By JOSEPH HAMRICK
Hunt County recently paid more than $7,000 for attorneys to represent defendants in the 196th District Court, despite no court records indicating the defendants were unable to pay for an attorney themselves.
From April 9 to May 14 of this year, 196th District Court Judge Steve Tittle appointed court attorneys for 39 individuals whom he certified to be indigent and could not afford legal counsel.
If a defendant cannot afford legal counsel, the Hunt County Commissioners Court pays for the attorneys from its general fund.
According to criminal cost bills obtained from the county, Tittle signed orders certifying that “The defendant in the above cause has on file in the court an affidavit(s) that s/he is indigent and can’t afford counsel.”
None of the records on file show an affidavit claiming any of the 39 defendants declared inability to pay for an attorney. On 28 of the 39 criminal cost bills, that portion of the bill was either crossed out or whited out.
The total cost of the 39 defendants came to be $7,350, which was taken from the general fund of Hunt County to cover the cost.
Hunt County Judge John Horn said Tittle’s use of appointing attorneys to individuals who have not claimed indigency is an abuse of the legal system.
“It appears to be abused in an egregious manner,” he said. “It looks to be an absolute abuse in what the system is designed to do, and we all suffer.”
Horn said when the county is trying to cut costs in the current economic climate, having to cover the cost of these court appointed lawyers will hinder the commissioners’ budget.
“When you take just this brief snapshot, from a financial analysis and look at it as the practice coming out of that particular administration, it has a drastic impact on allocation of funds that could be used for much more important things,” he said, indicating that the funds could have been used for law enforcement, roads and county employees. “This is just one small part of the overall financial impact.”
According to an interlocal agreement for allocation of funds the county receives from Texas for indigent defense, the county is expected to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next five years.
Horn said, if an audit was done by the state over Tittle’s use of indigent defense funds, it could inhibit the county’s ability to receive those funds.
“That would be a tremendous burden to the people of Hunt County,” he said, adding that the taxpayers of Hunt County would have to cover the cost of the indigent defense. “What happens if this practice becomes the norm of operation? We would go broke.”
Tittle declined to comment on issue.
“Judges cannot talk about pending matters,” Tittle said. “It is a violation of the ethical rules pertaining to all judges.”
— Caleb Slinkard contributed to this article.