How does the criminal justice system work? KSAT Explains

KSAT examines roles law enforcement, judges, prosecution play and at what stage

SAN ANTONIO – It is complex, full of twists and turns, and critical to public safety: the criminal justice system.

Recent tensions between the San Antonio Police Department and the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office sparked by the shooting of six SAPD officers within a two-week span while in pursuit of suspects triggered this KSAT Explains.

“It profoundly impacts a lot of people’s lives. But the vast majority of society, I think, sort of, you know, gets along without ever really knowing that all of this is operating sort of in the background,” said Michael Smith, Assistant Professor of Law at St. Mary’s University School of Law.

It starts with an arrest

To make an arrest, an officer needs probable cause.

A warrant can come before or after.

“Let’s say that there’s some sort of offense that occurs within an officer’s presence,” said Howard Williams, Ph.D., a lecturer at Texas State University’s School of Criminal Justice & Criminology.

“You still have to fill out what’s called a probable cause affidavit. And that’s basically a legal document that explains to a judge why you arrested that person,” said Williams, who served 36 years in law enforcement, 11 of which he was chief of police in San Marcos.

In a case where law enforcement cannot make an arrest at the scene -- perhaps no suspect was located or a victim contacted police hours after the crime occurred -- officers get a warrant before making the arrest.

“Then you take the probable cause affidavit to the judge first, get the judge to approve the probable cause affidavit and issue a warrant,” Williams said. “That warrant is your legal authorization to then go arrest that person.”

‘Booked into jail’

What most of us consider being booked into jail starts with a process called magistration.

“The district court judges appoint county magistrates to handle everything related to magistration,” said Judge Ron Rangel, State District Judge for the 379th District Court.

A magistrate judge determines whether there is probable cause for the charge against a suspect based on the information presented to them in this initial stage.

Then they set the person’s bond.

“The magistrates are individual judges and, as such, nobody can tell them -- not even other judges, district court judges or county court of law judges -- are unable to tell them how to set bail,” Rangel said.

To determine the bond amount, a magistrate judge generally considers the charge, probable cause, potential threat to community safety and the suspect’s criminal history.

Texas began requiring that criminal history be a factor in setting bail starting April 2022.

That history is contained in the Public Safety Report System.

“The Public Safety Reporting System includes everybody’s criminal history upon arrest anywhere in the country,” Rangel said.

“We only recommend bonds,” said Joe Gonzales, Bexar County District Attorney. “The magistrate judges are the ones that set bond.”

What’s the purpose of a bond, anyway?

Bond or bail is the dollar amount set to ensure that someone shows up in court to answer to the charges they face.

“If someone pays out of pocket, they usually pay in what we call a cash bond. So, they’re paying 100% of the bond amount, and they’re promising that that whole cash amount to the court if they fail to appear,” said Ken W. Good, attorney and board member for the Professional Bondsman of Texas.

If the person appears when they are supposed to, whomever paid the bond money gets that money back.

Using a bail bond company is different.

“The bondsman is posting a promise, a bond, a promise to pay the full amount if you fail to show up,” Good said. “But you’re only paying him like a premium on an insurance policy.”

The industry standard is usually around 10% of the total bond, Good added, though that amount is not regulated by the state.

“The biggest difference between the private industry and anything else is the private industry has an incentive and the ability to go find somebody and bring them back to court when they fail to appear,” he said.

Now its in the DA’s hands

The local district attorney’s office has the case once a person goes before a magistrate judge.

The Bexar County DA’s office has personnel present 24/7 as suspects are booked into jail.

“Initially, law enforcement will come in with the prisoner already having a particular charge in mind. And we will review that and and either agree or disagree,” Gonzales said.

There are two types of local courts in which cases can be prosecuted: county courts and district courts.

“A county court of law handles misdemeanor cases in the state of Texas. Those are Class B and Class A misdemeanors, where somebody can go to jail for up to a year,” Rangel said. “A district court in Texas handles felony cases, which start at the death penalty level or capital cases on down to state jail felonies.”

Felony cases require an indictment from a grand jury, which is made up of local residents.

An indictment means that a grand jury believes there’s enough evidence for a case to move forward.

“If the person is charged with a felony and he doesn’t bond out, we have 90 days to prepare the case for indictment,” Gonzales said.

If those 90 days pass without an indictment, the defendant can ask for a lower bail.

If the person does bond out of jail, the timeline for indictment is much less black and white.

Gonzales said it could be up to a year, but his office strives for an indictment within six months from the time of arrest.

The first shooting that ignited tension

A suspect named Jesse Garcia, who had not been indicted in an 11-month-old case, was accused of shooting three San Antonio Police officers on Aug. 24 as they were trying to arrest him.

Three more officers were shot while pursuing suspects in separate incidents on Aug. 30, Sept. 4 and Sept. 5.

One of those officers shot himself.

In the aftermath, SAPD Police Chief William McManus showed his frustration when questioning why the suspects involved in those shootings were not in jail or had not yet been prosecuted.

In response to some to some of those questions, the DA’s office said some of the cases lacked solid evidence and investigation.

We asked SAPD for an interview about their role in the criminal justice process, but the department’s public information office declined, saying the topic was too broad and depended largely on the nature of the case.

In a previous interview in September, when asked whether there is communication between SAPD and the DA until a case goes to trial, McManus responded by saying, “There’s supposed to be.”

Garcia was indicted in that 11-month-old case on Sept. 7, two weeks after he was arrested for allegedly shooting those three officers and leading police on a chase and into a standoff.

A literal case-by-case basis

Once a suspect is indicted, prosecution can then proceed.

But how that case proceeds depends on the nature of the case.

Each comes with its own circumstances, witnesses and evidence, which technology has turned into a double-edged sword.

There may be hours of footage from surveillance cameras, body-worn camera or even doorbell cameras, which someone must review.

No matter how a case moves forward, opinion weighs heavily every step of the way.

“It starts with the discretion of law enforcement. Who do we investigate? Who do we decide to arrest?” Smith said.

“The district attorney’s office has the discretion as to what cases that they’re going to accept from the police,” Rangel said. “When they accept those cases from the police, how they file those cases.”

“The individual body that has the most discretion within the system is really within the DA’s office,” he added.

Not to mention the opinion of 12 jurors that often ultimately decide the fate of a case.

A failure to communicate?

The Bexar County District Attorney’s Office has its own investigators, which Gonzales says do work with local law enforcement.

“There are times we’ll have to gather some of the evidence that may be missing. They may have to locate witnesses. Sometimes what they have to do is transport witnesses to court,” he said.

Gonzales said the tension between his office and SAPD has led to an improvement in communication between the two.

“I think we’ve made a lot of strides in the last couple of days with our communication with law enforcement,” Gonzales said. “I know Chief McManus and I have had several conversations and we both agree that it is in the best interests of this community that we continue to work together. And so that’s where that’s where we’re heading.”

About the Authors:

Myra Arthur is passionate about San Antonio and sharing its stories. She graduated high school in the Alamo City and always wanted to anchor and report in her hometown. Myra anchors KSAT News at 6:00 p.m. and hosts and reports for the streaming show, KSAT Explains. She joined KSAT in 2012 after anchoring and reporting in Waco and Corpus Christi.

Valerie Gomez is lead video editor and graphic artist for KSAT Explains. She began her career in 2014 and has been with KSAT since 2017. She helped create KSAT’s first digital-only newscast in 2018, and her work on KSAT Explains and various specials have earned her a Gracie Award from the Alliance for Women in Media and multiple Emmy nominations.