Dallas constable's court filings questioned

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by By KEVIN KRAUSE and ED TIMMS / The Dallas Morning News

wfaa.com

Posted on September 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Updated Monday, Oct 19 at 5:51 PM

Dallas County Justice of the Peace Luis Sepulveda can count the number of traffic cases filed by Precinct 5 Constable Jaime Cortes' deputies in his court on one hand. In fact, with one finger.

"We received one ticket by accident," Sepulveda said.

Since Cortes was appointed after his predecessor resigned in 2007 amid allegations of misconduct, his deputies have consistently filed traffic cases in Justice of the Peace Juan Jasso's court.

From October 2008 through July, traffic cases in Jasso's court brought in more than $3 million in fees, compared with less than $2,000 in Sepulveda's court. And those cases, Sepulveda said, were filed before Cortes was appointed.

Long lines often can be found outside Jasso's court offices.

Sepulveda said he believes political and personal differences are behind Cortes' actions. But that, he said, shouldn't affect the performance of his duties.

"The ones who are being hurt are the people who are out there waiting, who are on their lunch break or taking time from their work to come in and take care of their tickets," he said.

The uneven distribution of traffic cases in Oak Cliff is the latest example of county officials questioning the way constables run their offices, including the unsupervised impounding of thousands of vehicles. County commissioners have grown increasingly concerned about such practices, detailed in part by The Dallas Morning News.

Sepulveda and Jasso, who both work out of the Beckley Courthouse in Oak Cliff, have tried to get the workload distributed more evenly - so far, without success.

That, in part, reflects the unique status of constables in Texas, who, as elected officials in a constitutionally established office, have relatively little oversight. Justices of the peace and county commissioners cannot dictate where a constable files cases.

"We cannot refuse any filings," Jasso said. "So whatever is filed here, is filed here. Whatever is filed over there, is filed over there."

Cortes would not comment on the situation. But his attorney, Domingo Garcia, said the situation is temporary. Garcia said Cortes is trying to keep his employees in one court while he cross-trains them.

Garcia said Cortes does intend to begin filing cases in Sepulveda's court but has no start date. He said Cortes is the victim of a political witch hunt and smear campaign orchestrated by Republicans and that this matter is part of that campaign.

"He's the elected constable with discretion to do what he will," Garcia said.

Both Sepulveda and Jasso are Democrats.

Randy Cuevas said he and his son Joshua spent several weeks trying without luck to contact Jasso's court by phone after Joshua was pulled over for speeding in July.

The citations give people the court's phone number to call for instructions. But Cuevas said the voicemail was always full and that he and his son could never get an actual person to pick up.

"We went through that day after day," he said.

Frustrated, Cuevas contacted County Judge Jim Foster for help.

Foster, a Democrat, said similar complaints have been pouring into his office about Jasso's backlogged court. He said Cortes is inconveniencing people for "no earthly reason."

"He wants to let the citizens of this county suffer so he can participate in his little private feud," said Foster, who was a driving force behind a civil investigation the commissioners ordered earlier this week against Cortes regarding possible employment law violations.

Foster said he asked Cortes to appear in Commissioners Court, but the constable refused. He said he plans to try to force Cortes to appear next Tuesday to explain why he refuses to allow his deputies to file any tickets in Sepulveda's court.

Commissioners will vote this Tuesday on whether or not to issue a subpoena to Cortes to appear.

Sepulveda said he has repeatedly written commissioners asking that tickets issued by Precinct 5 deputy constables be fairly distributed.

"It raises a lot of questions as to whether he wants those cases processed or not," said Commissioner Maurine Dickey, a Republican.

Dickey said she will vote Tuesday to order Cortes to appear before the Commissioners Court to explain himself.

"I think he needs to be asked in public to give his explanation as to why he's filing them in an already seriously overburdened court," she said.

Commissioner Ken Mayfield, also a Republican, mirrored that sentiment.

"It's pretty juvenile on the part of Constable Cortes. He needs to put this behind him," he said. "He's causing a huge backlog, and it's not necessary."

Commissioner John Wiley Price, a Democrat, said he doesn't blame Cortes for steering clear of Sepulveda's court. He said Sepulveda created the situation by opposing Cortes' campaign for constable and actively working against him.

"He's harassed Cortes and jacked with him in many ways. He doesn't have to deal with him," Price said. "If Constable Cortes and his officers don't have a comfort level in using Sepulveda's court, why would they file there?"

Jasso said he gets along well with Sepulveda and Cortes and did not want get involved in their personal dispute. However, he said that how traffic cases are being filed does affect his court and how well the public is served. And he supports an equitable distribution of the cases.

Sepulveda said his troubles with Cortes are in part because he has raised concerns about alleged misconduct involving Cortes with authorities and also because he has been wrongly accused of supporting an opposing candidate when Cortes ran for office in 2008. As a judge, Sepulveda said, he can't support or endorse candidates.

Cuevas, whose son opted for a driving-safety course, said Cortes' refusal to file tickets in Sepulveda's court raises questions about his motivations.

"If you're really about law enforcement, what court it goes to doesn't matter," he said.

; etimms@dallasnews.com

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