Allen walks into Walmart, picks out a nice computer and matching desk, loads both into a shopping cart and proceeds to the exit. Of course, before he can make it out of the store, the infamous receipt-checker stops him at the door. Allen shows a fake Walmart “receipt.” Unfortunately for Allen, the receipt-checker isn’t as dumb as he was hoping. The receipt checker quickly identifies the receipt as a phony and Allen is detained while police are called.
These are the general facts of Shipp v. State, a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals case released last week and designated for publication. In Shipp, the appellant was tried and convicted of the state jail felony offense of Forgery of a Commercial Instrument. With his enhancements, punishment was assessed at 20 years in TDCJ-ID.
Is a Walmart receipt a “Commercial Instrument” under Texas’ Forgery laws?
Shipp argued on appeal that the phony receipt didn’t qualify as a “commercial instrument” under 32.21(d) of the Penal Code. The 6th District Court of Appeals (Texarkana) agreed, holding:
There was no testimony provided here to demonstrate that a receipt issued by this Wal-Mart store is anything more than the memorialization of a past transaction, as opposed to other kinds of things granting or ceding future benefits or rights listed in Section 32.21(d).
The 6th Court of Appeals used the statutory construction doctrine of Ejusdem generis (you can read the opinion for more, but simply put, when general words in a statute follow specific words, courts should look to the specific words for meaning) to arrive at its conclusion that the legislature did not intend to include such items as a Walmart receipt in the statute .
The CCA, on the other hand, declined to use the doctrine here because of the wide range of writings set out in 32.21(d). Instead, the CCA looked to the legislative history behind 32.21(d) and held that this degree of forgery (state jail felony) was meant to include “documents of commerce.” The CCA did not define “other commercial instrument” but nevertheless concluded that a store receipt falls within the definition of “documents of commerce.” Adressing Ejusdem generis the CCA states:
To invoke the rule of ejusdem generis to exclude such a patent example of a ‘commercial instrument’ would serve to defeat rather than effectuate the intent of the Legislature…
Dissenting, Presiding Judge Keller joined by Judge Johnson agree with the Court of Appeals’ use of Ejusdem generis stating:
the phrase ‘or other commercial instrument’ must also refer to a document that creates or discharges an economic obligation or that transfers property.
Presiding Judge Keller points out that a receipt has consistently been considered a “document” for purposes of the forgery statute (citing all the way back to 1884 – wow!) but is not an “other commercial instrument” for purposes of making it a state jail felony level. Thus, in her opinion, Shipp should have been prosecuted for a misdemeanor offense.
I would never have imagined a Walmart receipt being a “commercial instrument,” but apparently it is, so says the Court.