Texas Theft Update

Theft is On the Rise in Texas

By | Theft

Changes to Texas Theft Laws | Fort Worth Theft Crimes Attorneys

Texas Theft Update Fort Worth Theft CrimesAs the prices of gas and groceries rise, so must the theft laws in Texas. With House Bill 1396, the Texas Legislature has amended the Texas theft laws (and several other laws involving the monetary value of property), raising the monetary values of the property involved as follows:

  • Theft Under $50 Theft Under $100
  • Theft $50 – $500 Theft $100 – $750
  • Theft $500 – $1,500 Theft $750 – $2,500
  • Theft $1,500 – $20,000 Theft 2,500 – $30,000
  • Theft $20,000 – $100,000 Theft $30,000 – $150,000
  • Theft $100,000 – $300,000 Theft $150,000 – $300,000

The new values for these offenses will apply to all offenses committed on or after September 1, 2015.  For offenses that pre-date 9/1/15, that theft offenses will remain under the old statutory scheme.

The New Value Ladder

The Texas Penal Code uses a standard value ladder in cases of theft and many other property and economic crimes to determine the grade of an offense. On September 1, 2015, HB 1396 changed the standard value ladder for theft in Texas—this is the first time this has happened since 1993. Under the value ladder, as the value of property lost increases, the seriousness of the crime increases. Below are the updated values:

  • Under $100 is a Class C Misdemeanor;
  • $100 or more, but less than $750 is a Class B Misdemeanor;
  • $750 or more, but les than $2,500 is a Class A Misdemeanor;
  • $2,500 or more, but less than $30,000 is a State Jail Felony;
  • $30,000 or more, but less than $150,000 is a Third Degree Felony;
  • $150,000 or more, but less than $300,000 is a Second Degree Felony; and
  • More than $300,000 is a First Degree Felony.

The change in law also includes a savings clause. This clause provides that the change in law applies only to an offense committed on or after the effective date of the article. As such, an offense is committed before the effective date of the article if any element of the offense occurs before the effective date. This savings clause is an important factor when dealing with aggregate theft.

What is Aggregate Theft?

Aggregate theft is an offense where two or more thefts were committed “pursuant to one scheme or continuing course of conduct” and the amounts are combined to determine the grade of the offense. Tex. Penal Code § 31.09. Pursuant to Section 31.09 of the Texas Penal Code, aggregate theft may be considered as one offense—it is a sum of all its parts. The Court of Criminal Appeals has held that the State need only prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant unlawfully appropriated enough property to meet the aggregated value alleged. Since the value alleged will determine the grade of offense charged, applying the correct statute is essential.

How Does the New Value Ladder Apply to Aggregate Thefts?

The Court of Criminal Appeals has held time and time again that we are to interpret statutes in accordance with their plain meaning unless the language is ambiguous or the plain meaning would lead to absurd results. Thus, applying the plain meaning of the savings clause found in Section 31.09, the former law’s penalties apply to the offense of aggregated theft if any element of a continuing theft was committed before the effective date of the new law. The Court of Criminal Appeals held that this “interpretation does not lead to absurd results because one could reasonably conclude that the legislature intended for the old penalties to attach to a scheme or continuing course of conduct that was begun before the effective date of the new law.” Dickens v. State, 981 S.W.2d 186, 187-88 (Tex. Crim. App. 1998). Thus, if a defendant is being charged with aggregate theft and any element of their charge occurred before September 1, 2015, former law will apply to determine the grade of the offense.

Theft Crime Defense Lawyers | Fort Worth Criminal Defense Firm

The Fort Worth criminal defense attorneys at Barnett Howard & Williams PLLC handle all ranges of property crimes from simple shoplifting to armed robbery and everywhere in between. If you are under investigation for a property or theft offense or have already been charged, contact Barnett Howard & Williams PLLC today for a free consultation of your case at 817.993.9249.

Contractor Convicted of Theft

Texas Contractor Convicted for Theft: Upheld by High Court

By | Theft

Can a bad contractor be convicted for theft?

Contractor Convicted of TheftIf you’ve ever gone through a home renovation or something similar, you have likely experienced periods of frustration with your contractor or construction crew.  This may stem from missed deadlines, shoddy workmanship, mistakes, or general incompetence. In extreme cases, you might have felt duped by the contractor, so much that you think he should be held criminally liable for the promises on which he failed to deliver.

Can a contractor be held criminally liable for his failures?  Texas law says YES (in certain circumstances).

In a recent case out of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the court upheld the felony criminal conviction of a contractor for theft when he accepted money and failed to deliver under the contract for services.  The court explained that in most cases, dissatisfied consumers will have to resort to the civil courts, but in extreme cases, a contractor could be convicted of theft when he accepts money and utterly fails to perform.

You can read the full opinion of the court regarding Contractor Theft.

Barnett Howard & Williams PLLC is a criminal defense law firm in Fort Worth, Texas.  Call us today for a free consultation of your criminal matter at (817) 993-9249.

Fort Worth Weapon Charges Defense Lawyers

5th Circuit Opens the Barn Door on 4th Amendment Searches

By | Theft

Fort Worth Weapon Charges Defense LawyersBelow is a case update from the 5th Circuit (Federal)

U.S. v. Cooke, 5th Circuit, March 13, 2012

While appellant was in jail, federal agents approached him and asked for consent to search his house.  He refused.  A week later, while he was still in jail, federal agents went to his house to conduct a knock-and-talk interview.  Appellant’s house was a windowless structure that had two large sliding exterior barn doors.  Behind the barn doors was a large area with a dirt floor and a paved sidewalk path that led to a stoop and another set of doors.  Behind these interior doors were the living quarters where appellant, his wife and his mother lived.  When the agents approached the house, they noticed that one of the exterior barn doors was damaged, allowing them access to walk directly up to the interior doors.  Believing that knocking on the barn door would be futile, the agents walked through the open barn door and knocked on the interior set of doors.  Appellant’s mother answered the door and granted the agents consent to enter the house.  Once inside the house, the agents saw a shotgun shell and gun safe in plain view.  Based on these observations, the agents obtained a search warrant and found illegal firearms, ammunition and a bulletproof vest in appellant’s house.

Appellant argued that the agents unlawfully entered the curtilage of his house when they crossed the threshold of the barn door without a warrant or consent.  The court held that the area inside the barn doors, but outside the interior doors was not part of the curtilage, so the agents did not violate appellant’s Fourth Amendment rights by entering the area without consent or a warrant in order to knock on the interior doors.  First, the area had a dirt floor and a paved sidewalk that led to the interior doors.  Second, the contents of the area included non-operating washing machines and dryers, ladders, a grill and other items indicating that the space was used for storage.  Finally, the barn door was open wide enough such that the items stored there were exposed to the elements, the public could see into the area from the street, and anyone would reasonably think that they would have to enter and knock on the interior doors when visiting.

Appellant also argued that under Georgia v. Randolph the warrantless search was invalid because his mother’s consent to the agents’ entry into the house was trumped by his previous refusal to consent.  The court disagreed, stating that Randolph only applied to co-tenants who were physically present and immediately objected to the other co-tenant’s consent.  Here, appellant was not a present and objecting co tenant, but rather was miles away from his home and in jail when he objected to the search.

The Seventh and Eighth Circuits agree and allow searches under similar circumstances; however, the Ninth Circuit does not.

Legal Sufficiency of Evidence

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Updates – Sufficiency of Evidence

By | Assault, Theft

Legal Sufficiency of EvidenceThe CCA handed down two opinions today dealing with legal sufficiency of evidence.  Johnson v. State (Tex. Crim. App. 2012) involved a variance between allegations in the charging instrument and the sufficiency of the proof presented at trial.  Wirth v. State (Tex. Crim. App. 2012) involved a general question of legal sufficiency in light of the recent case, Brooks v. State, 922 S.W.2d 126 (Tex. Cr. App. 1996).

In Johnson v. State, Appellant was convicted on various counts of aggravated assault.  The indictment read that appellant did then and there, “intentionally or knowingly cause serious bodily injury to [the victim] by hitting her with his hand or twisting her arm with his hand.” The complaining witness in the case testified that appellant threw her against the wall and that hitting the wall caused her to fall to the floor and break her arm.  Appellant’s criminal defense attorney argued that the variance between pleading and proof rendered the evidence legally insufficient to support the conviction.  The CCA held that ultimately, “the act that caused the injury does not define or help define the allowable unit of prosecution for this type of aggravated assault offense, so variance at issue cannot be material.” The CCA also stated that this type of variance involved immaterial non-statutory allegations and when a variance like this presents itself it will not render the evidence legally insufficient.

I thought this case was interesting because, as a former criminal prosecutor, I used to try and charge the most accurate manner and means possible.  I came across cases like this occasionally where we alleged one way that a defendant had assaulted a victim and then upon further investigation or questioning of the victim, it looked as if there was going to be a variance.  In those cases, I would amend the indictment to reflect the more accurate description of the manner and means.  Another method that is commonly used by prosecutors is to allege a very broad manner and means.  Often, you will see the manner and means in an assault alleged, “by striking with defendant’s hands.” This language covers various types of assaults (slapping, punching, grabbing, squeezing).  But, in looking at the Johnson opinion, it looks like the bottom-line is that if the language in the indictment involves immaterial non-statutory allegations, it will likely not render the evidence legally insufficient if different evidence comes up at trial.

In Wirth v. State, the Appellant was convicted of the offense of Theft of $20,000 or more but less than $100,000, a third degree felony.  The Sixth Court of Appeals (Texarkana) held that the evidence was legally insufficient to support the conviction and rendered a judgment of acquittal. The State filed a petition for discretionary review.  The CCA found that the Sixth Court of Appeals had erred and reversed the Court’s decision, reinstating the Appellant’s conviction.  The CCA recognized that the Sixth Court of Appeals had reviewed the Appellant’s case and found that the evidence was factually insufficient to support the verdict based on Clewis v. State, 922 S.W.2d 126 (Tex. Cr. App. 1996).  As the Court noted, at the time that the Court of Appeals considered the Appellant’s case, the CCA had not issued its opinion in Brooks v. State, 323 S.W.3d 893 (Tex. Cr. App. 2010) which essentially overruled the factual sufficiency analysis (see our previous post on this issue here).  In light of the Brooks decision, the CCA analyzed Appellant’s case based on the legal sufficiency of the evidence and held that there was legally sufficient evidence (even given that the evidence was purely circumstantial and that the defendant was a party to the crime) to support the jury’s prior verdict of guilt. Accordingly, the CCA reversed the judgment of the Sixth Court of Appeals and affirmed the judgment of the trial court.

Debit Card Abuse

Consummation Optional for Credit Card Abuse

By | Theft

Debit Card AbuseSection 32.31(b)(1) of the Texas Penal code provides that a person commits the offense of Credit Card Abuse or Debit Card Abuse if that person “presents or uses” a credit/debit card that was not issued to him and is not used with the owner’s consent.  But what does it mean to “present” or “use” a credit/debit card? Can someone “present” a credit/debit card without “using” it?

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals considered this issue recently in the case of Clinton v. State.  In this case, the appellant had been convicted of the state-jail felony of debit card abuse after she used a stolen debit card to attempt to purchase cigarettes at Wal-Mart.  Notwithstanding the fact that the store declined the card and appellant never completed the transaction, the jury convicted her of “using” the stolen debit card under Section 32.31 (the State did not charge her with “presenting” the card).

On appeal, the 6th District Court of Appeals (Texarkana) reversed the conviction and reformed the judgment to reflect a conviction for the lesser-included offense of attempted debit card abuse.  The COA reasoned that appellant did not “use” the debit card, but rather “presented” it.  Because the transaction was not ultimately consummated and she did not obtain a benefit, the COA held that the evidence was insufficient sustain her conviction for “use.”

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals took the case on the State’s petition for discretionary review.  The State argued that the COA erred by requiring that “use” of a debit card include proof of consummation of the transaction.  The CCA held:

Based on the ordinary meaning of the words as used in the statute, we conclude that the statutory terms “use” and “present” may overlap in meaning, that a transaction need not be consummated to support a jury finding that a defendant used a debit card, and that the court of appeals erred by determining that the evidence is insufficient to establish debit card abuse.

The CCA concluded that appellant “used” the debit card when she swiped it through the card reader for the purpose of purchasing cigarettes.  Accordingly, the CCA reversed the COA and reinstated the judgment of the trial court.

Judge Price concurred in the opinion, but wrote separately to opine that presentment is subsumed by use and should not be given independent legal significance apart from use.

Walmart Theft

Walmart Theft Case Charged with the Wrong Name

By | Theft

Walmart TheftByrd v. State

In Byrd, the state charged appellant with theft of certain property from owner “Mike Morales.” At trial, however, the State did not prove, in any way whatsoever, that the property belonged to Mike Morales. The overwhelming proof showed that the property, in fact, belonged to Walmart. On appeal, appellant argued the the evidence was insufficient because the State did not prove that the property belonged to Mike Morales. The 4th Court disagreed, holding that the name of the owner was not required, as it was simply a variance of proof.

This week, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals. In a unanimous opinion written by Judge Cochran, the CCA held that:

Although the name of the owner is not a substantive element of theft, the State is required to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the person (or entity) alleged in the indictment is the owner is the same person (or entity) – regardless of the name – as shown by the evidence.

The CCA explained that a conviction would still stand if an indictment alleged an incorrect name, such as Buddy Smith, when the proof at trial revealed that the victim’s name was, in fact, John Smith (Buddy was simply a nickname). In that instance, there would be sufficient evidence showing that the person alleged in the indictment is the same person from whom the property was stolen.

In this case:

Not only did the State fail to offer any evidence that “Mike Morales” – the person alleged in the theft indictment – has any ownership interest in or relationship to the property appellant shoplifted, but the jury, without any apparent concern the missing “Mile Morales,” convicted her nevertheless.  According to the State, the “only explanation for this exceptional circumstance seems to be that it was so clear to all the parties involved – and possibly to the jury as well – that the real victim (both alleged and proven) was Wal-Mart that the discrepancy seemed not to matter.”  An alternate, less generous explanation, is that everyone was asleep at the wheel.

As a rule for future Walmart theft cases (and all theft cases), the majority opinion states:

The parties, the court, and the jury must know the identity of the owner [of the stolen property] regardless of how the State names him.

It is worth noting that the CCA did not foreclose the option of the State reindicting the appellant for theft from “Walmart,” as jeopardy has not attached to that specific offense. But as far as theft from Mike Morales goes, the appellant stands acquitted.