Freeing Clients Threatened by COVID-19 Exposure in Jails

Jails are described by health professionals as “petri-dishes” for COVID-19. At Chappell, Lanehart & Stangl, we are doing everything possible to obtain the immediate release of incarcerated clients who are threatened by the infection.

Our law office is considered an “essential service” according to health guidelines. Lawyers and staff are at full force, working daily to free defendants and inmates who may be exposed to the virus in jail.

During the past few weeks, our team has courageously risked their own heath by appearing in open court to obtain the release of clients from jail. Slowly, courts and jails are allowing remote video conferencing for safer staging for litigation. However, we will do what is necessary to assist every at-risk incarcerated client.

How to Get Out of Jail

Issues differ with each case, but the following are examples of legal options that could lead to early release:

  • Motion for personal recognizance bond.

  • Motion for reduced/reasonable bail.

  • Writ of habeas corpus to challenge probable cause to hold client.

  • Writ of habeas corpus to reduce unreasonable bail.

  • Plea agreement for “time served,” effecting an immediate release from jail.

  • Plea agreement for probation, effecting an immediate release from jail.

  • Motion for speedy trial.

On March 29, a complicating factor appeared when Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning accused violent offenders from seeking bail to avoid possibly contracting COVID-19. Chappell, Lanehart & Stangl supports a group of criminal court judges, defense attorney associations and the NAACP who have teamed up to sue the Texas governor for issuing the executive order.

“Because social distancing is nearly impossible in detention, and people in jails are disproportionately at risk for serious complications, the risk of outbreak is especially dangerous for detention facilities,” according to documents filed on April 8 in the District Court of Travis County.

“As a result, local stakeholders in counties across Texas have been working together to reduce their jail populations — which experts instruct is urgently needed — in ways consistent with both state law and the safety of the community,” according to the petition.

Bonds are a form of insurance used to incentivize persons accused of crimes to show up for court dates if they’re released in the meantime. Judges can set conditions — curfews, travel restrictions, the wearing of GPS-linked monitoring devices — which, if violated, results in the assets put forward by the accused individual being forfeited, and that person is locked up until the trial begins.

The Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (of which both Chuck Lanehart and Fred Stangl are active members), Capital Area Private Defender Service, Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, NAACP Texas and Harris County Criminal Court at Law Judges’ petition seeks to temporarily stop Abbott’s executive order that “frustrates these efforts” to adhere to health experts’ advice by reducing the jail population “and unlawfully undercuts the authority of judges and the legislature.”

In order to convince courts and prosecutors to release our clients, we have made the case that detention facilities may become “hotbeds” of this virus. When infections begin in these facilities, the virus spreads into the community quickly.

Timeline of COVID-19 in Texas Jails and Prisons

On April 8, 2020, it was reported that the first Texas prisoner died from complications from COVID-19, after a 49-year-old officer who worked at a different prison also died from complications from COVID-19. It was reported April 9, 2020 that several inmates at the Lubbock County Detention Center were quarantined after showing symptoms of the virus, but three inmates tested were negative.

As of April 8, 2020, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 283 federal inmates and 125 BOP staff have confirmed positive test results for COVID-19. Only 19 inmates and seven staff have recovered. Eight inmates have died.

COVID-19 is a viral respiratory illness caused by a novel coronavirus first identified in December 2019 in the Hubei Province of China. The situation gets worse by the day.

Since its discovery, cases of COVID-19 have spread to nearly every country in the world. The World Health Organization’s April 10, 2020 Situation Report on COVID-19 identifies 1,622,167 confirmed cases worldwide and 97,264 deaths. This figure is up from 125,048 confirmed global cases and 4,613 deaths just from March 12, 2020. On April 10, 2020, Johns Hopkins University reports 467,184 United States cases of COVID-19 and 16,736 deaths.

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