October, 2020, General Advisory

The Judges and Staff of the McLennan County Courts at Law want to thank all of you for your flexibility, understanding and professionalism during the COVI-19 pandemic.  It is far from over, but the powers that be are beginning to sense that we must return to the activity of living, inasmuch as our economic and governmental processes cannot be restricted over the long term without far-reaching negative effects.  In order to progress into a “new” normal, we are constantly having to adjust our rules, procedures and requirements as we move forward.

Even now, we have in place Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals orders which limit our efforts.  We respect and intend to follow those restrictions as we move ahead in the pursuit of justice.

Jury Trials

The McLennan County Courts at Law will be resuming jury trials on a limited basis in November, 2020, with the two Courts, for the most part, alternating between weeks. CCL1 will be holding trials on Nov. 2, 9 and 16, and on Dec. 7, while CCL2 will be taking Nov. 9 and 30, and Dec. 14. Venire-panelists will be qualified at the Waco Convention Center, and the voir dire will be completed in a smaller ballroom at the convention center. Jurors will then be directed to the appropriate court for the afternoon.  Our Courts will conduct jury trials in a vacant District courtroom, or in the annex courtroom, or both.

Due to COVID-19, attorneys with criminal cases scheduled for jury trial will be required, either before or during the week immediately preceding trial, to conference with the Judge and opposing counsel to confirm readiness for trial.  Last minute plea agreements or dismissals will not be favorably received, as you will be taking up one of a very few trial spots that many others are hoping to have. Cases scheduled for jury trial in a Court for a date on which that Court will not be holding a trial will be retained on the docket as “standby” in the other Court.

Probation Revocation Docket

COVID adjustments have forced the Courts to reduce the priority of these matters and to change the scheduling policy.  Beginning November 1, 2020, the Courts will return to the “pre-COVID” procedures, with a couple of exceptions.  Defendants with counsel will be allowed two (2) 4-week resets at the defense attorney’s request, without the need for State approval.  Thereafter, only the Judge may approve a reset, and only by agreement between the parties in writing (a standard reset form will be sufficient).

Motions to Revoke (MTR) and Motions to Adjudicate (MTA) have, of course, backed up significantly, although the MCCSCD and the District Attorney’s office have assisted considerably in regulating the numbers, which we appreciate.  Unfortunately, even before the pandemic, our Courts had effectively adopted procedures in these cases causing inordinate delays in their resolution.

In essence, the level and standard of proof in such cases is substantially different from originally filed criminal charges, and require much less preparation and trial time. Consequently, the Courts will be enforcing the following policy in all such cases until further notice. MTRs and MTAs will be heard no later than on the earliest possible date following 180 days from the date the capias is served.  Once a case exceeds the 180 day threshold, it will automatically be set for a contested hearing, and counsel will be required to arrange for witnesses and to prepare for trial of the issue(s).

Examples of circumstances justifying the Court’s approval of a delay beyond 180 days are as follows: defendant or necessary witness in hospital, failure to appear by a necessary witness following service of subpoena, illness of an attorney or defendant, incarceration of defendant in another jurisdiction, recent appearance of the attorney, etc.  Examples of circumstances which will not be considered are as follows: pending new charges, including felonies, in any jurisdiction, inability to negotiate an agreed resolution, attempts to combine plea agreements, unpaid attorney fees, etc.

Disposition Docket

The pandemic forced radical changes in the disposition docket schedule. Disposition docket routinely involves the most people in one place. You can imagine the backlog for such cases.  The Courts initially expanded the age restrictions on cases which determined when the case was moved to disposition docket. The expanded time limits which required transfer to this docket are being scaled back, and will return to normal in December, 2020.

In each case, the Court administrator will determine whether or not, given our various adjustments, any reset request is subject to approval without the Judge’s signature.  All such reset requests, however, must be approved by counsel for both sides, and must be submitted no later than 3:00 pm on the business day before disposition docket.  We are waiting to hear from the DA’s office whether or not they will agree to waive approval of first and second disposition docket resets.  If that is approved, the first two resets will not require the State’s or the Court’s written approval.

Beginning in November, 2020, as we slowly transition back into a regular disposition docket routine, the docket will be divided into 2 separate dockets each Wednesday - Docket A beginning at 10:30 am, and Docket B beginning at 11:15 am.  Your case will be assigned by the administrator in advance.

All Defendants scheduled for disposition docket, and those accompanying them (no more than 1 guest), must enter the courthouse annex through the alley entrance, not through the main Courthouse entrance. Defendants in Docket A may enter the annex no earlier than 10:15 am, unless courthouse security has cleared the area and is ready to allow entry.  Defendants in Docket B may not enter the annex until after 11:10 am, but in no event before courthouse security admits them.

Veterans Treatment Court

We anticipate the Veterans Treatment Court will provide significant assistance, recovery and relief for many defendants, and we welcome its advent.  Some issues have been raised, as should be expected, which require our attention.

In unfiled cases, if the defendant is a veteran and a possible participant in the treatment court, we encourage the State to confer with Defense counsel to determine if the Defendant is a candidate, and to expedite the process without formal charges, which was the original purpose of the program as envisioned by the Texas legislature.

In filed cases, if an application for Veterans Treatment Court is submitted without our knowledge, (e.g. during the first 180 days of the filed case), if the Defendant is approved, the Defense attorney is responsible for notifying the Court of the approval.  Upon approval for the program, one of 2 things should occur: 1) the State moves immediately to dismiss, or 2) the defense attorney schedules the case for a plea.  These cases should not be left on the docket.

In cases where the defendant is applying for Veterans Treatment Court as a part of a plea for probation, the disposition of the case will be delayed approximately 6 weeks, pending completion of the application process.  At the end of that period, the Court will proceed to disposition, with or without approval for Veterans Treatment Court.

Felonies Reduced to Misdemeanors – Bail

In recent months, due to pandemic related problems at the McLennan County jail, we have been asked by the Sheriff’s Department to take action on bonds for defendants who were originally charged with felonies, but formally charged by Information with a misdemeanor.  Their bail amounts, however, remain as set originally.

We cannot consider the requests of the jail to address this issue, which constitute ex parte communications regarding matters directly related to a case before the Court; consequently, we encourage the defense attorneys in such cases to review the defendants’ bail amount and to take proper action to address the possible issue of unreasonable bonds.

Mental Health Court

Our Mental Health Court is officially operating.  Please consider this option in future cases.

The Mental Health Court can provide some pre-trial services as well, specifically in the area of competence/mental health.  If a defendant is examined for competence, and the expert finds that mental health issues are present, such as bi-polar, schizophrenic, impaired mental capacity, etc., we can add as a condition of bail that the defendant participate in the Mental Health Court pending trial.  This would assist in maintaining the defendant’s compliance with treatment protocols and medication, monitored by qualified professionals.

Consequently, any competence evaluation which reports both a finding of “competent” and the identification of mental health issues will result in the issuance of an order amending the conditions of bail to require participation in the Mental Health Court pending the final resolution of the case. This will occur without respect to the outcome of the competency hearing or trial.  A hearing will not be held on this question unless requested by counsel.

District Attorney PTIP Program

Any pending, filed case in which the District Attorney’s pre-trial intervention program (DA PTIP) has been agreed to by the parties and has been initiated (i.e. approved for and currently participating in the program) no later than October 31, 2020, will be subject to abatement by the Court pending completion of the program.  This will apply as well to all cases currently abated pending completion of DA PTIP. The DA will provide quarterly reports to the Court Administrator regarding each case which is abated.  Failure to provide this information may result in the termination of the abatement order.

Beginning November 1, 2020, the Courts will continue to abate any case admitted into the DA PTIP before the case reaches 250 days after the filing of the Information.  Dismissal and refiling of the case will not begin a new 250 day period.  Without exception, if a defendant is not admitted into the DA PTIP within the 250 day period, admission into the program will not be considered grounds for abatement, in which case the matter will remain on the regular docket and will be processed through trial as any other case.

Deadline Reminders

Complete plea paperwork must be delivered to the administrator for any case, plea or revocation, in which a plea of “guilty,” “nolo contendere” or “true” is to be entered no later than 3:00 p.m. on the preceding business day.

Complete jail docket plea paperwork must be delivered to the administrator no later than 4:00 p.m. on the preceding business day.

Resets of Thursday pleas or revocation hearings must be submitted and approved by 4:00 p.m. on the business day preceding the scheduled date.  Otherwise, such resets will not be considered by the Court until the case is called at the scheduled docket.

Resets of disposition docket which are authorized by local rule in advance must be completed and delivered to the administrator no later than 3:00 p.m. on the preceding business day.

Attention Attorneys!  [June 5, 2020]

Please check the current local rules and the supplemental rules regarding adjustments to scheduling pleas and revocation hearings, special handling of "time-served" pleas, and related procedures!

In addition, please note that the plea packets for probation pleas now have the Probation Department data sheets included.  These are normally completed with probation following pleas; however, during these unusual times, because it is essential to minimize personal contact and facilitate the prompt departure of probationers from the Courthouse, until further notice, in all cases in which probation is being requested, completion of this form by the Defendant in advance of the plea and inclusion of the form with plea paperwork will be mandatory.

Coronavirus Announcements! 
     [March 16, 2020]

Due to factors beyond our control, and in an effort to comply with directives and recommendations from the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the County Courts at Law are adopting these temporary responses, effective through April 3, 2020.
The weekly Arraignment and Disposition Dockets will be cancelled until April 8, 2020.  All cases scheduled during the interim will automatically be rescheduled four (4) weeks later.
The District Courts will not be qualifying jury panels until April 6, 2020, so all jury trials scheduled during the interim will be rescheduled.  Attorneys are encouraged to communicate with opposing counsel and the Court Administrator to agree upon a new date; otherwise, the Administrator will select a date for you.
Cases scheduled on the Revocation Docket during this period may be rescheduled without the Judge's approval, regardless of the prior number of resets if  1) the Defendant is represented by counsel, and  2) the Court has not indicated that no further resets will be granted, that the Defendant is to be tested, or any other notation that requires the Defendant to appear.  Otherwise, the weekly Revocation docket, Jail Plea docket, Plea docket, Pro Se docket, Pre-Trial docket and civil proceedings will take place as scheduled.
Special circumstances, such as Defendants in jail or traveling from distant locations, will be given consideration on request.  If you are ill, please do not come to the Courthouse.  Please do not bring clients, witnesses, support staff or others who are ill or have been in contact with someone infected with the corona virus to the Courthouse.  A simple call to the Court Administrator will suffice.
No one with the County Courts at Law is foolish enough to believe these measures will prevent the spread of this disease, but by taking precautions, we can slow its spread and help avert the impact on both our health care system and our society's ability to self-govern effectively.  Thank you for understanding and working with us.