HOUSTON — If you’ve ever made the trek downtown to fight a ticket at Houston Municipal Courts, you know the feeling.
“God, I hope that cop doesn’t show up,” said Stephen Smith.
“Crossing my fingers, ha, ha, ha,” added Shana Johnson.
You see, if the officer who wrote your ticket doesn’t appear at court, you’re likely to have your case dismissed.
That’s what happened in the case of Mary West. She was all smiles leaving the courtroom.
“Oh! I’m so excited, oh my gosh, I’m so excited,” West exclaimed.
On her paperwork was the notation, “Case dismissed, officer not present.”
So the I-Team wanted to know, just how many no shows are there at city courts? We dug through three years of records to find out.
Turns out, of the 1.5 million citations during that time, more than a quarter million—16 percent—were dismissed. The reason: The officer, either a Houston police officer or city inspector, failed to appear.
“If they’re not going to show, why write the ticket?” West said. “It doesn’t make sense to me, it’s just a waste of my time.”
And speaking of a waste of time, records show HPD likes to write tickets at those video poker rooms around town. But afterwards, the officers seldom follow through.
At the Big City game room on Homestead, we found 321 violations had been written. All of them ended up being dismissed because the officers who wrote those tickets, didn’t show up in court.
“Of course we were happy, because the cops didn’t show, we didn’t have to pay,” said game room employee Sendy Garcia.
At another game room located on Tidwell, one officer wrote a whopping 1,725 violations, but all of them were thrown out because the officer failed to appear in court.
“Wow,” said Stephen Smith, who was at court to fight a speeding ticket. “What’s the point? What’s the point in going out there and writing them if you’re not going to show up and enforce them?”
But the Houston Police Department takes a much different stance.
“I think it’s not a huge problem,” said Executive Assistant Chief Kirk Munden.
I-Team: “Where are they?
Munden: “There are a number of legitimate reasons that may cause an officer not to be present in court.”
Munden rattled off everything from sick days, to vacation days, to other calls for service as excused absences. But what about all those tickets at those video poker rooms?
I-Team: “Why bother doing all of this if you’re not going to see it through?”
Munden: “The mere fact that they are out there taking enforcement action does tend to increase observance to our laws.”
I-Team: “So it’s OK to write a ticket and don’t bother seeing it through?”
Munden: “I didn’t say that.”
Munden claimed HPD routinely monitors court attendance and takes action when necessary. But the I-Team found “when necessary” translates into only seven formal disciplinary actions, taken in three years.
And court no-shows aren’t only about speeding tickets and running red lights.
“It’s a health hazard to anyone who stays in houses around here,” said Latika Walker in the 3300 block of Nettleton in Southeast Houston.
She was talking about her neighbor, Bennie Jingles, whose yard is jammed with old cars, appliances and other junk. Walker said it’s a breeding ground for rats.
Walker: “They’re big, like kitten sized.”
I-Team: “Rats as big as cats.”
City inspectors wrote the homeowner 149 violations. For each one, they didn’t show.
”It ain’t (sic) good,” Walker said.
“(The junk) is going to stay there for many more years and the officer I feel is wrong because if you write a ticket, show up to court,” she said.
And there’s another side to court no-shows—lost revenue for the City of Houston. Over the three years we checked, $118 million in court fines were dismissed because the ticket-writing officer failed to appear.