Most prosecutors in Texas are barred by state law from taking gifts from people in their jurisdiction. Among ethical questions such arrangements could raise, the most basic is that a defendant could simply buy his way out of punishment for a crime. Yet for nearly a decade, reports the Texas Observer, the Brown County Attorney’s Office has done something similar. Brown County prosecutor Shane Britton has made “donations” from defendants the foundation of a pretrial diversion program that lets people avoid prosecution for drunk driving, driving without a license, shoplifting, and other misdemeanors.
In this way, hundreds of defendants have paid a combined $250,000 since 2008 to cover travel to conferences, cellphones for Britton and his staff, and advertisements in the Brownwood High School cheer calendar, according to county records. By covering other office costs with donations, Britton was able to convince county leaders to boost salaries for himself and his staff. When county leaders commissioned a forensic audit of a fund maintained by Britton, they found huge gaps in record-keeping that suggested what the Observer calls “at best, a casual approach to taking money from defendants.” At worst, critics allege, he ran an illegal collection scheme that blurred the lines between fees, donations and bribes.