The Court of Criminal Appeals recently handed down an opinion on a petition for writ of mandamus. The two issues facing the court were (1) the nature of a misdemeanor trial after a defendant pleads guilty to a jury; and, (2) whether a trial court has the ability to defer an adjudication of guilt after a jury finds a defendant guilty. The Court of Criminal Appeals declined to grant mandamus relief on the first issue but, for the reasons discussed below, it granted mandamus relief for the second issue.
Majority Opinion: In re State ex rel. Mau, (Tex. Crim. App. 2018).
The Facts—The Trial Court Instructed the Jury to Return a Verdict of Guilty and Then Entered an Order Deferring Guilt.
The underlying case involved a defendant who was charged with the misdemeanor offense of assault bodily injury of a family member. The defendant did not waive his right to a jury trial for this offense, and the State never gave written consent to waive a jury trial. As a result, the case proceeded to a jury trial upon the defendant’s plea of not guilty. During trial, however, the defendant changed his plea to guilty, and the trial court retired the jury with an instruction that it return a verdict of guilty on the basis of the defendant’s plea, and it did.
After the defendant was found guilty, the trial court did not submit the issue of punishment to the jury. Instead, it dismissed the jury. There were no objections to the jury’s dismissal. However, the State did bring to the court’s attention that the defendant had not been properly admonished prior to pleading guilty. At that point, the court admonished the defendant without objection. Only at this point—after the jury had already returned a verdict of guilty—did the defendant waive his right to jury trial. The State, however, never consented in writing, before the entry of the guilty plea, as required by Article 1.13 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. As a result, when the trial court deferred guilt, the state sought a writ of mandamus.
The State argued to the court of appeals that the trial court lacked the authority to defer the adjudication of the defendant’s guilt, and the court of appeals denied relief. After being denied, the State, again, sought mandamus relief with the Court of Criminal Appeals.
Court of Criminal Appeals Granted Mandamus Relief—Holding the Trial Court Was Without Authority to Enter an Order of Deferred Adjudication.
In its argument to the Court of Criminal Appeals, the State maintained that the trial court lacked authority to defer guilt and argued that the trial court had a ministerial duty to enter judgment on the jury’s verdict. The State explained that by allowing the trial court to defer the defendant’s guilt, after the jury had rendered its verdict, would essentially nullify their statutory discretion to consent to a jury waiver.
In maintaining its position, the trial court relied on a court of appeals opinion, State v. Sosa, 830 S.W.2d 204 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 1992, pet. ref’d).
The issue in Sosa was whether the judge, having found the defendant guilty on his plea of not guilty in a bench trial, could thereafter withdraw the courts finding of guilt and assess deferred adjudication. The Court of Criminal Appeals allowed this because there was no authority that barred the trial judge’s discretion or the procedure in a bench trial. However, the Court of Criminal Appeals explained that the same could not be said about a jury’s verdict of guilty.
“By its very terms, the statutory option authorizing deferred adjudication is limited to defendants who plead guilty or nolo contendere before the trial court after waiving trial by jury.”
Here, at the time that the defendant pled guilty to the jury, he did not waive his right to a jury trial nor did the State consent to a waiver. Without such a waiver, the trial court was bound to resolve the issue of guilt by a jury trial and, further, the trial court then had a ministerial duty to enter judgment on the jury’s verdict. As a result, the Court of Criminal Appeals granted mandamus relief.
Takeaways . . .
While a defendant can always change his or her plea, the trial court cannot abrogate a jury’s finding of guilt by placing a defendant on deferred adjudication. At this point in the trial, the only way to defer guilt would be to grant a motion for new trial. However, this motion for new trial must have a legal basis, and deferred adjudication, alone, is insufficient.
However, a defendant may be placed on deferred adjudication after a jury trial has begun, but before a verdict has been returned if the defendant properly submits to the court, a waiver of his or her right to a jury trial, and the State agrees accordingly. The State may consent, at any time, but the consent must be in writing and filed appropriately. If the defendant waives this right and the State follows the aforementioned steps, then the judge can dismiss the jury, accept the defendant’s plea, and subsequently place the defendant on deferred adjudication.
Alcala, J., filed a concurring opinion.