Dallas' Kangaroo Court

In municipal court, they'll plead you guilty when you don't even know you're on trial

But this case is different. This guy is probably going to sue for a million bucks; he's giving the arresting cops a very hard time with these complaints to the Dallas police Internal Affairs Division and the review board and the media; and the whole case promises to give the city a big black eye. Knowles tells me he knew none of that and had no idea who Donato Garcia was or what his case was about.

I believe him. I also suspect that somebody was looking down the hall that day, saw him coming, and thought, let's see if Mikey will eat it.

Knowles did. He walked into Robinson's court and signed a plea sheet entering a plea of guilty for Garcia. Robinson never pointed out that David Davis had been in his courtroom two days earlier as this man's attorney and had the case delayed and moved to another court.

First, Dallas police arrested Donato Garcia for something that is not against the law. Then a Dallas judge found him guilty without his knowledge.
Mark Graham
First, Dallas police arrested Donato Garcia for something that is not against the law. Then a Dallas judge found him guilty without his knowledge.

City signs off. Knowles signs off. Judge signs off. Zip-zip-zip. Donato Garcia has just entered a plea of guilty; his claim against the city is effectively dead; he admits he did what the cops charged him with; it's over; and Donato Garcia doesn't even know about it. Pretty nifty. Stuff gets done on the Street of Broken Dreams, I'll tell you.

Knowles knows now, of course, that he was had. "I would say everybody else who was involved that day probably was more aware of the circumstances than I was."

He feels bad. He's a good guy. He has a conscience. But he won't tell me the name of the city attorney. "I have to work with these people every day," he tells me.

I understand that. So I go downtown and pull the plea sheet for Garcia's case myself. It was signed by a city attorney but only with initials. I have to go through a few more hoops to find out whose initials these are. But finally I do get the lawyer's name, and I place a call.

He never calls back. Surprise, surprise. Since I haven't talked to him, however, and because there are always at least 10 sides to every story on this street, I'm not going to name the guy here. Not yet.

By the way, once Knowles was contacted by Davis and realized what had happened--that he had entered a guilty plea for a guy who didn't want to plead--Knowles immediately joined Davis in an effort to get the guilty plea knocked off the books. The two of them went together to Judge Robinson's court and filed a motion to have it overturned.

Judge Robinson denied their motion. The judge sent me a copy of his order, which relies almost entirely on a section of the Texas Criminal Code that says a lawyer can sign a plea for his client without the client present, and a judge has the right to trust the lawyer.

Yeah, but come on. Is the judge asking me to believe that the law of this nation contemplates a guy having a guilty plea entered without his knowledge by someone he doesn't agree is his lawyer, and there's no recourse?

I'm not a lawyer, but I did look up the section of the Texas Criminal Code on which Robinson hung his hat. In addition to the phrases Robinson narrowly cites, that whole section of the code is loaded with common-sense language to the effect that a lawyer can only sign for his client if his client "has read the pleading, motion, or other paper" and understands it.

Give me a break. Even here, where the law is not pretty, the law is not a total fool.

Municipal judges, by the way, are city employees, hired by the Dallas City Council. They are not covered by civil service protections and must be reappointed every two years. A city judge who wants to keep his job must keep his city happy.

At the end of October, David Davis filed a "notice of claim" for $1 million with the city on Garcia's behalf. That's not a lawsuit. Yet. It's an official notice that a suit could be filed. If you don't file such a notice within a certain deadline, then you can never sue.

City Attorney Madeleine Johnson says she does not believe that anyone on her staff conned Knowles into entering a plea for Garcia. "I think that it is totally preposterous to suggest that this happened at the invitation of an assistant district attorney. It's very unfortunate for someone to make that suggestion."

Davis and Knowles have joined in appealing Robinson's refusal to overturn the guilty verdict, but for many technical legal reasons, they may have a tough hill to climb on that one. Garcia can still file a big civil suit for damages against the city, but that's going to be a difficult undertaking, given the guilty plea that's still on the books. The police chief has not carried through on his promise to mount a big review of arrests for failure to ID.

But why should he? Why worry about a few bogus arrests? The people down on the Street of Broken Dreams will know what to do with them.

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