International Extradition of Houston Day Care Worker Raises Serious Legal Questions

Jessica Rene Tata, a U.S. citizen wanted for her alleged role in a Houston day care fire, has yet to be added to the INTERPOL Red Notice fugitive list, despite media reports to the contrary. Tata has allegedly fled the United States and is thought to be in Nigeria. As of this afternoon, INTERPOL has still not published a Red Notice for Tata.

On February 24, a fire in a Houston day care owned and operated by Tata, claimed the lives of four children and left three survivors. Allegedly, Tata was not on the premises when the fire began.

The issue arises whether the Houston District Attorney’s Office has over-charged the case. Tata was originally charged with reckless injury to a child on Monday, February 28 and an arrest warrant was issued. The following day, Tata was additionally charged with six counts of reckless injury to a child and three counts of abandoning a child under the age of 15. On Wednesday, the Southern District of Texas charged Tata with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. Last Thursday, a grand jury indicted Tata on four counts of manslaughter. The charges against Tata have now risen to 15 counts.

It seems the Houston DA’s office is scrambling to bring charges against Tata, first for her arrest, and subsequently thereafter. Significantly, the original charges against Tata are not extraditable offenses under the U.S. and Nigerian extradition treaty, which most likely explains the grand jury indictment for manslaughter. Manslaughter is an extraditable offense under the treaty, but why did it take the Houston DA’s office three different sets of charges to eventually charge Tata with an extraditable offense? Moreover, only when the U.S. and Nigerian extradition treaty and extraditable offenses were brought to the attention of the Houston DA’s office by multiple outside sources, did the manslaughter charges arise. It appears Tata has been indicted with manslaughter for extradition purposes, not because the Houston DA’s office believes manslaughter is the proper charge in the case.

The Houston DA’s office needs to realize international extradition proceedings will most likely take time. If Tata agrees to extradition, she may be back in the U.S. within a month or so. However, if she fights the extradition request, she will be entitled to a hearing in Nigeria that will require the U.S. government to show probable cause for the charges underlying her extradition. This could be a serious issue for the Houston DA’s office due to the problems discussed above.

In addition to the onslaught of charges, the U.S. Marshals Service added Tata to the list of 15 Most Wanted last Friday. The U.S. Marshals have identified Tata as “armed and dangerous,” but on what grounds? Nothing in the case indicates Tata is in fact armed and dangerous. This designation has serious implications for Tata. For example, law enforcement authorities may exceed what is necessary for her arrest if they believe she is armed and dangerous.

The allegations against Tata are indeed serious. However, state and federal law enforcement authorities have to play by the rules and follow state and international extradition laws. Over-charging an individual and manipulating the system compromises the integrity of the entire U.S. judicial process, and law enforcement authorities need to keep that in mind.

Douglas McNabb and other members of the firm practice and write extensively on matters involving Federal Criminal Defense, INTERPOL Red Notice Removal, International Extradition and OFAC SDN List Removal.

The author of this blog is Douglas McNabb. Please feel free to contact him directly at mcnabb@mcnabbassociates.com or at one of the offices listed above.

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