Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has issued an opinion on the way Brown County Attorney Shane Britton ran the pretrial diversion program for defendants accused of first-time offenses.
    Paxton, who issued the opinion in response to a request from Brown County Auditor Jennifer Robison, wrote in his opinion:
    • A court would likely conclude that state law does not authorize the Brown County Attorney’s Office to require a defendant to pay money to that office as a condition of the pretrial diversion program in addition to, or in excess of, the fee authorized by state law — $500.
    • A district attorney or county attorney may collect a fee of up to $500 to reimburse a county for expenses related to a defendant’s participation in a pretrial diversion program.
    • Fees collected under this provision must be deposited in the county treasurer in a special fund, used only to administer the pretrial diversion program.
    • The county commissioners court has ultimate authority over the disposition of money received under the provision. Funds received under that law may not be co-mingled with or transferred to the hot-check fund.
    Robison, and later Britton, wrote letters to Paxton about Brown County’s authority to accept gifts and grants in conjunction with the pretrial diversion program.
    Britton's office has used pretrial diversion agreements with defendants for many years, Robison's letter states. In 2007, the Texas Legislature passed a bill presented by Rep. Jim Keffer pertaining to Brown County's pretrial diversion program.
    Then-Assistant County Attorney Ryan Locker presented the proposal to the legislation. After the Legislature enacted the law, Britton began to utilize it to require donations to be paid to his office as part of pretrial diversion agreements, Robison's letter states.
    Robison, who was appointed Brown County auditor by District Judge Steve Ellis on June 1, stated in her seven-page letter she's sure pretrial diversion programs, when done lawfully and properly administered, "can be a good thing for all concerned. Rehabilitation can take place without punishment that is overly harsh."
    But requiring defendants to make payments to a prosecuting attorney's office "in exchange for more lenient treatment or dismissal of their cases under the guise of calling these payments 'donations' appears to me to create a major problem," Robison's letter states.
    Britton said earlier the donation from a pre-trial diversion defendant totaled $1,500 including $750 to the county attorney's office. He has said his office no longer collects the donations.
    Britton said state law changed after the 2007 legislation presented by Keffer. He said the program is now called the Brown County Misdemeanor First Time Offenders Program, and sets the cost to the defendant at $980 — $500 to the county attorney's office and $480 to the probation office, Britton said earlier.
    Britton declined to comment Tuesday on Paxton’s opinion.