County Attorney Press Releases

Amnesty Period Ends Today With 445 Offenders Paying More Than $116,000 in Hot Checks

Arrest roundups may begin unannounced immediately after

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal today announced that 445 individuals took advantage of the 2011 Hot Check Amnesty. Since January 28, 2011, when the amnesty was announced, County Attorney's Office received payment of 517 hot checks that represent more than $116,500 for local merchants. During the amnesty period, persons who paid their outstanding balances avoided payment of various charges, such as court costs, attorney fees, and the cost of posting a bond after arrest.

Individuals who did not take advantage of the amnesty period will be targeted during upcoming county-wide warrant round-ups being coordinated by the County Attorney's Office with the assistance of the El Paso Sheriff's Office, and Constables from Precincts 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7.

Individuals with outstanding hot-checks may attempt to avoid arrest in the upcoming roundups by paying as soon as possible. However, the amnesty period is over, and law enforcement officers can conduct arrests at any time without prior notice. Payments can be made at the following locations:

  • El Paso County Courthouse

500 E. San Antonio, room 503

M- F 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

  • El Paso County Ysleta Annex

9521 Socorro Rd., Suite A-3

M - F 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Forms of payment accepted include credit cards, money orders, cashier checks, and cash; however, those paying with cash will have to bring the exact amount (cashiers cannot give change).

In addition, residents can make payments online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week through "Hot Check E-pay," by visiting the El Paso County Attorney's Office web-page at www.epcounty.com/CA

The list with the names of individuals and outstanding amounts will remain posted at the El Paso County Attorney's Office web page at www.epcounty.com/CA.

For more information regarding hot check payments and balances please contact the El Paso County Attorney's Office Hot Check Unit at 546-2051.

During last fiscal year (2009-2010) the Hot Check Unit collected more than $930,000 in outstanding hot checks. So far, during the first 5 months of fiscal year 2010-2011 (October-February), the County Attorney's Office has collected over $392,000.

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2011 Hot Check Amnesty Ends.pdf

Hundreds Of Residents Take Advantage Of The Hot Check Amnesty Period

 

Few hours left to take advantage of the amnesty. Arrest roundups may begin immediately after

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal today revealed that more than 340 individuals have taken advantage of the hot check amnesty period since its implementation on January 28, 2011. During the first 27 days of the amnesty period the County Attorney's Office has received payment of 393 hot checks that represent more than $107,000 for local merchants.            

Bernal also reminded hot check writers with outstanding arrest warrants that the amnesty period ends tomorrow Friday February 25, 2011, at 5:00 p.m.

Individuals who take advantage of the amnesty period and pay their outstanding balances before the end of the amnesty period will avoid arrest during an upcoming countywide warrant round-up being coordinated by the County Attorney's Office with the assistance of the El Paso Sheriff's Office and Constables from Precincts 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7. Additionally, those individuals who pay by the amnesty period will also avoid additional fees such as court costs, attorney fees, and the cost of posting a bond.

A list with the names and addresses of more than 3,000 individuals with outstanding hot check warrants who owe local merchants more than 2.7 million dollars was made public on February 13, 2011 and remains posted at the El Paso County's main webpage at (http://www.epcounty.com/). Additionally, several local media outlets have posted the Hot Check Warrant List on their web-sites to make it easier for the public to access the information.

Residents with outstanding hot check warrants can make their payments in person at the following locations:

El Paso County Courthouse

500 E. San Antonio, room 503

M- F 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

El Paso County Ysleta Annex

9521 Socorro Rd., Suite A-3

M - F 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Forms of payment accepted include credit cards, money orders, cashier checks, and cash; however, those paying with cash will have to bring the exact amount (cashiers cannot give change).

In addition, residents can make payments online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week through "Hot Check E-pay," by visiting the El Paso County Attorney's Office web-page at www.epcounty.com/CA

For more information regarding hot check payments and balances please contact the El Paso County Attorney's Office Hot Check Unit at 546-2051 or visit the El Paso County Attorney's Office web site at: www.epcounty.com/CA.

In addition, for the first time the County Attorney's Office will be accepting payment plans for qualifying individuals in order to facilitate the payment of outstanding amounts.

During last fiscal year (2009-2010) the Hot Check Unit collected more than $930,000 dollars in outstanding hot checks. So far, during the first 5 months of fiscal year 2010-2011 (October-February), the County Attorney's Office has collected over $383,000.

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2011 Hot Check Amnesty Last Day.pdf

Ribbon Cutting And Swearing In Ceremony Of First Family Violence Court

This morning 65th District Court Judge Yahara Lisa Gutierrez presided over the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Family Violence Court, also known as the "Protective Order Court." Some of the participants in the ceremony included County Commissioner Precinct 1 Anna Perez, El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal, Philip Mullin from the Family Bar Association, and Stephanie Karr, Director of the Center Against Family Violence.

During the ceremony, Michelle Little Locke was also sworn-in as the new Associate Family Court Judge and will be presiding over this new court.

El Paso's first "Protective Order Court" is dedicated exclusively to deal with victims of domestic violence and was made possible thanks to a $93,000 grant Judge Gutierrez received from the Office of the Governor of Texas. El Paso County Commissioners Court approved the creation of the new court on January 10, 2011 by authorizing the use of a special family violence fund to help pay for the salary of the new judge.

The idea behind "Protective Order Courts" is to provide a one stop venue for all issues involving the family during the duration of the protective order, including child support, custody of children and visitation issues. The new court will allow for the consolidation of a majority of the protective order caseload by transferring most of the cases to the new court.

The "Protective Order Court" will operate under the supervision of the 65th District Court,  and will allow victims of domestic violence to have expedited access to the court system on their application for protective orders. This consolidated approach will also allow for a more efficient supervision of all protective order cases, while permitting the other family courts to dedicate more time to other types of family cases.

65th District Court Yahara Lisa Gutierrez said this new Protective Order Court is a giant step forward in helping the victims of domestic violence in El Paso County.

"I am grateful for the support of the Commissioners Court and the Governor's Office. There must be recognition by the community that no amount of violence is acceptable in El Paso," said Judge Gutierrez.

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New Protective Order Court Ribbon Cutting Press Release.pdf

Procuradora Del Condado Y Fiscal De Distrito Anuncian Iniciativa Para Combatir La Violencia Doméstica Y En El Noviazgo

Incluye videos, materiales y presentaciones disponibles para todas las escuelas de nivel bachillerato ("high schools")

Hoy viernes 11 de Febrero del 2011, la Procuradora del Condado de El Paso Jo Anne Bernal y el Fiscal de Distrito Jaime Esparza anunciaron una nueva iniciativa conjunta para reducir la violencia doméstica y en el noviazgo dentro del condado.

La campaña "¡No Te Dejes! Don't Let Yourself," fue creada gracias a una beca de $80,000 otorgada por el Departamento de Justicia Criminal de la Oficina del Gobernador de Texas Rick Perry.

Esta iniciativa incluye la producción de videos que reflejan la cultura y situaciones de la vida fronteriza, y que van dirigidos a estudiantes de bachillerato ("high school") y padres de familia. Los videos, creados por la compañía productora local "MindWarp Entertainment," serán utilizados junto con materiales educativos que abarcan temas como la violencia doméstica y el abuso juvenil durante el noviazgo. Talleres didácticos que incluyen exhibiciones publicas de los videos serán impartidas por empleados de ambas dependencias públicas a estudiantes, directivos escolares, padres de familia y grupos comunitarios del condado de El Paso.

La primer dramatización tiene una duración de 16 minutos y describe las experiencias que sufre una adolescente víctima del abuso en el noviazgo, tales como la intimidación, el aislamiento y la violencia física que ejerce el abusador sobre ella para controlarla.

El segundo video, creado en inglés y en español, describe situaciones que se presentan en casos de violencia domestica entre adultos, tales como la coerción económica y el abuso sexual, la utilización de los hijos como herramienta de manipulación, y la explotación de la situación migratoria para controlar las víctimas.

Esta iniciativa es única porque todos los materiales reflejan la cultura y situaciones que son específicas de El Paso y de otras comunidades a lo largo de la frontera entre Estados Unidos y México. Al tratarse de materiales que reflejan la cultura local, se logra una mejor conexión emocional con el público, por lo que el mensaje resulta más efectivo. Hasta el momento estudiantes que han tenido la oportunidad de ver anticipadamente el video sobre violencia en el noviazgo han respondido muy positivamente al mensaje.

La iniciativa también incluye la creación de una página de Internet interactiva, y materiales didácticos que discuten las dinámicas de la violencia doméstica y del abuso en el noviazgo, prevención del problema, así como  una explicación de cómo y dónde buscar ayuda en el condado de El Paso. Otros de los tópicos que se incluyen son el acceso a la protección policiaca, el uso de las órdenes de protección, y la disponibilidad de refugios y servicios de consejería.

Personal de ambas oficinas ofrecerán presentaciones a todas las escuelas locales que lo soliciten. Las presentaciones ayudarán a que los distritos escolares cumplan con una ley estatal aprobada en Mayo del 2007 que los obliga a implementar programas de prevención de la violencia en el noviazgo.

Al comentar sobre la importancia del proyecto, el Fiscal de Distrito Jaime Esparza explicó:

"Esta iniciativa detonará conversaciones sobre el daño que causa la violencia intrafamiliar en nuestra comunidad. Esperamos ayudar igualmente a adultos y jóvenes a reconocer las señales de alerta de una relación abusiva, y proveerles información sobre cómo pueden recibir ayuda si se encuentran en esa situación, o si son victimas de la violencia domestica," dijo Esparza.

Por su parte la Procuradora del Condado Jo Anne Bernal dijo que "esta iniciativa es única porque es la primera vez que dos agencias judiciales en el Condado de El Paso se unen para crear un programa contra la violencia domestica que busca procurar justicia educando, disuadiendo, y previniendo la violencia familiar antes de que exista la necesidad de una intervención policiaca."

Las Oficinas del Fiscal de Distrito y de la Procuradora del Condado comenzarán a programar presentaciones con los distritos escolares locales a partir del 1ero de Marzo. La página de Internet interactiva comenzará a funcionar en esa misma fecha.

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Boletín Iniciativa No Te Dejes.pdf

El Paso County Attorney And District Attorney Unveil New Initiative Against Domestic/Dating Violence

Program includes videos, materials and presentations to be offered to local high schools

On Friday, February 11, 2011, El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal and District Attorney Jaime Esparza unveiled a bold new initiative to reduce domestic and dating violence in El Paso County.

This comprehensive initiative entitled "¡No Te Dejes! Don't Let Yourself," was made possible by an $80,000 grant from the Criminal Justice Department of the Texas Governor's Office.

The initiative includes the production of culturally sensitive videos targeted at local area high school students and their parents. The videos, created by local production company "MindWarp Entertainment," will be used in conjunction with a comprehensive domestic/teen dating violence curriculum. Both offices will offer the video and training curriculum to students, school administrators, parents and community groups in El Paso County.

The first video is a 16-minute dramatization that explores issues related to abusive teen dating relationships, such as the use of intimidation, isolation and physical violence to exercise power and control over the victim.

The second video, created in English and Spanish, addresses issues of domestic violence in adult relationships, such as economic and sexual abuse, the use of children to manipulate and the immigration considerations of victims involved in abusive relationships. 

The project is unique in that all aspects of the initiative were designed to reflect situations, cultures and issues specific to El Paso and other border communities along the U.S.-Mexico border. Culturally sensitive materials connect better with the audience and make the message more effective. So far students have responded well to previews of the teen dating violence video.

            The initiative also includes the creation of an interactive webpage and the development of a comprehensive curriculum that covers the dynamics of domestic/teen dating violence, as well as prevention and intervention resources available within the El Paso community. Some of the topics include access to law enforcement, safety planning, the use of protective orders, availability of shelter and counseling services, and criminal prosecution of offenders.

Presentation of the teen dating violence video and corresponding curriculum will be offered to all interested school districts in the El Paso area to comply with state legislation which went into effect May of 2007.  The legislation, found in Section 37.0831 of the Education Code, mandates the implementation of a dating violence policy to be included in each district's improvement plan.

Commenting on the importance of the project, District Attorney Jaime Esparza explained, "this important initiative will jumpstart the conversation across our community about the harm of violent relationships. We hope to help young people and adults alike, recognize the warning signs of abusive relationships and equip them with information on how they can get help if they become a victim of an abusive relationship or family violence," Esparza said.

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal said "the groundbreaking initiative is the first time the two prosecutors' offices in El Paso County have collaborated to create a domestic violence program that aims to ensure justice by proactively educating, deterring and preventing the occurrence of family violence before the need for prosecutorial intervention."

The County and District Attorneys' Offices will start scheduling presentations with local school districts on March 1, 2011. The interactive webpage will go live on the same date.

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Don't Let Yourself Press Release.pdf

Hot-Check Amnesty Period Extended One Week Due To Severe Weather

Individuals still have one week to pay and avoid publication of their names

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal announced today that, due to the winter storm that kept the County Courthouse closed since Wednesday, the amnesty period for hot check writers has been extended until Friday February 25, 2011.

Individuals who take advantage of the amnesty period and pay their outstanding balances before Friday, February 25, will avoid arrest during an upcoming countywide warrant round up. Additionally, they will save money by not having to pay additional fees such as court costs, attorney fees, and the cost of posting a bond.

The extension of the amnesty period includes one more week for individuals with outstanding warrants who want to avoid the publication of their names.

On Sunday February 13, 2011 the County Attorney's Office will make public the names and addresses of thousands of individuals with outstanding hot-check warrants. The list will be published on the County of El Paso's web site and other local media outlets. Additionally, the full list of names will be published in that Sunday's edition of Diario de El Paso.

Individuals with pending warrants who want to avoid the publication of their names must pay their outstanding balances by Friday, February 11, 2011.

Residents with outstanding hot check warrants can make their payments in person at the following locations:

El Paso County Courthouse

500 E. San Antonio, room 503

M- F 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

El Paso County Ysleta Annex

9521 Socorro Rd., Suite A-3

M - F 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Forms of payment accepted include credit cards, money orders, cashier checks, and cash; however, those paying with cash will have to bring the exact amount (cashiers cannot give change).

In addition, residents can make payments online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week through "Hot Check E-pay," by visiting the El Paso County Attorney's Office web-page at www.epcounty.com/CA

For more information regarding hot check payments and balances please contact the El Paso County Attorney's Office Hot Check Unit at 546-2051 or visit the El Paso County Attorney's Office web site at: www.epcounty.com/CA.

There are currently more than 3,075 names in the County's hot checks warrants list who owe local merchants more than $2.76 million dollars. During last fiscal year (2009-2010) the Hot Check Unit collected more than $930,000 dollars in outstanding hot checks. So far, during the first 4 months of fiscal year 2010-2011 (October-January), the County Attorney's Office has collected over $270,000.

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal is encouraging individuals with outstanding warrants for writing hot checks to take advantage of this opportunity. In order to facilitate the payment of outstanding amounts, for the first time the County Attorney's Office will be accepting payment plans for qualifying individuals.

2011 Hot Check Warrant Amnesty Period Extended.pdf

2011 Hot Check Warrant Round-Up Calendar (media).pdf

2011 Hot-Check Warrant Amnesty Period And Roundup Announced

Arrest roundups to follow publication of the names

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal and El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles today announced that they will be joined by Constables from Precincts 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 and 7 in conducting a roundup of individuals with outstanding hot check warrants in El Paso County.

This cooperative effort by local law enforcement to arrest hot check writers will be preceded by an amnesty period in which residents can pay their outstanding amounts without being arrested.

The amnesty period runs from Monday, February 7 through Friday, February 18, 2011. Before the amnesty period starts, the County Attorney's Office will make public the names and addresses of thousands of individuals with outstanding hot-check warrants. The list will be published on Sunday, February 6, 2011 on the County of El Paso's web-site and other local media outlets. Additionally, the full list of names will be published in that Sunday's edition of Diario de El Paso.

Individuals with pending warrants who want to avoid the publication of their names must pay their outstanding balances by Friday, February 4, 2011.

Individuals who take advantage of the amnesty period and pay their outstanding balances before Friday, February 18, 2011, will avoid arrest during an upcoming county-wide warrant round-up. Additionally, they will save money by not having to pay additional fees, such as court costs, attorney fees, and the cost of posting a bond.

Residents with outstanding hot check warrants can make their payments in person at the following locations:

El Paso County Courthouse

500 E. San Antonio, room 503

M- F  8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

El Paso County Ysleta Annex

9521 Socorro Rd., Suite A-3

M - F  8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Forms of payment accepted include credit cards, money orders, cashier checks, and cash; however, those paying with cash will have to bring the exact amount (cashiers cannot give change).

In addition, residents can make payments online 24 hours a day, 7 days a week through "Hot Check E-pay," by visiting the El Paso County Attorney's Office web-page at www.epcounty.com/CA

For more information regarding hot check payments and balances please contact the El Paso County Attorney's Office Hot Check Unit at 546-2051 or visit the El Paso County Attorney's Office web site at: www.epcounty.com/CA.

There are currently more than 3,075 names in the County's hot checks warrants list who owe local merchants more than $2.76 million dollars. During last fiscal year (2009-2010) the Hot Check Unit collected more than $930,000 dollars in outstanding hot checks. So far, during the first 4 months of fiscal year 2010-2011 (October-January), the County Attorney's Office has collected over $270,000.

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal is encouraging individuals with outstanding warrants for writing hot checks to take advantage of this opportunity. In order to facilitate the payment of outstanding amounts, for the first time the County Attorney's Office will be accepting payment plans for qualifying individuals.

"The County Attorney's Office supports local small businesses by collecting their insufficient funds checks at no cost. We also want to make it easier for local residents who might have broken the law unintentionally to take care of their responsibilities before they face serious consequences. Hot check writers who do not seize this opportunity will be fully prosecuted for committing a criminal offense; this is their last chance." Bernal explained.

El Paso Sheriff Richard Wiles explained that after the amnesty period is over, officers from all participating law enforcement agencies will go out unannounced in search of those individuals with outstanding warrants who ignored this warning.

"Individuals who write worthless checks are in reality stealing money from the merchant who receives a check. Writing a hot check is a crime, not a civil violation, and my office is committed to fight all types of crimes. We are coordinating with all participating law enforcement agencies to conduct a very efficient county-wide warrant round-up. We will look for offenders anyplace they might be, at their homes, at their places of employment, with relatives," Wiles concluded. 

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2011 Hot Check Warrant List Publication Press Release.pdf

2011 Hot Check Warrant Round-Up Calendar (media).pdf

El Paso County Approves The Creation Of First Protective Order

Today 65th District Court Judge Yahara Lisa Gutierrez announced the creation of El Paso's first Protective Order Court dedicated exclusively to deal with victims of domestic violence. Judge Gutierrez received a $93,000 grant from the Office of the Governor of Texas to fund the creation of a county court dedicated exclusively to hear protective order cases.

The new Protective Order Court was approved today by the El Paso County Commissioners Court who assisted in the creation of the court by approving the use of a special family violence fund to pay for the salary of the judge of the Protective Order Court.

The new Protective Order Court will allow victims to have timely access to the courts on their application for protective orders. The court will provide a one stop venue for all issues involving the family during the duration of the protective order, including child support, custody of children and visitation issues.

The plan calls for the transfer of all protective order cases filed in each of the three family courts to the proposed "Protective Order Court," which will operate under the supervision of the 65th District Court. This consolidated approach will allow for a more efficient supervision of all protective order cases, and will allow the other family courts to dedicate more time to other types of family cases.

A single court will have the expertise and knowledge to deal with these very important cases.  Commissioner Anna Perez stated "This is an important day for victims of domestic violence in our community.  There will now be one single court where domestic violence victims will obtain expedited hearings."

65th District Court Yahara Lisa Gutierrez said the creation of a Protective Order Court would be a giant step forward in helping the victims of domestic violence in El Paso County. "I am grateful for the support of the Commissioners Court and the Governor's Office. There must be recognition by the community that no amount of violence is acceptable in El Paso."

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Protective Order Court Press Release.pdf

County Attorney’s Office Employees Go Above And Beyond Their Duty To Serve The Community

During fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2010, employees of the El Paso County Attorney's Office volunteered to provide more than 700 hours of community service.

Volunteerism is part of a long tradition implemented by former County Attorney José R. Rodríguez and that continues under Jo Anne Bernal's administration. As part of that tradition both attorneys and staff members are encouraged to participate in community organizations, and to donate time and money to help El Paso residents.

This year the El Paso County Attorney's Office has had several outstanding examples of community service:

  • Assistant County Attorney Erich Morales is the Chair of the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure El Paso. Earlier this year received the "Promise of One" national award for his work with the organization. This is his 5th year serving in this position.
  • Assistant County Attorney Richard Deck is the current president of the local chapter of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).
  • Assistant County Attorney Tracy Almanzán is member of the board of directors of AVANCE El Paso and the Rio Grande Safe Communities Coalition.
  • Assistant County Attorney Marilyn Mungerson is member of the board of directors of the Child Crisis Center.
  • Assistant County Attorney Laura Christopherson is member of the board of the Advocacy Center for the Children of El Paso (ACCEP).
  • Assistant County Attorney Clinton Cross is member of the board of directors of Appleseed Texas.
  • Assistant County Attorney Cristina Viesca-Santos is member of the Board of directors of Keep El Paso Beautiful.
  • Assistant County Attorney Michael Wyatt is Vice-President of the board of the ACLU Texas.
  • Assistant County Attorney Bruce Yetter is member of the board of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of El Paso.
  • Assistant County Attorney Janet Montero is member of the board of S.T.A.R.S. (Sexual Trauma and Assault Response Services).
  • Assistant County Attorney Lucila Camarena is member of the board of the Center Against Family Violence.

Other members of the County Attorney's Office provided hundreds of hours of community service, from helping to paint rooms at the Center Against Family Violence, to collecting food and toys for needy families in the outskirts of the county.

In total, during fiscal year 2010, the employees of the El Paso County Attorney's Office participated in more than 600 office related events, and provided training to more than 40,000 individuals, including minors and adults.

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal said she is proud of the amount of community work performed by the employees of her office.

"The employees in the County Attorney's Office provide great legal services and community services through their community activities," said County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal.

"During this season of giving, I congratulate all of them for their efforts and commitment to public service," Bernal concluded.  

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CA Community Service Press Release.pdf

Jo Anne Bernal Elected Board Member Of The Texas District And County Attorneys Association

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal has been elected to the Board of Directors of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association (TDCAA) for the 2011 calendar year.

The results of the election, which took place on September 2010 in South Padre Island, were just announced by the TDCAA Journal on their November-December issue.  

The mission of TDCAA is "to promote the improvement of prosecution and government representation in the State of Texas, by providing educational and technical assistance to prosecutors and their staffs, by providing educational and technical assistance to the law enforcement community, and by serving as a legislative resource in criminal law and government representation matters."

            As member of the Board of Directors, El Paso County Attorney will be responsible for budget oversight of the organization, and long term planning and execution of the plan.

            Commenting on her appointment El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal said "It is important to have El Pasoans on state-wide boards and committees to ensure local concerns are heard on a statewide level."                    

            "I hope my participation on the board will address concerns about local prosecutorial issues, such as how to effectively prosecute juveniles who smuggle drugs across the border," Bernal concluded.         

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JAB TDCAA Board Press Release.pdf 

The Texas District and County Attorneys Association 2010.pdf 

Texas Attorney General Rules El Paso County Attorney Is Required To Give Legal Representation To The Ethics Commission

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal today announced that Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has issued a legal opinion that confirms the El Paso County Ethics Commission must obtain legal advice from the El Paso County Attorney.

AG Opinion No. GA-0817, issued in response to a request submitted by the El Paso Ethics Commission on December 11, 2009, states that "the County Attorney of El Paso County is required to represent the El Paso County Ethics Commission in all legal maters."

The opinion goes further to affirm that "it could be an improper usurpation of the county attorney's authority...if outside legal counsel were hired solely to...represent the Commission over the objection of the county attorney."

Regarding the issue of whether the County Attorney has a conflict of interest in providing both legal advice and representation to the Commission, Attorney General Abbott deferred the answer to that question to the Texas Committee of Professional Ethics. The opinion also suggest that the El Paso County Ethics Commission may address any such concerns while drafting the ethics code, as long as the code does not contradict both Texas law and the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct.

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal said the AG Opinion will put to rest the divisive issue.

"It has always been my professional opinion that the Ethics Commission should receive legal advice from the County Attorney's Office, which is responsible for advising all county officials," Bernal said.

"This opinion brings good news to El Paso taxpayers, because it confirms that the County of El Paso will not have to pay thousands of dollars in outside counsel fees for a job that our office can perform efficiently and effectively," Bernal concluded.

Members of the El Paso Ethics Commission have received copies of the AG Opinion, and will officially discuss accepting it during their next regular meeting scheduled for Thursday December 2, 2010 at 3:00 p.m. in the County Judge's Conference Room, 3rd floor of the County Courthouse.

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Ethics Commission Representation Press Release.pdf

AG Opinion GA-0817.pdf

AG Opinion Request 0847GA.pdf

County Attorney Investigators Locate Man Accused Of Writing More Than One Hundred Hot Checks

Dozens of local merchants scammed out of thousands of dollars.

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal today announced the arrest of a Horizon City resident accused of scamming dozens of local merchants and landlords out of thousands of dollars.

Forty eight year-old Michael Nowell was arrested yesterday evening on 8 open warrants on charges that range from felony theft, theft by check, and failure to appear in court.

Up until yesterday, Nowell had been arrested twice before on charges of theft by check. On both occasions, the defendant bonded out of jail and never showed up for his court dates. Nowell was able to keep avoiding arrest by constantly moving to different residences, and in the meantime, handing out dozens of insufficient funds checks to landlords, moving service companies, furniture stores, and even a carpeting company.

According to complaints filed with police, Nowell would often wear scrubs, a stethoscope and claim he was a medical doctor to convince his victims of extending him credit or to accept his checks.

As of today's date, the County Attorney's Office has received 102 complaints of insufficient funds checks against the defendant. The checks total more than $14,500.

The County Attorney's Office has also learned that the Pima County Attorney's Office has several open warrants against Nowell for handing out hot checks to 7 different landlords.

Michael Nowell is currently in the El Paso County jail and his bond has been set at $36,000. The County Attorney is requesting individuals who might have additional complaints against the defendant, to file a report as soon as possible with the El Paso Police Department or the Sheriff's Office.

"The County Attorney's Office investigators worked vigorously during several weeks to locate and arrest Mr. Nowell. This case illustrates the level of commitment my office has to combat fraud in our community and to help local merchants who are victims of hot check writers," El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal said.

 # # #

 

Michael Nowell

Con-Artist Arrested Press Release.pdf

Texas Attorney General Declines To Issue Opinion To Clarify Same-Sex Marriage Controversy In El Paso

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal today announced that the Office of the Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has formally declined to issue a legal opinion regarding the granting of marriage licenses to individuals who have undergone sex change operations.

On April 19, 2010 El Paso County Attorney's Office requested a legal opinion as to whether the County Clerk could legally issue a marriage license under a new Texas law when one of the parties is a female and the other was born a man but subsequently underwent sexual reassignment surgery and is now living as a woman.

The request was made after two Hudspeth County women requested, and were denied, a marriage license in El Paso in February of this year. As proof of identification, one of the applicants presented a birth certificate identifying her as a male, a court order approving his name change from a male to female, and an Arizona driver's license with her new identity as a female.

Presented with conflicting documents, the El Paso County Clerk's Office requested guidance from the County Attorney's Office as to the eligibility of the applicants to obtain a marriage license.

Legal analysis revealed the existence of a legal gray area around this particular issue, raised by recent changes adopted by the Texas Legislature. Up until 2009, the identity and gender of a marriage license applicant was established through a birth certificate. However, during the 81st Session, the Texas Legislature expanded the list of documents acceptable to establish proof of identity and age for purposes of obtaining a marriage license. Section 2.005(b) of the Texas Family Code lists the nineteen documents approved and, to make things more difficult, all are given equal legal weight.

This is important for transgender individuals, as conflicting information on various personal documents may arise not from fraud, but because of sex reassignment surgery, and so transgender applicants should be able to self-identify their gender, as opposed to a court doing it for them.

In a letter dated on August 6, 2010, the Texas Attorney General's Office notified the El Paso County Attorney's Office that they will refrain from answering any questions or issuing an opinion, and in fact are closing the file on this request. The reason provided for this action is that issues included in the opinion request are the subject of pending litigation recently filed in the 245th District Court of Wharton County, In the Estate of Thomas Trevino Araguz III, Deceased, Cause No. 44575. The letter further states that, once that litigation is concluded, the El Paso County Attorney could submit another request if these questions remain unresolved.

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal expressed her disappointment regarding the decision of the Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbott.

"Unfortunately, the ambiguity in the law and confusion for the County clerk remains," Bernal concluded.      

# # #

AG Opinion Press Release.pdf

AG Letter (RQ-0881-GA).pdf

AG Opinion Request.pdf

Remodeler Receives Enhanced Punishment For Engaging In Deceptive Practices

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal today announced the sentencing of an El Paso resident accused of engaging in Deceptive Business Practices.

On August 6, 2010, 31-year-old Jesus Piña pled guilty to one count of committing a Deceptive Business Practice, a crime of dishonesty punishable by up to one year in jail and/or a fine not to exceed $4,000. However, Piña will serve 2 years in prison because the County Attorney's Office presented evidence that Piña is a habitual offender.

The County Attorney's Office requested County Court at Law #7 Judge Robert Anchondo to run Mr. Piña's sentence consecutively with another one year sentence that was imposed the same day on another Deceptive Business case.    

In order to obtain the enhanced punishment, Assistant County Attorney Arne Schonberger demonstrated in court that, since 1999, Piña has accumulated 11 convictions for engaging in various felonies and misdemeanors.

It was presented to the Court that Piña would receive from victims thousands of dollars in upfront payments for construction jobs he never finished. The Court ordered restitution of $4,800 and $9,000 on the two cases today. Upon completion of his sentence, Mr. Piña is scheduled to be surrendered to immigration authorities for possible deportation.  

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal expressed her satisfaction on the outcome of the case.

"My office takes our responsibility of protecting El Paso consumers from unscrupulous contractors and con-artists very seriously. This case is another example of my office's willingness to consider every available legal resource to bring justice to the victims," Bernal said.

"If you are planning on doing renovations or improvements to your home, do your homework before hiring anyone.  It is highly recommended that you first check the contractor's references and business record with the Better Business Bureau and with our office," Bernal added.

Homeowners can also look up on the County's website at www.epcounty.com/records the criminal and civil case histories of prospective contractors.

"In addition to researching your contractor, it is important to lay out when monies will be paid. Consumers must be very cautious when paying money up front. Once the consumer has given money to an unscrupulous contractor, it is very difficult for us to get it back. This is why we recommend the public not pay the complete amount of the contract until after the job is finished, and the homeowner is satisfied with the quality of the work," Bernal concluded. 

The El Paso County Attorney's Office warns consumers against paying out large down payments and only if necessary, scheduling ‘progress payments' -periodic payments made only after designated portions of work have been satisfactory completed.

Residents who might have fallen victims of fraud or deceptive business practices are asked to contact the Criminal Section of the County Attorney's Office at 546-2050.

 # # #

Pina Sentence Press Release.pdf

Federal Judge Dismisses Lawsuit That Challenged Constitutionality Of The County’s Ethics Legislation

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal today announced that a Federal District Judge has dismissed a legal challenge filed by a local civil rights activist against the El Paso County's Ethics Legislation approved by the Texas Legislature last year.

On September 28, 2009, El Paso activist Carl Starr sued the County of El Paso and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (case EP-09-CV-353-KC) alleging that the implementation of the County Ethics Legislation, which regulates the creation of the County's Ethics Commission, was unconstitutional.

In his lawsuit Mr. Starr particularly objected to a provision of the ethics legislation that penalizes with fines and jail time individuals who file ethics complaints which the County deems to be frivolous or filed in bad faith. The plaintiff argued that the provision infringed on his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and has a chilling effect on his freedom of expression.

In an order issued late yesterday, United States District Judge Kathleen Cardone dismissed any cause of action against Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott ruling that the 11th Amendment gives the States sovereign immunity and that the federal courts do not have jurisdiction over cases where a state is made party to a suit without its consent.

U.S. District Judge Cardone also dismissed the lawsuit against the County of El Paso ruling that it was premature for Mr. Starr to bring a lawsuit forward challenging the constitutionality of the Ethics legislation.

In her ruling, Judge Cardone stated:

"Although the County Ethics Commission is empowered with the authority to penalize individuals who file frivolous complaints or disseminate confidential materials, the facts indicate that no such rules are yet in effect. As the alleged County ordinances do not appear to have been adopted or enacted, and the existing state code, which is merely enabling legislation, cannot function to penalize Starr should he file an ethics complaint, any alleged penalties Starr would face appear to be only speculative. As such, Starr has failed to meet his burden of showing that his claim gives rise to a sufficiently ripe controversy."  

El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal today expressed her satisfaction with the court's decision:

"Judge Cardone very carefully avoided ruling on any issue that is not yet fully presented to her for decision," Bernal said.

"Her ruling correctly notes that the El Paso County Ethics Commission has not yet completed its task of drafting a new County Ethics Code.  Therefore, Starr's complaint that the Ethics Code is unconstitutional is not yet ready for judicial review," Bernal concluded.   

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Ethics Commission Lawsuit Press Release.pdf

Signed Dismissal Order.pdf

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