More than 48 hours after their arrest at a raucous Mercedes City Commission meeting Tuesday night, four local residents were finally brought before a judge for arraignment Thursday.
The timing of the court proceedings was something Mercedes Municipal Judge Juan Alvarez went out of his way to note as he sat before the man and three women at the Weslaco Municipal Court, where the arraignments took place.
“They started getting magistrated at or about 6:35,” Alvarez said after learning from court staff that the four were taken into custody at 6 p.m. on Sept. 17.
“I just need to put — on the record — that, that it is beyond the 48 hours,” Alvarez said, referring to a state statute which mandates defendants be brought before a magistrate judge within 48 hours of their arrest.
Alvarez also confirmed with court staff that the court proceeding was being recorded.
Both Dalia Peña and Velda Garcia stand charged with resisting arrest and interference with public duties, Class A and B misdemeanors, respectively. Garcia’s daughter, Aileen Luna, faces one count of resisting arrest.
The penalty for a Class B misdemeanor is up to 180 days in county jail, and a fine not to exceed $2,000, Alvarez explained. For a Class A misdemeanor, the penalty is up to a year in county jail and a fine not to exceed $4,000.
Meanwhile, Garcia’s son, Noel Rodriguez, is facing the most severe charges of the group. In addition to charges of resisting arrest and interference with public duties, Rodriguez faces one count of assaulting a public servant, a third-degree felony, the judge explained.
Rodriguez could face between 2 to 10 years in a state penitentiary and a fine of up to $10,000 for that charge, Alvarez said.
The judge set $5,000 personal recognizance bonds for all four people, telling them they would be released from custody shortly after being transferred to the county jail to post bond.
At one point, the judge consoled Luna, who had spent the entire proceeding with her head bowed, visibly crying. “You’ll be okay, ma’am,” Alvarez said softly.
“They’re gonna take you to county and you’re gonna be out on your signature loan,” he said, before ordering court staff to provide all four with an opportunity to make a phone call before their transfer to the county jail.
Reached at Mercedes City Hall on Friday, neither City Manager Sergio Zavala nor Police Chief Dagoberto “Dago” Chavez had much to say.
Zavala declined to answer questions after a budget workshop, while Chavez at first responded to a request for comment by saying that the arraignments had not occurred after the 48 hour statutory deadline.
When informed that the judge had made it a point to note the tardiness of the arraignment, Chavez said he had no further comment and stepped into his office.
However, prior to the Thursday evening arraignment, the police chief sat down for a conversation with local resident advocate Israel Coronado at city hall that morning. During the conversation, which was broadcast live on Facebook, Chavez said he had up to 72 hours to “investigate crimes.”
When Coronado pressed, asking if inmates needed to be seen by “someone” before that, Chavez responded no. “I have up to 72 hours to investigate the crime. It can’t get any clearer than that. I have up to 72 hours for that,” Chavez said.
Speaking via phone Friday, Coronado was critical of both city administration and the police department’s actions throughout the ordeal — from Tuesday night’s commission meeting, to the treatment of the four arrested residents while they were in custody.
“They failed completely at keeping the peace,” Coronado said of the meeting, adding that he had emailed city officials on Monday to make them aware of the potential for high attendance.
Coronado said the whole situation — from the meeting getting out of hand before it could begin, to the four arrests — could have been prevented. “Yes there is fault on the individuals that acted wrong… with that same certainty I’m telling the city that you’re fault, as well,” he said.
And once the four were in custody, Garcia went more than 24 hours without cardiac medicine she is required to take daily, Coronado said. It was only after multiple calls and in-person visits to both the Mercedes and Weslaco police departments that Garcia’s family was finally able to deliver the medicine to the Weslaco jail after midnight on Wednesday.
Tensions had already been simmering in the city for days before Tuesday night’s meeting. Residents were upset at an apparent threat to remove newly elected Commissioner Leonel Benavidez from office at a Sept. 5 meeting.
The threat became more concrete once the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting was posted. Two items — one for the potential censure of Benavidez, and another to set a hearing for his potential removal, prompted the large turnout.
In the days leading up to the meeting, residents began speaking of gathering signatures for the recall of Mayor Henry Hinojosa and Commissioner Leo Villarreal. Since the meeting and arrests, the effort has gained momentum, with dozens of signatures gathered already.
Coronado said he is spearheading the effort and hopes it will serve to educate Mercedes public officials and residents of their rights. “The reason why we went with the recall is to kinda educate the elected officials who are trying to remove a person from that position and show them how it’s supposed to be done,” Coronado said.
Meanwhile, an agenda item to consider the termination of the city manager which was sponsored by Commissioner Jose Gomez stalled Tuesday when the commission took no action on it after the fracas. On Friday, Gomez said he still wants to revisit the issue at a future meeting.
The city remains enjoined from taking any action against Benavidez pending the outcome of a temporary injunction hearing slated for Sept. 30.