New Criminal Laws 2021

Texas Legislature Update: New Criminal Laws 2021

By | Legislative Update

New Criminal Laws 2021The 2021 Texas legislative session has now closed and there were several updates to our criminal statutes. Below are some of the more notable changes or additions to Texas criminal laws that took effect on September 1, 2021:

Constitutional Carry – HB 1927

All Texans over the age of 21 are now able to carry a handgun in public without a license or training as long as they are not prohibited from possessing a gun by state or federal law. In addition, the carrying a firearm while intoxicated is now a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a maximum $4,000 fine, and the carrying a firearm in a vehicle by a gang member is now a third-degree felony punishable by two to 10 years in prison and a maximum $10,000 fine. HB 1927 also allows a peace officer to disarm a citizen at any time if they believe it is necessary to protect the individual, the officer, or another person. The officer, however, must return the handgun before leaving the scene if the officer determines the person was not a threat and didn’t commit a violation. Finally, HB 1927 allows for the expungement of records for those previously convicted of Unlawful Carrying a Weapon before September 1, 2021.

Obstructing Emergency Vehicles – HB 9

HB 9 makes it a state jail felony to knowingly block an emergency vehicle with its lights and sirens on or to obstruct access to a hospital or health care facility. This offense is punishable by six months to two years behind bars and a maximum $10,000 fine. Individuals convicted of this offense are required to spend at least 10 days in jail, even if they are sentenced to probation.

False Reporting to Induce Emergency Response – SB 1056

SB 1056 makes it a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a maximum $4,000 fine, to falsely report a crime or an emergency to elicit an emergency response from law enforcement or other emergency responders. The charge becomes a state jail felony, punishable by six months to two years in state jail, if the defendant has been previously convicted twice of the offense and a third-degree felony, punishable by two or ten years in prison, if a person is seriously injured or killed as a result of the emergency response.

Enhancement for Reckless Driving Exhibition – SB 1495

SB 1495 heightens the penalty for obstructing a highway or passageway from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a maximum $4,000 fine, for an individual who engages in a reckless driving exhibition. SB 1495 enhances the penalty to a state jail felony for a person who has been previously convicted of this offense, a person who operates a vehicle while intoxicated, or who causes someone to suffer bodily injury.

Harassment Extension to Social Media Posts – SB 530

SB 530 makes it a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a maximum $2,000 fine, to harass another person by publishing repeated electronic communications on a website with the intent to harass, annoy, alarm, torment, or embarrass that person. The penalty, however, can be increased to a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a maximum $4,000 fine, if the actor has been previously convicted of the offense or it if involved a child under age 18 with the intent to cause the child serious bodily injury or to commit suicide.

Silencer Legalization – HB 957

HB 957 removes firearm silencers from the list of weapons that are prohibited in Texas. In addition, firearms suppressors that are manufactured and remain in Texas are not subject to federal law or regulation.
Enhanced Punishment for Offenses against Public Servants – HB 624
HB 624 increases the penalty by one level for people who commit an offense against someone whom they know is a public servant or against a member of the public servant’s household or family. The increased punishments apply to arson, criminal mischief, criminal trespass, breach of computer security, harassment, stalking, or fraudulent use of possession of identifying information.

Enhanced Punishment for Offenses against Public Servants – HB 624

HB 624 increases the penalty by one level for people who commit an offense against someone whom they know is a public servant or against a member of the public servant’s household or family. The increased punishments apply to arson, criminal mischief, criminal trespass, breach of computer security, harassment, stalking, or fraudulent use of possession of identifying information.

Scholarship Winners BHW

2021 BHW Scholarship Winners | Veteran Law Student & Military Dependent

By | Scholarship

Barnett Howard & Williams PLLC Announces the Recipients of the 2021 Scholarship Awards

BHW Scholarship WinnersThis was the 6th year for our law firm to offer scholarships. In honor of the sacrifices of our military veterans, we decided to that the scholarships should be connected to military service. The first scholarship is a $500 award for a Military Veteran Law Student and the second scholarship is a $500 award for a Military Dependent undergraduate student. Throughout the year, we received several applications from very deserving students. We appreciate all of the students that took the time to apply for the scholarships and wish them all the best in their studies. For those students that were not selected, we invite you to apply again next year as we plan to continue the scholarship offers as an annual award.

2021 Winner – Military Veteran Law Student Scholarship

The winner of the 2021 Military Veteran Law Student Scholarship is:

SAMANTHA DOWNEY

Samantha Downey is an Army veteran that served for 6 years as a Combat Medic. Ms. Downey currently attends Notre Dame Law School. Congratulations Samantha Downey. Best wishes as you continue toward your law degree.

2021 Winner – Military Dependent Scholarship

The winner of the 2021 Military Dependent Undergraduate Scholarship is:

JEREMIAH BROOKS

Jeremiah Brooks is a US Marine Corps dependent whose father served in both the Marine Corps and Florida Army National Guard. Mr. Brooks graduated from Canyon Lake High School in 2021 and will be pursuing a career in Cyber Security. Congratulations Jeremiah Brooks. Best wishes as you continue in your studies.

More Information About Our Scholarship Opportunities:

For more information about how to apply for these scholarships in future years, please visit the scholarship pages:

Military Veteran Law Student Scholarship

Military Dependent Scholarship

Texas Expunction Update

Misdemeanor Offenses in Texas Now Eligible for Expunction on an Individual Basis

By | Expunction

Texas Expunction UpdateIn January of this year, the Supreme Court of Texas heard arguments for Ex parte R.P.G.P. in which it declared that an arrest involving multiple offenses is divisible for expungement purposes under Article 55.01 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. Specifically, it answered a question left open by a previous case, finding that misdemeanor offenses are eligible for expunction on an individual basis.

What is an Expunction of Criminal Records ?

When a criminal record is expunged, that means that the record of is destroyed or sealed (for juvenile records). In an expunction order the court orders the various agencies that maintain records to treat a criminal arrest as though it never happened. People generally have their records expunged so that it does not show up on a routine background check, as an expungement removes any record of the arrest or case from public record.

How Do You Go About Getting an Expungement in Texas?

Under Texas law, there are a number of things that make a record eligible for expunction. If you qualify for expunction, there is a process you must go through, beginning with filing what is called a Petition for Expunction with the district court requesting that it grant an Order for Expunction. While it is possible to prepare this on your own, the somewhat complicated process is best handled by an attorney. The prudent course is to consult a lawyer in order to have the best chance at successfully expunging a record. You only get one shot and if your petition is not granted you don’t get to try again, so it is best to get it right from the start.

After completing the petition, it must be filed with the proper court. You must file the petition for expunction in the district court of the county where the arrest occurred. Following the filing, the court schedules a hearing and notifies the record-keeping agencies that you included in your petition. Once everyone has been notified, the court will hold a hearing and allow those notified the chance to object to the expunction.

If you meet all the requirements, the court will grant the expunction and you will need to give an Order for Expunction to the court for the judge’s signature. Important to know is that the court will probably expect you to have this order ready at the hearing for the judge to sign then and there. Once the order is signed, it has to be submitted to the respondent agencies that you listed in the petition. Those records will then be either deleted or returned to the court clerk for destruction.

A Change in Texas Expunction Law: Arrests for Multiple Offense Can Now be Divided for Expungement?

Prior to a recent court decision, Texans could not expunge an arrest unless ALL alleged offenses qualified for expunction under the law. If any of the alleged offenses in the arrest report were not eligible for expunction, then NONE of the offenses were eligible. A partial expunction was not allowed.

However, State v. T.S.N., was a case which a single arrest involved several unrelated offenses and the court held that partial expunction of the arrest record was required and could be achieved through redaction, leaving the portions of the arrest record regarding an unrelated offense not eligible for expunction. While this case left open the question regarding misdemeanor offenses and their eligibility for expunction on an individual basis, it set the stage for R.P.G.P.’s case.

Thanks to Ex Parte R.P.G.P., if you are arrested for multiple offenses, those offenses are considered divisible—you can expunge one even if the other would not qualify. Ex Parte R.P.G.P. is a great illustration of what exactly this means. In that case, R.P.G.P. was arrested for a DWI and a search of the car revealed marijuana, so he was also charged with possession. The DWI charge was dismissed and R.P.G.P. pled no contest to the possession charge, which was ultimately dismissed after serving nine months of deferred adjudication probation. After both charges were dismissed, R.P.G.P. filed for expunction of the DWI arrest, but the State argued that no part of the arrest record could be expunged because the possession charge was ineligible for expunction. However, the court ultimately held that the DWI portion of the record could be expunged, even though the possession portion would remain on the record.

What Does This Change in the Expunction Law Mean for Texans?

What this means going forward for Texans is that if your arrest record reflects multiple misdemeanor offenses, some of which would be eligible for expunction on their own and some that are not, the ones that are eligible can be expunged, leaving the other portions on the record. This is a shift from the all-or-nothing approach previously adopted by the state. Rather than treating each arrest for various offenses as a collective, we can look at each individual charge and proceed from there. Hopefully, this line of thinking will be expanded to cases involving felony arrests as well, but time will tell.

Butt-Dial Statement Texas Templeton

Can the Statements You Make During a Butt-Dial be Used Against You?

By | 5th Amendment

Butt-Dial Statement Texas TempletonThe short answer is Yes. According to both local and federal courts, what you say during a butt-dial phone call can potentially be used against you in court. In Texas, a hearsay exception makes those overheard statements admissible. In the federal system, these calls are viewed as having no reasonable expectation of privacy—since you did not take simple precautions to avoid this kind of situation, you cannot expect someone on the receiving end of the call not to repeat what they heard.

Butt-Dials in Texas: Can Words Overheard During an Unintended Phone Call be Used Against Me?

Under Texas law, statements made during an accidental butt-dial are likely admissible and the speaker likely has no reasonable expectation of privacy in those statements. Typically, repeating something in court that you heard someone else say outside of court is not allowed—it is referred to as hearsay and is considered inadmissible in a court of law. But, as with everything, there are hearsay exceptions that, in certain circumstances, allow someone to testify about something they heard someone else say. So, it should not be too surprising that a recent case found that butt-dials fall into one of the many hearsay exceptions.

Templeton v. State involved a felony assault family violence case in which the victim’s father received a butt-dial call from the victim and overheard defendant Templeton make incriminating statements about the assault, which the father then repeated in court. The Templeton court likened butt-dial statements to the requirements of Texas Rules of Evidence 801(e)(2)(A), commonly known as the admission of a party-opponent. Under this rule, a statement is not considered hearsay if it is a statement made by the person whom it is then offered against. In Templeton’s case, that meant that the statements he made on the butt-dial, which were overheard and then repeated by the victim’s father, could be used against him in court where he was the defendant. These statements do not have to be against the interests of the speaker when they are made in order for them to be admissible, rather, the requirement is that the statements be offered as evidence against the speaker/defendant.

Templeton sets the bar rather low in terms of the work it takes to get these kinds of phone calls in. Essentially, any Texas defendant who accidentally butt-dials someone faces the possibility that anything they say—whether they know someone is listening or not, or whether it is against their interest or not—can be repeated in court so long as it is used as evidence against them. The phrase “be careful what you say” could not ring more true. While a majority of butt-dials result in the overhearing of harmless conversations (your comments about who you saw at Trader Joe’s and the gossip you exchange with your friends are not likely to be subjects of court cases), it is important to know that anything you say on those calls has the potential to be repeated in court.

Butt Dials in the Federal System: Do I Have a Reasonable Expectation of Privacy?

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the sentiment that what someone said during a butt-dial can be used against them extends beyond just Texas and into the Federal system as well. In another recent case, Huff v. Spaw, the Sixth Circuit Appeals Court addressed butt-dials in two contexts: the traditional context in which a call is accidentally made and someone on the other end overhears and perhaps even documents or records the calls, and instances in which a butt-dial is made and the listener records the conversation the caller has with a third-party while in a hotel room.

The judge in Huff determined that in the first instance, there is no privacy claim. Essentially, according to the federal courts, it is the duty of every cell phone owner to make sure that their phones are secure. The court points out the commonality of cell phones and their use. There is no expectation of privacy (and therefore no claim) when someone fails to take simple measures to secure their phone and accidentally shares their activities or statements while using an everyday cell phone. As far as precautions go, the biggest one is to lock your phone. From there, there are a number of apps available to help prevent butt-dialing.

As to the second issue, the judge determined that there was a reasonable expectation of privacy, so that part of the case was remanded to the lower court for reconsideration. The key difference between these two issues was the fact that Bertha Huff, with whom James Huff spoke to in her hotel room. Bertha’s part of the conversation, in the judge’s opinion, was protected by a reasonable expectation of privacy because she did not make the butt-dial—as far as she was concerned, all she was doing was speaking to her husband in the comfort of her hotel room.

What Can You do to Protect Your Privacy?

No matter what type of phone you have, the first line of defense in preventing butt-dials and protecting your privacy is to lock your phone. From there, there are a number of other settings you can change that make butt-dialing less likely.

For iPhone users, adding a passcode (or touch/face I.D.) provides an additional layer of protection for users. If you are prone to butt-dialing, you can take it a step further, allowing your phone to auto-lock quickly (Settings –> Display & Brightness –> Auto-Lock). For iPhone users with models that still have the home button, it might be smart to also disable tap-to-wake (Settings –> Accessibility –> Touch –> Tap to Wake).

There are precautions for Android users too! Begin by setting a passcode. To turn off the tap to wake feature on these phones, go to Settings –> Display –> Lock Screen Display –> Double-Tap to Check Phone. To change the time it takes for these phones to auto-lock, go to Settings –> Security –> gear lock icon next to Screen Lock.

If you really want to go above and beyond, there are some apps available for certain phone users to download. If you take all these precautions and still end up in a situation where what you said on a butt-dial is being used against you, consult an attorney to discuss the best plan of action.

Bitcoin Privacy 4th Amendment

Are Bitcoin Transactions Private Under the Law?

By | Warrantless Search

Do You Have a Fourth Amendment Privacy Interest in Your Bitcoin Transactions?

Bitcoin Privacy 4th AmendmentNo, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that people do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the information (1) contained on the Bitcoin blockchain and (2) that you provide to cryptocurrency exchanges.1 The Court reached this decision through an analysis of the facts under the “third party doctrine” of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. This doctrine is explained in further detail below.

Read full case HERE. US v. Gratkowski, 964 F.3d 307 (5th Cir. 2020).

First Off, what is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is a “collection of concepts and technologies that form the basis of a digital money ecosystem.”2 More colloquially, the word “bitcoin” refers to a bitcoin—a unit of digital currency used to store and transmit value among participants in the bitcoin network. Bitcoin derives its value not from physical characteristics like gold or trust in a central authority like fiat money. Instead, bitcoin is backed by the cryptographic technology behind it.

Bitcoin is powered by open-source code known as blockchain, which creates a shared public ledger that is viewable by anyone. Each transaction is a “block” that is “chained” to the code, creating a permanent record of each transaction. In order to transfer anything in this world, you need to be able to send and receive your items to and from a certain location. Bitcoin is no different. Like an email, Bitcoin is transferred between locations on the internet called Bitcoin addresses. A Bitcoin address indicates the source or destination of a Bitcoin payment. The Bitcoin blockchain contains only the sender’s address, the receiver’s address, and the amount of bitcoin transferred. Bitcoin wallets provide these addresses and utilize software that allows you to securely send, receive, and store bitcoin in the bitcoin network.

The central tenet behind the creation of Bitcoin was that willing parties should be able to transact directly with each other without the need for a trusted third party.3 A large part of the value in that kind of decentralization is in the privacy that it assumes will accompany the transaction. However, as the use and influence of cryptocurrencies expands, so too does the need of law enforcement to crack down on the illicit activities of crypto users that our society finds to be reprehensible. Analyzing the block chain for evidence of crimes involving bitcoin inevitably means that information of bitcoin transactions will be collected. This kind of forensic analysis, aside from collecting information on whether the bitcoin was used for something illegal, “can include the collection of large amounts of personal information about a user’s spending habits [and] total holdings[.]”4 The natural question for criminal law attorneys is whether a bitcoin user has a Fourth Amendment privacy interest in the information related to their bitcoin transactions.

Bitcoin Transactions and the 4th Amendment

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in United States v. Gratkowski recently held that individuals do not have a Fourth Amendment privacy interest the information related to their bitcoin transactions.5 More specifically, the court found that there is no Fourth Amendment privacy interest in: (1) information on the bitcoin blockchain itself, and (2) bitcoin transactions in virtual currency exchanges.6

Gratkowski became the subject of a federal investigation when federal agents began investigating a child-pornography website. Users like Gratkowski paid the website bitcoin in exchange for downloadable child pornography. As mentioned above, the bitcoin blockchain only contains the sender’s address, the receiver’s address, and the amount of bitcoin transferred between the two parties. The identity of the owners do not appear on the bitcoin blockchain, but it is possible to discover the owner of a bitcoin address by analyzing the blockchain:

“For example, when an organization creates multiple Bitcoin addresses, it will often combine its Bitcoin addresses into a separate, central Bitcoin address (i.e., a “cluster”). It is possible to identify a “cluster” of Bitcoin addresses held by one organization by analyzing the Bitcoin blockchain’s transaction history. Open source tools and private software products can be used to analyze a transaction.”7

Federal agents used an outside service to analyze the publicly viewable bitcoin blockchain and identify a cluster of bitcoin addresses controlled by the website.8 They then served a grand jury subpoena on Coinbase (a prominent cryptocurrency exchange) for all information the exchange had on the Coinbase customers whose accounts sent Bitcoin to any of the addresses in the child-pornography website’s cluster. Coinbase turned over Gratkowski’s information, and federal agents obtained a warrant to search Gratkowski’s house. The agents found a hard drive containing child pornography and subsequently charged Gratkowski with one count of receiving child pornography and one count of accessing websites with intent to view child pornography.

At trial, Gratkowski moved to suppress the evidence the government obtained under the warrant, arguing that both the subpoena to Coinbase and the analysis done on the blockchain violated the Fourth Amendment. For the government to infringe upon an individual’s Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches, the person must have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in the items obtained.9 The “third-party doctrine” instructs that a person generally “has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.”10

For instance, the Supreme Court in United States v. Miller held that bank records were not subject to Fourth Amendment Protections.11 The Court also held that telephone call logs were not subject to Fourth Amendment protections because the telephone numbers we dial are voluntarily conveyed to the phone company when we place a call.12 However, the Supreme Court recently held that individuals do have a privacy interest in their cell phone location records, despite the records being held by a third party.13 In deciding this, the Court set-up the current framework under which courts are to determine whether the third-party doctrine applies to certain information that is shared with third parties: The sole act of sharing the information is no longer determinative as to whether we have a Fourth Amendment privacy interest in it. Rather, courts are to consider, “‘(1) the nature of the particular documents sought,’ which includes whether the sought information was limited and meant to be confidential, and (2) the voluntariness of the exposure.”14

The Fifth Circuit reasoned that the information on the Bitcoin blockchain is more similar to bank records and telephone call logs than to cell phone location records.15 The court held that the information contained on the Bitcoin blockchain (the amount of Bitcoin transferred and the Bitcoin addresses of the sender and receiver) is limited, and Bitcoin users are unlikely to expect that information to be kept private as it is well known that it is recorded on the publicly available blockchain.16 The court also reasoned that the public exposure of this information is voluntary because transferring and receiving Bitcoin requires an affirmative act by the Bitcoin address holder.17 The Fifth Circuit therefore held that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in the information contained on the Bitcoin blockchain.18

The Court used similar reasoning regarding the question of privacy in the Bitcoin transactions on Coinbase. Coinbase is a financial institution like a bank. Both are subject to the Bank Secrecy Act as regulated financial institutions, and both keep records of customer identities and currency transactions. The Court held that, “[h]aving access to Coinbase records does not provide agents with ‘an intimate window into a person’s life’; it provides only information about a person’s virtual currency transactions.”19 The court also held that, “[s]econd, transacting Bitcoin through Coinbase or other virtual currency exchange institutions requires an ‘affirmative act on the part of the user[,]’ which speaks to the voluntariness with which the information was turned over to Coinbase.20

Conclusion

The Gratkowski decision makes it difficult to imagine any situation in which a court would find there to be a Fourth Amendment privacy interest in information on the Bitcoin blockchain itself. Although Bitcoin users may truly value and believe in the privacy considerations contained in the monetary philosophy of Bitcoin, there is no getting around the fact that a “block” on the blockchain requires two Bitcoin addresses and the amount of bitcoin exchanged. And as long as private blockchain analytics companies continue to analyze only that information in determining the identity of Bitcoin users, courts will likely continue to find there to be no Fourth Amendment privacy interest in that information.

There appears to be more room to work with when it comes to cryptocurrency exchanges. Perhaps a court could find there to be a privacy interest in information given to an exchange whose business centers around user confidentiality. However, exchanges must comply with the same federal financial laws that govern Coinbase, and the record-keeping requirements under those laws would likely provide for a strong analogy to the Gratkowski case.

ENDNOTES:

1. United States v. Gratkowski, 964 F.3d 307 (5th Cir. 2020).
2. A. M. Antonopoulos, Mastering bitcoin: Programming the open blockchain (2nd ed.). Beijing etc.: O’Reilly.
3. Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, https://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf (2008).
4. Sasha Hodder & Rafael Yakobi, Bitcoin Fungibility, Mixing and the Legal Limits on Maintaining Privacy, https://bitcoinmagazine.com/culture/bitcoin-fungibility-mixing-and-the-legal-limits-on-maintaining-privacy (2020).
5. Gratkowski, 964 F.3d 307 (5th Cir. 2020).
6. Id.
7. Id. at 309.
8. Private blockchain analytics companies also provide services of this nature to cryptocurrency exchanges to help the exchanges meet their obligations under federal money laundering laws. See footnote 4 on the previous page for a discussion of privacy and these laws.
9. United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400, 406 (2012).
10. Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735, 743–44 (1979).
11. United States v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435, 439-40 (1976).
12. Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735, 743-44 (1979).
13. Carpenter v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 2206, 2217 (2018).
14. Gratkowski (quoting Carpenter, at 2219-20).
15. Id., at 311.
16. Id. at 312.
17. Id.
18. Id.
19. Id. (quoting Carpenter, at 2217).
20. Id. (quoting Carpenter, at 2220).

Final Four DWI Texas

DWI Madness | “The Final Four” Reasons Texans are Stopped for DWI

By | DWI

Final Four DWI TexasMarch Madness is here again. With the Final Four approaching, we built a bracket of our own. In this article, DWI attorney Jason Howard discusses the top four reasons people are stopped or detained for a DWI investigation in Texas. We’ve compiled and power-seeded our list based on the numerous Tarrant County DWI cases we handle every year. Before we get to the “Final Four,” here are some honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the tournament list:

  • Sleeping in a running vehicle
  • Driving the wrong way on a one-way street
  • Rolling through a stop sign
  • Expired registration as seen by police scanner
  • No license plate light

Of course, there are many more reasons that folks are stopped and investigated for DWI, but below are the top four reasons that we see the most.

The Top Four Reasons Drivers Are Stopped for a DWI Investigation in Texas

#4 – Auto Accident

By auto accident, we mean everything from a head-on collision to a run-in with a mailbox. More serious accidents will usually generate the presence of officers on scene within a matter of minutes. Officers are usually looking to rule out the possibility of someone being intoxicated as soon as they arrive on scene. Minor accidents where there are no injuries might elicit a call to 911 (when there would otherwise just be a swap of insurance) if the other party involved suspects a DWI. Easy to see that if you’ve consumed alcohol and are involved in an accident, there is a high probability of a DWI investigation.

#3 – Swerving or Weaving

Please note – there is a difference between the two. Swerving is the more blatant failure to maintain a single lane by driving the vehicle all across the road. Weaving, on the other hand, is usually more subtle and sometimes observed within the lane. Regardless, if it’s late at night and a police officer is behind you and observes either of these driving behaviors, the red and blues are probably going to come on and the driver asked to step out of the vehicle for field sobriety testing.

#2 – Lane Change Problems

The #3 and #4 seeds were probably the top guesses, right? Surprisingly, we see more of numbers 1 and 2 than any other. And they probably weren’t the ones you guessed. I’ve grouped lane change issues because they can vary from the failure to signal a lane change or turn to the failure to make a proper turn at intersection (aka the “wide right” or “wide left” turn.) If you monitor your daily driving (when you’ve consumed no alcohol,) you’ll probably see that you commit many of these types of traffic infractions constantly. You’ll certainly see other people commit them. So, how does that translate to a police officer’s suspicion of drinking and driving? If it’s late at night on a Friday or Saturday, most patrol officers are quick to pull people over for any traffic violation just to check them out and make sure they’re not DWI.

That brings us to our number one reason people are stopped prior to a DWI arrest…

#1 – Speeding

We’re not talking 100mph in a 30mph zone, although we have seen some crazy speeds. No, we’re talking general, everyday speeding; 5 or 10 miles an hour over the speed limit. Nighttime patrol officers love to use their speed detection devices to initiate stops to find DWIs. That’s right! Patrol officers aren’t just looking for obvious impaired driving clues. It’s clear from our experience in handling DWI cases in Tarrant County that most officers are suspicious of anyone out late at night (especially on the weekends.) They know they only need a legal reason to stop someone at any given time. And once they establish their legal reason (even if it’s just speeding,) they then get to proceed with the “where are you coming from, where are you going, have you had anything to drink?” line of questioning. Once they get an admission of “yeah, I had a couple” or smell even the faintest odor of alcohol from the vehicle, they then get the driver out of the vehicle and begin the field sobriety tests. And once they start with the field sobriety tests, the possibility of being arrested goes up astronomically – even if you’re not intoxicated!

If we were to play out the DWI Final Four tournament, Speeding would be your Texas State Champion.

What Should You Do If You Are Suspected of Driving While Intoxicated?

We’ve written on this topic several times, including:
DWI Information Page
May I Legally Refuse a Field Sobriety Test?

If you have been arrested for DWI in Tarrant County after being stopped for one of these four reasons (or any other reason), contact our Tarrant County DWI attorneys for a free case evaluation.

Watkins 39.14 Texas Evidence

What Evidence Must a Prosecutor Disclose to the Defense?

By | Evidence

New CCA Opinion – Watkins v. State – Clearly Interprets the Duty of the State in Discovery.

Watkins 39.14 Texas EvidenceProsecutors in Texas must disclose almost all of the evidence in their possession to the defense. Disclosure is the rule and not the exception in Texas.1 Section 39.14(a) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure requires the prosecution to disclose anything that “constitutes or contains evidence material to any matter involved in the action. . .”2

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Watkins v. State (see opinion HERE) recently interpreted the word “material” to mean the equivalent of “relevant,” while interpreting the phrase, “any matter involved in the action,” as covering “any number of subsidiary issues impacting the outcome of the proceedings.”3 This interpretation requires Texas prosecutors to disclose virtually all of the evidence in their possession—more than they are mandated to under the federal Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Brady v. Maryland. In fact, for some types of evidence, the statute does not require the evidence to meet any materiality requirement.4 According to § 39.14(h), evidence tending to negate the guilt or mitigate the punishment of a defendant must be disclosed, regardless of whether the evidence is considered material or requested by the defense.5

Article 39.14 and the case law that accompanies it effectively establish an open-file policy between the prosecution and defense. As the Watkins court put it: “[w]ith the exception of privileged evidence and evidence specifically covered by other statutory provisions, the only obstacle to disclosure of evidence not [exculpatory in nature] is the lack of a specific request.”6

The “materiality” language that the Watkins court addressed is actually language that was carried over from a previous version of Article 39.14—language with its own case law that prosecutors and trial courts carried into practice even after the statute was amended.

How did Prosecutors Interpret 39.14 Before Watkins?

The current version of Article 39.14 came about through the Michael Morton Act, signed into law by Governor Perry in 2013. This bill was a response to the case of Michael Morton, a man wrongfully convicted for the murder of his wife in 1987 after the prosecutor in that case withheld evidence that could have proven his innocence. Morton was exonerated in 2011 after DNA evidence revealed that someone else committed the murder, and the state legislature took up the task of passing a complete overhaul of discovery procedure in Texas.

Because the same language— “material to any matter involved in the action”—was retained by the Morton amendments, confusion persisted among some attorneys about whether the pre-Morton “materiality” jurisprudence is properly attributed to the new, post-Morton version of Article 39.14. However, as the Watkins court addressed, those pre-Morton cases never actually spoke to the issue of what “material” actually meant.7

The Confusion Surrounding “Material”

You see, the pre-Morton Article 39.14 gave trial courts the discretion whether to order the prosecution to disclose evidence upon a motion showing good cause from the defense.8 The pre-Morton “materiality” jurisprudence was inextricably linked with the standard for determining whether a trial court abused its discretion in refusing to issue such an order, and it did not have anything to do with the phrase, “material to any matter involved in the action.”9

The standard for determining whether a trial court abused its discretion in this way was whether the judge’s ruling deprived the defendant of access to evidence that was material to the defendant’s defense.10 “Material,” in this sense, was defined “’under Texas law in the due process terms employed by the Supreme Court in United States v. Agurs.’”11 This meant that a trial judge abused his or her discretion in refusing to order the disclosure of evidence when it was exculpatory in nature.12

Watkins Clearing Things Up

As we now know, the procedure that discovery followed before the Morton amendments was completely removed from Article 39.14, and the “materiality” jurisprudence that was tied to it went out the door as well.13 Because of the confusion that accompanied the judicial use of similar language in close contexts pre-Morton, it is understandable if some prosecutors may have—before Watkins—interpreted the, “material to any matter involved in the action,” language as being loaded with the pre-Morton jurisprudence. Other prosecutors, as shown in Watkins below, applied their own limiting interpretations to the language.

In Watkins, the defense counsel sent a discovery request to the prosecutor pursuant to § 39.14 asking for, “any other tangible things not otherwise privileged that constitute or contain evidence material to any matter involved in the case.”14 He “also requested notice of the State’s intent to offer any extraneous offenses, which the prosecution provided.”15 Watkins was convicted of second-degree possession of a controlled substance, and during the punishment phase of trial, the state sought to introduce 34 exhibits for the purpose of proving up Watkins’ prior felony convictions for enhancement purposes.16 The defense objected—the prosecutor did not disclose the exhibits to the defense because he did not believe Article 39.14 applied to punishment.17 The Trial court overruled the objection, allowing the evidence to be admitted.18

The issue surrounding the prosecution’s non-disclosure eventually worked its way up to the Court of Criminal Appeals, where the Watkins court seized the opportunity to review the requirements of Article 39.14 in light of the Michael Morton Act amendments. In short, the Court laid out the history of Article 39.14 explained above, and it clearly established that Texas now has disclosure requirements that track the spirit of the Michael Morton Act.19

[1] Watkins v. State, NO. PD-1015-18 (Tex. Crim. App. 2021).
[2] Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 39.14(a) (West 2017).
[3] Watkins, at 24-25.
[4] Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 39.14(h) (West 2017).
[5] Id.
[6] Watkins, at 23.
[7] Id. at 35.
[8] TEX. Code Crim. Proc. art. 39.14 (2009).
[9] Watkins at 35.
[10] Id. at 41-42.
[11] Id. at 40 (quoting United States v. Agurs, 427 U.S. 97 (1976)).
[12] Id. at 41.
[13] See generally Watkins.
[14] Watkins at 4.
[15] Id.
[16] Id.
[17] Id.
[18] Id. at 5.
[19] See generally Watkins.

Accident on Icy Road

Accidents on Icy Texas Roads: Who is Liable?

By | Car Wreck

Accident on Icy RoadWhen we think of extreme weather in Texas, we generally think of severe thunderstorms, hail, wind, and tornados, but, as we have learned in February 2021, ice and snow storms can be just as dangerous and deadly. There’s also a human factor when snow and ice hit Texas that increases the likelihood of severe injuries and even death for the untrained, inexperienced, and careless driver.

A Federal Highway Administration report states that on average, icy roads cause 151,944 vehicle accidents, 38,770 crash injuries, and 559 crash fatalities a year. These ice-related accidents produce roughly 11% of all weather-related accidents in the country. This is alarming because it shows how dangerous icy roads can be, but it should also alert you to the possibility of personal injury or property damage if you decide to drive in icy conditions.

Icy Roads in the Texas News (2021)

The Basics of Negligent Driving in Texas

In the simplest form, negligence involves:

  • A duty to a person (the duty to be a careful, safe driver);
  • A breach of that duty (driving too fast, etc); and
  • That breach causing damages to another person (property damage, injuries, or death caused by a car accident).

Every driver has a basic duty to other drivers to drive safely and not collide with anyone. This requires them to drive as a reasonably prudent person would drive in the given situation. When they breach that duty, or collide with another person or vehicle, they may be liable for the physical or financial damages they caused. But what if the roads were icy and the driver lost control?

Ice is NO Defense to an Accident! | Liability for Accident and Injuries in Winter Conditions

Drivers are expected to take note of weather and road conditions and adjust their driving accordingly. When the temperatures are near or below freezing and precipitation is present, there is a strong possibility of ice on the roads. Because a driver should know of the chance of icy conditions, they should drive as a reasonably prudent person would drive on icy roads.  Blaming the ice will not work if the driver crashes into another car on the road.

Precautionary Measures for Driving in Icy Weather | Driving in Texas in the Winter

When there may be ice on the roads, you should take precautionary measures when driving:

  • Don’t drive unless you have to;
  • Follow your local news or go to drivetexas.org* to get updates on road conditions;
  • Drive below the speed limit;
  • Do not get distracted from the road; and
  • Avoid hills, bridges, and low spots if you can.

If you are hit by a driver who was driving in icy conditions, even if they lost control, they may be liable for negligently driving. You should contact your attorney with the accident report and any other information from the accident to help work through your options.

For more winter weather driving tips, click here.

*drivetexas.org is run by the Texas Department of Transportation who also posts on social media outlets.

Marijuana Smell Warrantless Search Texas

Is the Smell of Marijuana Enough to Permit a Warrantless Vehicle Search?

By | Drug Crimes

Does the Smell of Marijuana Allow Officers to Search My Vehicle Without a Warrant?

Marijuana Smell Warrantless Search TexasIn Texas, the answer is yes. The possession of marijuana is a crime in Texas, so if an officer smells marijuana emanating from your car, he has probable cause to believe a crime is being committed. With probable cause, the law permits the officer to stop and search your car— regardless of whether you consent.

The officer has the ability to do this through what is called the “automobile exception” to the 4th Amendment’s warrant requirement.1 Generally, the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution requires police officers to first obtain a warrant before they can search a person’s property. However, because automobiles can quickly move locations and evade law enforcement, the Supreme Court reasoned that it would be impractical to require officers to first secure a warrant before they are permitted to search a vehicle.2 So by claiming to smell marijuana, law enforcement officers can also claim to have probable cause to believe a crime is being committed—allowing them to take advantage of the automobile exception and search a vehicle without anything more.

Will the Search Laws Change if Marijuana Becomes Legal?

Maybe. There have been small changes in the law with the current trends in marijuana legalization. A couple of state courts adopted the rule that, after legalization or decriminalization, the smell of marijuana is no longer enough on its own to justify a warrantless search of a vehicle. For example, in Vermont, after the decriminalization of adult possession of less than one ounce of marijuana, the Vermont Supreme Court held that the odor of marijuana alone is insufficient to establish probable cause to search a vehicle.3 The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the state’s decriminalization policy means that the possession of marijuana is now a civil infraction, making the smell of it an insufficient basis for officers to believe a crime is being committed.

However, most states where marijuana is legalized or decriminalized still follow the rule that the smell of it establishes probable cause in support of a vehicle search.4 This is because these states still criminalize the possession of larger amounts of marijuana—meaning that the smell of it still indicates that a crime could be underway. This is the logic that the Washington, Maryland, Colorado, and Arizona courts follow.5

But what about Texas?

As stated above, the possession of marijuana in Texas is a crime, and officers are still justified in searching vehicles if they smell marijuana coming from them. However, Texas legalized the cultivation of industrial hemp in 2019, which smells like just like marijuana. The issue of whether probable cause can still be supported by the odor of marijuana in light of hemp’s legalization was raised in state court in 2020, but the court left it undecided as the vehicle search in question occurred before the legalization of hemp.6 It remains to be seen if or when Texas will legalize marijuana, and what attitude Texas courts will take towards the question of marijuana odor and vehicle searches.

 

[1] Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132 (1925).
[2] Id., at 153.
[3] Zullo v. State, 2019 Vt. LEXIS 1, * (Vt. January 4, 2019).
[4] Cece white, The Sativas and Indicas of Proof: Why the Smell of Marijuana Should Not Establish Probable Cause for a Warrantless Vehicle Search in Illinois, 53 UIC J. Marshall L. Rev. 187, 211 (2020).
[5] Id., at 211.
[6] Geberkidan v. State, 2020 WL 5406243, NO. 12-19-00296-CR (2020).

Texas Stowers Doctrine Insurance Settlement

The Stowers Doctrine | Good Faith in the Settlement of Claims

By | Car Wreck, Personal Injury

What is the Stowers Doctrine and How Does it Apply to a Personal Injury Case in Texas?

Texas Stowers Doctrine Insurance SettlementUnder the typical Texas liability insurance policy both the insurer and the insured have mutual obligations and rights. The insured pays a premium to their insurance company to protect against unexpected losses and claims. On the other hand, the insurance company has a duty to defend against claims covered under the policy and a right to control the defense of litigation should it arise.1 Included in the right to control litigation is the insurer’s authority to make the decisions concerning policy coverage, the merits of claims made by third parties against the insurance company, and the settlement of such claims.2 But what happens when an insurance company refuses an offer to settle within the policy limits?

According to the Stowers Doctrine, the insurer has an implied duty to act in good faith and accept reasonable settlement demands within policy limits.3 This is called the Stowers duty. Through this duty the insurer protects the insured against judgements in excess of policy limits. Under the Stowers Doctrine, if an insurance company negligently failed to accept a reasonable offer within policy limits and a jury then returns a verdict in excess of the policy limits, the insurance company may be liable for the entire verdict, even though it exceeds policy limits.4

History of the Stowers Doctrine

The Stowers Doctrine originated in 1929 from the Texas Supreme Court case G.A. Stowers Furniture Co. v. American Indemnity, Co., 15 S.W.2d 544 (Tex.). Stowers Furniture Co. had an auto insurance policy with American Indemnity for $5,000. During the policy term, a furniture employee’s truck was involved in an accident and suit was brought by the injured passenger, claiming $20,000 in damages. While the suit was pending, the injured party served Stowers with a letter offering to settle for $4,000—within policy limits. The letter gave a deadline to accept the offer and provided proof of the excessive damages. American Indemnity refused to settle and went to trial with the intention of saving money. They lost at trial and a jury awarded the injured party more than twice the amount of the policy. The terms of the insurance policy stated that Stowers was responsible for a judgment in excess of the policy limits. Stowers paid the judgement and then sued the insurance company for reimbursement.

The Texas Supreme Court held that American Indemnity owed a duty to Stowers to exercise ordinary care in the settlement of claims. American Indemnity was responsible for protecting the insured up to the policy limit. The Court remanded the case to the district court to allow testimony of the serious nature of the passenger’s injuries to determine if American Indemnity was negligent in refusing the settlement offer.5 If American Indemnity rejected a reasonable settlement within the policy limits, they would potentially be liable for the entire judgement, even that in excess of the policy.6

The purpose behind Stowers is to encourage insurance companies to settle claims for the policy limit. Because insurance companies have complete power over litigation, they have a corresponding duty to their insured to exercise the same degree of care that a prudent person would exercise under similar circumstances. Failing to exercise such care is deemed negligent on the part of the insurance company.7 Put simply, the insured is protected from the insurance company taking a risk when a reasonable person would have settled.

How Does a Stowers Demand Work?

The Stowers Doctrine is a tool unique to Texas law and has created a new type of settlement demand: the Stowers demand. This demand is a time-sensitive letter sent to a third-party insurance carrier with an offer to settle within the insured’s policy limits.8 For a Stowers demand to be valid, five requirements must be met:

  1. the claim against the insured is within the scope of coverage;
  2. liability is reasonably clear;
  3. the demand is within the limits of the policy;
  4. the settlement terms are such that an ordinarily prudent insurer would accept it when considering the likelihood and degree of the insured’s potential exposure to an excess judgment; and
  5. the demand offers the insurer an unconditional, full release for liability.9

If these requirements are met and the insurer fails to accept the offer by the deadline, the defendant’s insurance company may be held responsible for verdict in excess of its insured’s policy limits.10

Footnotes:

  1.  Stephen G. Cochran, Texas Practice Series: Consumer Rights and Remedies § 5.13 (3d ed. 2017).
  2.  Id.
  3.  American Physicians Ins. Exch. v. Garcia, 876 S.W.2d 842, 846 (Tex. 1994).
  4.  See G.A. Stowers Furniture Co. v. American Indemnity, Co., 15 S.W.2d 544, 547 (Tex. 1929).
  5.  Id. at 548
  6.  Id. at 547
  7.  Texas Farmers Ins. v. Soriano, 881 S.W.2d 312, 314 (Tex. 1994).
  8.  American Physicians Ins. Exch. v. Garcia, 876 S.W.2d 842, 844–45 (Tex. 1994).
  9.  Id. at 849; Trinity Universal Ins. Co. v. Bleeker, 966 S.W.2d 489 (Tex. 1998).
  10.  See Ecotech Int’l, Inc. v. Griggs & Harrison, 928 S.W.2d 644, 646 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 1996, writ denied); Stowers Doctrine, Int’l Risk Mgmt. Inst.