Harris County Reaches Bail Reform Settlement

By Peek & Toland on October 21, 2019

According to the Texas Tribune, commissioners in Harris County, Texas, have agreed to settle a federal lawsuit over how it sets bail for defendants in criminal court cases. Federal courts previously had held bail practices unconstitutional in Harris County. Although new and old county judges have been working to alter the bail system dramatically, the lawsuit remained pending. The settlement, which is estimated to cost up to $97 million, has several essential features:

  • Establishes a new policy of automatic no-cash pretrial release for about 85% of low-level criminal defendants
  • Adds legal and social services for indigent defendants and assistance with transportation to court dates

Historically, the bail system was meant to ensure that criminal defendants would reappear in court as ordered if released before a trial on their criminal charges. The most popular form of bail was cash bail, which was an amount set by the judge based on the severity of the crime. Defendants could pay the entire bail amount would receive a refund from the court at the end of their cases if they appeared at all their hearings as scheduled. If defendants couldn’t pay bail, they sometimes could pay a nonrefundable percentage of the bail amount, which is usually about ten percent, to a bail bonds company. Based on the guarantee by the bail bonds company that they later would appear for court hearings, the defendants could be released from jail.

Harris County Reaches Bail Reform Settlement

Under the previous bail system, some low-level defendants bailed out of jail immediately, whereas others would serve days in jail for the same offense because they could not afford bail. As a result of the federal court ruling, court officials must schedule bail hearings within two days of arrest. Defendants then can ask the court to lower the bail amount or release them without bail.

When you are facing any criminal charges in the state of Texas, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney to represent your interests. Contact Peek & Toland at (512) 474-4445 today and set up an appointment to speak with our legal team.

Can Immigrants Work in the U.S. While Legally Present on a Student Visa?

By Peek & Toland on October 20, 2019

Immigrants can apply to study in the United States under three different nonimmigrant visas, and they can work under two of those visas. The most popular of these visas is the F-1 visa, which allows students to work while studying in the country. F-1 visas also permit individuals to continue working in the U.S. after their studies. Those individuals with degrees in a STEM field can extend their visas to work in the U.S. for up to 24 months.

However, there are limits on work even for F-1 visa holders. They typically only can work on campus, and only if they are attending school full-time and making good progress toward a degree. These individuals have to get special authorization under an available program to be able to work off-campus. F-1 visa holders also are limited to working no more than 20 hours per week and no more than 40 hours per week during vacations and school breaks. Finally, on the date that a student completes a course of studies required for a degree, a 60-day grace period for leaving the country begins to run. Students may not work during these 60 days.

Can Immigrants Work in the U.S. While Legally Present on a Student Visa?

Another alternative for students to work in the U.S. is the J-1 visa. This visa allows international students to participate in work-and-study-based exchange programs in the U.S. Sponsoring programs must have accreditation through the Exchange Visitor Program of the U.S. State Department. These programs allow students to gain practical training related to their academic studies that is unavailable in their native countries. J-1 visas are available for various programs related to different occupations and vary in length.

The immigration attorneys of Peek & Toland have the experience that you need when you are seeking any relief or benefit under federal immigration laws. We will determine the facts and evidence that are relevant to your case, evaluate your options, and help you decide the best course of action for your situation. We intend to place you in the best position possible to achieve your goals. Contact our Texas immigration attorneys at our office today and learn how we can assist you through this complicated situation.

AG Rules in Matter of L-E-A

By Peek & Toland on October 19, 2019

Attorney General William Barr has issued a ruling in Matter of L-E-A that overrules Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) precedent. In this case, Barr denied asylum relief to a Mexican national who fled the country due to cartel violence. Specifically, the asylum seeker alleged violence by a gang who were targeting his father’s store under the direction of a local cartel.

In his ruling, Barr considerably narrowed eligibility for asylum based on persecution as a result of membership in a particular social group, which in this case was a family-based group. Barr stated in the decision that membership in a family group did not constitute membership in a particular social group for asylum purposes. To qualify, the group must be socially distinct in the eyes of society, not the eyes of the persecutor.

AG Rules in Matter of L-E-A

As a result of this ruling, it appears that even if a gang threatens to torture and kill individuals or their families, it is not a basis for asylum. Even if a gang or cartel has targeted a family for violence, immigrants are ineligible for asylum based on their status as immediate family members.

Immigration law experts claim that the L-E-A decision rewrites years of immigration law precedent. Some also see the decision as a specific assault on the influx of Central American migrants. Many of these individuals have suffered violence or threats to themselves or their family members from cartels and gangs.

Federal law permits the Attorney General to overrule BIA decisions since the BIA is part of the Justice Department. This is the second time this year that Barr has overruled a BIA decision, on the heels of his predecessor, Sessions, who took the same steps during his tenure as Attorney General. All these decisions seem to have the common purpose of not only limiting asylum in general but surreptitiously limiting asylum for Central American migrants.

No matter the type of immigration issue you are facing, the skilled and knowledgeable immigration lawyers of Peek & Toland are here to assist you. We handle many different types of immigration cases every day and have the kind of strategic experience and skills that are necessary to reach the desired outcome. By calling our office as quickly as possible after your legal issue arises, we will have the best opportunity to resolve your immigration law case successfully.

Can I Be Arrested for Using Controlled Substances if I Have a Prescription for It?

By Peek & Toland on October 18, 2019

Like other states, Texas has strict laws that govern the possession of controlled substances. Some controlled substances, however, are available for legal use. Consumers authorized to possess these controlled substances generally must have a valid prescription for the drugs issued by a doctor or other medical provider. Commonly prescribed controlled substances include Xanax, Valium, Ritalin, Clonazepam, and hydrocodone.

Can I Be Arrested for Using Controlled Substances if I Have a Prescription for It?

Depending on the schedule of the drug, however, a single pill could result in felony charges for possession of a controlled substance. If charged with possession of these substances, however, individuals have a defense if they possess a valid prescription for the drug that they had before their arrest on possession charges. Nonetheless, there are some exceptions in which this defense may not be valid.

For instance, if you possess an extremely large amount of a controlled substance, you may still face possession charges. If your prescription does not match the amount of the controlled substance that you have in your possession, you still could face possession charges.

Furthermore, you can run afoul of DWI laws if taking a prescription drug impairs your ability to drive. As a result, you can face DWI charges even if you are taking a legally prescribed medication. To avoid these charges, you should refrain from driving while taking the medication if it makes you overly sleepy or otherwise impaired. Some prescription medications are known for causing side effects like drowsiness. These medications include Xanax, hydrocodone, and Ambien, among others. While everyone’s body reacts differently to taking medications, you should be cautious when driving after taking these drugs.

If you are prescribed a new drug, you also should avoid driving until you see how the medication will affect you. The criminal defense lawyers of Peek & Toland have handled the legal defense of countless individuals who are facing criminal charges. We are here to protect your rights and advocate on your behalf. Our goal is to get the best outcome possible in your case. Call our office today at (512) 474-4445 to set up an appointment with our criminal defense attorneys.

Immigration Judges, Attorneys Oppose Replacement of In-Person Translation with Video Instructions

By Peek & Toland on October 17, 2019

Immigration judge and translators alike are vehemently opposing a plan by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) to replace in-person translators for immigrants during initial deportation hearings with recorded video instructions. The videos initially will be available in Spanish and expand to 20 other languages in the future. They will give information about courtroom proceedings, immigrant rights and obligations, and other frequently asked questions. EOIR contends that the move will increase efficiency in the immigration court system.

Some critics of the plan fear that the lack of in-person translators will be confusing for immigrants attending initial deportation hearing, who may have questions that go unanswered. They also fear that the plan will harm the due process rights of immigrants. Furthermore, many recent immigrants, such as those from Guatemala, speak indigenous languages rather than Spanish. Many immigrants also are unable to read Spanish or have limited abilities, at best.

Immigration Judges, Attorneys Oppose Replacement of In-Person Translation
with Video Instructions

In a recent Buzzfeed article, one immigration judge stated that in his opinion, the video would create a distraction and ultimately make the initial hearing process longer. He said that without in-person simultaneous translation, he would have no ability to ensure that immigrants understand their rights and options. Another immigration judge emphasized the fact that specific parts of the initial immigration hearing must be done individually, and a video will not help with those parts of the hearing. Instead, without in-person translation, there will be an inability to communicate with many immigrants in any meaningful fashion.

EOIR further advised immigration judges to schedule hearings with attorneys first, followed by those without attorneys. According to EOIR, this schedule would allow interpreters in other parts of the court to become available for translation in later hearings. The courts also have the option of using telephone interpreters during initial hearings.

The immigration lawyers of Peek & Toland have handled the immigration cases of countless individuals and businesses facing immigration-related issues. We are here to protect your rights and advocate on your behalf to get the outcome that you are seeking. Call our office today at (512) 474-4445 to set up an appointment with our immigration attorneys.

Mandatory Minimum Federal Prison Sentences for Drug Trafficking Offenses

By Peek & Toland on October 16, 2019

Federal law has historically provided for harsh mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug trafficking offenses. Judges had no discretion to deviate from these mandatory minimum sentences. The First Step Act of 2018, however, which President Trump signed into law in December 2018, modifies some of these mandatory minimum sentences and other penalties for drug trafficking and related drug offenses.

Individuals with one prior qualifying conviction previously were subject to a 20-year mandatory minimum prison sentence. The First Step Act decreases the mandatory minimum sentence to 15 years. Likewise, for individuals with two prior qualifying convictions, the mandatory minimum prison sentence decreases from a life sentence to 25 years in federal prison.

Mandatory Minimum Federal Prison Sentences for Drug Trafficking Offenses

The First Step Act also modifies mandatory minimum prison sentences for some drug traffickers with prior convictions. The Act increases the threshold for prior convictions that trigger higher mandatory minimum sentences for repeat offenders. Now, for mandatory minimum sentences to apply, the prior convictions must qualify under the Act’s new definitions for “serious drug felony” or “serious violent felony.” Previously, mandatory minimum sentences applied if individuals had a prior conviction for any felony drug offense. This change can lead to lower mandatory minimum prison sentences for some drug traffickers.

Another feature of the First Step Act is that it eliminates the “stacking” provision. This provision allowed federal prosecutors to charge individuals with a second and subsequent use of a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking or a violent crime in the same criminal incident. The stacking provision led to a 25-year mandatory minimum prison sentence. Now, prosecutors only can impose this mandatory minimum sentence if they have a prior conviction for the use of a firearm in a drug trafficking or a violent crime from a previous criminal incident.

If you or a family member is facing accusations of drug trafficking or any other criminal charges, we may be able to help. As experienced Texas criminal defense attorneys, we have the knowledge needed to help you navigate through often-complex criminal proceedings. Call us today at (512) 474-4445 and schedule an appointment with one of our criminal defense lawyers and learn how we can assist you.

What Happens if I Fled the Scene of a Car Accident?

By Peek & Toland on October 15, 2019

Texas law sets forth the specific legal duties and responsibilities that individuals have when they are involved in a car accident. The penalties for failing to stop at a crash can be quite severe, especially when an accident results in severe injuries or death to others.

What Happens if I Fled the Scene of a Car Accident?

For example, under Tex. Pen. Code § 550.021, individuals who are involved in accidents that result or is reasonably likely to result in injury or death to others must take the following immediate actions:

  • Stop at or as near to the scene as possible
  • Return to the scene if they do not stop at the scene
  • Determine whether others are involved in the accident and if they require aid
  • Remain at the scene until they can provide their identifying and insurance information and provide any reasonable assistance to others for their injuries, if necessary or requested

If individuals do not stop or otherwise comply with these duties, they can face criminal charges. More specifically, they can face second-degree felony charges if the accident results in death and third-degree felony charges if the collision results in serious bodily injury. If the accident results in injuries that are not severe or fatal, individuals can face a sentence of incarceration ranging from one to five years, a fine of up to $5,000, or both.

Under Tex. Pen. Code § 550.022, if the accident involves only property damage, individuals also must stop at the scene and provide identifying and insurance information. Failing to stop and provide this information is a Class C misdemeanor if the property damage is $200 or less, and a Class B misdemeanor if the property damage is $200 or more. Individuals also commit a Class C misdemeanor if the accident occurs on a main lane, ramp, or adjacent area of a freeway in a metropolitan area and they do not move their vehicles to a more suitable location.

An experienced Texas criminal defense attorney can help you build a strong defense against any criminal charges. We are here to evaluate the facts surrounding your case and explore your options. We then can help you make the decisions that are mostly like to be beneficial to you, based on your situation. Contact Peek & Toland at (512) 474-4445 today and see how we can help.

USCIS Requests for Evidence and Visa Denials Continue to Increase

By Peek & Toland on October 14, 2019

According to a recent article in the National Law Review, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has released data for the first three quarters of FY 2019. This data shows that requests for evidence (RFEs) and denials have continued to increase for the most commonly used nonimmigrant visas. As compared to the data from FY 2015, these increases are reflective of the Trump Administration’s “Buy American, Hire American” executive order.

For example, the RFE rate for H-1B visa petitions in FY 2015 was 22.3 percent, and the overall denial rate was 4.3 percent. In contrast, FY 2019 figures show an RFE rate of 39.6 percent and a total denial rate 16.1 percent. The rate of H-1B approval following RFE has fallen from 83.2 percent in FY 2015 to 62.7 percent in FY 2019. Since FY 2015, then, the RFE rate has nearly doubled, the initial denial rate has almost quadrupled, and the approval rate following RFE has dropped by more than 20 percent.

USCIS Requests for Evidence and Visa Denials Continue to Increase

A similar pattern emerges concerning other common nonimmigrant visas, such as the L-1 visa. The initial denial rate for these visas increased by 32 percent between FY 2018 and 2019 alone. Furthermore, the RFE rate increased by 56 percent between FY 2015 and FY 2019.

The USCIS data also shows increases in RFE and initial denial rates for O-1 and TN visas. However, the increase in rates is not as drastic as those in rates for H-1B and L-1 visa petitions.

To minimize the risks of RFEs and denials, employers should take care to provide USCIS with comprehensive job descriptions for the positions that they intend to fill. They also should provide documentation that details the qualifications of the employees that they intend to sponsor. An experienced Texas immigration attorney can help you with all aspects of immigration law. We are here to evaluate the facts surrounding your case and present your options. Finally, we can help you make the decisions that will be most beneficial to you, based on your circumstances. Contact Peek & Toland at (512) 474-4445 today and see how we can help.

DOJ Takes Action to Decertify Immigration Judges’ Union

By Peek & Toland on October 13, 2019

Facing criticism by the outspoken immigration judges’ union, the Trump Administration now has moved to decertify the union. The Justice Department filed a petition with the Federal Labor Relations Authority to decide whether the National Association of Immigration Judges should have its certification revoked on the basis that its members fit the definition of “management officials.” Under federal labor relations law, management officials do not have the right to collectively organize.

Tensions have continued to rise between the judges’ union and the Trump Administration as judges continue to be overwhelmed by a horribly backlogged immigration court system. Meanwhile, the judges are facing constant pressures from the Justice Department to move cases through the system more quickly and efficiently. One such example is the quota system, which requires immigration judges to close 700 cases each year to receive a positive employment evaluation. The Trump administration also prohibited the judges’ use of an administrative tool to reduce their caseloads.

The Trump Administration has added 43 immigration judges to help with the large backlog of cases, However, the judges’ union indicates that there are not enough support staff members to meet the judges’ needs, which hampers their productivity.

Federal judges normally are part of the judicial branch of the federal government, but immigration judges are appointed by the Attorney General and are employed by the Justice Department. Although immigration judges cannot speak publicly on political issues, representatives of their union can speak about and criticize Justice Department policies that affect the judges.

The Clinton Administration also moved to decertify the same union years ago. The Federal Labor Relations Authority rejected that administration’s arguments for decertification.

The petition that the Justice Department has filed is likely to prompt an investigation by the Federal Labor Relations Authority. The judges’ union also will have a chance to respond to the petition.

The Peek & Toland immigration lawyers are here to represent your interests and advise you of the best course of action in your immigration case. Set up an appointment to talk to us today and discover how we can assist you with your immigration issue, whether you have an individual concern or a business-related problem.

Changes to the Public Charge Rule

By Peek & Toland on October 12, 2019

U.S. Customs and Immigrations Services (USCIS) issued its final rule on inadmissibility on public charge grounds on August 14, 2019. The rule will become effective on October 15, 2019. The new rule will have no effect on applications and petitions already pending with USCIS before that date.

As expected, almost 20 states, along with immigration advocacy groups, have filed at least six separate lawsuits to try and block the new public charge rule. These states fear that the new rule will have a devastating effect on the U.S. economy, resulting in billions of losses of revenue from immigrants denied citizenship. The Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that the financial losses resulting from implementation of the public charge rule could cost the economy as much as $33.8 billion and 230,000 jobs. Plus, when less people sign up for non-cash public benefits, states receive less money from the federal government for those programs. Fewer benefits also translates to less spending money for individuals who are no longer receiving the benefits.

Changes to the Public Charge Rule

The major change to the public charge rule concerns legal immigrants in the U.S. who use public benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps, and housing assistance for more than 12 months in any 36-month period. Immigrants who do use these benefits for the stated timeframes will jeopardize their ability to obtain green cards and become naturalized citizens. The move effectively could block citizenship for thousands of immigrants legally living in the U.S. There are some exemptions to the rule, such as for refugees and immigrants seeking asylum.

USCIS maintains that it is simply clarifying and enforcing a policy that has been on the books for years, and that its goal is to ensure that immigrants who become U.S. citizens are financially self-sufficient. The immigration lawyers of Peek & Toland have handled the cases of countless individuals and businesses who are facing immigration issues. We are here to protect your rights and advocate on your behalf. As a result, we will strive to get the best outcome possible in your case. Call our office today at (512) 474-4445 to set up an appointment with our immigration attorneys.

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