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Operation Lone Star border arrest cases can’t be heard in Central Texas, appeals court rules

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Gabriel C. Pérez
/
Texas Standard
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Presidio/Ojinaga Port of Entry between Presidio and Ojinaga, Mexico.

A judge in Central Texas’ Travis County can’t get involved in cases focused on arrests at the border, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled on Wednesday.

The issue in particular involves state District Judge Jan Soifer’s dismissal of a trespassing case against an Ecuadorian man seeking asylum – but more broadly it has to do with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, the multimillion-dollar effort that has surged state resources at the border. Because only federal authorities can handle issues directly related to illegal crossings, when Texas troops get involved, arrests have to be on different charges, such as trespassing or vandalism.

Katie Hall, a courts reporter at the Austin American-Statesman, joined Texas Standard to explain how a judge in Travis County got involved with dismissing a border case in the first place – and what the appeals court ruling means going forward. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: How did this case involving an Ecuadorian man get before Judge Soifer in the first place? 

Katie Hall: So technically, the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure does say that these types of challenges can be filed in any county in the state, and so a defense lawyer who was representing this Ecuadorian man decided to file the challenge in Travis County. [Soifer] ultimately dismissed the trespassing case against him back in January.

And then after that, I understand that she became flooded basically with similar requests?

Yes, absolutely. So a legal defense group at that point decided to file challenges for more than 400 arrests that they said were part of Operation Lone Star. At that point, the Court of Criminal Appeals stayed Judge Soifer’s ability to hear those cases because Kinney County, which is where the arrest had occurred, decided to appeal.

So what does this ruling mean – that only border-based judges can handle these cases?

Yeah, basically. The appeals court did acknowledge that technically you are allowed to file this challenge in any county; however, they stressed that if you are filing it outside of the county where the charge occurred, it has to be very a extenuating circumstance. They said in almost every case, you’ll have to file it in the county where the charge occurred, and if that’s impossible, then at that point, it’s only reasonable to file in an adjacent county – and of course, Travis County is many, many miles away from the border, and they found that that was unreasonable to file the challenge there.

Is this ruling limited to Operation Lone Star, or could there be broader applications?

At this point, the focus is on Operation Lone Star. The Court of Criminal Appeals said that Travis County cannot rule on these pending Kinney County cases. However, there absolutely could be broader implications. It definitely makes clear how the appeals court feels about filing a challenge to a charge in a different county, and it’s clear that attorneys will likely not be successful if they’re trying to challenge their clients’ cases outside of the court where they’re filed.

Is there a concern at all – among any of the parties involved here – that limiting these cases to the border counties is going to overwhelm them?

It’s pretty clear that they are quite overwhelmed. There have been thousands of cases filed in Kinney County, and Kinney County does not typically deal with thousands of these cases. Defense attorneys who are representing these clients have said that they’ve faced a slew of issues that they’ve never faced before as criminal defense attorneys, such as delays in people getting counsel, clients being persuaded to not have a lawyer present; people for many months were waiting in jail, and defense lawyers have said that these delays are violating people’s constitutional rights.

What happens next? Is this appeals court ruling the final word?

This CCA ruling is the final word, so this matter is now settled – at least as it pertains to whether Travis County can weigh in on these Kinney County cases.

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Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.