2021 was a busy year as the courts have gradually adjusted to the COVID pandemic. The 13th District Court resumed conducting jury trials in June and conducted six trials, one resulted in acquittal and the other five resulted in convictions. The County Court and County Court at Law have not conducted any jury trials since March, 2020.
Frequently the mere setting of criminal cases for trial leads to resolution of the case by plea bargain without the necessity of an actual trial. The opposite is also true in that, when cases are not set for trial, they are less likely to be resolved by plea bargain and the backlog grows. According to monthly reports from the courts, the criminal case backlog in County Court grew from 1,889 cases in January to 2,311 cases as of November 30, 2021 (December numbers have not been reported yet). The backlog of felony cases, grew from 1,197 cases to 1,601 cases over the same period.
The following is a summary of criminal cases filed and disposed in Navarro County during 2021:
Filed – 1,581 Filed – 910
Disposed – 942 Disposed – 643
Dismissed – 322 Dismissed – 113
Deferred – 104 Acquitted – 2
Convicted – 494 Probation – 316
Confinement – 209
As illustrated above, more cases were filed than disposed, which is a predictable consequence of the pandemic. I pay particular attention to the percentage of cases that are disposed by dismissal because making arrests and filing cases consumes considerable resources of both the defendant and the taxpayers. Cases are dismissed after filing for a variety of reasons including discovery of new evidence, requests of victims etc. Many arrests result in multiple charges and some cases are dismissed when a defendant pleads guilty to some but not all of the charges. The dismissal rate for 2021 was lower than 2019 and 2020, but still a little higher than I would like.
The civil division of the office successfully obtained judgments forfeiting $102,889 in cash and two vehicles to law enforcement which were found to have been used in or derived from criminal activity. Forfeited funds are used to pay for training and equipment.
We are currently testing a service to provide cloud-based sharing of files between law enforcement, the District Attorney’s Office and attorneys for defendants. The service allows all evidence associated with a case, including reports and video to be shared electronically, thus alleviating the need for police to make and bring paper copies and DVDs to the DA Office, and allows the DA Office to share those files electronically to the defendant’s attorney. DVDs cost the taxpayer about $10,000 per year. I plan to use federal COVID grant funding to pay for the service.
In another technology advance, we used forfeited drug funds to purchase a system that allows us to download and sort data from seized electronic devices like cell phones. Criminals use electronic devices for communications and storage of records which can provide valuable evidence. We have used that evidence at trial in many cases and, when confronted with such evidence, defendants sometimes plead guilty which saves everyone the time and resources associated with trial. Three detectives have been trained and certified to use this technology which allows us to gather that evidence locally instead of sending evidence to other agencies and waiting months due to the backlog at the digital forensic labs. This type of evidence has proven particularly valuable in drug trafficking cases and child pornography cases and it was used at trial in each of those types of cases this year.
The majority of our cases and crime in Navarro County continues to be driven by illegal narcotics and committed by a small number of habitual offenders. Forty percent of the felony cases filed in 2021 were narcotics cases and we know a significant portion of property and violent crimes are also attributable to narcotics activity. At the local level we’re trying to address the demand (user) side and the supply (dealer) side by very different approaches.
It’s not always simple to discern whether a person arrested for narcotics is a user or a dealer (and some are both) but those we identify as having addiction to illegal drugs we refer to our new Recovery Court. I want to thank Judge Lagomarsino for agreeing to preside over the Recovery Court program as it is a significant time commitment and he is already incredibly busy. Defendants admitted into the program will start with an in-residence treatment program if necessary, and then complete an intensive regimen of counseling, random drug testing and frequent appearances in court for 9 – 18 months. The costs of counseling and treatment will be paid through federal grants at no cost to the taxpayers.
My policy for dealers is to vigorously seek prison time. Addiction destroys the lives of not only the addicts and their families but the victims of other crimes committed to support their habit. I empathize with those who truly suffer from addiction, but not with those who profit from the addiction of others.
I’m concerned about the increase we’ve seen in violent use of guns. The guns used in violent crimes are frequently obtained by breaking into vehicles at night, so please do not leave guns in your vehicle overnight. Since I started working for Lowell Thompson in 2007 it has been relatively rare for us to see cases of firearms actually discharged in the course of crimes. We had several such cases in 2021. Not surprisingly, searches related to the shooting investigations revealed illegal narcotics. Gun violence and vehicle chases are crimes that present the highest risk of injury or death to innocent citizens. I will seek to keep people who engage in these behaviors off our streets.
Finally, I would like to say that all citizens can play a role in fighting crime in our community. We have police to investigate and deter crime but our police cannot be everywhere all the time, nor would we want them to be. Few crimes are actually observed by police but, in the vast majority of cases, somebody is present to witness the crime. Information can be reported anonymously to Crime Stoppers and our police routinely deal with information from sources that remain confidential. I’m pleased to say that the citizens of Navarro County have been strong supporters of our first responders and we look forward to continuing to serve you in 2022.