Two criminal court judges have told the Harris County Sheriff’s Office to not bring them inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19.
The orders state that a Harris County Jail inmate “who previously tested positive for the virus” was brought to a courtroom Tuesday and two judges — Herb Ritchie in the 337th District Court and Greg Glass in the 208th District Court — told law enforcement officials they were prohibited from doing it on their turf.
The incident in question happened in Judge Danilo Lacayo’s 182 District Court, the inmate’s lawyer said.
Defense attorney Brian Roberts said he was not told his client had tested positive April 27 for the novel coronavirus because of HIPAA guidelines. The inmate, who he declined to identify because of his medical history, spent the next two weeks isolated at the jail. A day after his isolation ended, the inmate was taken to court for a plea hearing, Roberts said.
The inmate was discussing the plea agreement during a teleconferencing call with Roberts when he revealed that he had recently tested positive. The inmate did not appear to be symptomatic but asked that the judge be told of the diagnosis, Roberts continued.
“He wanted the judge know. I told the bailiff,” Roberts said. “All hell broke loose at that point.”
The judge had the inmate removed from the holding area, which had about three other inmates in it, Roberts said. The court was staffed with a bailiff, court coordinator, probation liaison and a clerk.
The situation was alarming to Roberts because he had no idea that his client had tested positive or any assurances that he was negative after a two-week quarantine. His client was never retested, he said.
“I think there’s so little known about (the virus),” Roberts said. “Two weeks may be enough but certainly the jail can’t promise that.”
He assumes other inmates have been brought to court under similar circumstances.
“I have to assume if my client tested positive for 14 days and then brought to court, this has happened with other defendants,” Roberts said.
Non-essential court proceedings that cannot be done remotely have been postponed until June 1. Inmates have appeared for their cases remotely from the jail, including for plea hearings.
Last month, a grant to the Houston Health Foundation sent 2,000 nasal swabs to the jail to have quarantined inmates tested. After that, medical officials had hoped to test for asymptomatic carriers during the booking process to prevent them from being added to the negative general population.
Roberts’ client was jailed in January, he said.
Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jason Spencer said their legal team sent an email Thursday to various legal groups, including the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, explaining how symptomatic and asymptomatic detainees are handled when it’s time for court.
A snippet of the email, written in all-caps, said that detainees who have previously tested positive “were not pulled for court until they presented little to no risk of being contagious per the CDC and medical expert guidelines.”
Mark Thiessen, who started Thursday as the new president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, did not find the protocol reassuring.
“Can we honestly gamble on that,” he asked.
The sheriff’s office has left it up to the judges to request “other special precautions when pulling detainees for your particular court” according to the email.
Thiessen would like to see all previously positive inmates to test negative before they are brought to court and for the sheriff’s office to share how many inmates were brought to court after testing positive.