Criminal JusticeLocal NewsProminent Civil Rights Attorney Alleges Harris County Bond Reforms Are Illegal, Calls ODonnell Settlement ‘Improper’

In a lawsuit over the murder of Caitlynne Guajardo, a prominent civil rights attorney poses legal challenges to misdemeanor bail reforms in Harris County.
August 5, 2021
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Attorney Ben Crump, who has worked on high profile civil rights cases including Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, along with local attorney Brian Mazzola has filed a federal lawsuit against 26 Harris County judges and magistrates alleging the county has enacted illegal bail bond reforms and violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of a murder victim.

The nationally known attorney teamed up with Houston lawyer Mazzola to file the civil lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of Melanie Infinger, mother of Caitlynne Guajardo, a young woman brutally stabbed to death in August of 2019.

20-year-old Caitlynne was four months pregnant with her second child when she filed charges against her husband Alex Guajardo after he allegedly hit her in the face and killed her pet cat by submerging the animal in a bag of bleach.

Since Guajardo, 22, had already been released on personal recognizance (PR) bonds for two DUI charges and a hit-and-run charge, the family believed that he would be detained for Caitlynne’s safety. Instead, Magistrate James Callan with Harris County Criminal Court 4 under Judge Shannon Baldwin ordered his release on another PR bond that only required the payment of a $150 fee.

Less than 24 hours later Guajardo was re-arrested and charged in the stabbing death of Caitlynne and her unborn child.

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The lawsuit, Infinger et al v Harris County, Texas et al, outlines the circumstances of Caitlynne’s murder, but directly addresses the legality of a settlement currently governing the county’s misdemeanor bail practices.

The Infinger complaint alleges that the county’s recent overhaul of the criminal bail system places the rights of those accused of crime over the rights of law-abiding citizens “without input from the Supreme Court of Texas or the Texas Legislature.”

Crump and Mazzola specifically cite “Rule 9,” a policy adopted by the county as a result of another federal lawsuit over the constitutionality of misdemeanor bail policy known as ODonnell v Harris County.

Rule 9 stipulates that judicial officials may not require money bail unless they can provide “substantive findings” on a misdemeanor suspect’s ability to pay. Consequently, most misdemeanor suspects are automatically given PR bonds.

However, under the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Article 17.15, judicial officers are required to consider five factors in setting bail, including that “bail shall be sufficiently high to give reasonable assurance” of compliance, that the nature of the offense and circumstances are to be considered, and that the “future safety of a victim of the alleged offense and the community shall be considered.”

The plaintiff’s attorneys write that Rule 9 “substantively changed the rules…making it difficult for judges to keep dangerous people detained and off the streets.” In addition, the suit notes that defendants in ODonnell did not have the authority to enact changes to Texas law that only apply to Harris County.

“As a direct result of the acts and/or omissions of Defendant Harris County, including but not limited to the implementation of Rule 9, Caitlynne Guajardo and her unborn child were fatally injured on August 3, 2019,” said the attorneys.

Therefore, the suit argues, Caitlynne Guajardo was deprived of her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to “life, liberty, bodily integrity, due process of law, the right to be free of further crime by her attacker, the right to be treated equally without regard to race, and the right to public safety.”

Attorneys for Infinger also allege that Harris County’s settlement of the ODonnell lawsuit was “improper.”

In 2018, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a finding that Harris County’s bail practices at that time were unconstitutional but called proposed remedies “overbroad” and remanded the case back to the Houston court for appropriate revisions. 

After the 2018 elections, however, Democrats took control of the county’s judicial courts and commissioners court and merely settled the lawsuit in a consent decree that included and expanded beyond the original “overbroad” remedies decried by the Fifth Circuit.

The Infinger complaint pointedly states that the trial court did not have the authority to grant “some or all of the relief” contained in the settlement, and that consequently the ODonnell consent decree “has no more force than any other agreement between a government official and a private party.”

While application of the ODonnell settlement is limited to misdemeanor bail policies, another federal lawsuit, Russell v Harris County, relates to bail setting for felony suspects, and many of Harris County’s judges have been exercising leniency in setting bond for felony suspects, including those accused of committing violent crimes.  

Texas Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) has also worked with Infinger on passing a “Caitlynne’s Law” that would have prohibited magistrates from releasing defendants on PR bond for offenses committed while out on an existing PR bond, but the bill did not pass during the regular session. 

In response to the details of the new lawsuit, Bettencourt called Rule 9 an “abomination.”

“It modifies state law to default to magistrates that they have to use personal recognizance bonds,” Bettencourt told The Texan.

Another lawsuit challenging bail practices in Dallas County that has been appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals may also have implications for Harris County. Among the issues raised in Daves v Dallas County is the question as to which officials have immunity in related lawsuits and whether the federal court judge had the authority to order the extensive remedies proscribed in ODonnell.

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.