Editorial note–this article originally appeared in the Texas Observer:
In Texas, paying for cops, courts and prosecutors with fees from defendants has become more and more popular. But what happens when the drive to do justice on the cheap collides with a rogue prosecutor?
A little after 1 a.m. on a Sunday in March 2012, Charley Salas was driving some friends home after a night out in Brownwood, a rural town midway between Austin and Abilene. Five months pregnant, Salas was the designated driver. Earlier that night, a friend had spilled beer in the backseat, so when a cop pulled her over for making a wide right turn, the smell made him immediately suspicious. He checked her ID and discovered Salas was driving with an invalid license. Though Salas pleaded that she didn’t know, she was handcuffed and taken to jail, where she spent the night.
At her court date in June, she faced either more jail time or a $2,000 penalty. As a 26-year-old single mother, Salas couldn’t afford either. But Brown County Attorney Shane Britton made her an offer: Salas could avoid the charge and go home that day if she took a “pretrial diversion,” a deal similar to probation except that the terms are dictated by a prosecutor, not a judge. Salas would have to avoid alcohol, drugs and “persons or places of disreputable or harmful character” for the next year, and pay monthly fees to the Brown County Court at Law, the Texas Department of Public Safety and to Britton’s office. Those fees added up to nearly $1,400, or about $116 a month. Salas had no idea how she’d pay, but she took the deal rather than risk a conviction, which would come with more state surcharges.
Read more at the Texas Observer.
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