. The plan was scuttled after objections from the district attorney and from the lawyers who get referrals on indigent cases.

Over the past six months, Harris says she too has been getting an unusual amount of pushback in Victoria, including complaints from law enforcement and prosecutors.

One judge in particular — State District Judge Eli Garza — has been particularly hostile. On one occasion in July, Garza ordered Harris out of the courtroom as she tried to set up a projector for an attorney with whom she was working. In another incident, Garza called Harris to the front of the court and demanded to know why she was there. He later ordered her to leave the courtroom. (Garza did not return a request for comment.)

It came to a head at the end of last month, when Garza signed a criminal trespass warning barring Harris from the courthouse entirely, threatening her with arrest if she stepped foot inside. The impetus for the order was a video that Harris had posted to TikTok in which she did a silly dance in a courthouse conference room. According to Harris and her attorneys, the room was open to the public, and there were no restrictions on its use at the time.

On July 29, Harris filed a motion for a restraining order to block the criminal trespass warning. Less than an hour later, the Victoria County Sheriff’s Office and district attorney told her attorneys they would not enforce the trespass warning. But later that evening, as Harris was driving to meet a friend at a Victoria Starbucks, she noticed an SUV had been following her for several miles. As she pulled in to the Starbucks, the SUV — a sheriff’s vehicle — turned on its lights. She pulled over.

The sheriff’s deputy asked Harris for her license and proof of insurance. She explained that her proof of insurance was a document on her phone, but as she tried to open the device, she says the deputy snatched it from her and ordered her out of her car. He then ordered her to put her hands on the car, frisked her and handcuffed her.

The deputy told Harris he was arresting her for littering and for changing lanes without a turn signal, both of which she denies. “Talk to any defense attorney around here,” Harris says. “They’ve never heard of someone getting arrested and booked for littering or changing lanes without signaling.” She asked if the deputy could call a friend to pick up her car. He told her she could not and that her car would be impounded. She was then booked in the county jail and put in a holding cell.

At around midnight, Harris was told she’d be released, but would need to appear at a hearing in three days. By the time she was freed, it was after 1 a.m. Because her car had been impounded, she called some friends to pick her up. They were all asleep and didn’t answer. The police refused to give her a ride, she says, so she was forced to walk home.

The charges against Harris were dropped the morning after her arrest. Gerstein heard the news from a local attorney representing the sheriff’s office. (The office also directed requests for comment to this same attorney, who did not reply.) But when the attorney told Gerstein, he didn’t apologize or explain why Harris had been treated so harshly over misdemeanor traffic violations.

Instead, Gerstein says, the attorney asked, “Aren’t you going to say thank you?”

As the holistic approach to indigent defense becomes increasingly popular, proponents of the model have begun to clash with those accustomed to the old way of doing things. Harris is only the latest example: Two public defenders in Pennsylvania were fired in 2020 for submitting an amicus brief to that state’s supreme court for a case about cash bail. And last year, a district attorney in California threatened a whistleblower complaint against a public defender for blog posts he wrote during the George Floyd protests.

Gerstein says his firm is working on a report about this sort of retaliation. “As people like Anna challenge the status quo, the people who benefited from that system are lashing out,” he says. “We’re seeing it all over the country.”

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