For the past six years, Celena Cavazos Vinson (pictured) prosecuted felony offenders in Fort Bend County. But as a result of a recent appointment, Vinson will be using a civil statute to fight crime in certain Harris County neighborhoods.
Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan has appointed Vinson as an assistant county attorney under a program Ryan’s office developed with management districts to improve life in the neighborhoods.
Vinson says she will work with the International Management District, Montrose Management District and the East Aldine Management District. Her job, which began Feb. 1, will be to file civil suits authorized by Chapter 125 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code to rid neighborhoods of “common nuisances.”
Under Chapter 125, a "common nuisance" exists when someone maintains a place to which persons habitually go to engage in any of a number of criminal activities, including various offenses involving drugs, gambling, prostitution and firearms.
Vinson says she will be going after property owners who allow crime to occur on their premises.
“It’s a way to get at crime,” she says.
Robert Soard, first assistant county attorney in Harris County, says the arrest of a prostitute can result in the prosecution of that individual on misdemeanor charges and possibly jail time. But the owner of the property where crime occurs is not punished, he says.
With Chapter 125, a nuisance abatement suit can be filed against the property owner, Soard says. He says a judge can order the owner to abate the criminal activity. If the owner violates the order, the judge can shut down the place of business for a year, he says.
“It’s a way to clean up neighborhoods,” Soard says.
Soard says Vinson is the second attorney to be appointed under the program, which Ryan started in August 2011. He says the management districts fund the two attorney positions under contracts with Harris County.
“As far as we know, it’s the first of its kind program in Texas,” Soard says.
Vinson, a 2001 graduate of the University of Houston Law Center, says she has more than nine years of experience as a trial lawyer with the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office, the last six of which she spent prosecuting felony level crimes involving drugs, organized crime and gangs.
— Mary Alice Robbins
Robbins is an Austin-based freelance writer and a former Texas Lawyer senior reporter.