My client, John, walked out of Bell County district court with his “freedom papers”. His words not mine. John’s road to freedom spanned thirteen years. Back in 2006, John was arrested for possessing a usable amount of cocaine during a raid on a drug house outside Fort Hood. He was another homeless, jobless Army veteran with an incipient addiction. He’d meritoriously served 3 combat tours in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan but was never evaluated for PTSD. He’d never been arrested before.
Back then, he couldn’t make bond and wanted to get out of jail so he agreed to be placed on probation. The judge put him on probation for 6 years. Six (6) years. Probation is no cake walk. He had to report once a month to the probation office. He had to pay fees, fines and court costs adding up to a couple of hundred dollars a month. He had to work off 300 hours of community service, complete and pay for an outpatient treatment program, attend 12 step meetings, complete several other classes, observe a curfew, and find a job and find a place to live and find a ride. A set up for failure. But a better option than going to prison. He got out and he tried, but six years can seem like an eternity when you’re that far behind. Within 6 months he gave up, started using again, left Texas and roamed from state to state. Meanwhile, the county filed a motion to revoke his probation and an arrest warrant was issued for him. But Texas wasn’t really looking for him.
A few months ago, John’s caregiver, Susan, called my office in a panic. She told me that VA stopped his benefits because he was a “fugitive from justice”. VA found the active arrest warrant so VA stopped his issuing his disability check, and refused to authorize his medication and counseling for severe, chronic PTSD with dissociative features, anxiety and anger issues. He wasn’t a danger to others but he was a danger to himself without the meds and treatment. They tried to work with VA but how do you reason with a bureaucratic monolith?
I worked with Susan to obtain his DD214, military awards and commendations, character letters, VA disability rating letter, letters from psychiatrists and providers stating his mental health diagnosis and treatment and medications. VA rated John as 100% disabled.
I initiated contact with the District Attorney’s office to try to get the warrant removed and the probation discharged but as the prosecutor would later tell the judge, “Ms. Harrell has her job to do and I have mine.” I gave the prosecutor the lengthy packet documenting John’s military service and awards, his VA disability rating, and the severity of his mental health diagnosis and extensive treatment. The prosecutor verified that John had not – not – been arrested again during that 13 year absence from Texas. But the prosecutor pointed out that John did not complete any of the probation requirements and was classified as an “absconder”. He said his hands were tied and he didn’t feel good about it.
So Susan drove John back to Texas and he turned himself in on the arrest warrant at the county jail on a Sunday. They brought his five different medications and the jail was administering them once a day though he was supposed to get his anxiety meds four times a day. John was holding it together.
We scheduled his probation revocation hearing for that Thursday. My client would break under the stress of testifying so I called Susan to testify. Susan had even completed the National Caregiver Veteran Training Program offered by VA so she could better assist John. She’s a lovely woman. She’d gone to Goodwill when she got to town to buy an outfit for court. She brought it by the office seeking our approval the day before the hearing. She looked sharp.
Susan told the court that she and John were adopted into the same family but were years apart in age, about 15 years. She’s known him all his life. John was born to a drug-addicted mother whose parental rights had been terminated. John has been living with her in California for about 4 years. She got him into VA for evaluation, diagnosis and treatment. She said it made a huge difference for John though he still has outbursts from time to time. She said on one occasion family and friends were gathered for a backyard barbeque and something triggered John’s PTSD. He started yelling and turning over tables. They called the police who took him to the hospital to get help. Susan testified that John has not used drugs or alcohol while he’s been with her. That he goes to all his VA appointments and takes his meds. Susan testified through her tears that “the Army broke him.” Susan is an army veteran too and she is proud of her military career. But she testified that “the Army broke him.” The courtroom was silent.
I asked the judge for mercy. I told the judge that California must be a liberal state because when their wounded vets act out, the local police take them to the hospital not to jail. I asked the judge to dismiss the probation revocation and release my client from jail that day. I argued that it benefits no one to keep John in jail for any length of time and would grievously set back his mental health recovery. I gave the same packet to the judge that I’d given to the prosecutor documenting John’s meritorious military service and mental health issues.
It’s important to understand that Bell County is home to Fort Hood the largest military installation is the US. Our soldiers have been serving in armed conflicts since 2001. Our judges and prosecutors have become inured to the “PTSD defense.” Sympathy has been replaced by skepticism and frustration.
And the judge ultimately does not want to appear to be rewarding bad behavior. My client possessed cocaine then fled the state while on probation. He did do that, he violated the law. My job is to show facts that mitigate that behavior. John was dealing with his undiagnosed PTSD by using cocaine. After he stopped using and got the help he deserved and earned through his military service, he turned himself in on the warrant and was prepared to face the consequences.
I had to prove to the judge that John wasn’t “playing the PTSD card” as an excuse and I was successful. The judge dismissed the probation revocation and dismissed the underlying felony drug charge. John was released from jail that day and did not have a felony drug conviction on his record. Susan drove John back to California to get his VA benefits and care reinstated. Having an experienced, caring drug lawyer take on your case makes all the difference. If you or a loved one is experiencing a similar situation, feel free to contact Mary Beth Harrell today.