Johnson v. State, Right to Slience

Trial Judge Influences (But Does not Compel) a Defendant to Testify

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Johnson v. State, Right to SlienceThe 5th Amendment to the United States Constitution: “[N]o person…shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.”

On January 25, 2012, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued its opinion in the case of Johnson v. State.  This case specifically dealt with a situation that occurred during the sentencing phase of a trial involving defendant Charles Michael Johnson.  Johnson was arrested in 1991 and subsequently indicted for Possession of a Controlled Substance with intent to deliver.  He was released on bond and failed to appear for any further hearings.  Eighteen years later, Johnson was arrested in Florida and returned to Texas to face the charges.  He was convicted by a jury at trial and then elected to have the court assess punishment.

After the State rested it’s punishment case, the defense had the court take judicial notice of the pre-sentence investigation and then rested.  At that point, the judge asked the Defense if its client wanted to testify.  The Defense stated that he would not.  The judge’s response was, “In all candor, I would kind of like to know what he’s been doing for the last 18 years.” The Defendant then went to the witness stand and testified.  At the end of the hearing, the judge stated, “ Okay. Well, this is obviously a very difficult case in that it’s apparent to me that he has stayed out of trouble, essentially at least, in any realistic way.  I mean, driving with a license suspended is no big deal in the context of things, but on the other hand, I don’t want to reward somebody for running, and I do believe that the defendant lied under oath, sir. I’m sorry. That’s what I think.” The judge then sentenced him to ten years’ confinement.

On appeal, Johnson argued that the trial court had compelled him to testify against himself in violation of his Fifth Amendment right to silence.  The CCA relied on previous precedent establishing the general rule that the privilege to avoid self-incrimination is ordinarily not self-executing.  Minnesota v. Murphy, 465 U.S. 420.  By “not self-executing,” the CCA noted that a defendant can voluntarily forfeit his Fifth Amendment privilege if he freely chooses to take the stand and make incriminating statements even if not done knowingly or intelligently.  The CCA stated that the issue was not whether Johnson make a knowing, intelligent and voluntary waiver of his privilege to remain silent, but whether he voluntarily testified or was “coerced” to testify against his will.  The CCA indicated that this question hinged on whether Johnson feared that the trial court would penalize him for remaining silent (which the Court also called the “classic penalty situation”).  The Court found that there was no direct evidence that it would.  Additionally, the CCA found that neither Johnson nor his counsel made any comment indicating that they believed if he remained silent a greater punishment would be assessed.

Finding that Johnson was not confronted with the “classic penalty situation,” the CCA held that he had forfeited his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent when he voluntarily took the stand in his own defense, despite the trial courts comments before he did so.

Child Sexual Assault Grooming Texas

CCA Recognizes “Grooming” as a Legitimate Subject of Expert Testimony

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Child Sexual Assault Grooming TexasToday, in Morris v. State, a 6-3 opinion authored by Presiding Judge Keller, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held (by taking judicial notice) that “‘grooming’ of children for sexual molestation is a legitimate subject of expert testimony.”  The opinion, which reads like a law review article at times, goes into great detail about the state and federal courts that have long recognized “grooming” as an appropriate (and helpful) area for expert testimony. (If you don’t know what “grooming” is, HERE is the Wikipedia definition.)

Judge Price’s Dissent is highly critical:

After doing the vast bulk of the research for the State, the Court now essentially holds (despite the absence of any actual litigation on the subject below) that case law from other jurisdictions demonstrates that grooming is such a well-established psychological concept that the State, as proponent of the grooming-based testimony here, need not have been required to prove it at all.

Believing the trial record too bare for the Court to take judicial notice of the reliability of grooming-based testimony, Judge Price dissents.  Judges Meyers and Womack joined the dissent.

Judge Meyers also dissented, stating:

Irrespective of whether the study of “grooming” behavior is a legitimate field of expertise, I do not think [the expert in this case] was qualified to be an expert on this issue. He had no degree in any field of study involving human behavior, no specialized training in “grooming” behavior, and he did not show that the training and experience he did have enabled him to distinguish such behavior.

Judges Womack and Price joined the dissent.

Judge Cochran concurred in the judgment and would hold that grooming is an experiential field rather than a “soft science”:

This is not rocket science. It does not depend upon any scientific, technical, or psychological principles or methodology. This type of testimony does not depend upon educational expertise, any calculable rate of error, learned treatises, peer review, or any other esoteric skill. This is not even “soft science.” It is just “horse sense” expertise developed over many years of personal experience and observation.

While they all seem to agree that “grooming” is an appropriate area for expert testimony, the lingering question (at least for me) is – What does it take to qualify someone to be an expert witness on child grooming?  A question for a later day I suppose.

5th Circuit Terry Stop

Time’s Up! Your Terry Stop is Over. Please Return to Your Squad Car.

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5th Circuit Terry StopThe Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (Federal) issued an opinion on September 27, 2011 in United States v. Macias, addressing an unconstitutional search and seizure by a Trooper in Pecos County, Texas.  On November 22, 2009, Trooper Juan Barragan stopped Robert Macias, Jr. for failure to wear his seatbelt.  Upon stopping the defendant, Trooper Barragan started asking him questions.  His initial questions dealt with common issues such as the defendant’s purpose for traveling and the defendant’s lack of insurance.  As time went on Trooper Barragan began asking more and more questions unrelated to the reasons he stopped the defendant in the first place.  After his initial questions, the trooper asked the defendant about his employment and the specific reason he was traveling to see a doctor.  The trooper also repeated questions that the defendant had already been asked and had answered.  The initial exchange between the two took approximately two minutes.

After the initial exchange, the trooper asked the defendant to come back to his patrol car with him.  The trooper then began to ask the defendant another series of questions.  Trooper Barragan asked if the defendant had his “own little company” and if he had ever “been in trouble before.” This second series of questions lasted approximately one minute.  The trooper then went back to the defendant’s vehicle (it was actually he defendant’s sister’s vehicle) and asked the defendant’s passenger a series of questions regarding her relationship with the defendant and the purpose of their trip.  Two more minutes elapsed during this series of questions.  The trooper then went back to the defendant and asked him more questions at which point he elicited from the defendant that he had been previously imprisoned for an attempted murder conviction.  The trooper then told the defendant that he was going to go back to his patrol vehicle and write him a citation for failure to wear his seatbelt.  Eleven minutes elapsed from the time that the defendant had been pulled over to the time that he received the citation.

Ten minutes after returning to his patrol car, the trooper returned to the defendant and gave him the citation.  The defendant signed the citations.  Then, just as the trooper was about to leave, he asked the defendant for consent to search his vehicle.  The defendant protested that there was nothing in the vehicle, but he ultimately gave consent to search the truck after his protestations were met by the trooper noting that the defendant has a “shady” background.  Seventeen minutes after he began the search of the truck, and forty-seven minutes after initiating the stop, Trooper Barragan found an unloaded firearm and ammunition in a closed bag belonging to the defendant.

A grand jury indicted Macias for being a felon in possession of a firearm.  Macias moved to suppress the firearm as fruits of an unconstitutional detention.  The district court denied Macias’s motion to suppress and Macias entered a conditional plea of guilty with the option to appeal the district court’s denial.

The Fifth Circuit analyzed the legality of the stop based on the traditional Terry v. Ohio analysis.  392 U.S. 1 (1968).  The Court first looked to whether the Terry stop of the vehicle was justified at its inception and then whether the officer’s subsequent actions were reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that justified the stop of the vehicle in the first place.  Macias conceded that the stop was valid, but that the Trooper exceeded the scope of the stop when he asked questions unrelated to the purpose and itinerary of the trip.  Macias argued that these questions impermissibly extended the duration of the stop without developing reasonable suspicion of additional criminal activity.

The Court cited various cases including United States v. Pack, 612 F.3d 341 (5th Cir.), which held that an officer may ask questions on subjects unrelated to the circumstances that caused the stop, so long as these unrelated questions do not extend the duration of the stop.  Macias’s argument was that the Trooper’s actions after the stop unconstitutionally extended the duration of that stop.  Macias specifically noted that the trooper ran computer checks, engaged in detailed questioning about matters unrelated to Macias’s driver’s license, his proof of insurance, the vehicle registration, or the purpose of the itinerary of his trip that unreasonably prolonged the detention without developing reasonable suspicion of additional criminal activity. The Fifth Circuit agreed.

The Fifth Circuit noted that the only evidence that the trooper could point to that might lead to reasonable suspicion of additional criminal activity was Macias’s extreme nervousness.  It held that extreme nervousness in and of itself was not sufficient to support the extended detention.

The Fifth Circuit ultimately concluded that the search of the truck violated the Fourth Amendment (Terry Stop prohibitions) and that all evidence resulting from that search should have been suppressed.  Macias’s judgment of conviction was reversed and vacated and the case was remanded for entry of judgment of acquittal.

The case contains a lot of applicable case law (a horn book in itself) for attorney’s practicing in the Fifth Circuit in regards to Fourth Amendment searches and seizures.

State v. Banda, Discovery Violation

Discovery Violation…Now What?

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State v. Banda, Discovery ViolationIn State v. Banda, the Third District Court of Appeals (Austin) decided a case at the end of last month addressing an issue regarding a discovery violation by the State.  The opinion addresses a key issue: what does a court do to remedy a discovery violation?  Often, the primary consideration is not whether a violation occurred, but what a court should do about it.

Let’s review the law on discovery:

Brady v. Maryland – A prosecutor must disclose exculpatory evidence if it is material to either guilt or punishment, including impeachment. Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963); see also Thomas v. State, 841 S.W. 2d 399 (Tex. Crim. App. 1992) (describing Brady parameters in Texas).

Under the U.S. and Texas Constitutions, Brady breaks down to two duties related to pretrial disclosure of evidence by the State:
1) Disclose all favorable, material evidence in her possession.
2) Preserve and make available to the defendant any favorable, material physical evidence that the accused cannot otherwise obtain and that may be material to his defense.

See also CCP art. 39.14; Whitchurch v State, 650 S.W.2d 422, 425 (Tex. Crim. App. 1983) (no general defense right of discovery in Texas). BUT, see also Nielsen v. State, 836 S.W.2d 245 (Tex. App. – Texarkana 1992, pet. Ref’d) (The prosecution has a duty to disclose exculpatory evidence regardless of whether the defense files a discovery motion requesting the material. But even if the evidence is requested, the State does not have to disclose it unless it is also material to the defense.)
Though a prosecutor is not required to deliver his entire file to defense counsel, a prosecutor’s open file policy is generally sufficient to comply with the prosecutor’s Brady obligation. See United States v. Bagley, 473 U.S. 667, 676 (1985).

As stated above, often the primary consideration for the trial court is not whether a Brady violation occurred, but what a court should do about it.  In Banda, the trial court decided that the State’s failure to comply with a court order on discovery was grounds for the court to dismiss the State’s case with prejudice to refile.  The appellate court did not focus on whether a discovery violation had occurred – it technically had.  The appellate court’s focus was on the fact that the trial court dismissed the State’s case without prejudice as a result of the violation.  The Court found that absent constitutional or statutory authorization a trial court cannot dismiss a prosecution except on the motion of the prosecuting attorney and that the trial court does not have general authority to dismiss the indictment without prejudice in absence of the State’s consent.  State v. Pambeck, 182 S.W.3d 365, 366, 370 ( Tex. Crim. App. 2005); State v. Williams, 938 S.W.2d 456, 459 (Tex. Crim. App. 1997).  In Banda’s case there were no circumstances existing that would allow the court to make such a dismissal (even given the discovery order violation).

Ultimately, the Court held that “failure to comply with court orders on discovery may warrant suppression of the evidence in question, but discovery abuse is not recognized in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure as a basis for dismissing the case with prejudice. See Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. Art. 39.14 (West Supp. 2010)”. Id. at page 3.

Banda shows defense attorneys that discovery violations are extremely important and can be effective to win a case but only as long as the attack is not misplaced on attempting to get the court to dismiss the case.