When Houston city officials erased crucial data from top police commanders’ computer drives, they intentionally destroyed evidence, a federal judge has ruled, according to the Houston Chronicle. The evidence is believed to be relevant to a 2016 class-action lawsuit that accuses officials of false imprisonment when people were jailed for days following warrantless arrests between January 2014 and December 2016.
If the suit goes to trial, the jury will be made aware of this ruling by the U.S. district judge and will likely infer that the officials violated defendants’ constitutional rights to equal protection and violated the 48-hour time limit on detentions prior to a determination of probable cause by a judge.
The suit was filed following the January 2016 arrests of Juan Hernandez and James Dossett. Hernandez spent 49 hours in custody before seeing a magistrate on an assault charge, while James Dossett was held for 59 hours before facing a hearing officer. Hernandez pled guilty after a week in custody, but authorities failed to prove Dossett had drugs and dropped the charges.
Other arrests cited in the suit include defendants who were held for more than 10 days without a probable cause hearing. The plaintiffs’ lawyers maintained that overcrowding at the county jail led to a bottleneck at the city facility. Charles Gerstein, a lawyer for the complainants, said that the city could find ways to remedy the problem, such as releasing people from jail or making sure they got their hearings. Instead, he said, “The city jailed them and let them suffer the consequences of the problems at the county and city jail…They exhibited callous indifference to the rights of poor people.”
City lawyers claimed the scope of information the plaintiffs were asking was confusing and that it was sensitive police data. Even so, the judge held that not only had the city failed to deliver thousands of promised documents but also misrepresented what information it had.
Another lawyer for the plaintiffs, Amanda Elbogen, described the city’s legal department as “Either in disarray, or incompetent, or possibly unethical, or all three.”
Officials admitted that records curators failed to preserve documents on hard drives and continued a practice of deleting data despite the city being obligated to retain it, once the inmates sued.
The ruling is a notable one, as it will tell the jury that the plaintiff’s lawyers have already proven all the points they needed to establish, according to law professor Sandra Guerra Thompson.
“There’s still a chance a jury could rule in the city’s favor, but basically, the judge is instructing them that the plaintiffs have won,” she said.