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Defense attorneys question constitutionality of pretrial services in county

El Paso County has been working to create new pretrial services in the hopes of cutting down on jail expenses and the number of people in jail who are just awaiting trial. But now as the county gets closer to realizing those efforts, local defense attorneys are crying foul.

Local criminal defense attorney Justin Underwood is saying changes are in fact unconstitutional, laying it out in a fiery Facebook video.

“Do not answer their questions,” Underwood said in the video posted on his page Monday night. “You don’t have to answer their questions, this is America.”

Underwood said he posted the video, titled “PR BOND and El Paso County PreTrial Services department is unconstitutional,” because he takes issue with the questions meant to assess how much of a risk a suspect would be if let out on bond.

“What is being done with the questioning without your lawyer being present, and then that information being turned over to a judge who’s going to decide what to do with you?” Underwood said. “You have a right to have a lawyer present with you when you’re asked those questions.”

But the county’s new Criminal Justice Director Michael Rodriguez, who will oversee pretrial services in general, said these aren’t new things the county is trying.

“Pretrial services operate all across the country,” Rodriguez said. “(They have) been doing it for years including here in Texas, so I don’t know how something can be working everywhere else but somehow be unconstitutional here.”

“We are actually one of the last major counties in the state of Texas to adopt pretrial,” said County Commissioner Vince Perez.

Perez has consistently been pushing for these changes and said that these questions aren’t going to be used as part of a trial.

“The judges ultimately can make the decision that the information is kept as strictly confidential,” Perez said, “and is strictly used for the purposes that will allow the magistrate to make a determination on how that individual should be released.”

Underwood said that some of these issues could be worked out if there was cooperation with the judiciary and the local defense bar association in the creation of pretrial services, but that they haven’t been involved at all.

“How did you get where you are without including us?” Underwood said. “Because now, I’m telling everyone ‘Don’t answer any of their questions.’ And I’ve said this a million times, and it’s a cliche, but this is America.”

There actually may be positive outcomes from this argument however. Underwood said that since he posted the video, he now has meetings set up with the county to discuss what should be done to fix the issues.

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