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Traffic Stop Begins Man’s Kafkaesque Journey Through A Texas County’s Bail System

Still from courtroom video in which a man was jailed for a trespassing charge

Traffic Stop Begins Man’s Kafkaesque Journey Through A Texas County’s Bail System

In February 2017, Mweze Kyungu was pulled over by Houston police officers in Harris County, Texas for a defective brake light and then arrested. “You kill people like me,” Kyungu told the arresting officers, “all you do is kill black people.”

Thus began a nearly year-long ordeal for Kyungu in Harris County’s criminal justice system, detailed in a recent complaint filed by his attorney Franklin Bynum with the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Bynum’s complaint alleges that a Harris County judge demonstrated bias against Kyungu and unlawfully raised his bail.

After the 2017 brake light stop, Kyungu made several court appearances. One was rescheduled because the court couldn’t find a Swahili translator; another, in January 2018, was moved because a translator was sick.

Then, on January 26, 2018, Kyungu was jailed after a court appearance over two minor charges: one for “interference with the duties of a public servant” in the course of the brake light stop as well as an unresolved trespassing charge from 2014 that surfaced as a result.

According to Bynum’s complaint, Harris County Criminal Court Judge Jean Spradling “apparently lost her patience” and “in open court, expressed anger that Mr. Kyungu insisted on a hearing and accused him of ‘faking’ not being able to speak English fluently.” Spradling then said that Kyungu was in contempt of court, revoked his previous bond, set a new one at $20,000, and he was taken into custody.

“Judge Spradling used bail to punish him,” Bynum told The Appeal, “because he wouldn’t plead guilty.”

The Appeal asked Judge Spradling for comment regarding the allegations in Bynum’s complaint. “I have not received confirmation from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct that any complaint has been filed,” an attorney representing the judge replied in an e-mail, “Assuming one was, the Texas Constitution and Government Code require the complaint to remain confidential until the Commission investigates it, finds that it has merit (assuming it does), and makes the matter public. These provisions protect the complainant and prevent dissemination of frivolous allegations against judicial officers. If a complaint has been filed, it is troubling that the complainant …would forward it to the press before it has been investigated by an impartial agency and in apparent violation of these provisions and their spirit.”

Bynum says that Spradling’s treatment of Kyungu is not unusual in Harris County. “Judges were using high bail amounts as de facto detention orders for people charged with these minor offenses,” said Bynum. “They used bail as an instrument of oppression.”

In Kyungu’s 2014 trespassing case, Harris County Magistrate Joe Licata set his bail at $500 and denied a personal bond — which would have meant he could have been released without paying cash up front. Personal bonds are supposed to prevent defendants from being jailed simply for inability to pay bail. In February, Licata and two other Harris County bail hearing officers were sanctioned by the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct for failing to offer personal bonds.

October 6, 2016. Arrestee charged with trespassing at a mall; Arrestee asked to read the bond before he signed it; Judge Licata: “Stop talking, and go on next door.”

August 23, 2016. Judge Licata to arrestee: “Going to deny your personal bond because you’re on probation and had a prior trespassing case just this month.”

Videos of Licata’s bail hearings show him denying personal bond in other trespassing cases. When one defendant asked for time to read the bond before he signed it, Licata told him, “Stop talking, and go on next door.”

When Kyungu was in court in 2017 for the brake light stop, the hearing officerdenied a personal bond in that case, too, after setting bail at $10,000.

By denying personal bonds and using bail as punishment, Harris County judges are engaging in “wealth-based pretrial detention,” according to Civil Rights Corps, a nonprofit organization dedicated to challenging systemic injustice in the American legal system. In 2016, Civil Rights Corps sued Harris County over such practices in federal court; in April 2017, a federal judge ruled that the county’s bail system violated constitutional rights.

One result of the court ruling is that anyone charged with a misdemeanor in Harris County who can’t afford bail is supposed to be offered a personal bond. Since the federal injunction against Harris County’s bail practices, nearly 9,000 people have been released who would otherwise have been detained, according to Civil Rights Corps attorney Elizabeth Rossi.

Nonetheless, when Judge Spradling raised Kyungu’s bail to $20,000 in 2018, he couldn’t pay. The judge accused Kyungu of “dilly dallying” and “playing stupid,” according to the complaint later filed by Bynum. She also claimed Kyungu had been late to court, which Bynum disputes. But even if he hadn’t been punctual, that’s not sufficient reason to set higher bail.

Spradling sent Kyungu to jail on Jan. 26, 2018, a Friday. The following Monday, Bynum filed a writ of habeas corpus and gained his release. “Judge Spradling spoke to a defendant who needed a translator, and for whom a competency motion had been previously filed, addressed him in a language that he did not fully understand,” Bynum wrote in his complaint, “and when she did not like his answers she threw him in jail, with no lawful basis.”

Despite the 2017 federal court ruling that declared Harris County bail practices unconstitutional, judges there continue to use bail as punishment. “What the whole system shows, and what this complaint shows, is either the judges don’t understand, or don’t care about, what it means to put someone in a jail cell,” Civil Rights Corps’ Rossi told The Appeal. “They wield the power to take away somebody’s liberty in a way that displays utter disrespect for the humanity of the person appearing before them.”