Dallas County judges on call 24/7 to sign warrants

By Sarah Mervosh, Dallas News


State District Judge Jennifer Bennett was at the State Fair of Texas this fall, watching a horse show near the petting zoo, when she got a call from a detective who needed a warrant signed.

Yes, it was after work. And yes, she was busy. Still, the judge made her to way to the edge of the fair, plopped down on a curb and waited for the detective to arrive with the paperwork.

Most people know that the law requires cops to get a warrant before they search or arrest someone. (Thanks to Jay Z and his “99 Problems”: Well my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk and the back. And I know my rights so you gon’ need a warrant for that.)

But that means judges have to sign them — often after hours and on weekends.

From the fairgrounds to movie theaters, wearing everything from gym clothes to pajamas, Dallas County judges have signed warrants at some weird times and wacky places. While the requests can be inconvenient, coming in at all hours, many judges believe that being “on call” simply comes with the job.

Forgoing formality
Mike Snipes, who retired as a state district judge in 2014, estimated that he signed about 10,000 warrants during his eight years on the bench. He signed them at the courthouse, at restaurants and bars, on the side of the road, at the grocery store, at Rangers games and, most frequently, in the parking lot of his apartment complex.

Because “the bad stuff happens after midnight,” he said he signed warrants late at night two or three times a week.

“I usually go down [to the parking lot] in my pajamas and my bathrobe. I’m sure the neighbors must have thought it was very strange,” he said.

State District Judge Brandon Birmingham, who took the bench in January, said he dressed up in khakis and a button down the first time detectives showed up at his house at night.

“I wanted to be judicial,” he said.

That formality has long since lapsed. Nowadays when the cops come over, he said, “you’ll get me in my Jordan stuff. I’m dressed more like a basketball player than a judge.”

He said he has signed warrants while playing tennis, grilling barbecue and coaching his 5-year-old son’s basketball practice at the YMCA. When undercover cops who looked like “scruffy biker dudes” showed up at his son’s practice, he said “it was kind of unnerving for the [other] parents.” He quickly explained what he did for a living.

Routine interruptions
Signing a warrant isn’t as simple as stopping what you’re doing for a moment to pen down a signature. Judges must read over the affidavit that outlines probable cause, check for errors and decide whether to grant the warrant. If the warrant doesn’t have enough evidence, a judge can deny it or ask the police to come back with more information.

That process requires concentration and takes about 15 minutes, which, Birmingham pointed out, can make it difficult to fall back to sleep afterward.

With all the late night rendezvousing, judges say they get to know certain police officers well. Likewise, the cops learn about each judge’s preferences, bedtime and routines.

Bennett, who has signed warrants at the pilates studio, the nail salon and on dates with her husband, said she’s prone to borrowing an officer’s reading glasses if she doesn’t have her own.

Meanwhile, Birmingham said police have gotten to know his wife and kids. After his daughter broke her arm, he said, a detective came to his house bearing gifts: a warrant for the judge, mint chocolate chip ice cream for his daughter.

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