Student, Father Jailed for Missing Four Midnight Phone Calls

The last time Hillary Clinton ran for President, in 2008, I remember clearly one of the ads that she ran. It was meant to communicate that she was the candidate who was ready to handle serious international crises. It featured sweeping shots of sleeping children. While a phone rings in the background, the narrator tells us it’s 3am and the phone is ringing in the White House. There’s a crisis. And it asks us, “Who do you want answering that phone call?”


I remember watching the ad. It was the first time that it had really occurred to me that the job of President truly was a 24-hour-day gig. I thought to myself, “I sleep with my phone in the other room. On vibrate. I can’t be expected to wake up in the middle of the night if the phone rings. Besides, I’m a heavy sleeper.  Who would be calling me at that hour anyway? I don’t know if I’d even wake up, let alone answer it even if I heard the phone ring.


It never occurred to me until this week that a person might go to jail for missing a few phone calls in the middle of the night.


But that’s exactly what happened to one of my clients this week. He’s a blue collar worker and a father of a small child. At night he goes to school to make a better life for himself and his son. When he was charged with DWI, the judge granted him a pretrial release bond—a frequently ballyhooed rarity in Harris County. As a condition of the release, the judge ordered my client to have a landline installed in his house, and to receive phone calls from Harris County Pretrial Services every day after his 7pm curfew.


Like most Americans these days, he didn’t need a home phone. But he paid to have one installed anyway, because the judge told him to and his freedom depended on it. And every day after his release, he picked up the phone when pretrial services called. Until a couple of weeks ago.


One night, pretrial services called him at 1:04am, and he missed the call. The next night they called at eight minutes to 1am, and he missed that call too, but he called back five minutes later. He missed the calls every night for the next three nights—each call coming in between 11:10pm and 1:40am. And every night for the next two weeks, he caught the phone every time they called.


So it came as a shock to us both when, last Monday, my client was taken into custody as he showed up to meet with his pretrial services officer between court settings. I only found out that he’d been taken into custody because I happened to be in the court and filing something on his case that day. The judge had revoked my client’s personal bond without notifying me or giving my client an opportunity to be heard.


The Texas Code of Criminal procedure says:


“[A] personal bond may not be revoked by the judge . . . except for good cause shown.”

(In case you are wondering, that means after a hearing and evidence that amounts to a really good reason.)


I asked the judge for a chance to be heard, and she acquiesced. In her presence, I elicited testimony from a pretrial services officer of all the times my client had answered the phone or called right back, and that these four midnight phone calls were the only calls they alleged he had missed.  Still, she persisted in revoking my client’s bond, despite my pleadings that he could lose his job, get kicked out of school, or both.


Afterwards, I asked the representative from pretrial services whether these early morning calls, and revocations for missing them were common.  He told me that recently, pretrial services has been making daily phone calls to individuals they supervise in the middle of the night during down time as they work round-the-clock intake for new cases. And, he said, recently he can recall four or five cases where they’ve suggested to judges to revoke pretrial release bonds based on missed middle-of-the-night phone calls.


So the next time you think about that 3am call, and you’re wondering who you trust to pick up the phone, if you’re on pretrial supervision, the answer should be, “yourself.”  If not, you could go to jail.

About Phil Gommels

Phil Gommels is a criminal defense attorney in Houston, Texas. He is the founding attorney at The Law Office of Philip M. Gommels, PLLC. Phil is a veteran of the U.S. Army Reserves, and a former Harris County prosecutor. He frequently speaks on issues surrounding criminal justice and technology.