Dallas paperwork mix-up strands Lancaster teacher in holding tank
10:29 AM CDT on Saturday, September 2, 2006
By KEVIN KRAUSE / The Dallas Morning News
Being hauled out of school in handcuffs because of a $50 seat-belt ticket was bad enough for Lancaster High School music teacher Theresa Dobbs.
She had no idea what was yet to come.
That seat belt ticket – the only blemish on her driving record – would result in a harrowing three-day stay in a crowded holding tank at the Dallas County Jail last week without a chance to see a lawyer, bail bondsman or judge.
Ms. Dobbs, 51, was lost in the system during her first brush with the law because of a paperwork mix-up. A clerk didn't retrieve her paperwork from a tray, and she wasn't placed on the daily municipal court docket.
"I paid the consequences for someone else's mistakes," Ms. Dobbs said.
Dallas and the Sheriff's Department have blamed each other for the blunder.
It's the second case to surface in the past year in which someone charged with a Class C misdemeanor – punishable by a maximum fine of $500 and no jail time – has been forgotten in the Dallas County Jail.
An officer arrested orchestra director Theresa Dobbs at Lancaster High School. Walter Mann Sr., a 69-year-old indigent man suffering from schizophrenia, was locked up for 15 months without ever seeing a lawyer last year after missing a hearing on a contempt charge. "Obviously not a lot has changed," said David Finn, a local defense attorney who represents a former inmate suing the county. "Officials have promised for months that the problems have been solved. Obviously, that's not the case."
Ms. Dobbs was arrested Aug. 24 after missing her court date. She wasn't released until the night of Aug. 26, after her paperwork was found. A friend went to the jail Aug. 25 with cash in hand to get her out, but a sheriff's deputy first told him he had no record of Ms. Dobbs and then that she had been released the day before.
"It was kind of freaking me out," said Eddie Haymaker, who searched for his friend afterward in vain.
Ms. Dobbs, Lancaster High's orchestra director, said she sat on a concrete floor with more than two-dozen other women, avoiding brawls over dirty mattresses and watching prostitutes and drug addicts come and go.
"You get hope, and then all of a sudden your hope is dashed," said Ms. Dobbs, who also teaches middle school students. "It's very demoralizing, and you get this feeling of hopelessness."
Assistant Chief Sheriff's Deputy Mona Birdwell said paperwork for misdemeanor inmates is placed in a tray on both the first and second floors of the jail as a "failsafe." Since Ms. Dobbs was held on a city ticket only, she said, a Dallas employee should have picked it up from the first floor and delivered it to municipal court officials so the case could be placed on the docket.
However, Joe Polino, assistant director of the city's municipal court, said the long-standing policy is to pick up the paperwork from the second-floor tray. He said Ms. Dobbs' paperwork wasn't there and that he wasn't aware of a tray on the first floor.
What steps should be taken to prevent this from happening again? Comment | View Results Had the paperwork been where it was supposed to be, Ms. Dobbs might have made the afternoon court docket on Aug. 24 and walked out of jail the same day.
The city prepares the daily dockets, telling the Sheriff's Department whom to bring to court and when, Chief Birdwell said. The municipal court holds hearings in the jail twice a day, every day, at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.
"I'm sitting here as quiet as a church mouse wondering why am I being passed over for a court date," Ms. Dobbs said. "If it could happen to me, it could happen to just about anybody."
Missed court date
Ms. Dobbs' ordeal began late last year at the intersection of Walnut Hill Lane and Central Expressway. She had just pulled out of a shopping center and said she was in the act of putting on her seat belt when a Dallas police officer stopped her for not wearing one.
She asked for a hearing to contest the ticket but accidentally entered the wrong date in her electronic organizer. When she didn't show up in court on April 4, a warrant was issued for her arrest.
Ms. Dobbs acknowledges she should have taken care of the ticket then.
Almost five months later, Deputy Constable Ronald Bostic showed up at the high school to arrest her. She wasn't teaching a class at the time but said being led out in handcuffs was humiliating.
It was the first time Ms. Dobbs had "even been close to a jail." And this was a jail that has failed three state inspections in a row and is being scrutinized by the federal government for unsanitary conditions and inadequate medical care.
Ms. Dobbs said she was placed in a filthy holding tank, about 10 by 15 feet, with only one concrete bench. Although a sign said it could hold eight people at most, as many as 28 were crowded in there, most of them sitting on the floor, she said.
A toilet with no privacy – and often no toilet paper – was in a corner. There were no windows, and the lights were on 24 hours a day.
'Some kind of a gulag'
She slept little and passed on meals, which consisted of two sandwiches served dry with a single piece of bologna. There was nothing to do but sit and stare, which she did as five court hearings passed her by. People charged with worse crimes came and went. Jail guards ignored her complaints, she said.
"Every time my court hearing got passed over, I couldn't get a straight answer from anybody," she said. "The guards don't want to listen to you."
On Aug. 26, her name was finally called. She pleaded no contest and was sentenced to time served. After paying an administrative fine, she was free to go.
Ms. Dobbs, a crime watch member in her neighborhood, said the experience has opened her eyes. She said she filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union because she wasn't given due process.
"You're at the mercy of these people, and they do not care. People should not be treated with such indignity," she said. "I felt like this was some kind of a gulag."