SAN ANTONIO – Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales on Wednesday formally announced sweeping changes to how his office will prosecute criminal trespass cases.
Under the new policy, prosecutors have been instructed to reject charges if all of the following conditions are met:
- The arrest is made at a non-residential place.
- Criminal trespass is the only charge.
- The defendant appears to be homeless.
- The defendant does not have any history of violence and is not currently on probation or deferred for any offense.
According to internal records leaked to the KSAT 12 Defenders on Tuesday, the policy was put in place Saturday.
A spokesperson confirmed the policy Tuesday evening and a press conference was held Wednesday morning, during which Gonzales and other county leaders said the new rules are a step in the right direction.
"We should not incarcerate the homeless," said Gonzales, who disputed claims that the policy as it is currently written makes it more likely that a non-homeless member of the population will be prosecuted for criminal trespass.
"It's designed to focus on the segment of society that we believe is being targeted right now. That is the homeless population," he said.
The policy was put in place two days after the death of inmate Jack Ule, 63, who last week was found unresponsive in his jail cell.
Court records show Ule remained in custody for weeks after being arrested in early April on a criminal trespassing charge at a local hospital.
He was held on a $500 bond, meaning a $50 payment would have likely been all that was needed to release him on bond.
Sheriff Javier Salazar said Wednesday that around 50 people currently in jail are being held under similar circumstances.
Ule was the second inmate in four months to die at the jail while being held on a criminal trespass charge.
Janice Dotson-Stephens, 61, died in December after being arrested in July.
In her case, a $30 payment is likely all it would have taken to be released on bond.
The district attorney's new policy was immediately met with criticism.
A press release put out by the San Antonio Police Officers Association during Gonzales' press conference said the new rules give the homeless a free pass to infringe on the rights of business owners.
"Unless you stop the behavior, it's going to continue and it's actually going to get worse," said SAPOA President Mike Helle.
"The jail is not the right place for them. But ignoring the crime and the situation is not the right answer."
Gonzales said charges will still be weighed on a case by case basis.
A release outlining the new policy states that if there is any indication of a mental health issue, the arrested person will still be processed at the county's Justice Intake and Assessment Annex and could potentially get a mental health evaluation.
San Antonio Police Department Chief William McManus released the following statement on Wednesday:
"The DA's recent policy regarding criminal trespassing cases does not prevent officers from making arrests for any criminal trespass violations. Nothing changes for us in the way we respond to and handle these cases. SAPD officers will continue using discretion and making arrests based on probable cause, for any offense, as we have always done."