By MELODY McDONALD
Star-Telegram staff writer
FORT WORTH -- For more than two decades, Tarrant County defendants convicted of driving while intoxicated have routinely managed to avoid a jail cell by working "labor detail."
Labor detail allows defendants to serve their jail sentence by picking up trash, mowing or painting once a week for the Tarrant County Sheriff's Department.
Now there is a debate brewing about whether the practice is legal.
The Tarrant County district attorney's office recently told judges and defense attorneys it would no longer agree to allow defendants convicted of alcohol-related offenses to work labor detail.
No one was more surprised than Sheriff Dee Anderson, who said the program keeps the population down at the jail, which is at capacity; saves taxpayer money; and benefits the community.
"It came out and blindsided us," Anderson said.
Anderson said that without labor detail, DWI defendants would be required to serve their sentence behind bars. Last week, for example, 1,182 defendants were in the labor detail program. Of that number, 721 had a DWI conviction, which is about average at any given time.
"It certainly would impact us negatively, if you add 700 people to our jail population," Anderson said. "Did we think this through?"
Prosecutor Richard Alpert, chief of the misdemeanor division of the district attorney's office, said that he understands Anderson's concerns but that after researching the issue, his office has no choice.
"We cannot continue to support a practice that our research has shown is not authorized by law," Alpert said. "We can't turn a blind eye and say we're not going to enforce it because people like it."
The Code of Criminal Procedure says that people convicted of DWI cannot be given community service instead of jail time. The district attorney's office concluded that labor detail constitutes community service. Defense attorneys and some judges say labor detail is a program in which a defendant reports to jail and then the sheriff puts him or her to work, often in the hot sun, instead of housing him. They maintain that is it not traditional community service.
What started the debate?
Recently, a defendant convicted of intoxication assault was sentenced to eight years' probation in a plea agreement. As a condition of his probation, he was also ordered to serve 30 days in jail. Ball, his defense attorney, asked prosecutor Robert Foran if he would oppose allowing his client to serve the jail time on labor detail. Foran said he opposed it, in part because he knew the law "didn't allow for it." Ball said that after Foran told him it was illegal, he spoke with Alpert, who researched the law and agreed.
Once the district attorney's office concluded it was illegal, what happened?
Alpert said his office consulted judges, lawyers and other experts to see if they were reading the statute correctly and whether there was "any authority to allow the judges to use labor detail in Tarrant County. Once we exhausted those options, this office came to the conclusion that the practice was not authorized by code. We immediately notified the judges and the defense bar and told them that we would not be able to be part of any future plea agreements that allowed jail service to be done by labor detail. We had no choice but to make it known immediately that we would oppose it if it was used in the future."
What do judges think about it?
Judge Billy Mills, County Criminal Court 3, showed what he thought Monday by sentencing a defendant to labor detail. "I think we disagree on what the law is," Mills said. "I think they are interpreting that statute correctly, but I think it is governed by other statutes and they don't think it is." Mills said he has been told the district attorney's office plans to appeal his sentence. He said he is not "anxious to be the guinea pig" but believes the issue should go to an appellate court. He said he will continue to give labor detail until an "appellate court tells me I'm wrong."
Judge Daryl Coffey, County Criminal Court 8, said this is not the first time this issue has arisen. When the law was changed in 1993, he said, everyone looked at it and decided it was legal. "All this is, is somebody's different interpretation than they had 12 or 13 years ago," he said. Coffey said he will not go against the district attorney on plea bargains but will continue to "do whatever I want" on open pleas and sentencings.
What do the defense attorneys plan to do?
Wes Ball said he and several lawyers are researching the law and plan to meet with the sheriff and judges to discuss the issue. "We are asking the courts not to act with haste," Ball said. "We've been doing something for 20 years, and in two days of research by the DA, and it's all changed? The DA's office has a right to have their policy, but they certainly can't dictate that it is illegal all on their own. That is a question for all sides to weigh in on."
Do any other big cities have labor detail?
Alpert said his investigation hasn't turned up any other large metropolitan cities that use labor detail for DWI offenders.
Will those already serving labor detail be affected?
Officials say they will not.