On March 15, 2021, about two months into his tenure, Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza (D) issued a secret standing order regarding the handling of felony cases in the county. It went into effect immediately.
This is Garza’s secret order.
Garza’s standing order opens with “In the interest of justice and fairness for all persons arrested for felony crimes,” never mentioning crime victims. In fact, the secret order fails to mention victims of crime even one time. It is solely focused on the DA’s power to decline to prosecute arrestees, and what it demands the Travis County Sheriff’s Office should then do when Garza’s office declines prosecution.
“The Travis County District Attorney’s Office will review probable cause affidavits for felony charges brought to the CBF (Central Booking Facility) by arresting agencies in Travis County,” the order says, further saying that after its review of those felony charges, “if the Assistant District Attorney determines, in their discretion, to reject the charge(s) listed in the affidavit…the Assistant District Attorney will provide notice of rejection to the Travis County Sheriff’s Office personnel.” The order then demands that the Travis County Sheriff’s Office release the arrestee. “This order functions as a release card in all cases where the prosecutor has submitted their rejection of the charges,” it says.
The order makes no mention of lesser included charges, which can be lesser felony, misdemeanor, or other charges, and are often determined to be viable in cases even when the initial felony charge may not apply after review or investigation.
I spoke with Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), about this Tuesday morning. The easy-going Wilkison was livid about the order and told me that law enforcement officers have already seen its effects. They are seeing suspects they take in on felony charges released so quickly, per Garza’s order, that they are back on the streets before officers even return to their precincts. This indicates the DA office’s review may not be very thorough. He noted that homicides are up more than 50%. Northwest Austin suffered yet another fatal shooting Monday night, pushing homicides up near 50 for the year.
DA Garza’s tenure has already come under scrutiny multiple times since he took office in January 2021. Crime is skyrocketing on his watch, while he has openly prioritized prosecuting cops on cold cases that have already been investigated. He has set up a catch and release system that put an 8-time felon back on the streets, where he perpetrated a 10-day armed robbery spree and led law enforcement on a chase from just outside Houston into Austin. More recently, an assistant prosecutor quit the office, claiming Assistant District Attorney Trudy Strassburger ordered her to delete evidence from case files. The Austin Police Association has called for an investigation into this disturbing case. If the name in that case rings a bell, Strassburger is the same assistant district attorney who solicited for lawyers who want to prosecute police officers to apply for work with the Travis County DA’s office. The Travis County district attorney’s priorities are more than clear with Garza at the helm: ignore crime victims, hastily release felons and accused felons, and prosecute police officers.
In a press release on the secret order, Wilkison, a lifelong Democrat who worked with numerous Texas Democrat officeholders across a career spanning more than 30 years, blasts fellow Democrat Garza.
“Jose Garza has misused his official position of elected office. Taxpayers are unknowingly funding his whimsical journey of reimagining a Texas with criminals roaming the neighborhoods magically rehabilitating themselves and morphing from home invaders, armed robbers, drug offenders, and mass shooters,” he said.
The release notes how Garza’s order circumvents the usual process:
Prior to DA Jose Garza taking office, the common protocol was for an assistant district attorney, if available, to review an affidavit for sufficient probable cause, and reject only based on insufficient probable cause. The arrested person would later face a magistrate, where again, the affidavit would be reviewed for probable cause and bond would be set. This order allows for the arrestee to be released without being magistrate and regardless of sufficient probable cause that they did commit the felony offense.
Wilkison adds, “Jose Garza has unhitched himself from the two touchstones required to be an ethical prosecutor. In his current political dream state, he no longer needs facts or the law. The public’s safety is endangered.”
Wilkison also told me CLEAT obtained the document after hearing about it from law enforcement officers and discussed it with a candidate for Texas attorney general.
“Eva Guzman,” he said. “She said she believes it’s unconstitutional.”
Eva Guzman was until recently a conservative Republican justice elected to serve on the Texas Supreme Court. She earned the most votes of any officeholder in Texas history more than once during her Supreme career. She resigned that seat and announced her run for Texas attorney general in June. The wife of a retired Houston police officer, Guzman is running on a platform of returning the rule of law to cities that have defunded police — as Austin did in August 2020 — and pushing back against the Biden administration’s executive orders, power grabs, and border chaos. She reportedly raised about $1 million in her first ten days of campaigning.
Behind the scenes, Guzman is also apparently providing leadership to restore common sense back to criminal justice in Texas.