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Criminal Defense

Oliva Overturned DWI 2nd Elements

Oliva v. State – Prior DWI is a Punishment-Only Issue for DWI (2nd)

By | Criminal Defense

Existence of a Single Prior Conviction for Misdemeanor DWI is a Punishment-Only Issue in a Case for DWI (Misdemeanor Repetition), says the CCA

Oliva Overturned DWI 2nd ElementsOliva v State (Tex. Crim. App. 2018)

It is well established in both Texas statutes and case law that the existence of two prior DWI misdemeanors will enhance the third DWI to a felony-level offense. See Texas Penal Code § 49.09(b); Ex Parte Benson, 459 S.W.3d 67, 75-76 (Tex. Crim. App. 2015). A variable “three strikes and you’re out” type of statute, the law was enacted as a legislative response to deter potential repeat offenders from creating dangerous and preventable hazards on Texas roads. In this statutory enhancement scenario, the third strike becomes the offense itself, thus, the third DWI offense is an element of the felony. As a result, the defendant is punished according to the felony sentencing guidelines.

But what happens when the defendant only has one strike—one prior misdemeanor DWI on his record? Would it make any difference if that DWI happened nearly a decade prior, on an otherwise clean driving and criminal record? Recently, the Court of Criminal Appeals sought to determine the legal significance of companion statute TPC § 49.09(a), whereby the defendant had only one prior misdemeanor DWI offense. TPC § 49.09(a) states that the “existence of a single prior conviction elevates a second DWI offense from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class A misdemeanor.” The CCA had to decide whether having one single prior DWI constituted an element of the crime or whether the one single prior DWI was only relevant in the punishment phase.

Law Enforcement Responds to Phone Call Reporting a Mysterious Person

Early in the morning in May of 2015, two Houston-area police officers responded to a call from dispatch about a suspicious person. Tex. R. App. P. 47.2(b), accessed 24 May 2018 via https://law.justia.com/cases/texas/fourteenth-court-of-appeals/2017/14-15-01078-cr.html. Sitting slumped over in a parked car was Jose Oliva, illegally parked with the engine on, in a lane of moving traffic. Concerned for Oliva’s health and safety, law enforcement attempted to alert Oliva, but he remained unresponsive. Police opened the car door and Oliva fell out onto the curb. Once Oliva woke up, law enforcement administered a field sobriety test; Oliva failed and was arrested. Blood testing later confirmed that Oliva had a blood alcohol level equivalent to having just ingested nine alcoholic drinks within the hour. Oliva was charged with DWI “by information” which mentioned a previous DWI on Oliva’s record.

What is an Information?

In Texas, a person may be charged via an indictment or via an instrument called an information. Article 21.20 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure defines an “information” as a written statement filed and presented in behalf of the State by the district attorney, charging the defendant with an offense. Oliva’s information described the May of 2015 DWI arrest and it mentioned a prior misdemeanor-level DWI offense on his record.

Oliva Heads to Court

During the trial, Oliva’s prior DWI was never mentioned, even though it was present on the information before trial. The jury convicted Oliva of DWI. Finding that he also had a prior DWI as alleged on the information, Oliva’s conviction was then increased, or enhanced, to DWI 2nd, which carried a sentence of 180 days confinement. Oliva appealed to the Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston.

On appeal, the appellate court held that under the statute’s plain language meaning, one singular prior DWI conviction is an element of the offense of Class A misdemeanor DWI under section 49.09(a)—much like the “three strikes and you’re out” felony-enhancement statute of 49.09(b). The appeals court reasoned that a fact that elevates the degree of an offense is necessarily an element of the offense and that § 49.09 lacked the “shall be punished” language present in other statutes containing punishment-only enhancements.

The State of Texas petitioned the Court of Criminal Appeals to review this case once again, to determine whether the introduction of a defendant’s prior DWI is proper at the guilt-innocence phase of a criminal trial, or whether such a disclosure is only relevant under 49.09(b) during the punishment phase. Such distinction could have implications for bias, or taint, at trial, among other defense strategies. To recap, Texas Penal Code § 49.09(a) provides that the existence of a single prior conviction elevates a second DWI offense from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class A misdemeanor.

The CCA Weighs In on Whether the Prior DWI is Actually an Element of DWI 2nd that Must Be Introduced to a Jury at Trial

Is the prior DWI conviction an element of the offense, or is the prior conviction a punishment-only issue? The Court of Criminal Appeals made a surprising conclusion, holding that the existence of a single prior conviction for misdemeanor DWI is a punishment-only issue. Broadly, the CCA reasoned that introducing the prior before the punishment phase

“would seem to benefit the State in most cases because it would enable the State to introduce evidence of the prior conviction at the guilt stage of trial instead of having to wait until the punishment stage.”

The CCA Analyzes the Statute

First, the CCA looked to the wording of the statute to find its “plain language” meaning. “In construing the meaning of, and interplay between, these statutes, we give effect to the plain meaning of the text, unless the text is ambiguous or the plain meaning leads to absurd results that the legislature could not have possibly intended.” Here, the CCA found that the plain language meaning was ambiguous and could lead the interpreter to conclude mixed, confusing results.

Second, the CCA took a closer look at how the statute was labeled in the Code to see if the legislature labeled the statute as guilt-innocence phase element. Unfortunately, this was not the case here, and the CCA had to look to grammatical construction. Texas case law has informed Texas courts, generally, that the Penal Code’s most obvious and common method of prescribing elements of an offense is prefacing incriminatory facts with the language, “A person commits an offense if ______.” Ex parte Benson, 459 S.W.3d 67, 85 (Tex. Crim. App. 2015). Unfortunately, the DWI statutes were not written with clarity as to preface incriminatory facts—the prior DWIs—with language specifying that “an offense is committed if____.”

Third, the CCA reasoned that it would have to deep dive into existing case law to assist with determining the meaning of the statute. Looking to Calton v. State, the CCA suggested that “a statute could unambiguously prescribe an element of an offense by setting forth a fact that would increase the degree of the offense; a punishment enhancement “does not change the offense, or the degree of the offense of conviction, as there can be no enhancement until a person is first convicted of an offense of a certain degree.” 176 S.W.3d 231, 233-34 (Tex. Crim. App. 2005).

Next, looking to Ex parte Benson, another DWI case, the CCA held that “a prior conviction that merely enhances the offense level would not be an element of the offense.” Benson, 459 S.W.3d at 74-75. In conclusion, the CCA held that although the statutory language is ambiguous, various factors suggest that the legislature intended that § 49.09(a) prescribe a punishment-only issue.

It is important to note that Justices Keasler and Yeary filed a dissenting opinion about the CCA’s holding. In the dissent, the Justices aver that the CCA should adhere to the language of the case law in Calton, regardless of the wording of a particular statutory provision, so long as the provision is not explicitly labeled a punishment issue. Even though this case law is not supported by authority, the dissent claims that the interests of swift justice “would be better served by the wholesale adoption of this language…[as] such adoption would simplify our analysis by creating an easy, bright-line rule.” Further, the dissent also states that Calton’s language is consistent with the use of the phrase “degree of offense” in connection with the word “convicted” in the statute that prescribes the requisites of a criminal judgment, Article 42.01, so that the prior DWI conviction should be introduced at the guilty-innocence phase of a criminal trial.

Which is More Important, Swift Justice or a Fair Trial?

In sum, this ruling is a win for those who have made a couple of DWI mistakes, but are not repeat, habitual offenders. For defense attorneys, knowing exactly when evidence of a prior DWI can be admitted on the record during a criminal trial is paramount to developing a successful legal strategy. Should evidence of a prior DWI be introduced too early, the judge or jury may become biased, or tainted, against the facts and evidence in the case before them. If the evidence is introduced at the punishment phase, for the purposes sentencing enhancements only, the defendant may have more solid footing to defend against the DWI charge before the court.

Pre Sentence Investigation PSI Texas

What is a Pre-Sentence Investigation (PSI) in a Texas Criminal Case?

By | Criminal Defense

Making an “Open Plea” in a Criminal Case

Pre Sentence Investigation PSI Texas*This article relates to State cases only. It does not apply to Federal cases.

In Texas, when a defendant pleads guilty to a criminal offense, the sentencing is most often agreed upon by both the State Prosecutor and defendant prior to the plea. But, there are situations that arise wherein a defendant wishes to enter a plea of guilty, but does not agree to accept the sentencing recommendation that is being made by the State. The defendant may request that the judge assess an appropriate sentence, believing that the judge might be more fair-minded than the DA in this particular case. This situation is referred to as an “Open Plea.” In an open plea, after a defendant pleads guilty, both parties may put evidence on for the judge in order for the court to determine an appropriate sentence.

Pre-Sentence Investigation (PSI) as Part of an Open Plea

In addition to witness testimony, prior to sentencing a defendant, Texas Law (Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Art. 42A.252) requires a community supervision officer to prepare and submit a written report to the court. The report should include:

  • the circumstances of the offense with which the defendant is charged;
  • the amount of restitution necessary to adequately compensate victims of the offense;
  • the criminal and social history of the offender; and
  • any other information relating to the offender or the offense requested by the judge.”

The probation officer gathers this information during a pre-sentence investigation or PSI.

The Law Regarding PSIs in Texas | When is a PSI Required?

The law requires a pre-sentence investigation in every case, UNLESS:

In a misdemeanor case:

  1. The defendant requests that a report not be made and the judge agrees;
  2. The judge finds that there is sufficient evidence in the record to permit sentencing without the report; and
  3. The judge explains this finding on the record.

In a felony case:

  1. Punishment is to be assessed by a jury;
  2. The defendant is convicted of or enters a plea of guilty to capital murder;
  3. The only available punishment is imprisonment; or
  4. The judge is informed that a plea bargain exists, under which the defendant agrees to a punishment of imprisonment, and the judge intends to follow that agreement.

Unless one of these scenarios are present, the court is required to conduct a pre-sentence investigation. For agreed pleas to probation or deferred adjudication, the practice by the Tarrant County courts is that pre-sentence investigation is not often conducted, even though the law would seem to dictate otherwise.

The Mechanics of a Pre-Sentence Investigation

The PSI is an interview conducted by a specialized probation officer who – along with a defendant’s attorney – gathers as much information as possible to aid in a Judge’s decision on punishment. The officer gathers the police agency’s version of the facts and the defendant’s version of the facts regarding the underlying offense. The officer will also contact the victims named in the case to obtain a victim impact statement. The probation officer also does an extensive search of the defendant’s prior criminal record as well as his or her family, financial, and education history. The officer can also include other items in the PSI such as additional physical and mental health history.

At the pre-sentence investigation interview, the attorney representing the defendant can also submit other extraneous materials to be included in the officer’s report to the court. These items can include character reference letters, additional psychological evaluations that have been conducted prior to the investigation, and additional statements by the defendant related to his or her version of the case. It is prudent for the defense attorney to contact all of the people that have submitted character letters that ensure that their letter is an accurate reflection of their feelings regarding the defendant. Many times, the probation officer, and/or the prosecutor will also reach out to these folks, so it is best to confirm their character statements at the outset.

At the conclusion of the PSI, the officer in charge prepares a written report which includes his or her assessment of the defendant’s risk to re-offend, positive and negative factors to consider, and a supervision plan should the Court choose to place the defendant on probation. For cases involving restitution, the PSI will also include a restitution recommendation.

Taking Responsibility in an Open Plea

Defendants entering an open plea to the court waive their right to a jury trial. So, when conducting the pre-sentence investigation, the probation officer will confirm that the defendant is taking responsibility for his or her crime. This is an important part of the process. If the defendant has entered a plea of guilty to the crime in court but then denies the offense at the PSI, the officer will stop the investigation and return the case to court. One of the primary advantages, from a strategic standpoint, of entering an open plea is to communicate to the court that the defendant is taking on full responsibility for the crime. This is done in hopes that the court will take that into consideration when determining an appropriate sentence. It is this attitude of acceptance that typically garners the best results in an open plea. This is sometimes referred to in layman’s terms as throwing oneself on the “mercy of the court.”

Getting the Most Out of the PSI

Defense attorneys whose clients have opted for an open plea and a pre-sentence investigation can help their cause by supplementing the officer with as much positive information as possible. As mentioned above, it’s important for an attorney to gather additional character letters and to explore outside mental and psychological evaluations that might be conducted to be included in the report to the court. Additionally, if the defendant has already been serving community service, taking rehabilitative classes, or saving toward restitution, you should explain that and provide records to back it up.

Once the PSI is completed and submitted to the judge, the court will set the case for a sentencing hearing. At the sentencing hearing, testimony from both the defendant and character witnesses will be taken into consideration. But, it’s the pre-sentence investigation report that will typically be the most important item that the court reviews.

Not all cases involve a pre-sentence investigation. But, when a PSI is conducted, it can provide the most thorough review of a case and defendant’s background aiding in a court to assess a fair and just punishment.

Drone Laws TX Drone Registration

Rules for Drones | Drone Registration and Penalties for Failure

By | Criminal Defense

Drone Laws TX Drone RegistrationDrones or Quadcopters were a popular Christmas gift this year. While many new drone owners are probably preoccupied with learning to fly without getting the propellers stuck in trees or crashing them over their neighbor’s fence, they need to take a moment to learn about the federal registration rules for unmanned aircraft.

*Federal drone registration had been struck down by an appeals court in May of 2017, but the National Defense Authorization Act that was passed in December 2017 reinstated drone registration.

Do I Have to Register My Drone?

Maybe. Any unmanned aircraft system (“drone”) that weighs more than .55 pounds must be registered with the FAA. Depending on the size of the drone, it can be registered under:

  • Part 107, Small UAS Rule,
  • Section 336, the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, or
  • 14 CFR Part 47, the Traditional Aircraft Registration

Registration Under The Special Rule for Model Aircraft

Most people register their drone under this provision. The Special Rule for Model Aircraft allows for registration of a drone between 0.55 lbs and 55 lbs for recreational use only. Under this registration:

  • A person is allowed to fly their drone within their line of sight,
  • A person is required to follow the community-based and nationwide guidelines,
  • A person is not allowed to fly their drone over an airport or to interfere with emergency response units, and
  • A person must notify an airport when they are flying within five miles of an airport.

In order to register under the Special Rule for Model Aircraft, you must:

  • Register as a “modeler” with the FAA,
  • Be at least 13 years’ old,
  • Be a legal United States citizen or legal permanent resident, and
  • Label your drone with the registration number in case it is lost or stolen.

This registration, which can be completed online costs $5 and lasts for 3 years.

Registration of Drones Between 0.55 lbs and 55 lbs Under the Smalls UAs Rule

The Small UAS Rule allows for registration of a drone between 0.55lbs and 55lbs for recreational and commercial use. Registration is REQUIRED by the FAA. Under the Small UAs Rule a person may:

  • Fly their drone at or below 400 feet (Class “G” airspace)
  • Fly during daylight or civil twilight
  • Fly at or below 100 miles per hour.

With a drone registered under Part 107, the pilot:

  • Must yield to manned aircraft
  • Cannot fly directly over people,
  • Cannot fly from a moving vehicle unless you are in a sparsely populated area.

In order to obtain your registration under the Small UAs Rule, you must:

  • Be at least 16 years old,
  • Have a valid credit card, email address, and physical/mailing address,
  • Pass an aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved testing center,
  • Undergo a Transportation Safety Administration security screening, and
  • Denote the make and model of your aircraft when applying for registration.

The Small UAS Rule registration, which can be completed online costs $5 and lasts for 3 years.

Traditional Aircraft Registration for Drones Greater Than 55 Lbs

Traditional Aircraft Registration must be completed for any unmanned aircraft weighing over 55 pounds. The paperwork for drones greater than 55 pounds can be found on the FAA website and must be turned in via regular mail. Drones over 55 lbs will require an N-number that you have to submit to the FAA. The FAA website lays out the necessary information for an application.

This registration costs $5 and lasts for 3 years.

What is the Penalty for Flying a Drone Without Registering it?

Failure to register an unmanned aircraft can result in regulatory penalties up to $27,500 and criminal penalties up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to 3 years. Penalties are determined on a case by case basis and will vary based on the judge.

The FAA provides on its website:

“There is no one-size-fits-all enforcement action for violations. All aspects of a violation will be considered, along with mitigating and aggravating circumstances surrounding the violation. In general, the FAA will attempt to educate operators who fail to comply with registration requirements. However, fines will remain an option when egregious circumstances are present.”

Do you have to register your drone if you only fly over your own property?

Even if flying over your own property, the FAA still requires registration of your drone. The penalties for failure to register an unmanned aircraft will apply even if the drone does not leave your property.

What Other Drone Rules Should I Be Aware of?

Every registration allows for different flight regulations, so pay close attention to what you register for and what that particular registration allows you to do. The FAA has developed an app called “B4UFLY” which gives you important information about your location and the flight restrictions in that area. This app is recommended by the FAA to help avoid violations of the registration limitations. For any additional questions/concerns, visit the FAA website.

Michael Morton Act In Re Powell

Court Rules on Discovery to Clients under the Michael Morton Act (39.14)

By | Criminal Defense

May a Court Order that an Attorney Can Provide Copies of Discovery to a Client Pursuant to the Michael Morton Act?

Michael Morton Act In Re PowellThe Court of Criminal Appeals recently handed down an opinion on a petition for writ of mandamus in regard to a discovery dispute arising out of Article 39.14 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure —otherwise known as the Michael Morton Act. The central issue facing the Court was whether the relator (a party who has standing and on whose behalf a writ of mandamus is petitioned for by the state as plaintiff) satisfied the criteria to justify mandamus relief.

See the full opinion in In re Powell v. Hocker (NO. WR-85,177-01)

The Facts—Trial Judge Granted Defendant’s Motion to Release Discovery.

Ellen Wilson, the real party of interest, was charged with misdemeanor DWI in the County Court at Law in Lubbock, Texas. Wilson’s attorney obtained discovery pursuant to Article 39.14 and filed a motion to “release” Wilson from the prohibition contained in subsection (f) of the statute. Subsection (f) of Article 39.14 permits a defense attorney to “allow a defendant . . . to view the [discovery] information provided under this article,” but the defense attorney “may not allow” the defendant “to have copies of the information provided[.]

In the brief filed in support of the motion, Wilson’s attorney prayed that the County Court at Law would “permit defense counsel to give her a properly redacted copy of the requested items of the State’s evidence.” The brief did not maintain that Wilson had been unable to “view” the discovery in the attorney’s possession, as the statute expressly permits. Rather, it asserted that it was important for Wilson to be able to obtain her own copies in order to effectively help counsel prepare her defense. The trial judge granted Wilson’s motion, but stayed the effect of his ruling pending the State’s application for writ of mandamus.

The Court of Criminal Appeals Conditionally Granted Mandamus Relief—Directing the County Court at law to Rescind its Order Permitting Defense Counsel to Provide Defendant a Copy of the Discovery Materials that were Provided by the State Pursuant to Article 39.14.

In order for a court to determine whether mandamus relief is appropriate, the relator must establish two criteria. State ex rel. Young v. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Dist., 236 S.W.3d 207, 210 (Tex. Crim. App. 2007). The relator must demonstrate that he has no adequate remedy at law to rectify the alleged harm. Id. Additionally, the relator must have a clear right to the relief sought. Id. In other words, the relator must show that what he seeks to compel is a ministerial act, not involving a discretionary or judicial decision. Id.

The Court determined that the State had no right to appeal Respondent’s order, which permitted trial counsel to provide the real party of interest with a copy of the discovery materials. More notably, Respondent did not seriously contest this issue. As such, the Court held the first criteria to be satisfied for mandamus relief.

Next, the Court determined the act was ministerial in nature. An act may be deemed “ministerial” when “the facts are undisputed and, given those undisputed facts, the law clearly spells out the duty to be performed … with such certainty that nothing is left to the exercise of discretion or judgment[,]”—even if a judicial decision is involved. State ex rel. Healey v. McMeans, 884 S.W.2d 772, 774 (Tex.Crim.App.1994) (citations omitted). Furthermore, the Court determined this rule extends to cases of first impression.

The Court found Article 39.14 to be clear, unambiguous, and indisputable. Subsection (f) of the statute expressly and unequivocally prohibits the attorney, or her agent, to “allow” the defendant “to have copies of the information provided[.]” Respondent argued that Subsection (f) only speaks to whether the defendant’s attorney may supply him with copies of the discovery materials; it does not prohibit a trial court itself from providing copies. The Court rejected this argument because not doing so would circumvent the unqualified prohibition in subsection (f).

Next, Respondent argued that subsection (e) contemplates scenarios when a trial court may order disclosure of such materials. Subsection (e) expressly prohibits “the defendant” from personally disclosing discovery material to a third party. Respondent argued that this prohibition seems to assume that the defendant would have copies of those materials in the first place to disclose. The Court rejected this argument explaining that a defendant could “disclose” the substance of discovery materials to a third party by memory, having been allowed to “view” them pursuant to Subsection (f).

Rejecting all of Respondent’s arguments, the Court determined that the trial court lacked authority to enter an order that effectively abrogated Article 39.14. As such, the Court conditionally granted mandamus relief directing the County Court at Law to rescind its order.

This opinion solidifies what we already knew about Article 39.14 and have been telling clients all along – defense attorneys MAY NOT provide discovery materials to our clients.  And now, not even if the trial court orders it.

Resisting Arrest Unlawful Arrest Texas

May a Person Resist an Unlawful Arrest in Texas?

By | Criminal Defense

Resisting Arrest: How is it defined under Texas law?

Resisting Arrest Unlawful Arrest TexasIn general, resisting arrest occurs when a person attempts to interfere with a peace officer’s duties. Section 38.03 of the Texas Penal Code defines resisting arrest as: a person who intentionally prevents or obstructs a person he knows is a peace officer or a person acting in a peace officer’s presence and at his direction from:

  • Effectuating an arrest;
  • Carrying out a search; or
  • Transporting a person accused of a crime.

Resisting arrest requires the person to have used force against the arrest, but it does not require the officer to be acting lawfully in making the arrest. To be guilty of resisting arrest, the force need not only be directed at or toward the officer but is also met with any force exerted in opposition to, but away from the officer, such as a simple pulling away. Thus, even small uses of force can give rise to a charge of resisting arrest. However, non-threatening statements of disagreement with the officer’s actions usually are not enough to qualify as resisting arrest.

Some examples of resisting arrest include:

  • Preventing a cop from handcuffing you;
  • Struggling against an officer who is trying to arrest you; and
  • Engaging in violent action against the officer, like punching, kicking or inflicting harm with a weapon

Can You Resist an Unlawful Arrest in Texas?

One of the most important cases on this point is Ford v. State, 538 S.W.2d 633 (Tex. Crim. App. 1976).

What Ford provides, in short, is that you may not resist an arrest—whether lawful or unlawful. Historically, American citizens were legally entitled to use reasonable force to resist an unlawful arrest. Several states have now eliminated – either by statute or by judicial decision – the common law right to resist an unlawful arrest. Section 38.03 of the Texas Penal Code eliminated this right. Furthermore, subsection (b) of Section 38.03 specifically states it is no defense to prosecution that the arrest or search was unlawful.

In Ford, the Court held “the elimination of the common law right to resist arrest reflects a growing realization that the use of self-help to prevent an unlawful arrest presents too great a threat to the safety of individuals and society to be sanctioned.” The Court reasoned that the line between an illegal and legal arrest is too fine to be determined in a street confrontation; it is a question to be decided by the courts. Furthermore, the Court has concluded that by limiting the common law right to resist an unlawful arrest, the Legislature has not limited the remedies available to the person arrested, and thus, there is not a violation of the person’s constitutional rights.

Potential Consequences

Regardless of whether a person is guilty of the underlying charge that prompted the attempted apprehension, resisting arrest is a serious charge in Texas (many time more serious than the underlying offense). A person can face a significant fine and jail time.

Typically, resisting arrest, search, or transportation is prosecuted as a Class A Misdemeanor. An individual convicted of a Class A Misdemeanor may be sentenced to up to a year in county jail and a fine of up to $4,000.

However, the charge may be enhanced to a felony of the 3rd degree if you use a deadly weapon, such as a gun or a knife, to resist the arrest or search. An individual convicted of a felony of the 3rd degree may be sentenced to 2-10 years in the Texas Department of Corrections and a fine up to $10,000.

Our advice is to comply with the officer’s demands calmly and politely and let us work out the legality of the arrest later.

Downtown Fort Worth Atelier Building

BHW Completes Full Renovation of Fort Worth’s Historic Atelier Building

By | Criminal Defense

Downtown Fort Worth Atelier BuildingBarnett Howard & Williams PLLC recently completed a full renovation of the historic Atelier Building (1905) in downtown Fort Worth. The Atelier Building is one of the oldest buildings in downtown Fort Worth, Texas that stills stands today. Built in 1905, the Atelier Building housed several different businesses over its 112-year history, including architects, banks, and a restaurant at one time. Located on 8th street between Houston and Throckmorton, the Atelier Building is marked by its dual terra-cotta fireplaces and marble facade.

The Atelier Building was last renovated in 1980 when architect Cameron Alread purchased the building. The building housed Mr. Alread’s architect firm for 36 years, until he sold the building to the law firm of Barnett Howard & Williams PLLC. Over the last six months, the law firm completely renovated the building from floor to ceiling. “One of our goals in this renovation was to bring out the history of the building,” said owner Luke Williams. If you take a look inside the building you will see exactly what he means. Plaster walls were removed to expose the original brick on the walls – bricks that have been around longer than most building in downtown. The foyer is graced by an enlarged photograph that was taken outside the building sometime during the 1930’s, back when 8th street was a brick road.

Office manager, Sue Holdridge has noticed a warm reception from the people of downtown. “Folks on the sidewalk continue to stop by and tell us how much they have enjoyed watching the transformation of the building and how much character it brings to this block of downtown.”

Barnett Howard & Williams PLLC moved its practice to Fort Worth in 2013, and maintained an office in Sundance Square until December 2016, when the Atelier Building renovation was complete. The firm gives all the credit for the renovation to Eric Hill at Hill Design & Build in Keller. He was the primary designer and architect for the project.

Juvenile Trial Adult Trial Texas

Key Differences Between Juvenile and Adult Criminal Trials in Texas

By | Criminal Defense, Juvenile

Juvenile Trial Adult Trial TexasThe juvenile justice system is a hybrid system. Juvenile proceedings are technically civil in nature, but they incorporate many elements from the criminal system. The reason for this separate system is to teach children that they will be held responsible for their actions without labeling them as criminals. The differences between adult and juvenile trials is a direct result of this difference in systems.

Terminology

One of the most noticeable distinctions between adult and juvenile trials is in terminology. Juveniles accused of crimes are called respondents, not defendants. Juries do not decide whether a respondent is guilty. Instead, they decide whether it is true or not true that he engaged in delinquent conduct.

Participants

In Tarrant County, the participants that you will see sitting in the courtroom during a juvenile trial are not the same as in an adult case. In addition to the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, juvenile, court reporter, and jury, there are a couple other participants in juvenile cases. A parent or guardian of the respondent is required to be present during all proceedings. The Tarrant County juvenile judge also requires an intake probation officer to be present anytime the juvenile is in court.

Procedures

For the most part, the procedures in an adult trial and a juvenile trial in Tarrant County are similar. The same rules of evidence apply. A juvenile respondent has the same rights during a trial as an adult defendant has. The trials in the two systems follow the same general order, as well.

There are a few significant differences, however. First, and probably most important, is the contrast in who makes punishment decisions in the trials. In adult cases, a defendant can choose whether a judge or jury determines punishment. However, in juvenile cases, a respondent only has this choice in determinate sentence cases. In all other cases, a judge will determine the punishment, if any.

Another difference is the judge’s charge to the jury. The jury charge in a juvenile case is a civil charge with criminal language included in it. It is typically longer than a standard criminal charge in an adult case. The jury’s verdict form is also a bit different. In adult cases, the verdict form asks the jury to write guilty or not guilty. In juvenile trials, as mentioned earlier, the jury determines true or not true that the respondent engaged in delinquent conduct.

Disposition/Punishment Phase

In adult criminal trials, if a defendant is found guilty, the case moves into the punishment phase. In juvenile cases, that next phase is called the dispositional hearing. This is another area in which a juvenile trial differs from adult trials in Tarrant County.

If the jury is assessing punishment in an adult case, it generally happens almost immediately after a verdict of guilty is returned. If the defendant chooses the judge to assess punishment, the hearing is usually scheduled for a later date.

In the juvenile justice system, most of the time, the respondent does not get to choose who determines disposition. The judge will make the vast majority of these disposition decisions. This means that the dispositional hearing will usually be held a few weeks after the trial. Unlike in adult cases, a social history report on the respondent must be prepared by the intake probation officer prior to the dispositional hearing taking place. This report will be considered by the judge in assessing the appropriate disposition.

Practical Differences

The last big discrepancy between adult and juvenile cases has to do with the practical effect that these cases have on the person accused. The juvenile system emphasizes rehabilitation instead of punishment. Therefore, juvenile dispositions do not have the same long-term ramifications that adult punishments have. Typically, they are limited in length due to the age limits imposed by the system. In Tarrant County, the juvenile judge will consider probation in each case in which it is appropriate to consider.

There are a lot of differences between adult and juvenile trials. The main reason for this is because these trials are part of two separate and distinct systems. The juvenile system is a hybrid, combining parts of the civil and criminal systems into one. While there are many similarities between the two, this article highlights the main distinctions between the two.

About the Author

Christy Dunn is a writer and attorney licensed to practice in Texas. She was a prosecutor for 15 years. The last five years of her prosecutorial career was spent in the Juvenile Division of the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office. She has tried over 20 juvenile cases in Texas and multiple certification hearings.

HL Hunt Mansion Dallas Hill v State

Dallas Oil Family’s Dismissal for Vindictive Prosecution Upheld on Appeal

By | Criminal Defense, White Collar

How Far Does the Trial Courts Discretion Go in Determining Whether to Hold a Pretrial Evidentiary Hearing?

HL Hunt Mansion Dallas Hill v StateOn September 21st the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a decision on the oil tycoon heir Albert Hill III’s criminal appeal. The question the Court faced was whether it was in the trial court’s discretion to conduct a pretrial evidentiary hearing on Hill’s motions to quash and dismiss based on prosecutorial vindictiveness. The Court determined that it was within the trial court’s discretion to conduct such a pretrial evidentiary hearing and that discretion was not limited by the defendant meeting “a certain threshold evidentiary requirement.”

Court Opinion: State of Texas v. Albert Hill (Tex. Crim. App. 2016)

The Facts | Trial Court Finds Dallas DA’s Actions Improper

Appellant Hill is the great-grandson of legendary Dallas oil billionaire H.L. Hunt and the events surrounding the indictment dealt with a multi-million dollar trust litigation between Hill and his father. Hill and his wife Erin were indicted in 2011 for making false and misleading statements in order to obtain a $500,000 mortgage from Omni American Bank. The indictment came shortly after Hill won in the trust litigation against his father. Prior to the indictment (but after Albert Hill’s victory in the trust litigation) Hill’s father’s attorney, Michael Lynn delivered a memo to the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office which alleged various offenses committed by Hill and his wife. Hill challenged these charges by filing a motion to quash the indictment and a motion to dismiss. Hill argued that the District Attorney, Craig Watkins, was under the influence of his disgruntled father as well as Lisa Blue Baron, one of Hill’s attorneys in the trust litigation case that had just filed a lawsuit against Hill seeking several million dollars in legal fees.

Some items of interest that the court noted were:

  • Lisa Blue Baron exchanged several phone calls and text messages with Watkins leading up to the indictment;
  • Michael Lynn’s law partner donated $48,500 to Watkins’ campaign prior to the indictment;
  • Lisa Blue Baron made a $100,000 donation to SMU LAW in Watkins’ honor after the indictment;
  • Lisa Blue Baron also held a fundraising event for Watkins’ campaign at her house and made a $5,000 donation to the campaign.

The trial court held an evidentiary hearing on Hill’s motions and granted both the motion to quash and the motion to dismiss.

The Court of Appeals Reversed the Trial Court’s Decision

The Fifth Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s dismissals holding that the trial court “erred in conducting a hearing on Hill’s motion to dismiss.” The State argued that the trial court should not have held a pretrial evidentiary hearing because Hill failed to prove, with evidence, a prima facie case of prosecutorial misconduct and vindictiveness. The Court of Appeals stated that before a pretrial evidentiary can be held for a defendant claiming a violation of his constitutional rights, the defendant must “present facts sufficient to create a reasonable doubt about the constitutionality of his prosecution.” The Court of Appeals found that Hill did not sufficiently meet this standard.

The Court of Criminal Appeals Disagrees with the Court of Appeals, holds that Trial Courts Have Sound Discretion to Conduct a Pretrial Evidentiary Hearing

1. Article 28.01 – The CCA points to Article 28.01 in determining that the trial court had the discretion to hold a pretrial hearing on Hill’s motions to quash and suppress. Article 28.01 §1 provides that a trial court “may set any criminal case for a pre-trial hearing” and that some of things that the pre-trial hearing shall be to determine is the “pleadings of the defendant,’ ‘exceptions to the form or substance of the indictment,’ or discovery.’” Article 28.01 §1(1), (2), (4), (8). Additionally, while Article 28.01 does not expressly provide for an evidentiary hearing on a motion to dismiss like it does for a motion to suppress, the Court determined that it would be a misapplication of the rules of statutory construction to decide that oral testimony cannot be used in a pretrial hearing to resolve any other issue raised.

2. Case Law – The Court supported its Article 28.01 decision with the Court’s decision in Neal v. State which held that a defendant is required to “preserve a complaint of vindictive prosecution by filing a pretrial motion to quash and dismiss.” 150 S.W.3d 169. With that decision in mind the Court said “it would make no sense to limit the trial court’s discretion to hold an evidentiary hearing on such motion.”

The State pointed to federal case law that provided defendant must make a prima facie case that raised a reasonable doubt. However, these cases dealt with the issue of whether the trial court erred by denying a pretrial hearing. Thus, the Court stated that this case law is not on point in Hill’s case and thus are not controlling on this issue, and do not persuade the Court to hold otherwise.

Decision of the Criminal Court of Appeals | The Trial Court’s Discretion is Not Limited

The CCA determined that Article 28.01 has no limiting factor on the judge’s discretion to hold a pretrial evidentiary hearing based on any threshold evidentiary standard. Accordingly, the trial court did not err in conducting the pretrial evidentiary hearing in Hill’s case but instead acted within its bounds of sound discretion.

Texas Statute of Limitations

Statute of Limitations in Texas | How Long Does the State Have to Bring Charges?

By | Criminal Defense

How Long Does the State Have to Bring a Criminal Case Against Me?

Texas Statute of LimitationsTexas law sets out the statute of limitations, the period during which formal charges must be brought against the defendant for most offenses. These time periods range from two years to over twenty years, and for some offenses there is no limitation period at all. The applicable limitation period depends on the particular offense that is alleged.

The various statutes of limitations mean that the state must present an indictment or information within said time period or prosecution will be time barred. The presentation of an indictment occurs when the grand jury has made its decision and the indictment is received by the court. Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. Art. 12.06. The presentation of an information occurs when it has been properly filed in court. Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. Art. 12.07. The limitations period is tolled while the case is pending after an information is filed or indictment issued. Tolling means that the time will not be counted against the limitations period.

Generally, the time period is measured based on the date the offense was committed. When computing the time period, the day on which the offense was committed and the day on which the charge was presented are excluded. Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. Art. 12.04. Thus, the clock starts running the day after the offense was committed and is paused when the indictment or information is presented. Additionally, any time the defendant was absent from the state is excluded when computing the time period. Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. Art. 12.05(1).

What Are the Time Periods in the Texas Statutes of Limitations?

Texas law provides that for all misdemeanor offenses there is a standard period of limitations of two (2) years. Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. arts. 12.02. Thus, for any given misdemeanor charge, the State must bring prosecution within two years from the commission of the crime.

There are several periods of limitations provided for the various felony offenses, as well as a catch all time period of three years for all other felonies not specifically provided for. Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 12.01(7). See the chart below for the time period provided for certain major felony offenses.

TEXAS PERIODS OF LIMITATIONS FOR FELONY OFFENSES

PERIOD OF LIMITATIONS FELONY OFFENSE
(A) Five Years

 

See Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 12.01(4).

  • Theft or Robbery,
  • Kidnapping or Burglary (except as provided in (E)),
  • Injury to Elderly or Disabled (unless 1st Degree),
  • Abandoning or Endangering Child, and
  • Insurance Fraud
(B) Seven Years

 

See Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 12.01(3).

  • Money Laundering
  • Credit Card or Debit Card Abuse
  • Medicaid Fraud
  • False statement to obtain property or credit; and
  • Fraudulent Use or Possession of Identifying Information
(C) Ten Years

 

See Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 12.01(2).

  • Theft of any estate by an executor, administrator, guardian, or trustee
  • Theft by a public servant of government property
  • Forgery or uttering, using, or passing of a forged instrument
  • Sexual assault (except as provided in (F)),
  • Injury to an elderly individual or disabled individual (if punishable as a first degree felony), and
  • Arson
(D) Ten Years from the Victim’s 18th Birthday

 

See Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 12.01(6).

  • Injury to a Child
(E) Twenty Years from the Victim’s 18th Birthday

 

See Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 12.01(5).

  • Sexual Performance by a Child younger than 17
  • Aggravated Kidnapping with intent to sexually abuse a victim younger than 17, and
  • Burglary of a Habitation with the intent to sexually abuse a victim younger than 17
(F) No Time Limitation

 

See Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 12.01(1).

  • Murder or Manslaughter
  • Leaving the Scene of an Accident which Resulted in Death
  • Indecency with a Child
  • Sexual Assault or Aggravated Sexual Assault of a Child
  • Continuous Sexual Abuse of a Child
  • Sexual Assault if DNA testing indicated that the perpetrator’s identity could not be readily determined
  • Sexual Assault if there is probable cause to believe that the defendant has committed the same or similar offense against 5 or more victims
(G) Three Years

 

See Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 12.01(7).

  • All other Felonies.

Periods of Limitations for Aggravated Offenses, Attempt, Conspiracy, and Solicitation

The limitation period for criminal attempt is the same as provided for the offense attempted. Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. §12.03(a). Additionally, the limitation period for criminal conspiracy or organized crime is that of the most serious offense that is the subject of the conspiracy or organized crime. §12.03(b) Further, the limitation period provided for criminal solicitation is the same as the period of the felony solicited. §12.03(c). Finally, an aggravated offense has the same period of limitation as provided for the primary crime. §12.03(d)

In conclusion, these limitations are set out to protect defendants from having to face charges where evidence is stale and witnesses are unavailable due to the long period of time the State has waited to bring prosecution. The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure is very specific in how it has laid out the periods of limitations so that there will be no question as to the time period for a particular offense and how that time period should be computed.

*Note: The above provided chart is not all-inclusive but instead focuses on only some of the major felony offenses. An exhaustive list can be found in Section 12.01 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.

Husband Wife Privilege Texas Rule 504

Can One Spouse be Forced to Testify Against the Other?

By | Criminal Defense, Jury Trial

Can My Spouse be Forced to Testify Against Me in a Criminal Trial in Texas?

Husband Wife Privilege Texas Rule 504Everyone knows (or should know) of the attorney-client privilege which prohibits the calling of an attorney to testify as a witness against his client and protects the attorney-client relationship. But what about the husband-wife relationship? Are spouses afforded any protection from having their spouse testify against them in a criminal trial?

Yes. In Texas there are two “Husband-Wife” privileges that apply to the marital relationship: spousal immunity and the marital communication privilege. Many people are aware that certain privileges arise but often do not know exactly what protections these privileges provide. The following article discusses both of the matrimonial privileges in Texas.

See the full text of Texas Rule of Evidence 504 – Spousal Privileges

What is Spousal Immunity? How does Spousal Immunity work in Texas?

Spousal immunity is the privilege that exists in a criminal trial for the defendant’s spouse not to be called as a witness in certain situations.  Tex. R. Evid. 504(b). This privilege applies to spouses that are married to the defendant during trial and are asked to testify as to matters that occurred during the spouse’s marriage to the defendant. The non-defendant spouse holds this privilege; meaning he or she is the one who may invoke the privilege not to testify and it is ultimately his or her decision. Tex. R. Evid. 504(b)(3). Thus, if the spouse wants to voluntarily testify for the State, she may do so regardless of whether the defendant objects to the spouse’s testimony.

Spousal immunity does not stop the defendant from calling their current spouse as a witness. If a defendant chooses to do so the spouse cannot assert this privilege and will be required to testify. With that, if the defendant does not call the spouse and surrounding evidence suggests the spouse could testify to relevant matters the State is allowed to comment about that. 504(b)(2).

Exceptions to Spousal Immunity in Texas

There are two exceptions to spousal immunity in Texas.

  • First, the privilege does not apply in a criminal proceeding in which the defendant has committed against the spouse (e.g. Domestic Violence) or prosecution for bigamy.
  • Second, the privilege does not apply when the spouse is called to testify about matters that occurred before they were married to the defendant.

What is the Texas Marital Communication Privilege?

Under Texas Rule of Evidence 504(a), spouses have the privilege to prevent testimony of certain communications made during the marriage from one spouse to the other spouse.  Unlike the spousal immunity privilege, the marital communication privilege may be invoked by either the defendant or the spouse being called as a witness. Additionally, this privilege survives divorce; meaning it applies whether or not the defendant and the spouse are still married as long as the communications were made while they were married. Tex. R. Evid. 504(a)(2).

This privilege only applies to communications that were intended to be confidential, that is, they were made privately with no intent to disclose to anyone other than the spouse. A communication will still be confidential if someone overheard the conversation if the defendant spouse made the statement without knowledge or intent that the other person would hear the conversation. Basically, the requirement is that the communication made was intended for the spouse’s ears only.

Exceptions to the Marital Communications Privilege in Texas

There are two exceptions to the confidential communications privilege.

  • First, if the communication was made in whole or in part to aid in the commission of a crime the privilege does not apply.
  • Second, the marital communication privilege does not apply in prosecutions for crimes against the defendant’s spouse, any minor child, or a member of the defendant or defendant spouse’s household.

In conclusion, there are certain situations where matters occurring between spouses are kept within the sanctity of the marriage and will not come out in court. However, as you can see these privileges are very specific and it is important to be aware of what exactly is privileged and when such privileges apply.

See the full text of Texas Rule of Evidence 504 – Spousal Privileges