Dallas' Kangaroo Court

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

Forget about the U.S. Supreme Court. Forget about the Florida Supreme Court. If you want to see where the rubber meets the road in the land of jurisprudence, take just a minute and come downtown with me to the Dallas Municipal Court System at old City Hall, 2014 Main St. I've got a case that will make you forget everything you thought you learned listening to the justices count angels on the heads of pins.

This is the sleazy, sticky-wicket world of cheap, mass-produced justice. The loud tiled corridor outside the courtrooms here is the Street of Broken Dreams, crowded with prostitutes, drunk drivers, city code violators, and hapless fools who either can't buy their way out or don't even know they're supposed to.

Here is how things work here: Last April 30, Donato Garcia, a 44-year-old construction worker who is a legal immigrant from Mexico, was Maced by Dallas police and arrested in front of his two children on a charge of "failure to ID," meaning they had demanded to see his identification and he didn't show it to them.

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.

There were language problems and other difficulties. Garcia is a solid citizen with no arrest record. He was dozing in his car, waiting for his wife to get off work at the Reunion Hyatt hotel. He was beaten and cuffed by several officers and hauled off to jail.

On September 7, I wrote a column about this case for the Dallas Observer ("Contempt of Cop"). Shortly after that, Creighton Webb did a good piece on it for Channel 11 News. On September 12, the Dallas Police Citizens Review Board held the first of two hearings on the Garcia case. Somewhere in there, police Chief Terrell Bolton admitted it's against the law and against departmental policy to arrest people for failure to ID and promised a big departmental review. So there was growing focus on this case.

On September 18, David Davis, Garcia's lawyer, went to Municipal Court No. 8, the court of Judge Jay Robinson, and got Garcia's failure to ID case delayed until December 11. Then, two days later, a lawyer named Walter A. Knowles was walking down the busy corridor just outside Judge Robinson's courtroom.

Out of the crowd, a face popped into view. It was an assistant city attorney. According to Knowles and Davis, the assistant city attorney had a little proposition for Knowles that day. These things happen here on the street. Knowles does a very high-volume business in the municipal courts, mainly traffic tickets. It's a fast-moving commerce. I happen to know Walter Knowles. He lives in my part of town, and he's a good guy.

As it happened, Knowles was the lawyer who had signed on Donato Garcia's original bond on April 30, the night Garcia was arrested. But that was the only contact Knowles had ever had with the Garcia case, until September 20.

Davis, Garcia's criminal defense lawyer, says no one in the Garcia family had ever asked Knowles to sign on Garcia's bond. Davis says Mrs. Garcia went to a bond company and paid them a fee. He says neither she nor anyone else in the family ever talked to Knowles.

I asked Knowles who asked him to sign on Garcia's bond last April. He said, "Somebody called me."

I asked: "Was it the bond company, or was it the Garcia family?"

Knowles laughed ruefully and said, "To tell you the truth, I'm in kind of a Catch-22 situation here. Really, I do so many of these, I couldn't tell you offhand who called me."

For my part, I am not surprised there is a Catch-22 situation here. Catch-22 should be the address for the municipal court system. There is a great variety of possible Catch-22 situations to which Mr. Knowles could be referring, among them the illegal practice by which some bond companies refer business to lawyers.

It happens like this: Family goes to bond company. Bond company says they'll get loved one out of calaboose. Bond company calls lawyer. Lawyer signs on bond. Then lawyer solicits loved one's business. It's against the rules, but no harm, no foul.

Since I don't know which of the many possible Catch-22 situations we're really talking about here, and since I know that Walter Knowles won't tell me, let's just move on, shall we?

The point is, Walter Knowles was never Donato Garcia's lawyer, as far as Donato Garcia knew. So that brings us back to Walter Knowles walking down the hall and the face popping up.

According to Davis and Knowles, the assistant city attorney who approached Knowles that day pointed out that he had signed on Donato Garcia's bond and that Garcia's case was still on the books and unresolved, and offered to accept a sentence of time already served in jail if Knowles would enter a plea of guilty for the man.

The rules allow lawyers in petty misdemeanor cases to appear and enter pleas without the presence of their clients. Knowles often signs plea deals for petty misdemeanor clients. "I'm usually doing them a favor, to get it off the books for them," Knowles says. "Most of them have already forgotten about it or don't care."

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.

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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