A weekend column in the San Antonio Express-News
addressed the high volume of "quality-of-life" cases—tickets issued for ordinance violations like camping, panhandling and public consumption—dismissed by the City’s municipal court in recent months.
Express-News columnist Gilbert Garcia wrote that over a three-month period the court dismissed more than 8,600 quality-of-life cases. The court's reasoning, Garcia writes, was that the cases were "defective complaints."
A few weeks ago, we reported
that from Jan. 1, 2013 to early October, SAPD issued more than 12,000 tickets for these same types of violations.
The paper cites an off-the-record police officer to illustrate what it characterizes as an “internal conflict” between SAPD and the court regarding how to handle the overwhelming number of quality-of-life citations, with the police arguing that the court is overreaching by "dismissing" cases. The court, however, argues that it has to do something–what court clerk Fred Garcia called “purging”–given the high number of citations issued. Dismissing cases isn't an official policy, Garcia told Gilbert.
The Express-News column argues that the city is missing out on money generated from ticket fines: "nearly $7 million in additional annual revenue … (assuming, of course, that the city would be able to collect on those fines, which is a big assumption)." Yes, it is a big assumption, since oftentimes individuals who get these tickets are indigent and can't pay the fines associated with their tickets.
In our investigation we found that individuals are often given multiple citations during one encounter with the police, racking up hundreds of dollars, sometimes thousands, in fines that they can't pay if they're homeless.
We also found that individuals aren't always given the opportunity to sign their citations. For example, some officers wrote things like "too filthy to sign" or "refused to sign-mentally ill" on the signature line. The signature line of one ticket obtained by the Current read "Blind." This at least raises the possibility that some of these tickets are in fact defective in addition to being an ineffective method of addressing the problem of homelessness.
In the recent debate over San Antonio Police Chief William McManus’s ill-fated proposal to ticket those who give to panhandlers, the police say that they are focused on a class of folks who aren’t truly homeless, but who are essentially low-level con artists, seeking charity that they then spend on cigarettes, drugs and alcohol.
However, the problem is clearly more complicated. How does the city and its officials, including SAPD and the courts, walk the line of addressing aggressive behavior while also being sensitive to the experiences and realities of the homeless?