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Brandon Barnett

Milton v State Improper Closing Argument 2019

Lions, and Babies, and Appeals! Oh my! | When Demonstrative Evidence Goes Too Far

By | Trial Advocacy

When Does a Closing Argument Go Too Far?

Milton v State Improper Closing Argument 2019What do Atticus Finch, Lt. Daniel Kaffee, and Jake Brigance have in common? Each of these fictional movie attorneys are known for zealously representing their clients by delivering intense cross examinations and galvanizing closing arguments. Finch, defending a wrongly-accused man in a time a place where justice was compromised by racial bias, implored the jury to seek justice by tapping into a higher power, “In the name of God do your duty.” Stuck at the crossroads of respecting formal rank and seeking justice in a military court-martial, Lt. Kaffee made the choice to double down on Col. Jessep during cross examination, poking at the Colonel’s pride. Col. Jessep took Lt. Kaffee’s bait, screaming, “You can’t handle the truth!” Jake Brigance took a more creative approach. Asking jurors to close their eyes, Brigance described a depraved series of events that caused his client to murder two people. The jury agreed with the justification, and acquitted Brigance’s client.

Under the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, an attorney must render competent and diligent representation to their clients, “and with zeal in advocacy upon the client’s behalf.” “1.01 Competent and Diligent Representation,” www.legalethicstexas.com, accessed April 6, 2019. Where is the line drawn for zealous representation in a closing argument? Can demonstrative evidence used in a closing argument go too far? The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas (“CCA”) says it can.

Milton v State (Tex. Crim. App. 2019) | Improper Closing Argument?

In 2015, Damon Milton robbed a drug store by asking a cashier to give him the money from the cash register. Milton never showed a weapon, and he pretended to shop until customers were not around. He always kept his hands out and visible. According to the police report, Milton did not have a weapon. Additionally, there was some circumstantial evidence that Milton had committed the same robbery to the same drug store the day before. At trial, Milton was found guilty of robbery.

During the sentencing phase of the trial, the State entered into evidence and played before the jury a 35-second video of a baby dressed in zebra-striped clothing at a zoo sitting in front of a protective glass enclosure. Behind the glass was a lion, ferociously trying to get to the baby. The State argued that Milton deserved a long sentence because of his criminal background and because of the crime. Additionally, the State entered into evidence Milton’s criminal history which included forgery, attempted unauthorized use of a motorized vehicle, and robbery by threat.

Defense for Milton objected to the video, on the grounds of relevance and prejudice. Moreover, “there [was] no indication that any of his past convictions involved crimes that were particularly brutal or gruesome…[nor]…any indication that…[there were any] crimes against children.” The State responded that the video illustrated that “motive plus opportunity equals behavior.” In other words, that getting away with a light sentence could embolden Milton to commit future crimes; or that if Milton would be locked away in prison, then he would not be able to commit a future crime, as imprisonment “removes the opportunity.”

Further, the State described the video to the jury, “the motive of that lion is never-changing, never changing, it’s innate…with the glass, the scene is funny, without the glass, a tragedy.” The State added, “we know that the [defendant] is such a bad guy…it’s almost laughable, just like that lion…nothing funny when the [defendant] is outside of prison, that’s a tragedy…[he] is never changing his motive.” The jury assessed Milton’s punishment at 50 years. Milton appealed to the court of appeals, arguing that the trial court’s allowing the video was an abuse of its discretion. On appeal, the State argued that the video was an impassioned plea for law enforcement and community protection, saying it was acceptable to argue that the defendant was a “vicious lion trying to eat a baby and the court needed to stop him.” The court of appeals upheld the trial courts holding, though the court noted that the State’s analysis was “tenuous.” Milton appealed to the CCA.

CCA Holds that Closing Arguments Should Not Inflame a Jury with Things Not Before Them

The CCA had to determine whether the demonstrative video shown at the sentencing phase of the trial was out of step. “The purpose of a closing argument is to facilitate the jury in properly analyzing the evidence presented…so that it may arrive at a just and reasonable conclusion based on the evidence alone, and not on any fact not admitted into evidence.” Campbell v. State, 610 S.W.2d 754, 756 (Tex. Crim. App. 1980). “It should not arouse the passion or prejudice of the jury by matters not properly before them.” Id. “Arguments that go beyond summation of the evidence, reasonable deduction from the evidence, answer to arguments made by opposing counsel, or law enforcement please, too often place before the jury unsworn…testimony of the attorney.” Alejandro v. State, 493 S.W.2d 230, 231 (Tex. Crim. App. 1973). Even though jurors are not stupid, they are human, which is why courts prohibit highly prejudicial evidence.

Accordingly, the CCA concluded that the video could be considered unfairly prejudicial “because it encouraged the jury to make its decision upon matters outside of the record by inviting a comparison between [Milton] and hungry lion.” “The State may strike hard blows, but it must not strike foul ones.” Jordan v. State, 646 S.W.2d 946 (Tex. Crim. App. 1983). There are limits to demonstrative aids in closing arguments. The CCA reversed the court of appeals opinion and remanded to the appeals court for a harm analysis.

Contractor Fraud Construction Fraud Texas

My Contractor Pulled a Houdini! Now what? | Construction Fraud Under Texas Law

By | Fraud

Contractor Fraud Construction Fraud TexasHave you sustained property damage in a powerful storm? If so, you probably had to call a contractor to do necessary repairs. It is sometimes customary in the construction industry for contractors to ask homeowners to pay for some of the work up front, and pay the remaining balance upon completion. Some contractors will ask you to fork over a hefty deposit to someone you do not know, yet you are trusting to get the job done. You are not alone. The good news is that most contractors will operate above the board. Even though social media reviews and ratings sites, such as Angie’s List, are sensible ways of vetting contractors and service providers in 2019, they cannot predict future white collar crimes perpetrated by individuals who are focused on scamming construction deposits out of desperate homeowners.

What Happens if Your Contractor is a Crook? | Construction Fraud in Tarrant County

What legal remedies are available to homeowners in Texas when a contractor pulls a Houdini, vanishing into thin air, cash in hand, without completing the repair work? Contractual breach is the most common civil cause of action. Generally, a contractual breach occurs when (1) there is an existing contractual agreement that is (2) performed (paid for) by one party, yet (3) the other party did not perform as agreed to, which (4) caused damages to the performing (paying) party. Material breach of a roofing contract may occur without intention, when a contractor takes too long to complete a project, or perhaps uses substandard materials, for example. This civil cause of action addresses the damages to the individual, but does not hold the wrongdoer accountable in a criminal court.

So what about those instances in which a scammer intentionally preys upon homeowners in the hopes of pocketing the cash and skipping town? Is this a criminal act?

Construction Fraud Prosecutions in Texas

Tarrant County, Texas has recently begun focusing prosecution efforts on contractor fraud. Homeowners in Tarrant County may call their local police agency to make an initial report. Additionally, homeowners may call the Tarrant County District Attorney’s White Collar Crime and Public Integrity Unit, created by Sharen Wilson, the District Attorney in Tarrant County. Wilson stated in a recent news article, “Construction fraud is a crime, and our citizens need to be protected from it.

When homeowners call the DA’s office, they will talk with a representative to see if the wrongdoing rises to the level of a complaint. If a complaint is filed, the DA’s office reviews the facts of the complaint for potential prosecutable offenses based on a variety of legal theories in criminal law. If the DA’s office finds elements of criminality, an investigation ensues which may result in criminal charges for the wrongdoer.

Construction Fraud Under the Texas Penal Code

The Texas Penal Code does not specifically provide a code section for construction or contractor fraud crimes. What are some of the legal theories and statutes the DA’s office is using to go after these home repair Houdinis? The Tarrant County DA’s office has prosecuted construction and roofing contractors who have absconded with the funds for misappropriation of fiduciary property, theft, insurance fraud, and elder financial abuse, to name a few.

Recently, the Tarrant County DA’s White Collar Crime Team prosecuted a man for theft from elderly victims. For his crimes, this man received three years in jail and an order to make restitution of $77,000.00 to his elderly victims. On multiple occasions, the man used aliases to approach homeowners in the mid-cities and Fort Worth areas, soliciting demolition and repair work. He accepted large sums of money, but never completed the work, or, did substandard work.

In January of 2019, another man pled guilty to Theft of $150,000- $300,000, for scamming 41 residents in the Arlington, North Richland Hills, and Mansfield areas, out of funds they paid him for roofing repairs. This man’s scheme involved sending employees door-to-door to sign customers up for repairs. The employees took checks from the victims, but the roofing work never began. As part of his plea agreement, the man was ordered pay the victims $230,000.00 in restitution.

Each of these types of cases is fact-specific and context-laden. Tarrant County has decided to take a strong stand against construction fraud. “We have made it a priority to put white-collar criminals on notice in Tarrant County—we will not tolerate scammers preying on our residents,” says Matt Smid, chief of the DA’s White Collar Crime Team. The county has also taken steps to provide the public with information regarding scams and fraud that is targeted at seniors. If you feel that you have been a victim of contractor fraud, you do have some options in Tarrant County.

Special Note to Attorneys who represent victims or perpetrators of constructions scams, implicating civil and criminal causes of action: Texas Disciplinary Rule of Professional Conduct 4.04(b) states that a lawyer shall not present, participate in presenting, or threaten to present criminal charges solely to gain advantage in a civil matter. According to the Texas Center for Legal Ethics, “giving notice required by law or applicable rules of practice, or procedure as a prerequisite to instituting criminal charges, does not violate the Rule, unless the underlying criminal charges were made without probable cause.

Tampering with Evidence Texas 37.09

Tampering with Evidence under Texas Law | Section 37.09 TX Penal Code

By | Evidence

Tampering with Evidence Texas 37.09During routine traffic stops, police officers sometimes end up arresting individuals for the third-degree felony offense of Tampering with Evidence. How does this happen you ask? If, during the course of a traffic stop, an officer observes the driver toss an item or two out of the window, and those tossed items are later determined to be drugs and/or drug paraphernalia, the officer might just arrest the person for tampering with evidence pursuant to section 37.09 of the Texas Penal Code. The important question though, is whether section 37.09 was intended to prohibit this type of conduct?

What is the Purpose of Section 37.09 – Tampering with Evidence?

Texas Penal Code Section 37.09 provides:

(a) A person commits an offense if, knowing that an investigation or official proceeding is pending or in progress, he:
     (1) alters, destroys, or conceals any record, document, or thing with intent to impair its verity, legibility, or availability as evidence in the investigation or official proceeding;  or
     (2) makes, presents, or uses any record, document, or thing with knowledge of its falsity and with intent to affect the course or outcome of the investigation or official proceeding.

Texas courts have found that the purpose of section 37.09 is to uphold the integrity of our criminal justice system. 20 Tex. Jur. 3d Criminal Law: Offenses Against Public Administration § 63 citing Wilson v. State, 311 S.W.3d 452 (Tex. Crim. App. 2010); Haywood v. State, 344 S.W.3d 454 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2011 pet. ref’d). This includes prohibiting anyone from “creating, destroying, forging, altering, or otherwise tampering with evidence that may be used in an official investigation or judicial proceeding.” Id. However, section 37.09 is not without limitation.

What is the Scope of Section 37.09?

Early case law suggests the scope of 37.09 is very limited. But, as you will read below, the Court of Criminal Appeals rejects this notion by allowing the fact finder the ability infer the intent to tamper.

In Pannell v. State, 7 S.W.3d 222 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1999, pet. ref’d) the court of appeals held that section 37.09 requires a defendant to know that the item “altered, destroyed, or concealed, was evidence of an investigation, that is pending or in progress, as it existed at the time of the alteration, destruction, or concealment.” Id. In this case, the defendant threw a marijuana cigarette out of the window while he was being pulled over for speeding. Id. Because the officer was only investigating a speeding violation when the defendant threw the marijuana out of the window, the court held that there was no evidence that an investigation in which the marijuana would serve as evidence was “pending or in progress.” Id. The court explained that only after the officer observed the defendant throw out the marijuana did the investigation change to involve drugs. As a result, the court determined there was no evidence of tampering. This analysis, however, has been rejected, albeit not explicitly overruled, in Williams v. State, 270 S.W.3d 140 (Tex. Crim. App. 2008).

In Williams, an officer was conducting a traffic stop and decided to conduct a pat down search of the driver (i.e. defendant) for weapons. During the pat down a crack pipe fell onto the pavement, and the defendant immediately stomped on the pipe, crushing it with his foot. When deciding whether or not the above actions constituted tampering, the Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the lower court’s analysis, which stated that the traffic stop became a drug investigation once the officer and the defendant noticed the pipe on the pavement, and only then was there tampering. In rejecting this analysis, the Court held that requiring a change in the investigation, as the appellate court’s analysis and Pannell does, adds an additional mens rea element not required by section 37.09.

Thus, the Court held that when an officer is investigating a traffic stop and the suspect anticipates that the officer will begin a drug investigation if the officer finds evidence of drugs, and in accordance with that anticipation, the suspect destroys the drugs before the officer becomes aware of them, the suspect has tampered with evidence. As such, there is no requirement for the officer to “see the pipe” or “see the marijuana” before the suspect throws it out of the window in order for that action to constitute tampering. The determination will be made by the finder of fact using circumstantial evidence to draw inferences.

In Conclusion . . .

In conclusion, if the only evidence the State has of tampering is the fact that the defendant threw the item out of the window, without any other indicia of tampering, then the act alone does not rise to level of tampering under section 37.09. However, there are many reasonable circumstances, ever so slight, that could lend the fact finder to make an inference of intent to tamper. With that being said, because the offense of tampering is extremely fact-based, we recommend you reach out to our experienced attorneys to better understand your options.

Stack Sentence Concurrent Sentence

Stacking Sentences to Run Consecutively in Texas

By | Sentencing

The Importance Between Stacked and Concurrent Sentences

Stack Sentence Concurrent SentenceWhen a defendant is convicted of multiple crimes at the same trial, his sentences automatically run concurrently, unless there is an order for the sentences to be stacked (i.e. to run consecutively). When sentences are stacked, defendants are required to finish serving the sentence for one offense before they begin serving the sentence for another offense. So, if a defendant is convicted of multiple crimes, especially those with longer sentence ranges, the difference between stacking the sentences or running the sentences concurrently can be huge. Thus, it is very important to know when sentences must run concurrently, when sentences can be stacked, and who makes those decisions.

Who Decides Whether to Stack a Defendant’s Sentences or Run Them Concurrently?

In Texas, defendants have the right to elect to have the jury or a judge assess punishment. However, even when the jury assesses a defendant’s sentences in a case with multiple charges, it is up to the judge of the court to determine whether the sentences will be stacked or whether the sentences will run concurrently.

The trial court’s authority to stack sentences is derived primarily from article 42.08 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. Under this article, when a defendant with multiple convictions is sentenced, the court must include in the subsequent judgment or judgments whether the sentences will run concurrently or consecutively. This general rule allowing stacking or concurrent sentences applies whether the sentences have been imposed or suspended. As a result, the trial court has broad discretion when pronouncing whether the sentences will be stacked or run concurrently. Nevertheless, there are certain occasions when the judge cannot stack a defendant’s sentence.

When is the Judge Prohibited From Stacking a Defendant’s Sentences?

Generally, when a defendant is found guilty of more than one offense arising from the same criminal episode and prosecuted in a single criminal action, the sentences must run concurrently (i.e. if a person is prosecuted in the same trial for DWI and Unlawful Carrying of a Weapon). However, there are exceptions to this rule that will allow for stacking. For example, if a defendant moves to sever his cases that arose from the same criminal episode, he runs the risk of having his sentences stacked. In addition, case law has permitted multiple convictions, arising out of the same criminal episode, for intoxication manslaughter and certain sex offenses under section 3.03(b) of the Texas Penal Code to be stacked.

What Criteria Does the Trial Court Use to Determine Whether to Stack a Defendant’s Sentence?

Trial Courts tend to consider the same factors used for determining the severity of a defendant’s sentence when deciding whether or not to stack sentences. For example, judges may consider:

  • whether the crimes and their objectives were predominantly independent of each other;
  • whether the crimes involved separate acts of violence or threats of violence;
  • whether the crimes were committed at different times or separate places; and
  • other aggravating or mitigating factors such as a defendant’s past record.

Are There Certain Circumstances When a Judge is Required to Stack Sentences?

Yes, but only in one scenario. As provided in Article 42.08, if a defendant is sentenced for an offense committed while the defendant was an inmate in TDC and the defendant has not completed the sentence he was serving at the time of the offense, the judge shall order the new sentence be stacked—to begin immediately upon the completion of the defendant’s previous sentence.

Can the Judge Stack a Probation Sentence with a Prison Sentence?

Yes. In Texas, a judge can choose to stack a probation sentence with prison sentence, but the judge must order the confinement sentence to run first and the probation thereafter.

In Conclusion . . .

To determine whether your case involves offenses that may be stacked, you should consult with your attorney. Stacking sentences is rare, but you should still seek proper legal advice when charged with multiple offenses. If you find yourself in this situation and need an attorney, give us a call.

Confrontation Clause Violation When Accuser Does Not Appear at Trial

By | Confrontation Clause

Tarrant County Trial Court Admits Testimony in Violation of the Confrontation Clause

The Second Court of Appeals recently released a memorandum opinion, which reversed a defendant’s conviction due to a confrontation clause violation. The issue was whether the trial court (Criminal District Court Number 1, Tarrant County) erred in allowing an officer to testify about certain statements the alleged victim made regarding a prior assault allegation.

McDowell v. State—2nd Court of Appeals (2018)

The Facts—Defendant Was Convicted for Felony Domestic Violence

On August 21, 2016, officers were alerted to a domestic disturbance in progress. When officers arrived at the scene they made contact with the victim and the victim’s friend who had reported the disturbance. While talking with the two females, officers noticed multiple bruises on the victim and learned that the suspect (i.e. Defendant), who had allegedly assaulted the victim, was still inside the home. Officers subsequently entered the residence and arrested Defendant.

At trial, dash-cam video showing the accusations made by the two females was admitted. In addition, one of the officers testified to additional statements made by the victim suggesting that the defendant had a history of violence. These additional statements, however, were not included in the dash cam video. Defendant objected to these statements under Crawford because the victim did not appear at trial. Nonetheless, the trial court allowed the out-of-court statements to be admitted over objection.

In addition to the officer’s testimony regarding the hearsay statements, the jury heard from two other witnesses about the cycle of domestic violence. The State then referenced this testimony in relation to Defendant’s history of domestic violence during closing arguments. As a result, Defendant was convicted. Defendant later appealed his conviction arguing that the trial court erred when it allowed the officer to testify to the victim’s statements in violation of the confrontation clause of the 6th Amendment.

Court of Appeals Reverses and Remands Case—Holding the Trial Court Erred in Admitting the Officer’s Testimony

Generally, the Confrontation Clause bars admission of testimonial statements of a witness who does not appear at trial. In determining whether certain statements were testimonial in nature, “the Court looks to see whether circumstances were present at the time the statements were made that would indicate the existence of an ongoing emergency.” If such circumstances existed, the statements are admissible.

Here, the victim did not appear at trial. As such, the Court of Appeals attempted to analyze whether the victim’s statements were testimonial in nature by determining whether they were made during the ongoing emergency. However, the Court was unable to do so because there was no evidence from the State regarding when these statements were made. The Court concluded that without knowing the timing at which the statements were made, there was no way to determine the existence of an ongoing emergency. The Court explained that once there is an objection to the admission of evidence on confrontation grounds the burden shifts to the State. Here, the State was silent in regard to the confrontation objection. And, without the State providing more evidence, the Court could not conclude that the statements were nontestimonial. Accordingly, the Court held that the trial court erred in admitting the statements.

The Court then conducted a harm analysis to determine whether the error impacted the jury’s verdict, which would require a reversal. In making its determination, the Court noted that the majority of the officer’s testimony was based on the inadmissible statements. These statements portrayed a history of violence rather than just one instance. Further, the other witnesses’ testimony hinged on these inadmissible statements. Thus, because the inadmissible statements were a crucial part in establishing the elements of the offense, the Court could not say beyond a reasonable doubt that the trial court’s error did not contribute to Defendant’s conviction and, therefore, a reversal was required.

Christmas Holiday Arrests Texas

Top 5 Reasons for Arrests During the Christmas Holiday Season

By | Criminal Defense

Christmas Holiday Arrests TexasWhen you think about the Christmas season, you probably think about family time, presents, good food, and celebration. We think about those things too, but as criminal defense attorneys, we also think about the reasons that some of our clients get arrested during the holiday season. For this article, we took a look at the last 6 years of holiday season arrests (for clients that we represented) and compiled an (anecdotal) list of the top 5 reasons that folks get arrested during the Christmas/New Year’s season. Our goal is that this list will serve as a warning, so that your holiday season can be filled with the good stuff, rather than jail, bail, and calls to our office. Here goes:

5. Shoplifting

Many retailers slash their prices and offer steep discounts in the weeks leading up to Christmas and even bigger discounts after Christmas, but we have yet to see any retailer offer the “five finger discount” for their merchandise. Regardless, we see plenty of shoplifting cases during the Christmas season, making it our #5 reasons that people get arrested during Christmas. Depending on the regular price value of the item (not the discounted price), shoplifting theft charges can range from misdemeanors to felonies. Learn more about Theft law in Texas here.

4. Package Theft

In a similar vein to shoplifting, our #4 reason for holiday arrests is package theft. Many shoppers choose the convenience of online shopping and have their Christmas purchases delivered right to their front door. Some people see this as an easy target, following behind UPS or FedEx trucks to steal those would-be Christmas gifts from the front porch. However, with the increase in doorbell cameras, it is getting easier to catch the porch pirates in the act. Further, some law enforcement agencies have begun using dummy packages to bait thieves into getting caught. Package theft can range from a misdemeanor to a felony depending on what unknown treasure lay inside the brown box.

3. Airport Contraband (Guns and Drugs)

Going to visit grandma can require air travel for many families. This means that thousands more people than usual flood through DFW Airport between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. It matters not from where these travelers hail. From Maryland to Oregon to France, if a person is arrested at DFW Airport, their case will be filed in Tarrant County, Texas and they will have to travel back to DFW to attend court. During the holidays, we see a surge in airport arrests when people bring items into the airport that are not allowed. These mostly consist of:

Even if the state from which a traveler is coming has legalized marijuana and the state to which they are traveling has legalized marijuana, if they are caught possessing marijuana in the airport, they will be arrested and charged. The combination of airport gun arrests and airport drug arrests make these types of cases our #3 reason for holiday arrests.

2. Assault Family Violence

In the movie Christmas Vacation, Clark Griswold showed an enormous amount of restraint when his extended family pushed him to the limit (especially Cousin Eddie), but not everyone is blessed with such a cool head. Christmas time brings added stressors into the family environment that can sometimes lead to verbal or physical altercations between family members, so much so, that these arrests rank at #2 in our book. Depending on the nature of the assault, a domestic violence arrest can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. Learn more about Family Violence under Texas law.

1. Driving While Intoxicated

With all of the Christmas and New Year’s parties and the increase in No Refusal Weekends, it is not hard to guess that DWI arrests are #1 on our list. Driving While Intoxicated in Texas can range from a misdemeanor (if it is a first or second offense) to a felony (if there is a child in the car or if the person arrested has been convicted of DWI twice in the past). Our advice is to plan ahead and do not even take your car to a Christmas party when you plan to drink. Catch a ride from a friend or take an Uber or Lyft. That would be a lot cheaper than hiring an attorney and a lot less hassle too. Learn more about Texas DWI law here.

We Hope You Never Need Us, But We’re Here if Your Do.

We wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year. As always, we hope you never need us to represent you or one of your loved ones for a criminal offense. This is even more true during the Christmas season. Hopefully this list will help you avoid trouble that looms during the holiday season. If you do happen to need us, we are only a phone call away at (817) 993-9249.

Driving Around Barricade Crime Texas

Is Driving Around a Water Barricade a Criminal Offense?

By | Criminal Defense

Rules of the Road During Flood Season in Texas

Driving Around Barricade Crime TexasFor four years in a row, Texas has experienced significant flooding due to unusual amounts of rainfall. Many people have lost their lives in cars that were swept away in rushing water and many houses have been ruined by flooding across the state.  First responders are on high alert and have been involved in numerous high water rescues.

One story made the news in 2016 when a man was rescued after his car entered a flooded roadway and was filled with water.  Johnson County had to use a drone to fly overhead and locate the man and then emergency personnel executed a rescue.  But what made this story different was what happened to the man after he was rescued.  Johnson County Sheriff’s slapped handcuffs on the man and arrested him for driving around a barricade.

Driving Around a Water Barricade is a Class B Misdemeanor in Texas

Section 472.022 of the Texas Transportation Code governs “OBEYING WARNING SIGNS AND BARRICADES” and provides (in relevant part):

(a) A person commits an offense if the person:
(1) disobeys the instructions, signals, warnings, or markings of a warning sign; or
(2) drives around a barricade.
(d)(2) if a person commits an offense under Subsection (a) where a warning sign or barricade has been placed because water is over any portion of a road, street, or highway, the offense is a Class B misdemeanor.

In Texas, the punishment range for a Class B Misdemeanor is 0-180 days in jail and a fine not to exceed $2,000.

While arrests after a water rescue are not the norm, this certainly provides another reason not to drive around a high water barricade. You would think that the potential danger to life and property would be enough, but sometimes folks need a little more motivation. Johnson County has given us that.

BHW offer two annual scholarships - one for a Military Veteran Law Student, the other for a Military Dependent Undergraduate Student. See who won in 2017!

2018 BHW Scholarship Winners | Veteran Law Student & Military Dependent

By | Scholarship

Barnett Howard & Williams PLLC Announces the Recipients of the 2018 Scholarship Awards

BHW offer two annual scholarships - one for a Military Veteran Law Student, the other for a Military Dependent Undergraduate Student. See who won in 2017!This was the third year for our law firm to offer scholarships. In honor of the sacrifices of our military veterans, we decided to that the scholarships should be connected to military service. The first scholarship is a $500 award for a Military Veteran Law Student and the second scholarship is a $500 award for a Military Dependent undergraduate student. Throughout the year, we received many applications from very deserving students. We appreciate all of the students that took the time to apply for the scholarships and wish them all the best in their studies. For those students that were not selected, we invite you to apply again next year as we plan to continue the scholarship offers as an annual award.

2018 Winner – Military Veteran Law Student Scholarship

The winner of the 2016 Military Veteran Law Student Scholarship is:

GREGG STARR

Gregg Starr is a Army veteran that served as an Infantry Officer in Operation Enduring Freedom. Mr. Starr will be attending Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in Chicago, Illinois. Congratulations Gregg Starr. Best wishes as you continue toward your law degree.

2018 Winner – Military Dependent Scholarship

The winner of the 2016 Military Dependent Undergraduate Scholarship is:

ELENA POLINSKI

Elena Polinski is the daughter of a retired United State Marine Master Sergeant.  Ms. Polinski will be attending Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina and is pursuing a degree in Marine Biology. Congratulations Elena! Best wishes as you pursue your dreams.

More Information About Our Scholarship Opportunities:

For more information about how to apply for these scholarships in future years, please visit the scholarship pages:

Military Veteran Law Student Scholarship

Military Dependent Scholarship

Boating While Intoxicated Boating Offenses Texas

7 Common Boating Offenses in Texas | #3 Can Lead to Serious Prison Time

By | DWI

Boating While Intoxicated Boating Offenses TexasFor a lot people in Texas, the summer is filled with swimming, boating, wakeboarding, and drinking. These activities can be fun and harmless, but sometimes they can take a turn for the worse. Here’s a list of some of the most common criminal offenses that can be committed on a boat in Texas lakes and possible punishments that go along with them. Please keep these in mind to ensure that you have a fun and safe time on the water this summer.

1. Boating While Intoxicated in Texas (BWI)

There is nothing wrong with drinking on a boat, but the boat driver must be careful not to have too many. Under Texas Penal Code 49.06, a person is Boating While Intoxicated if the person is intoxicated while operating a watercraft. To be considered intoxicated, one must not having the normal use of mental or physical faculties by reason of the introduction of alcohol, a controlled substance, a drug, a dangerous drug, a combination of two or more of those substances, or any other substance into the body or have an alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more. This is the same definition of intoxication that exists under the DWI statutes in Texas.

A “watercraft,” as defined in the Boating While Intoxicated law, is a vessel, one or more water skis, an aquaplane, or another device used for transporting or carrying a person on water, other than a device propelled only by the current of water.

Boating while intoxicated is a Class B misdemeanor, with a minimum term of confinement of 72 hours. It is punishable by:

  • up to 180 days in jail
  • a fine of up to $2,000, or
  • both confinement and fine

2. Underage Operation of a Boat

In Texas, according to the Parks and Wildlife Code, no person may operate a motorboat powered by a motor with a manufacturer’s rating of more than 15 horsepower on the public waters of this state unless the person is at least 13 years of age or is supervised by another person who:

  • is at least 18 years of age;
  • can lawfully operate the motorboat; and
  • is on board the motorboat when under way.

Children that are 13-17 years of age can lawfully operate a recreational vessel (like a jet ski) if they complete a boater education course.
Underage operation of a Boat is a Class C Parks and Wildlife Code misdemeanor and can be punished by a fine of $25 to $500.

3. Failure to Report a Boating Accident in Texas (Felony Offense)

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Code regulates the boating guidelines in Texas. According to Section 31.104, when involved in a boating accident, the operator is required to:

  • Render to other persons affected such assistance, as may be practicable and necessary in order to save them from or minimize any danger.
  • Give his name, address, and identification of his vessel in writing to any person injured and to the owner of any property damaged in the collision, accident, or other casualty.

Also, according to Section 31.105 the accident must be reported to the department on or before the expiration of 30 days after the incident. The report should include a full description of the collision, accident, or casualty in accordance with regulations established by the department.

It is the responsibility of each boat operator who is involved in an accident to contact TPWD or your nearest law enforcement agency if the accident:

  • Results in death; (within 48 hours) or
  • Injuries to a person requiring medical treatment beyond first aid; or
  • Causes damage to vessel(s) or property in excess of $2,000.00

Failure to report is a Parks and Wildlife Code Felony and can be punished by confinement in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for at least 2 but less than 10 years. In addition to imprisonment, a Parks and Wildlife Code felony may be punished by a fine of $2,000 to $10,000.

4. Speeding While Boating

I’ll bet you’ve never noticed any speed limit signs on the lake. Neither have I. However, a person can still violate Texas law if they go too fast in their boat. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Code states that no person may operate any boat at a rate of speed greater than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the conditions and hazards, actual and potential, then existing, including weather and density of traffic, or greater than will permit him, in the exercise of reasonable care, to bring the boat to a stop within the assured clear distance ahead. So it appears that the speed limit is whatever a reasonably prudent person would say that it is. If you’re a daredevil, then ask your cautious friend if you’re going too fast.

Speeding is an offense under this section is a Class C misdemeanor and can be punished by a fine not to exceed $500.

5. Failure to Have Life Jackets on Board

Texas Parks and Wildlife Code Section 175.15 requires that there is at least one personal flotation device on board a recreational vessel for each person. Further, each child must be wearing their life jacket while on board.

Failure to have proper life jackets is a Class C misdemeanor and can be punished by a fine not to exceed $500.

6. Fishing Without a License in Texas

A valid fishing license with a freshwater or saltwater endorsement is required to take fish, mussels, clams, crayfish or other aquatic life in the public waters of Texas. However, you do not need a fishing license/package if you:

  • are under 17 years of age.
  • were born before January 1, 1931.
  • are a mentally disabled person who is engaging in recreational fishing as part of a medically approved therapy, and who is fishing under the immediate supervision of personnel approved or employed by a hospital, residence or school for mentally disabled persons.
  • are a mentally disabled person who is recreational fishing under the direct supervision of a licensed angler who is a family member or has permission from the family to take the mentally disabled person fishing

Fishing without a license is an offense under this section is a Class C misdemeanor and can be punished by a fine not to exceed $500.

7. Public Intoxication

Public Intoxication applies on the water, just as it does on land in Texas. Under the Texas Penal Code, a person commits the crime of public intoxication if the person appears in a public place while intoxicated to the degree that the person may endanger the person or another.

Public intoxication is a Class C misdemeanor and can be punished by a fine not to exceed $500.

Texas Criminal Defense Attorneys and Summer Water Enthusiasts

We enjoy the Texas lakes as much as anyone and we hope that you will too. Like we always say, we hope you never need us, either for a criminal offense or for an accident, but we are here if you do. For a free consultation about your legal matter, contact Barnett Howard & Williams PLLC at (817) 993-9249.

Consent to Fighting Texas

Can Adults Consent To A Fistfight in Texas? Not Exactly.

By | Assault

Put Up Your Dukes! Here’s What Texans Need to Know Before They Decide to Engage in a Fistfight.

Consent to Fighting TexasIt’s no secret that folks don’t always get along. Sometimes, especially down in Texas, arguments can lead to fights. When two adults decide to go to fisticuffs, they can reasonably assume that one (or both) of them are going to get hit. But, are the bruises and black eyes the end of it? Can either of these heroes be charged with a criminal offense for their part in the fight? Maybe. It depends.

Consent as a Defense to a Texas Assault Charge

Section § 22.06 of the Texas Penal Code governs consent as a defense to assaultive conduct. This section allows a party accused of assault or aggravated assault or deadly conduct in violation of sections § 22.01, § 22.02 or § 22.05 of the penal code to assert consent of the victim as an affirmative defense to prosecution so long as serious bodily injury is not inflicted and the assaultive conduct is not a requirement of membership in a criminal street gang. While Section § 22.06 is a defense, it does not grant an actor automatic immunity from prosecution. Ultimately, whether both parties to a fistfight demonstrate consent or the reasonable appearance of consent is a fact-intensive inquiry and is a matter for a jury to decide.

-An Illustration-

In Miller v. State, a father and his adult son engaged in fisticuffs over the usual father-son trivialities. The son admitted in an affidavit to egging his father on, inviting him to “come on, hit me,” lunging at his father in a threatening manner and pushing him. The father hit his adult son, bloodying his face and loosening some teeth. After their fight, the bloodied son was discovered by police offers conducting a routine traffic stop. The father was charged with assault in violation of the Texas Penal Code § 22.01. At trial, the father requested a jury instruction on consent but was denied. He was convicted of assault and appealed. The Court of Appeals, Houston 14th District, reversed the trial court, finding that a jury instruction on consent was appropriate given the facts of the case.[1]

What Constitutes Consent to a Fistfight in Texas?

The consent defense to assaultive conduct applies both when the victim gives effective consent to engage in mutual combat as well as when the actor has a “reasonable belief” of the victim’s consent.[2] When evaluating whether a consent defense might apply, courts look to the circumstantial evidence surrounding the fracas. This evidence is evaluated in the light most favorable to the defendant and must merely support the defense’s assertion of the victim’s consent, it does not necessarily have to be believable. Evaluating the credibility of the alleged consent is a question for the jury.[3]

Though juries must be given instruction on consent if the evidence calls for it, the “true meaning” of a combatant’s words are a variable to be considered. In a decision decided on a technicality the court recognized that words like “go ahead,” “come on,” “slap me,” “do it” were not indicative of consent but were “a backhanded warning of potentially dire consequences to the threatener” in those particular circumstances.[4] The court agreed, however, that this is a question for juries to consider with a consent instruction.

In Miller v. State, the victim son, invited his father to “come on, hit me.” The son later explained to police that he was “all jazzed up” and eager for a fight. The victim then kicked and punched his father before his father punched his son. The appellate court took the provocations of the victim to be a part of the calculus for determining mutuality.[5] It is also notable that no parties called the police, that the police encountered the situation through happenstance and pressed charges on their own authority.

What Constitutes “Serious Bodily Harm” Under Texas Law?

Consent is not a defense to assaultive conduct that results in serious bodily harm. Serious bodily harm is defined as “bodily injury that creates a substantial risk of death or that causes death, serious permanent disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ.”[6] Courts have not produced a definitive demarcation line on what types of assaultive conduct constitute serious bodily harm and what fall short. Serious bodily harm is evaluated on a case-by-case basis[7] accounting for the “disfiguring and impairing quality of the bodily injury.”[8] Injuries are evaluated at the time of the infliction, irrespective of subsequent ameliorating treatment.[9]

Courts have found that the loss of teeth can constitute a serious bodily harm when paired with a sore neck and a week-long hospital stay[10] however, so far, courts have only found the loosening of teeth to rise to the level of serious bodily injury when paired with other serious injuries including fractured facial bones.[11] Blows to the head may or may not constitute serious bodily harm depending on whether they lead to concussion. Similarly, memory loss may or may not constitute serious bodily harm depending on whether it is a product of concussion.[12] Ultimately, if the State alleges serious bodily harm, it is a question of fact for the jury to decide.[13]

In Miller v. State, the state did not allege serious bodily harm and the Court found that the loosening of teeth and the temporary loss of consciousness with no accompanying memory loss did not rise to the level of serious bodily harm.

Jury Instructions On Consent Are Mandatory When Supported By Evidence

In a prosecution for assault, aggravated assault, or deadly conduct in violation of sections § 22.01, § 22.02, or § 22.05 of the Texas Penal Code, the judge must give the jury an instruction on consent and, when charged by the prosecution, serious bodily injury, if the accused has raised any evidence supporting the defense.[14]

“An accused has the right to an instruction on any defense raised by the evidence, whether that evidence is weak or strong, unimpeached or contradicted, and regardless of what the trial court thinks about the credibility of the evidence.”[15]

It is the purview of the jury to determine whether or not the accused had a reasonable belief of consent before engaging in combative behavior. Once the issue of consent is submitted to the jury, the court shall charge the jury that reasonable doubt on the issue requires that the defendant be acquitted.[16]

-Conclusion-

Though a fistfight between consenting adults may well fall into the excepted area carved out by Section § 22.06 of the Texas Penal Code, there are many pitfalls that ought to be avoided. When two parties enter into combat it can sometimes be difficult to establish the mutuality of consent. While consent can be implied from the actions of the participating parties including threatening and inviting speech or belligerent physical action, the more explicit the assertion of consent, the better. If there is sufficient doubt about one party’s eagerness to enter into combat, the consent defense may not apply.

Additionally, when engaging in consensual mutual combat, care must be taken by both parties to not traverse the divide between simple assault and serious bodily harm. Because of the nebulous nature of what constitutes serious bodily harm and the unpredictability in how courts interpret the statute, this can be an especially tricky area to navigate. The difference between a loose tooth and a lost tooth may mark the difference between whether § 22.06 applies.

Finally, both the consent of the parties as well as the gravity of the injuries inflicted are questions for a jury to decide. Though § 22.06 should be introduced as an instruction for a jury to consider when supported by evidence, a person accused of assault still may likely have to undertake the time and expense of a criminal prosecution.

 

[1]          Miller v. State, 312 S.W.3d 209 (Tex. App. – Houston [14th District] 2010).

[2]          § 22.06.

[3]          312 S.W.3d at 212.

[4]          Allen v. State, 253 S.W.3d 260, 268 (Tex. Crim. App. 2008).

[5]          312 S.W.3d at 211.

[6]          Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 1.07 (West).

[7]          312 S.W.3d at 213.

[8]          Blea v. State, 483 S.W.3d 29, 34–35 (Tex. Crim. App. 2016).

[9]          Goodman v. State, 710 S.W.2d 169, 170 (Tex.App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 1986, no pet.).

[10]        Hatfield v. State, 377 S.W.2d 647, 648 (Tex. Crim. App. 1964).

[11]        Pitts v. State, 742 S.W.2d 420, 421 (Tex. App. – Dallas 1987).

[12]        Powell v. State, 939 S.W.2d 713, 718 (Tex.App.-El Paso 1997, no pet.).

[13]        312 S.W.3d at 213.

[14]        Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 2.03 (West).

[15]        Id. at 212.

[16]        § 2.03.