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Brandon Barnett

Texas Expunction Update

Misdemeanor Offenses in Texas Now Eligible for Expunction on an Individual Basis

By | Expunction

Texas Expunction UpdateIn January of this year, the Supreme Court of Texas heard arguments for Ex parte R.P.G.P. in which it declared that an arrest involving multiple offenses is divisible for expungement purposes under Article 55.01 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. Specifically, it answered a question left open by a previous case, finding that misdemeanor offenses are eligible for expunction on an individual basis.

What is an Expunction of Criminal Records ?

When a criminal record is expunged, that means that the record of is destroyed or sealed (for juvenile records). In an expunction order the court orders the various agencies that maintain records to treat a criminal arrest as though it never happened. People generally have their records expunged so that it does not show up on a routine background check, as an expungement removes any record of the arrest or case from public record.

How Do You Go About Getting an Expungement in Texas?

Under Texas law, there are a number of things that make a record eligible for expunction. If you qualify for expunction, there is a process you must go through, beginning with filing what is called a Petition for Expunction with the district court requesting that it grant an Order for Expunction. While it is possible to prepare this on your own, the somewhat complicated process is best handled by an attorney. The prudent course is to consult a lawyer in order to have the best chance at successfully expunging a record. You only get one shot and if your petition is not granted you don’t get to try again, so it is best to get it right from the start.

After completing the petition, it must be filed with the proper court. You must file the petition for expunction in the district court of the county where the arrest occurred. Following the filing, the court schedules a hearing and notifies the record-keeping agencies that you included in your petition. Once everyone has been notified, the court will hold a hearing and allow those notified the chance to object to the expunction.

If you meet all the requirements, the court will grant the expunction and you will need to give an Order for Expunction to the court for the judge’s signature. Important to know is that the court will probably expect you to have this order ready at the hearing for the judge to sign then and there. Once the order is signed, it has to be submitted to the respondent agencies that you listed in the petition. Those records will then be either deleted or returned to the court clerk for destruction.

A Change in Texas Expunction Law: Arrests for Multiple Offense Can Now be Divided for Expungement?

Prior to a recent court decision, Texans could not expunge an arrest unless ALL alleged offenses qualified for expunction under the law. If any of the alleged offenses in the arrest report were not eligible for expunction, then NONE of the offenses were eligible. A partial expunction was not allowed.

However, State v. T.S.N., was a case which a single arrest involved several unrelated offenses and the court held that partial expunction of the arrest record was required and could be achieved through redaction, leaving the portions of the arrest record regarding an unrelated offense not eligible for expunction. While this case left open the question regarding misdemeanor offenses and their eligibility for expunction on an individual basis, it set the stage for R.P.G.P.’s case.

Thanks to Ex Parte R.P.G.P., if you are arrested for multiple offenses, those offenses are considered divisible—you can expunge one even if the other would not qualify. Ex Parte R.P.G.P. is a great illustration of what exactly this means. In that case, R.P.G.P. was arrested for a DWI and a search of the car revealed marijuana, so he was also charged with possession. The DWI charge was dismissed and R.P.G.P. pled no contest to the possession charge, which was ultimately dismissed after serving nine months of deferred adjudication probation. After both charges were dismissed, R.P.G.P. filed for expunction of the DWI arrest, but the State argued that no part of the arrest record could be expunged because the possession charge was ineligible for expunction. However, the court ultimately held that the DWI portion of the record could be expunged, even though the possession portion would remain on the record.

What Does This Change in the Expunction Law Mean for Texans?

What this means going forward for Texans is that if your arrest record reflects multiple misdemeanor offenses, some of which would be eligible for expunction on their own and some that are not, the ones that are eligible can be expunged, leaving the other portions on the record. This is a shift from the all-or-nothing approach previously adopted by the state. Rather than treating each arrest for various offenses as a collective, we can look at each individual charge and proceed from there. Hopefully, this line of thinking will be expanded to cases involving felony arrests as well, but time will tell.

Butt-Dial Statement Texas Templeton

Can the Statements You Make During a Butt-Dial be Used Against You?

By | 5th Amendment

Butt-Dial Statement Texas TempletonThe short answer is Yes. According to both local and federal courts, what you say during a butt-dial phone call can potentially be used against you in court. In Texas, a hearsay exception makes those overheard statements admissible. In the federal system, these calls are viewed as having no reasonable expectation of privacy—since you did not take simple precautions to avoid this kind of situation, you cannot expect someone on the receiving end of the call not to repeat what they heard.

Butt-Dials in Texas: Can Words Overheard During an Unintended Phone Call be Used Against Me?

Under Texas law, statements made during an accidental butt-dial are likely admissible and the speaker likely has no reasonable expectation of privacy in those statements. Typically, repeating something in court that you heard someone else say outside of court is not allowed—it is referred to as hearsay and is considered inadmissible in a court of law. But, as with everything, there are hearsay exceptions that, in certain circumstances, allow someone to testify about something they heard someone else say. So, it should not be too surprising that a recent case found that butt-dials fall into one of the many hearsay exceptions.

Templeton v. State involved a felony assault family violence case in which the victim’s father received a butt-dial call from the victim and overheard defendant Templeton make incriminating statements about the assault, which the father then repeated in court. The Templeton court likened butt-dial statements to the requirements of Texas Rules of Evidence 801(e)(2)(A), commonly known as the admission of a party-opponent. Under this rule, a statement is not considered hearsay if it is a statement made by the person whom it is then offered against. In Templeton’s case, that meant that the statements he made on the butt-dial, which were overheard and then repeated by the victim’s father, could be used against him in court where he was the defendant. These statements do not have to be against the interests of the speaker when they are made in order for them to be admissible, rather, the requirement is that the statements be offered as evidence against the speaker/defendant.

Templeton sets the bar rather low in terms of the work it takes to get these kinds of phone calls in. Essentially, any Texas defendant who accidentally butt-dials someone faces the possibility that anything they say—whether they know someone is listening or not, or whether it is against their interest or not—can be repeated in court so long as it is used as evidence against them. The phrase “be careful what you say” could not ring more true. While a majority of butt-dials result in the overhearing of harmless conversations (your comments about who you saw at Trader Joe’s and the gossip you exchange with your friends are not likely to be subjects of court cases), it is important to know that anything you say on those calls has the potential to be repeated in court.

Butt Dials in the Federal System: Do I Have a Reasonable Expectation of Privacy?

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the sentiment that what someone said during a butt-dial can be used against them extends beyond just Texas and into the Federal system as well. In another recent case, Huff v. Spaw, the Sixth Circuit Appeals Court addressed butt-dials in two contexts: the traditional context in which a call is accidentally made and someone on the other end overhears and perhaps even documents or records the calls, and instances in which a butt-dial is made and the listener records the conversation the caller has with a third-party while in a hotel room.

The judge in Huff determined that in the first instance, there is no privacy claim. Essentially, according to the federal courts, it is the duty of every cell phone owner to make sure that their phones are secure. The court points out the commonality of cell phones and their use. There is no expectation of privacy (and therefore no claim) when someone fails to take simple measures to secure their phone and accidentally shares their activities or statements while using an everyday cell phone. As far as precautions go, the biggest one is to lock your phone. From there, there are a number of apps available to help prevent butt-dialing.

As to the second issue, the judge determined that there was a reasonable expectation of privacy, so that part of the case was remanded to the lower court for reconsideration. The key difference between these two issues was the fact that Bertha Huff, with whom James Huff spoke to in her hotel room. Bertha’s part of the conversation, in the judge’s opinion, was protected by a reasonable expectation of privacy because she did not make the butt-dial—as far as she was concerned, all she was doing was speaking to her husband in the comfort of her hotel room.

What Can You do to Protect Your Privacy?

No matter what type of phone you have, the first line of defense in preventing butt-dials and protecting your privacy is to lock your phone. From there, there are a number of other settings you can change that make butt-dialing less likely.

For iPhone users, adding a passcode (or touch/face I.D.) provides an additional layer of protection for users. If you are prone to butt-dialing, you can take it a step further, allowing your phone to auto-lock quickly (Settings –> Display & Brightness –> Auto-Lock). For iPhone users with models that still have the home button, it might be smart to also disable tap-to-wake (Settings –> Accessibility –> Touch –> Tap to Wake).

There are precautions for Android users too! Begin by setting a passcode. To turn off the tap to wake feature on these phones, go to Settings –> Display –> Lock Screen Display –> Double-Tap to Check Phone. To change the time it takes for these phones to auto-lock, go to Settings –> Security –> gear lock icon next to Screen Lock.

If you really want to go above and beyond, there are some apps available for certain phone users to download. If you take all these precautions and still end up in a situation where what you said on a butt-dial is being used against you, consult an attorney to discuss the best plan of action.

Bitcoin Privacy 4th Amendment

Are Bitcoin Transactions Private Under the Law?

By | Warrantless Search

Do You Have a Fourth Amendment Privacy Interest in Your Bitcoin Transactions?

Bitcoin Privacy 4th AmendmentNo, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that people do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the information (1) contained on the Bitcoin blockchain and (2) that you provide to cryptocurrency exchanges.1 The Court reached this decision through an analysis of the facts under the “third party doctrine” of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. This doctrine is explained in further detail below.

Read full case HERE. US v. Gratkowski, 964 F.3d 307 (5th Cir. 2020).

First Off, what is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is a “collection of concepts and technologies that form the basis of a digital money ecosystem.”2 More colloquially, the word “bitcoin” refers to a bitcoin—a unit of digital currency used to store and transmit value among participants in the bitcoin network. Bitcoin derives its value not from physical characteristics like gold or trust in a central authority like fiat money. Instead, bitcoin is backed by the cryptographic technology behind it.

Bitcoin is powered by open-source code known as blockchain, which creates a shared public ledger that is viewable by anyone. Each transaction is a “block” that is “chained” to the code, creating a permanent record of each transaction. In order to transfer anything in this world, you need to be able to send and receive your items to and from a certain location. Bitcoin is no different. Like an email, Bitcoin is transferred between locations on the internet called Bitcoin addresses. A Bitcoin address indicates the source or destination of a Bitcoin payment. The Bitcoin blockchain contains only the sender’s address, the receiver’s address, and the amount of bitcoin transferred. Bitcoin wallets provide these addresses and utilize software that allows you to securely send, receive, and store bitcoin in the bitcoin network.

The central tenet behind the creation of Bitcoin was that willing parties should be able to transact directly with each other without the need for a trusted third party.3 A large part of the value in that kind of decentralization is in the privacy that it assumes will accompany the transaction. However, as the use and influence of cryptocurrencies expands, so too does the need of law enforcement to crack down on the illicit activities of crypto users that our society finds to be reprehensible. Analyzing the block chain for evidence of crimes involving bitcoin inevitably means that information of bitcoin transactions will be collected. This kind of forensic analysis, aside from collecting information on whether the bitcoin was used for something illegal, “can include the collection of large amounts of personal information about a user’s spending habits [and] total holdings[.]”4 The natural question for criminal law attorneys is whether a bitcoin user has a Fourth Amendment privacy interest in the information related to their bitcoin transactions.

Bitcoin Transactions and the 4th Amendment

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in United States v. Gratkowski recently held that individuals do not have a Fourth Amendment privacy interest the information related to their bitcoin transactions.5 More specifically, the court found that there is no Fourth Amendment privacy interest in: (1) information on the bitcoin blockchain itself, and (2) bitcoin transactions in virtual currency exchanges.6

Gratkowski became the subject of a federal investigation when federal agents began investigating a child-pornography website. Users like Gratkowski paid the website bitcoin in exchange for downloadable child pornography. As mentioned above, the bitcoin blockchain only contains the sender’s address, the receiver’s address, and the amount of bitcoin transferred between the two parties. The identity of the owners do not appear on the bitcoin blockchain, but it is possible to discover the owner of a bitcoin address by analyzing the blockchain:

“For example, when an organization creates multiple Bitcoin addresses, it will often combine its Bitcoin addresses into a separate, central Bitcoin address (i.e., a “cluster”). It is possible to identify a “cluster” of Bitcoin addresses held by one organization by analyzing the Bitcoin blockchain’s transaction history. Open source tools and private software products can be used to analyze a transaction.”7

Federal agents used an outside service to analyze the publicly viewable bitcoin blockchain and identify a cluster of bitcoin addresses controlled by the website.8 They then served a grand jury subpoena on Coinbase (a prominent cryptocurrency exchange) for all information the exchange had on the Coinbase customers whose accounts sent Bitcoin to any of the addresses in the child-pornography website’s cluster. Coinbase turned over Gratkowski’s information, and federal agents obtained a warrant to search Gratkowski’s house. The agents found a hard drive containing child pornography and subsequently charged Gratkowski with one count of receiving child pornography and one count of accessing websites with intent to view child pornography.

At trial, Gratkowski moved to suppress the evidence the government obtained under the warrant, arguing that both the subpoena to Coinbase and the analysis done on the blockchain violated the Fourth Amendment. For the government to infringe upon an individual’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches, the person must have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in the items obtained.9 The “third-party doctrine” instructs that a person generally “has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.”10

For instance, the Supreme Court in United States v. Miller held that bank records were not subject to Fourth Amendment Protections.11 The Court also held that telephone call logs were not subject to Fourth Amendment protections because the telephone numbers we dial are voluntarily conveyed to the phone company when we place a call.12 However, the Supreme Court recently held that individuals do have a privacy interest in their cell phone location records, despite the records being held by a third party.13 In deciding this, the Court set-up the current framework under which courts are to determine whether the third-party doctrine applies to certain information that is shared with third parties: The sole act of sharing the information is no longer determinative as to whether we have a Fourth Amendment privacy interest in it. Rather, courts are to consider, “‘(1) the nature of the particular documents sought,’ which includes whether the sought information was limited and meant to be confidential, and (2) the voluntariness of the exposure.”14

The Fifth Circuit reasoned that the information on the Bitcoin blockchain is more similar to bank records and telephone call logs than to cell phone location records.15 The court held that the information contained on the Bitcoin blockchain (the amount of Bitcoin transferred and the Bitcoin addresses of the sender and receiver) is limited, and Bitcoin users are unlikely to expect that information to be kept private as it is well known that it is recorded on the publicly available blockchain.16 The court also reasoned that the public exposure of this information is voluntary because transferring and receiving Bitcoin requires an affirmative act by the Bitcoin address holder.17 The Fifth Circuit therefore held that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in the information contained on the Bitcoin blockchain.18

The Court used similar reasoning regarding the question of privacy in the Bitcoin transactions on Coinbase. Coinbase is a financial institution like a bank. Both are subject to the Bank Secrecy Act as regulated financial institutions, and both keep records of customer identities and currency transactions. The Court held that, “[h]aving access to Coinbase records does not provide agents with ‘an intimate window into a person’s life’; it provides only information about a person’s virtual currency transactions.”19 The court also held that, “[s]econd, transacting Bitcoin through Coinbase or other virtual currency exchange institutions requires an ‘affirmative act on the part of the user[,]’ which speaks to the voluntariness with which the information was turned over to Coinbase.20

Conclusion

The Gratkowski decision makes it difficult to imagine any situation in which a court would find there to be a Fourth Amendment privacy interest in information on the Bitcoin blockchain itself. Although Bitcoin users may truly value and believe in the privacy considerations contained in the monetary philosophy of Bitcoin, there is no getting around the fact that a “block” on the blockchain requires two Bitcoin addresses and the amount of bitcoin exchanged. And as long as private blockchain analytics companies continue to analyze only that information in determining the identity of Bitcoin users, courts will likely continue to find there to be no Fourth Amendment privacy interest in that information.

There appears to be more room to work with when it comes to cryptocurrency exchanges. Perhaps a court could find there to be a privacy interest in information given to an exchange whose business centers around user confidentiality. However, exchanges must comply with the same federal financial laws that govern Coinbase, and the record-keeping requirements under those laws would likely provide for a strong analogy to the Gratkowski case.

ENDNOTES:

1. United States v. Gratkowski, 964 F.3d 307 (5th Cir. 2020).
2. A. M. Antonopoulos, Mastering bitcoin: Programming the open blockchain (2nd ed.). Beijing etc.: O’Reilly.
3. Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, https://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf (2008).
4. Sasha Hodder & Rafael Yakobi, Bitcoin Fungibility, Mixing and the Legal Limits on Maintaining Privacy, https://bitcoinmagazine.com/culture/bitcoin-fungibility-mixing-and-the-legal-limits-on-maintaining-privacy (2020).
5. Gratkowski, 964 F.3d 307 (5th Cir. 2020).
6. Id.
7. Id. at 309.
8. Private blockchain analytics companies also provide services of this nature to cryptocurrency exchanges to help the exchanges meet their obligations under federal money laundering laws. See footnote 4 on the previous page for a discussion of privacy and these laws.
9. United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400, 406 (2012).
10. Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735, 743–44 (1979).
11. United States v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435, 439-40 (1976).
12. Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735, 743-44 (1979).
13. Carpenter v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 2206, 2217 (2018).
14. Gratkowski (quoting Carpenter, at 2219-20).
15. Id., at 311.
16. Id. at 312.
17. Id.
18. Id.
19. Id. (quoting Carpenter, at 2217).
20. Id. (quoting Carpenter, at 2220).

Watkins 39.14 Texas Evidence

What Evidence Must a Prosecutor Disclose to the Defense?

By | Evidence

New CCA Opinion – Watkins v. State – Clearly Interprets the Duty of the State in Discovery.

Watkins 39.14 Texas EvidenceProsecutors in Texas must disclose almost all of the evidence in their possession to the defense. Disclosure is the rule and not the exception in Texas.1 Section 39.14(a) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure requires the prosecution to disclose anything that “constitutes or contains evidence material to any matter involved in the action. . .”2

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Watkins v. State (see opinion HERE) recently interpreted the word “material” to mean the equivalent of “relevant,” while interpreting the phrase, “any matter involved in the action,” as covering “any number of subsidiary issues impacting the outcome of the proceedings.”3 This interpretation requires Texas prosecutors to disclose virtually all of the evidence in their possession—more than they are mandated to under the federal Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Brady v. Maryland. In fact, for some types of evidence, the statute does not require the evidence to meet any materiality requirement.4 According to § 39.14(h), evidence tending to negate the guilt or mitigate the punishment of a defendant must be disclosed, regardless of whether the evidence is considered material or requested by the defense.5

Article 39.14 and the case law that accompanies it effectively establish an open-file policy between the prosecution and defense. As the Watkins court put it: “[w]ith the exception of privileged evidence and evidence specifically covered by other statutory provisions, the only obstacle to disclosure of evidence not [exculpatory in nature] is the lack of a specific request.”6

The “materiality” language that the Watkins court addressed is actually language that was carried over from a previous version of Article 39.14—language with its own case law that prosecutors and trial courts carried into practice even after the statute was amended.

How did Prosecutors Interpret 39.14 Before Watkins?

The current version of Article 39.14 came about through the Michael Morton Act, signed into law by Governor Perry in 2013. This bill was a response to the case of Michael Morton, a man wrongfully convicted for the murder of his wife in 1987 after the prosecutor in that case withheld evidence that could have proven his innocence. Morton was exonerated in 2011 after DNA evidence revealed that someone else committed the murder, and the state legislature took up the task of passing a complete overhaul of discovery procedure in Texas.

Because the same language— “material to any matter involved in the action”—was retained by the Morton amendments, confusion persisted among some attorneys about whether the pre-Morton “materiality” jurisprudence is properly attributed to the new, post-Morton version of Article 39.14. However, as the Watkins court addressed, those pre-Morton cases never actually spoke to the issue of what “material” actually meant.7

The Confusion Surrounding “Material”

You see, the pre-Morton Article 39.14 gave trial courts the discretion whether to order the prosecution to disclose evidence upon a motion showing good cause from the defense.8 The pre-Morton “materiality” jurisprudence was inextricably linked with the standard for determining whether a trial court abused its discretion in refusing to issue such an order, and it did not have anything to do with the phrase, “material to any matter involved in the action.”9

The standard for determining whether a trial court abused its discretion in this way was whether the judge’s ruling deprived the defendant of access to evidence that was material to the defendant’s defense.10 “Material,” in this sense, was defined “’under Texas law in the due process terms employed by the Supreme Court in United States v. Agurs.’”11 This meant that a trial judge abused his or her discretion in refusing to order the disclosure of evidence when it was exculpatory in nature.12

Watkins Clearing Things Up

As we now know, the procedure that discovery followed before the Morton amendments was completely removed from Article 39.14, and the “materiality” jurisprudence that was tied to it went out the door as well.13 Because of the confusion that accompanied the judicial use of similar language in close contexts pre-Morton, it is understandable if some prosecutors may have—before Watkins—interpreted the, “material to any matter involved in the action,” language as being loaded with the pre-Morton jurisprudence. Other prosecutors, as shown in Watkins below, applied their own limiting interpretations to the language.

In Watkins, the defense counsel sent a discovery request to the prosecutor pursuant to § 39.14 asking for, “any other tangible things not otherwise privileged that constitute or contain evidence material to any matter involved in the case.”14 He “also requested notice of the State’s intent to offer any extraneous offenses, which the prosecution provided.”15 Watkins was convicted of second-degree possession of a controlled substance, and during the punishment phase of trial, the state sought to introduce 34 exhibits for the purpose of proving up Watkins’ prior felony convictions for enhancement purposes.16 The defense objected—the prosecutor did not disclose the exhibits to the defense because he did not believe Article 39.14 applied to punishment.17 The Trial court overruled the objection, allowing the evidence to be admitted.18

The issue surrounding the prosecution’s non-disclosure eventually worked its way up to the Court of Criminal Appeals, where the Watkins court seized the opportunity to review the requirements of Article 39.14 in light of the Michael Morton Act amendments. In short, the Court laid out the history of Article 39.14 explained above, and it clearly established that Texas now has disclosure requirements that track the spirit of the Michael Morton Act.19

[1] Watkins v. State, NO. PD-1015-18 (Tex. Crim. App. 2021).
[2] Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 39.14(a) (West 2017).
[3] Watkins, at 24-25.
[4] Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 39.14(h) (West 2017).
[5] Id.
[6] Watkins, at 23.
[7] Id. at 35.
[8] TEX. Code Crim. Proc. art. 39.14 (2009).
[9] Watkins at 35.
[10] Id. at 41-42.
[11] Id. at 40 (quoting United States v. Agurs, 427 U.S. 97 (1976)).
[12] Id. at 41.
[13] See generally Watkins.
[14] Watkins at 4.
[15] Id.
[16] Id.
[17] Id.
[18] Id. at 5.
[19] See generally Watkins.

Marijuana Smell Warrantless Search Texas

Is the Smell of Marijuana Enough to Permit a Warrantless Vehicle Search?

By | Drug Crimes

Does the Smell of Marijuana Allow Officers to Search My Vehicle Without a Warrant?

Marijuana Smell Warrantless Search TexasIn Texas, the answer is yes. The possession of marijuana is a crime in Texas, so if an officer smells marijuana emanating from your car, he has probable cause to believe a crime is being committed. With probable cause, the law permits the officer to stop and search your car— regardless of whether you consent.

The officer has the ability to do this through what is called the “automobile exception” to the 4th Amendment’s warrant requirement.1 Generally, the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution requires police officers to first obtain a warrant before they can search a person’s property. However, because automobiles can quickly move locations and evade law enforcement, the Supreme Court reasoned that it would be impractical to require officers to first secure a warrant before they are permitted to search a vehicle.2 So by claiming to smell marijuana, law enforcement officers can also claim to have probable cause to believe a crime is being committed—allowing them to take advantage of the automobile exception and search a vehicle without anything more.

Will the Search Laws Change if Marijuana Becomes Legal?

Maybe. There have been small changes in the law with the current trends in marijuana legalization. A couple of state courts adopted the rule that, after legalization or decriminalization, the smell of marijuana is no longer enough on its own to justify a warrantless search of a vehicle. For example, in Vermont, after the decriminalization of adult possession of less than one ounce of marijuana, the Vermont Supreme Court held that the odor of marijuana alone is insufficient to establish probable cause to search a vehicle.3 The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the state’s decriminalization policy means that the possession of marijuana is now a civil infraction, making the smell of it an insufficient basis for officers to believe a crime is being committed.

However, most states where marijuana is legalized or decriminalized still follow the rule that the smell of it establishes probable cause in support of a vehicle search.4 This is because these states still criminalize the possession of larger amounts of marijuana—meaning that the smell of it still indicates that a crime could be underway. This is the logic that the Washington, Maryland, Colorado, and Arizona courts follow.5

But what about Texas?

As stated above, the possession of marijuana in Texas is a crime, and officers are still justified in searching vehicles if they smell marijuana coming from them. However, Texas legalized the cultivation of industrial hemp in 2019, which smells like just like marijuana. The issue of whether probable cause can still be supported by the odor of marijuana in light of hemp’s legalization was raised in state court in 2020, but the court left it undecided as the vehicle search in question occurred before the legalization of hemp.6 It remains to be seen if or when Texas will legalize marijuana, and what attitude Texas courts will take towards the question of marijuana odor and vehicle searches.

 

[1] Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925).
[2] Id., at 153.
[3] Zullo v. State, 2019 Vt. LEXIS 1, * (Vt. January 4, 2019).
[4] Cece white, The Sativas and Indicas of Proof: Why the Smell of Marijuana Should Not Establish Probable Cause for a Warrantless Vehicle Search in Illinois, 53 UIC J. Marshall L. Rev. 187, 211 (2020).
[5] Id., at 211.
[6] Geberkidan v. State, 2020 WL 5406243, NO. 12-19-00296-CR (2020).

Filing False Police Report Texas

What Can Happen if I File a False Police Report in Texas?

By | Domestic Violence

If You Lie or Exaggerate in a Police Report or File a False Report, You Could be Charged with a Class B Misdemeanor

Filing False Police Report TexasAs Fort Worth criminal defense attorneys, we are often asked by witnesses and victims what might happen if it comes to light that the story they told the police was not exactly true. We often see this in Domestic Violence cases, when a victim decides that the statement he or she gave on the night of the incident was perhaps embellished a little during a fit of anger. Witnesses later become fearful when they realize they might have to take the witness stand and give a different (truthful) account of the event. They worry that they might be charged with a crime themselves for filing a false police report.

Filing a False Police Report in Texas | Texas Penal Code Section 37.08

Section 37.08 of the Texas Penal Code provides:

(a) A person commits an offense if, with intent to deceive, he knowingly makes a false statement that is material to a criminal investigation and makes the statement to:
(1) a peace officer or federal special investigator conducting the investigation; or
(2) any employee of a law enforcement agency that is authorized by the agency to conduct the investigation and that the actor knows is conducting the investigation.

Filing a false report under Section 37.08 is a Class B Misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a fine up to $2,000.

*Filing a false report about a missing child or missing person is a Class C offense, punishable by fine only.

Charges for Filing a False Report Do Not Happen Very Often in Texas

In our line of work, we see false reports on a daily basis. Be they embellished statements, outright lies, or  statements that simply omit important details, false reports happen all the time. In over 10 years, we have yet to see a case filed on a victim or witness for filing a false report or giving a false statement. While we’re sure it has happened, it doesn’t happen very often in our experience.  Perhaps it is because the state does not want to chill victims from reporting or because no one knows which story was actually true.  Either way, it is unlikely that a victim or witness who changes their story is going to be charged with an offense. Regardless, we always tell witnesses to simply TELL THE TRUTH.  If you tell the truth, even if the truth has changed since the first time you told the story, you’ll probably be in good shape.

*Note: this post does not discuss the offense of Perjury, which is a separate offense involving swearing to a false statement. See Texas Penal Code Section 37.02.

Recording Conversations Texas Wiretapping

Can I Record a Conversation Without the Other Party’s Consent in Texas?

By | Criminal Defense

Recording Conversations Without Consent in Texas | Wiretapping Laws

Recording Conversations Texas WiretappingWith roadway cameras at nearly every street corner, video surveillance in businesses, doorbell cameras on homes, web cams on computers, and recording capabilities on mobile phones – we must navigate carefully in a digital world. We’ve seen titillating news reports exposing a secret audio tape of a public figure having scandalous phone conversations, or video surveillance of questionable traffic stops that escalate in shocking fashion. You may have had a suspicious feeling that you were being recorded, or on the other hand, felt as if you needed to record a conversation with another for your own protection.

With privacy seemingly harder to come by as compared with days long past—what does Texas law say about recording conversations? Is it illegal to record a phone conversation with another person? What about in person?

The short answer is: YES, you can record a conversation with another person without that person’s consent. But this answer requires more explanation.

Recording Phone Calls in Texas | Texas is a One-Party Consent State

Under Texas Law, it is a crime intercept or record any wire, oral or electronic communication without the consent of at least one party. The good news is that you count as one party and if you’re recording then you have probably given yourself consent to record the conversation. Generally speaking, state wiretapping laws turn on whether the state is a one-party consent state. While some states require the consent of all of the parties to a conversation prior to recording, Texas permits the recording of telephone calls, so long as the consent of one of the parties is obtained. As stated, if you are one of the parties on the phone call, then you may consent to having your own conversation recorded—you need not alert the other party. Additionally, a parent may give vicarious consent to the recording of a child’s conversation if the parent has a good faith objectively reasonable belief that the recording is necessary for the welfare of the child.

However, if during a phone call there are multiple parties who are in different states, then be aware that other state laws may require pre-recording consent of all of the parties. In this scenario, if the recording party obtains consent from the other parties before the recording begins, then the recorder is not in violation of wiretapping laws.

See this link to learn more about the various state wiretapping laws.

Recording In-Person Conversations in Texas | Can I Record Someone Else’s Public Conversation?

Texas law (Penal Code §16.02) does not permit you to record in-person communications when the parties have an expectation that such communication is not subject to interception (i.e. If there is a reasonable expectation of privacy). If you wish to record a conversation to which you are not a party, all of the parties must give consent before the recording device is turned on or there must be no reasonable expectation of privacy (e.g. If the recording is taken from your doorbell camera and the parties are standing on you doorstep). If you are a party to the conversation, record away.

Further, you are able to record in-person communication at a public place, like a mall food court or at a football game for example, where parties do not have the expectation of privacy. Remember—if you say it in a public place, within earshot of others who may overhear, you do not have an expectation of privacy in those statements. Generally, such statements may be recorded without violating that state’s wiretapping laws.

A Word of Caution of Recording Conversations in Texas

Please be aware that there are both federal and state wiretapping laws that may limit your ability to making recordings of telephone calls or in person conversations. This article addresses state wiretapping laws in Texas only. Additionally, if a person has violated a state or federal wiretapping statute, he may be both charged criminally and be sued civilly by the damaged party.

Further, while a person may have successfully recorded a conversation under state and federal wiretapping laws, the act of disclosing the recording to other third parties could be, in and of itself, punishable criminally or civilly under other legal theories (such as slander, for example).

If you are faced with a wiretapping charge, or have questions about wiretapping, please contact an attorney who will address both the state and federal regulations as they are related to the facts of your specific case. Wiretapping charges are potentially serious felonies that could land a person in jail or prison, with fines ranging from $200 to $10,000. If you are faced with charges related to wiretapping in Texas, please contact our offices at (817) 993-9249 for a consultation.

Summary on Texas Wiretapping

  • A person can record a conversation to which you are a party in Texas without violating wiretapping laws, so long as the other party is in a “one party consent” state.
  • A person can record a conversation (to which he is not a party) if one of the participants gives him permission.
  • A person can record a conversation when, in a public setting, the participants do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
  • It is almost always illegal to record a phone call or private conversation to which one is not a party, does not have consent from at least one of the parties, and could not naturally overhear the conversation.

This article is for educational purposes only and should never be substituted for legal advice.

Christmastime Arrests Texas

Top 5 Reasons for Arrests During the Christmas Holiday Season

By | Criminal Defense

Christmastime 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.

Contractor Fraud Texas Tarrant

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

By | Fraud

Contractor Fraud Texas TarrantHave 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 2020, 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.

Scholarship Winners BHW

2020 BHW Scholarship Winners | Veteran Law Student & Military Dependent

By | Scholarship

Barnett Howard & Williams PLLC Announces the Recipients of the 2020 Scholarship Awards

BHW Scholarship WinnersThis was the 5th 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 several 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.

2020 Winner – Military Veteran Law Student Scholarship

The winner of the 2020 Military Veteran Law Student Scholarship is:

MATTHEW DUBRON

Matthew Dubron is a US Army veteran that served in the 82nd Airborne. Mr. Dubron currently attends Creighton University Law School. Congratulations Matthew Dubron. Best wishes as you continue toward your law degree.

2020 Winner – Military Dependent Scholarship

The winner of the 2020 Military Dependent Undergraduate Scholarship is:

KEVIN ARELLANO

Kevin Arellano is an Army dependent whose father served father served for over 20 years. Mr. Arellano currently attends the University of Texas at Austin and is pursuing a degree in neuroscience and biology. Congratulations Kevin Arellano. Best wishes as you continue in your studies.

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