Deadly Weapon DWI Couthren v State

Is a Vehicle Always a “Deadly Weapon” in a DWI Collision Case?

By | DWI

Direct Evidence at Trial Must Reflect “Manner of Use” to Support Deadly Weapon Finding | Couthren v. State

Deadly Weapon DWI Couthren v StateOne of the common factors in any DWI case is that there must be a motor vehicle involved. Every time. When someone who is under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol chooses to drive a motor vehicle, should the car itself be considered by Texas courts to be a “deadly weapon?” When do ordinary, daily objects, such as cars, become “deadly weapons” for the purpose of charging enhancements and raising the stakes in a criminal case?

Slip Opinion: Couthren v. State (Tex. Crim. App. 2019)

Driver Hits Pedestrian after Drinking

Donald Couthren was driving on a frontage road in Bryan, Texas early one morning in 2012. He had been drinking Four Loko earlier in the evening and was impaired. Frank Elbrich was walking along the same road and stepped out in front of Couthren’s vehicle. Elbrich’s head hit the windshield and he landed on the ground. Couthren stopped his vehicle, scooped up Elbrich, and put Elbrich into his car, with the idea of taking him to the hospital. In a strange turn of events, Couthren, instead, drove to a house to exchange cars, and ended up in altercation with the people in the house. The police were called as a result. When police arrived, they noticed that Elbrich was bleeding and non-responsive. They saw that the windshield was broken, as well. The police noted that Couthren smelled of alcohol and swayed from side to side when he walked. Couthren admitted to hitting Elbrich when “[he] stepped in front of his vehicle.” Couthren did not consent to a blood draw and refused to comply with field sobriety tests. Police arrested Couthren for driving while intoxicated (DWI).

Felony DWI Trial with Deadly Weapon Enhancement

Couthren was indicted and tried for felony DWI. The State alleged a “deadly weapon” finding, claiming that the Couthren’s vehicle was a deadly weapon. A deadly weapon finding enhances the charge, increasing the term of imprisonment. Accordingly, the jury convicted Couthren and agreed with the deadly weapon finding and assessed a punishment of six years imprisonment. On appeal, Couthren argued that there was not enough evidence to support the deadly weapon finding. The lower appeals court upheld the trial court’s finding, utilizing a “two-step” approach to determine whether the evidence was sufficient. The two-step approach consisted of (1) an evaluation of the manner in which Couthren used his car during the felony and (2) an analysis of whether vehicles are capable of causing death or serious bodily injury. Couthren v. State, No. 13-16-00543-CR, 2018 WL 2057244, at 5 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi, May 3, 2018) (mem. op., not designated for publication).

Appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals | Is a Vehicle Always a “Deadly Weapon?”

Couthren appealed the lower appeals court’s ruling, to the Court of Criminal Appeals to determine whether the first step (“manner of use”) was a proper evaluation. Specifically, Couthren argued that the lower appeals court relied on the fact that there was a collision and that he had been drinking, to uphold the deadly weapon finding. Further Couthren argued, there must be evidence of a dangerous or reckless operation to support a finding that a car was used as a deadly weapon.

The CCA examined several laws, that when applied together, could create a deadly weapon finding in a DWI collision scenario. Texas Penal Code Section 49.04(a) which prohibits a person from operating a motor vehicle in public while intoxicated. TEX. PENAL CODE §49.04(a). Further, other statutes in Texas provide for a third-degree felony enhancement if it can be proven that a defendant had to prior DWI convictions. TEX PENAL CODE §49.09(b)(2). The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, Section 42.12 states that, “When it is proven that a defendant used or exhibited a deadly weapon, a trial court shall consider a deadly weapon finding in the judgment.” Moore v. State, 520 S.W.3d 906, 908 (Texas Crim. App. 2017).

The CCA looked to precedent cases to guide their analysis. The CCA determined that there must be evidence that the manner of driving was capable of causing death or serious bodily injury apart from the fact of a collision and a defendant’s intoxication. Brister v. State, 449 S.W.3d 490, at 495 (Tex. Crim. App 2014). Further, the CCA noted that it has “expressly rejected the argument that all felony DWI cases warrant an automatic deadly weapon finding.” Id.

Deadly Weapon Finding Reversed for Lack of “Manner of Use” Evidence to Support it

Here, the CCA noted that there was very little evidence showing the manner in which Couthren used his car during the DWI offense. For example, “we do not know if he applied his brakes…or…if there were other cars on the road.” The CCA stated that the arguments put forth by the State regarding “manner of use” on appeal were conclusions inferred from underlying facts. The CCA stated, “reasonable inferences must be supported by the evidence presented at trial.” Tate v. State, 500 S.W.3d 410 (Tex. Crim. App. 2016). In this case, “the only direct evidence of Couthren’s manner of driving before and at the time of impact was Couthren’s testimony at trial that he was driving 30 miles per hour and that he swerved to avoid hitting Elbrich.” Accordingly, the CCA determined that the facts as presented at trial did not amount to a deadly weapon finding, “in this case we lack specific testimony in the record about manner of use.” The CCA reversed the deadly weapon finding.

While the case before the CCA was decided in Couthren’s favor, it is important to note that it was not without controversy. Four justices joined in a strong dissent. Distinguishing the case at bar from the case law relied upon for the decision, Cates v. State and Brister v. State, the dissenting justices pointed out that because “the offense [in Cates] was failure to stop and render aid and the collision occurred before the offense occurred,” the collision itself could not “be the basis for a finding that a deadly weapon was used during the later offense.” The dissenting opinion states, “the collision did occur during Couthren’s DWI offense and the collision caused serious bodily injury to Mr. Elbrich.”

Milton v State Improper Closing Argument 2019

Lions, and Babies, and Appeals! Oh my! | When Demonstrative Evidence Goes Too Far

By | Trial Advocacy

When Does a Closing Argument Go Too Far?

Milton v State Improper Closing Argument 2019What do Atticus Finch, Lt. Daniel Kaffee, and Jake Brigance have in common? Each of these fictional movie attorneys are known for zealously representing their clients by delivering intense cross examinations and galvanizing closing arguments. Finch, defending a wrongly-accused man in a time a place where justice was compromised by racial bias, implored the jury to seek justice by tapping into a higher power, “In the name of God do your duty.” Stuck at the crossroads of respecting formal rank and seeking justice in a military court-martial, Lt. Kaffee made the choice to double down on Col. Jessep during cross examination, poking at the Colonel’s pride. Col. Jessep took Lt. Kaffee’s bait, screaming, “You can’t handle the truth!” Jake Brigance took a more creative approach. Asking jurors to close their eyes, Brigance described a depraved series of events that caused his client to murder two people. The jury agreed with the justification, and acquitted Brigance’s client.

Under the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, an attorney must render competent and diligent representation to their clients, “and with zeal in advocacy upon the client’s behalf.” “1.01 Competent and Diligent Representation,” www.legalethicstexas.com, accessed April 6, 2019. Where is the line drawn for zealous representation in a closing argument? Can demonstrative evidence used in a closing argument go too far? The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas (“CCA”) says it can.

Milton v State (Tex. Crim. App. 2019) | Improper Closing Argument?

In 2015, Damon Milton robbed a drug store by asking a cashier to give him the money from the cash register. Milton never showed a weapon, and he pretended to shop until customers were not around. He always kept his hands out and visible. According to the police report, Milton did not have a weapon. Additionally, there was some circumstantial evidence that Milton had committed the same robbery to the same drug store the day before. At trial, Milton was found guilty of robbery.

During the sentencing phase of the trial, the State entered into evidence and played before the jury a 35-second video of a baby dressed in zebra-striped clothing at a zoo sitting in front of a protective glass enclosure. Behind the glass was a lion, ferociously trying to get to the baby. The State argued that Milton deserved a long sentence because of his criminal background and because of the crime. Additionally, the State entered into evidence Milton’s criminal history which included forgery, attempted unauthorized use of a motorized vehicle, and robbery by threat.

Defense for Milton objected to the video, on the grounds of relevance and prejudice. Moreover, “there [was] no indication that any of his past convictions involved crimes that were particularly brutal or gruesome…[nor]…any indication that…[there were any] crimes against children.” The State responded that the video illustrated that “motive plus opportunity equals behavior.” In other words, that getting away with a light sentence could embolden Milton to commit future crimes; or that if Milton would be locked away in prison, then he would not be able to commit a future crime, as imprisonment “removes the opportunity.”

Further, the State described the video to the jury, “the motive of that lion is never-changing, never changing, it’s innate…with the glass, the scene is funny, without the glass, a tragedy.” The State added, “we know that the [defendant] is such a bad guy…it’s almost laughable, just like that lion…nothing funny when the [defendant] is outside of prison, that’s a tragedy…[he] is never changing his motive.” The jury assessed Milton’s punishment at 50 years. Milton appealed to the court of appeals, arguing that the trial court’s allowing the video was an abuse of its discretion. On appeal, the State argued that the video was an impassioned plea for law enforcement and community protection, saying it was acceptable to argue that the defendant was a “vicious lion trying to eat a baby and the court needed to stop him.” The court of appeals upheld the trial courts holding, though the court noted that the State’s analysis was “tenuous.” Milton appealed to the CCA.

CCA Holds that Closing Arguments Should Not Inflame a Jury with Things Not Before Them

The CCA had to determine whether the demonstrative video shown at the sentencing phase of the trial was out of step. “The purpose of a closing argument is to facilitate the jury in properly analyzing the evidence presented…so that it may arrive at a just and reasonable conclusion based on the evidence alone, and not on any fact not admitted into evidence.” Campbell v. State, 610 S.W.2d 754, 756 (Tex. Crim. App. 1980). “It should not arouse the passion or prejudice of the jury by matters not properly before them.” Id. “Arguments that go beyond summation of the evidence, reasonable deduction from the evidence, answer to arguments made by opposing counsel, or law enforcement please, too often place before the jury unsworn…testimony of the attorney.” Alejandro v. State, 493 S.W.2d 230, 231 (Tex. Crim. App. 1973). Even though jurors are not stupid, they are human, which is why courts prohibit highly prejudicial evidence.

Accordingly, the CCA concluded that the video could be considered unfairly prejudicial “because it encouraged the jury to make its decision upon matters outside of the record by inviting a comparison between [Milton] and hungry lion.” “The State may strike hard blows, but it must not strike foul ones.” Jordan v. State, 646 S.W.2d 946 (Tex. Crim. App. 1983). There are limits to demonstrative aids in closing arguments. The CCA reversed the court of appeals opinion and remanded to the appeals court for a harm analysis.

Contractor Fraud Construction Fraud Texas

My Contractor Pulled a Houdini! Now what? | Construction Fraud Under Texas Law

By | Fraud

Contractor Fraud Construction Fraud TexasHave you sustained property damage in a powerful storm? If so, you probably had to call a contractor to do necessary repairs. It is sometimes customary in the construction industry for contractors to ask homeowners to pay for some of the work up front, and pay the remaining balance upon completion. Some contractors will ask you to fork over a hefty deposit to someone you do not know, yet you are trusting to get the job done. You are not alone. The good news is that most contractors will operate above the board. Even though social media reviews and ratings sites, such as Angie’s List, are sensible ways of vetting contractors and service providers in 2019, they cannot predict future white collar crimes perpetrated by individuals who are focused on scamming construction deposits out of desperate homeowners.

What Happens if Your Contractor is a Crook? | Construction Fraud in Tarrant County

What legal remedies are available to homeowners in Texas when a contractor pulls a Houdini, vanishing into thin air, cash in hand, without completing the repair work? Contractual breach is the most common civil cause of action. Generally, a contractual breach occurs when (1) there is an existing contractual agreement that is (2) performed (paid for) by one party, yet (3) the other party did not perform as agreed to, which (4) caused damages to the performing (paying) party. Material breach of a roofing contract may occur without intention, when a contractor takes too long to complete a project, or perhaps uses substandard materials, for example. This civil cause of action addresses the damages to the individual, but does not hold the wrongdoer accountable in a criminal court.

So what about those instances in which a scammer intentionally preys upon homeowners in the hopes of pocketing the cash and skipping town? Is this a criminal act?

Construction Fraud Prosecutions in Texas

Tarrant County, Texas has recently begun focusing prosecution efforts on contractor fraud. Homeowners in Tarrant County may call their local police agency to make an initial report. Additionally, homeowners may call the Tarrant County District Attorney’s White Collar Crime and Public Integrity Unit, created by Sharen Wilson, the District Attorney in Tarrant County. Wilson stated in a recent news article, “Construction fraud is a crime, and our citizens need to be protected from it.

When homeowners call the DA’s office, they will talk with a representative to see if the wrongdoing rises to the level of a complaint. If a complaint is filed, the DA’s office reviews the facts of the complaint for potential prosecutable offenses based on a variety of legal theories in criminal law. If the DA’s office finds elements of criminality, an investigation ensues which may result in criminal charges for the wrongdoer.

Construction Fraud Under the Texas Penal Code

The Texas Penal Code does not specifically provide a code section for construction or contractor fraud crimes. What are some of the legal theories and statutes the DA’s office is using to go after these home repair Houdinis? The Tarrant County DA’s office has prosecuted construction and roofing contractors who have absconded with the funds for misappropriation of fiduciary property, theft, insurance fraud, and elder financial abuse, to name a few.

Recently, the Tarrant County DA’s White Collar Crime Team prosecuted a man for theft from elderly victims. For his crimes, this man received three years in jail and an order to make restitution of $77,000.00 to his elderly victims. On multiple occasions, the man used aliases to approach homeowners in the mid-cities and Fort Worth areas, soliciting demolition and repair work. He accepted large sums of money, but never completed the work, or, did substandard work.

In January of 2019, another man pled guilty to Theft of $150,000- $300,000, for scamming 41 residents in the Arlington, North Richland Hills, and Mansfield areas, out of funds they paid him for roofing repairs. This man’s scheme involved sending employees door-to-door to sign customers up for repairs. The employees took checks from the victims, but the roofing work never began. As part of his plea agreement, the man was ordered pay the victims $230,000.00 in restitution.

Each of these types of cases is fact-specific and context-laden. Tarrant County has decided to take a strong stand against construction fraud. “We have made it a priority to put white-collar criminals on notice in Tarrant County—we will not tolerate scammers preying on our residents,” says Matt Smid, chief of the DA’s White Collar Crime Team. The county has also taken steps to provide the public with information regarding scams and fraud that is targeted at seniors. If you feel that you have been a victim of contractor fraud, you do have some options in Tarrant County.

Special Note to Attorneys who represent victims or perpetrators of constructions scams, implicating civil and criminal causes of action: Texas Disciplinary Rule of Professional Conduct 4.04(b) states that a lawyer shall not present, participate in presenting, or threaten to present criminal charges solely to gain advantage in a civil matter. According to the Texas Center for Legal Ethics, “giving notice required by law or applicable rules of practice, or procedure as a prerequisite to instituting criminal charges, does not violate the Rule, unless the underlying criminal charges were made without probable cause.

Tampering with Evidence Texas 37.09

Tampering with Evidence under Texas Law | Section 37.09 TX Penal Code

By | Evidence

Tampering with Evidence Texas 37.09During routine traffic stops, police officers sometimes end up arresting individuals for the third-degree felony offense of Tampering with Evidence. How does this happen you ask? If, during the course of a traffic stop, an officer observes the driver toss an item or two out of the window, and those tossed items are later determined to be drugs and/or drug paraphernalia, the officer might just arrest the person for tampering with evidence pursuant to section 37.09 of the Texas Penal Code. The important question though, is whether section 37.09 was intended to prohibit this type of conduct?

What is the Purpose of Section 37.09 – Tampering with Evidence?

Texas Penal Code Section 37.09 provides:

(a) A person commits an offense if, knowing that an investigation or official proceeding is pending or in progress, he:
     (1) alters, destroys, or conceals any record, document, or thing with intent to impair its verity, legibility, or availability as evidence in the investigation or official proceeding;  or
     (2) makes, presents, or uses any record, document, or thing with knowledge of its falsity and with intent to affect the course or outcome of the investigation or official proceeding.

Texas courts have found that the purpose of section 37.09 is to uphold the integrity of our criminal justice system. 20 Tex. Jur. 3d Criminal Law: Offenses Against Public Administration § 63 citing Wilson v. State, 311 S.W.3d 452 (Tex. Crim. App. 2010); Haywood v. State, 344 S.W.3d 454 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2011 pet. ref’d). This includes prohibiting anyone from “creating, destroying, forging, altering, or otherwise tampering with evidence that may be used in an official investigation or judicial proceeding.” Id. However, section 37.09 is not without limitation.

What is the Scope of Section 37.09?

Early case law suggests the scope of 37.09 is very limited. But, as you will read below, the Court of Criminal Appeals rejects this notion by allowing the fact finder the ability infer the intent to tamper.

In Pannell v. State, 7 S.W.3d 222 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1999, pet. ref’d) the court of appeals held that section 37.09 requires a defendant to know that the item “altered, destroyed, or concealed, was evidence of an investigation, that is pending or in progress, as it existed at the time of the alteration, destruction, or concealment.” Id. In this case, the defendant threw a marijuana cigarette out of the window while he was being pulled over for speeding. Id. Because the officer was only investigating a speeding violation when the defendant threw the marijuana out of the window, the court held that there was no evidence that an investigation in which the marijuana would serve as evidence was “pending or in progress.” Id. The court explained that only after the officer observed the defendant throw out the marijuana did the investigation change to involve drugs. As a result, the court determined there was no evidence of tampering. This analysis, however, has been rejected, albeit not explicitly overruled, in Williams v. State, 270 S.W.3d 140 (Tex. Crim. App. 2008).

In Williams, an officer was conducting a traffic stop and decided to conduct a pat down search of the driver (i.e. defendant) for weapons. During the pat down a crack pipe fell onto the pavement, and the defendant immediately stomped on the pipe, crushing it with his foot. When deciding whether or not the above actions constituted tampering, the Court of Criminal Appeals rejected the lower court’s analysis, which stated that the traffic stop became a drug investigation once the officer and the defendant noticed the pipe on the pavement, and only then was there tampering. In rejecting this analysis, the Court held that requiring a change in the investigation, as the appellate court’s analysis and Pannell does, adds an additional mens rea element not required by section 37.09.

Thus, the Court held that when an officer is investigating a traffic stop and the suspect anticipates that the officer will begin a drug investigation if the officer finds evidence of drugs, and in accordance with that anticipation, the suspect destroys the drugs before the officer becomes aware of them, the suspect has tampered with evidence. As such, there is no requirement for the officer to “see the pipe” or “see the marijuana” before the suspect throws it out of the window in order for that action to constitute tampering. The determination will be made by the finder of fact using circumstantial evidence to draw inferences.

In Conclusion . . .

In conclusion, if the only evidence the State has of tampering is the fact that the defendant threw the item out of the window, without any other indicia of tampering, then the act alone does not rise to level of tampering under section 37.09. However, there are many reasonable circumstances, ever so slight, that could lend the fact finder to make an inference of intent to tamper. With that being said, because the offense of tampering is extremely fact-based, we recommend you reach out to our experienced attorneys to better understand your options.

E-Cigarette Exploding Battery Texas

Pants on Fire! Who is Liable if your E-Cigarette Explodes in Your Pocket?

By | Personal Injury

Vape Batteries and E-Cigarette Explosions:
Who is responsible for injuries or deaths caused by an “Industry-Wide” problem?

There has been plenty of debate on the health and safety effects of “vaping”, but the most dangerous aspect of electronic cigarettes is likely the potentially explosive lithium-ion batteries used to power them.

Since 2009, there have been over 200 reported incidents of fires and explosions, and at least one death, caused by exploding e-cigarettes in the U.S. As more products enter the market, the number of these explosions will continue to rise, as will the number of injuries and deaths.

If you or a loved one have been injured by an exploding e-cigarette, you may be entitled to compensation from the manufacturer or seller of the device. Our law firm has represented individuals that have suffered injuries from an exploding battery and we know how to pursue compensation.

What is an E-Cigarette?

An “electronic cigarette” refers to several different types of devices within a larger class. These devices come in varying shapes and sizes and are sometimes called e-cigs, personal vaporizers (VPs), mods, electronic nicotine deliver systems (ENDS), and vape pens. They are powered by lithium-ion batteries which produce a heated vapor that looks like smoke.

Risk of Injury Due to Explosion of Lithium-ion Batteries in E-Cigs is Exceedingly Dangerous

In 2016, the U.S. Fire Administration issued a report concluding that lithium-ion batteries should not be used in e-cigarettes due to the inherent risks of injuries due to explosion and fire. In reaching this conclusion, the agency examined 195 reported cases of e-cigarette battery explosions.

“The e-cigarette/lithium-ion battery combination presents a new and unique hazard to consumers. No other consumer product places a battery with a known explosion hazard such as this in close proximity to the human body. It is this intimate contact between the body and the battery that is most responsible for the severity of the injuries that have been seen.”

(McKenna, Lawrence. “Electronic Cigarette Fires and Explosions in the United States 2009-2016.” National Fire Data Center, U.S. Fire Administration.)

Who is Responsible if a Vape Pen Explodes?

In Texas, the manufacturer is generally responsible for the safety of its products. Only when the manufacturer is insolvent or beyond the reach of Texas courts can the sellers be held liable. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Sec. 82.003 (“Liability of Nonmanufacturing Sellers”).

Because most e-cigarettes and lithium-ion batteries are produced in China, it is often the vape shop or other retailer that sold the defective product who is responsible for the damages. As such, consumers should always purchase from reputable retailers who are more likely to be financially solvent and/or have insurance to cover the damages.

Under Texas law, any party who participated in the design, manufacture, or marketing of a defective product may be held responsible for damages. In the case of e-cigarettes, these products could be considered fundamentally defective because almost every product currently on the market requires the use of a lithium-ion battery, which is known to be potentially deadly.

Many of the risks associated with lithium-ion battery explosions occur due to improper handling of the devices. Because so little information is provided to consumers about proper handling, those responsible for the marketing of the devices may still be liable for any damages as a result of injuries or death.

If you or a loved one has been injured or killed by an exploding e-cigarette, it is important that you consult with a qualified attorney as soon as possible who can give you advice specific to your case. Our team of experienced attorneys is here to help.

CBD Oil Legal Texas

Is CBD Oil Legal in Texas? Perhaps, But it Must Fit These Qualifications

By | Drug Crimes

What is CBD Oil?

CBD Oil Legal TexasCBD Oil, which is short for cannabidiol oil, is a cannabinoid extract that is alleged to have the health benefits of cannabis (e.g. pain relief, easing of inflammation, anxiety management and the treatment of epilepsy) without the psychoactive effects of marijuana. CBD Oil is sold as a supplement in marijuana dispensaries, nutrition stores, and even as an additive in smoothies. While the popularity of CBD Oil is growing substantially, the product remains unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, leading to wide discrepancies in the product’s ingredients and quality. The variety of ingredients and compounding methods may have significant ramifications for consumers depending on Federal and state law and the interpretation of those laws by state law and health code enforcement agencies.

Is CBD Oil Legal Under Federal Law?

Yes, if it is produced within federal guidelines.

As of December 20, 2018, the Fed Gov has legalized hemp that has a tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of no more than 0.3% by removing it from Schedule I of the controlled substances act. States and Indian Tribes may regulate the production of Hemp by submitting a plan to the USDA. This bill also makes hemp producers eligible for the federal crop insurance program and certain USDA research grants.

With the passing of the new 2018 Farm Bill, hemp and hemp-derived products have been officially removed from the purview of the Controlled Substances Act, such that they are no longer subject to Schedule I status. Meaning that so long as CBD is extracted from hemp and completely pure (with less than 0.3% THC on a dry weight basis of THC, something the DEA doubts is possible) and grown by licensed farmers in accordance with state and federal regulations, it is legal as a hemp product.

However, in 2016 the Drug Enforcement Agency released an administrative ruling considering CBD Oil to be a Schedule One drug, comparable to heroin, peyote and LSD, operating on the theory that it is extracted from the same parts of the Cannabis sativa plant that contain THC, the active ingredient of marijuana. CBD consumers and manufacturers assert that CBD can also be extracted from the non-intoxicating parts of the Cannabis sativa plant that produce hemp, however, a recent 9th Circuit decision affirmed the DEA’s authority to classify CBD Oil as within their administrative purview.2

For CBD Oil to be considered legal in the Federal system under the DEA’s guidelines it must “consist[] solely of parts of the cannabis plant excluded from the CSA definition of marijuana.” In the definition of marijuana given by the Controlled Substances Act, the “mature stalks of such plant, fiber produced from such stalks, oil or . . . any other . . derivative, mixture, or preparation of such mature stalks” are excluded from the definition. Presently the DEA considers an extraction process using only the parts of the cannabis plant that are excluded from the CSA definition of marijuana to be “not practical.” This is because the extraction process used would “diminish any trace amounts of cannabinoids that end up in the finished product.”

Is CBD Oil Illegal Under the Laws of the Various Individual States?

Yes, CBD is legal, but not in all states.

At the state level, CBD Oil is considered legal in the states where marijuana is legal for recreational use (Alaska, California, Colorado, DC, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont). Twenty-nine states have made marijuana legal for medical use in various quantities and CBD is also considered legal under those state laws, irrespective of the THC content of the source of the oil. In states that have not decriminalized marijuana, CBD Oil is also likely illegal.

Is CBD Oil Legal In Texas?

NO, unless you fall within the qualifications set by the Compassionate Use Act.

If you are prescribed the use of medical CBD oil and use ‘low-THC” CBD, then the use is legal. Texas has legalized marijuana for medical use only, but only in a very narrow set of circumstances. The Compassionate Use Act of 2015 authorizes the prescription of “low-THC cannabis,” defined as having no more than 0.5% THC for patients diagnosed with intractable epilepsy and entered into the state-maintained “compassionate-use registry.”3 The Act requires prescription by two physicians however, it is currently illegal under federal law for a physician to “prescribe” marijuana. Under a 2000 court ruling, it is legal for physicians to “recommend” marijuana to their patients but the language of the Compassionate Use Act calls for a prescription, setting up a conflict with Federal law.4 Additionally, to qualify for the medical use of CBD, the patient must have tried two FDA-approved drugs and found them to be ineffective. There are currently three dispensaries licensed by Texas to sell qualifying products to authorized consumers.

If you do not fall within the qualifications set by the Compassionate Use Act, then possession of CDB oil containing any amount of THC is against Texas law. The State definition of marijuana closely tracks the Federal definition. The Texas Health and Safety Code defines marijuana as “the plant Cannabis sativa . . . and every compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of that plant or its seeds.” The Code excludes “the mature stalks of the plant or fiber produced from the stalks [and] a compound, manufacture, salt, derivative, mixture, or preparation of the mature stalks, fiber, oil.” Texas does not currently have legislation allowing for the cultivation of hemp, though industrial hemp derived from the mature stalks of the Cannabis sativa plant may be sold and consumed.

What is the Penalty for Possession of CBD Oil in Texas?

In Texas, if you possess CBD oil with any trace of THC, you could be charged with a Felony for Possession of a Controlled Substance in Penalty Group 2, which (depending on the weight in grams) can carry a range of punishment from 180 days in a state jail facility up to 20+ years in prison and a fine not to exceed $10,000. Several of our clients have been arrested for possessing CBD oil after officers performed a field test and discovered that yielded a positive result for THC.

If the CBD oil does not contain any THC, is it currently a Schedule V substance not in any penalty group. Possession of CBD with no THC can be charged as a Class B Misdemeanor with a punishment range of 0 – 180 days in jail and a fine up to $2,000.

What To Look For In CBD Oil In Texas

CBD Oil made from the mature stalks of the Cannabis sativa plant are likely in conformity with both Federal and Texas State law. Consumers seeking to purchase CBD Oil in Texas should look for a product advertised as being the product of “industrial hemp” or “mature hemp.” Products advertised as containing “THC” or “CBD Oil” should be avoided because of potential conflict with State and Federal laws.

  • Texas consumers with intractable epilepsy may seek to join the Compassionate Use Registry and get a prescription for CBD Oil containing less than 0.5% THC from an authorized dispensary.
  • Physicians should be mindful that “prescribing” CBD Oil to Texas residents under the Compassionate Use Act may fall into conflict with existing Federal law.
  • Retailers that are not one of the three state-authorized dispensaries authorized by the Compassionate Use Act should take care to carry only products that do not advertise themselves as containing CBD Oil but instead focus on being the product of industrial hemp.

Where Can I Purchase CBD Oil with 0% THC?

While there are many CBD oil stores popping up all over Texas, we have found one near our office that sells CBD Oil with 0% THC in it. They test it to confirm the THC content so that you can be sure of what you are getting. Visit Your CBD Store at https://yourcbdstorekeller.com to learn more or purchase their CBD products online. But remember that even though many agencies are not choosing to arrest or prosecute for  zero THC CBD oil, the Tarrant County DA’s office is still filing these cases if a person is arrested.

Sources:

  1. H.R.2642 – 113th Congress (2013-2014): Agricultural Act of 2014.
  2. Hemp Industries Association v. USDEA, No. 17-70162
  3. SB339  Texas Compassionate Use Program
  4. Conant v. McCaffrey  WL 1281174
Judge Writing On Paper At Desk

Unanimity Instruction Required and Not Given, But No harm, Says CCA

By | Jury Trial

Trial Court Failed to Give Unanimity Instruction to the Jury

The Court of Criminal Appeals recently handed down an opinion regarding a unanimity jury instruction in an aggravated sexual assault case. The issue before the Court was whether the trial court erred when it failed to instruct the jury that it must be unanimous in deciding how the sexual contact occurred when there were multiple allegations. The Court of Criminal Appeals found the jury instruction to be erroneous but concluded no harm occurred.

French v. State, (Court of Criminal Appeals 2018).

The Facts—The Defendant Was Convicted for Aggravated Sexual Assault of a Child

The defendant was originally indicted on a single count of aggravated sexual assault of a child. The indictment alleged that the defendant caused the penetration of the child’s anus by the defendant’s sexual organ. Before trial though, the indictment was amended to add “contact with” and “penetration of” the sexual organ of the child by the defendant’s sexual organ. As a result, the indictment presented four options for a conviction: (1) the defendant contacted the child’s anus with his sexual organ; (2) the defendant penetrated the child’s anus with his sexual organ; (3) the defendant contacted the child’s sexual organ with his sexual organ; and/or (4) the defendant penetrated the child’s sexual organ with his sexual organ.

At trial, the jury instructions authorized the jury to convict the defendant on any one of the four theories. In addition, the trial court explicitly instructed the jury that they need not all agree on the manner in which the sexual assault was committed. This instruction essentially authorized the jury to convict the defendant without agreeing as to which orifice he had “contacted or penetrated”—even though there was little to no evidence presented that defendant ever contacted or penetrated the child’s sexual organ. This prompted the defendant to object and ask the court for a unanimity instruction regarding the manner in which the sexual assault was committed. However, the court overruled the objection and the defendant was subsequently convicted.

The Court of Appeals Reversed the Defendant’s Conviction—Holding the Trial Court Erred in Failing to Submit a Proper Instruction Which Caused “Some Harm”

On appeal, the defendant argued that the jury charge failed to follow the juror unanimity requirement because it did not require the jury to agree as to which orifice he contacted and/or penetrated. For double jeopardy purposes, he argued the theories were considered distinct and separate offenses, each of which demanded juror unanimity for a conviction. The court of appeals agreed, and it held that the trial court erred by failing to submit proper instructions. In light of this error, the court of appeals determined that the erroneous jury charge was sufficient to invoke the “some harm” standard under Almanza, which required a reversal.

The Court of Criminal Appeals Reversed the Court of Appeals’ Judgment—Finding No Actual Harm Occurred

On petition for discretionary review, the State did not contest the erroneous jury charge. Rather, it argued that any error in the jury charge as to the unanimity requirement did not result in harm to the defendant. The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed.

In analyzing whether there was “some harm,” the Court of Criminal Appeals considered the trial court’s error with respect to the four factors set out in Almanza: “(1) the entire jury charge, (2) the state of the evidence, (3) the jury arguments, and (4) any other relevant information as revealed by the record as a whole.”
The Court of Criminal Appeals noted that in concluding that “some harm” occurred the court of appeals only relied upon the second Almanza factor—the state of the evidence. That court identified there was “some evidence in the record” for the jury to potentially conclude that the defendant penetrated both the child’s anus and sexual organ with his own sexual organ. And, since there was “some evidence” it believed that the jury could have regarded itself as authorized to convict different ways without reaching any agreement on a specific theory beyond a reasonable doubt.

However, even considering the above reasoning, the Court of Criminal Appeals determined there was no harm suffered when taking into consideration all four of the Almanza factors. The Court explained that “the risk that a rational juror would have convicted the defendant on the basis that he contacted and/or penetrated the child’s sexual organ with his own—and not also on the basis that he contacted and/or penetrated the child’s anus—is so ‘highly unlikely’ as to be ‘almost infinitesimal.’” Not only was there overwhelming evidence at trial that suggested anal contact and penetration occurred, there was no encouragement for a specific finding, and the defendant’s only defense was that it never happened. All of this supports the Court’s conclusion that the harm was merely hypothetical and not actual. As such, the Court reversed and remanded the case even in light of the error.

Stack Sentence Concurrent Sentence

Stacking Sentences to Run Consecutively in Texas

By | Sentencing

The Importance Between Stacked and Concurrent Sentences

Stack Sentence Concurrent SentenceWhen a defendant is convicted of multiple crimes at the same trial, his sentences automatically run concurrently, unless there is an order for the sentences to be stacked (i.e. to run consecutively). When sentences are stacked, defendants are required to finish serving the sentence for one offense before they begin serving the sentence for another offense. So, if a defendant is convicted of multiple crimes, especially those with longer sentence ranges, the difference between stacking the sentences or running the sentences concurrently can be huge. Thus, it is very important to know when sentences must run concurrently, when sentences can be stacked, and who makes those decisions.

Who Decides Whether to Stack a Defendant’s Sentences or Run Them Concurrently?

In Texas, defendants have the right to elect to have the jury or a judge assess punishment. However, even when the jury assesses a defendant’s sentences in a case with multiple charges, it is up to the judge of the court to determine whether the sentences will be stacked or whether the sentences will run concurrently.

The trial court’s authority to stack sentences is derived primarily from article 42.08 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. Under this article, when a defendant with multiple convictions is sentenced, the court must include in the subsequent judgment or judgments whether the sentences will run concurrently or consecutively. This general rule allowing stacking or concurrent sentences applies whether the sentences have been imposed or suspended. As a result, the trial court has broad discretion when pronouncing whether the sentences will be stacked or run concurrently. Nevertheless, there are certain occasions when the judge cannot stack a defendant’s sentence.

When is the Judge Prohibited From Stacking a Defendant’s Sentences?

Generally, when a defendant is found guilty of more than one offense arising from the same criminal episode and prosecuted in a single criminal action, the sentences must run concurrently (i.e. if a person is prosecuted in the same trial for DWI and Unlawful Carrying of a Weapon). However, there are exceptions to this rule that will allow for stacking. For example, if a defendant moves to sever his cases that arose from the same criminal episode, he runs the risk of having his sentences stacked. In addition, case law has permitted multiple convictions, arising out of the same criminal episode, for intoxication manslaughter and certain sex offenses under section 3.03(b) of the Texas Penal Code to be stacked.

What Criteria Does the Trial Court Use to Determine Whether to Stack a Defendant’s Sentence?

Trial Courts tend to consider the same factors used for determining the severity of a defendant’s sentence when deciding whether or not to stack sentences. For example, judges may consider:

  • whether the crimes and their objectives were predominantly independent of each other;
  • whether the crimes involved separate acts of violence or threats of violence;
  • whether the crimes were committed at different times or separate places; and
  • other aggravating or mitigating factors such as a defendant’s past record.

Are There Certain Circumstances When a Judge is Required to Stack Sentences?

Yes, but only in one scenario. As provided in Article 42.08, if a defendant is sentenced for an offense committed while the defendant was an inmate in TDC and the defendant has not completed the sentence he was serving at the time of the offense, the judge shall order the new sentence be stacked—to begin immediately upon the completion of the defendant’s previous sentence.

Can the Judge Stack a Probation Sentence with a Prison Sentence?

Yes. In Texas, a judge can choose to stack a probation sentence with prison sentence, but the judge must order the confinement sentence to run first and the probation thereafter.

In Conclusion . . .

To determine whether your case involves offenses that may be stacked, you should consult with your attorney. Stacking sentences is rare, but you should still seek proper legal advice when charged with multiple offenses. If you find yourself in this situation and need an attorney, give us a call.

Confrontation Clause Violation When Accuser Does Not Appear at Trial

By | Confrontation Clause

Tarrant County Trial Court Admits Testimony in Violation of the Confrontation Clause

The Second Court of Appeals recently released a memorandum opinion, which reversed a defendant’s conviction due to a confrontation clause violation. The issue was whether the trial court (Criminal District Court Number 1, Tarrant County) erred in allowing an officer to testify about certain statements the alleged victim made regarding a prior assault allegation.

McDowell v. State—2nd Court of Appeals (2018)

The Facts—Defendant Was Convicted for Felony Domestic Violence

On August 21, 2016, officers were alerted to a domestic disturbance in progress. When officers arrived at the scene they made contact with the victim and the victim’s friend who had reported the disturbance. While talking with the two females, officers noticed multiple bruises on the victim and learned that the suspect (i.e. Defendant), who had allegedly assaulted the victim, was still inside the home. Officers subsequently entered the residence and arrested Defendant.

At trial, dash-cam video showing the accusations made by the two females was admitted. In addition, one of the officers testified to additional statements made by the victim suggesting that the defendant had a history of violence. These additional statements, however, were not included in the dash cam video. Defendant objected to these statements under Crawford because the victim did not appear at trial. Nonetheless, the trial court allowed the out-of-court statements to be admitted over objection.

In addition to the officer’s testimony regarding the hearsay statements, the jury heard from two other witnesses about the cycle of domestic violence. The State then referenced this testimony in relation to Defendant’s history of domestic violence during closing arguments. As a result, Defendant was convicted. Defendant later appealed his conviction arguing that the trial court erred when it allowed the officer to testify to the victim’s statements in violation of the confrontation clause of the 6th Amendment.

Court of Appeals Reverses and Remands Case—Holding the Trial Court Erred in Admitting the Officer’s Testimony

Generally, the Confrontation Clause bars admission of testimonial statements of a witness who does not appear at trial. In determining whether certain statements were testimonial in nature, “the Court looks to see whether circumstances were present at the time the statements were made that would indicate the existence of an ongoing emergency.” If such circumstances existed, the statements are admissible.

Here, the victim did not appear at trial. As such, the Court of Appeals attempted to analyze whether the victim’s statements were testimonial in nature by determining whether they were made during the ongoing emergency. However, the Court was unable to do so because there was no evidence from the State regarding when these statements were made. The Court concluded that without knowing the timing at which the statements were made, there was no way to determine the existence of an ongoing emergency. The Court explained that once there is an objection to the admission of evidence on confrontation grounds the burden shifts to the State. Here, the State was silent in regard to the confrontation objection. And, without the State providing more evidence, the Court could not conclude that the statements were nontestimonial. Accordingly, the Court held that the trial court erred in admitting the statements.

The Court then conducted a harm analysis to determine whether the error impacted the jury’s verdict, which would require a reversal. In making its determination, the Court noted that the majority of the officer’s testimony was based on the inadmissible statements. These statements portrayed a history of violence rather than just one instance. Further, the other witnesses’ testimony hinged on these inadmissible statements. Thus, because the inadmissible statements were a crucial part in establishing the elements of the offense, the Court could not say beyond a reasonable doubt that the trial court’s error did not contribute to Defendant’s conviction and, therefore, a reversal was required.

Christmas Holiday Arrests Texas

Top 5 Reasons for Arrests During the Christmas Holiday Season

By | Criminal Defense

Christmas Holiday Arrests TexasWhen you think about the Christmas season, you probably think about family time, presents, good food, and celebration. We think about those things too, but as criminal defense attorneys, we also think about the reasons that some of our clients get arrested during the holiday season. For this article, we took a look at the last 6 years of holiday season arrests (for clients that we represented) and compiled an (anecdotal) list of the top 5 reasons that folks get arrested during the Christmas/New Year’s season. Our goal is that this list will serve as a warning, so that your holiday season can be filled with the good stuff, rather than jail, bail, and calls to our office. Here goes:

5. Shoplifting

Many retailers slash their prices and offer steep discounts in the weeks leading up to Christmas and even bigger discounts after Christmas, but we have yet to see any retailer offer the “five finger discount” for their merchandise. Regardless, we see plenty of shoplifting cases during the Christmas season, making it our #5 reasons that people get arrested during Christmas. Depending on the regular price value of the item (not the discounted price), shoplifting theft charges can range from misdemeanors to felonies. Learn more about Theft law in Texas here.

4. Package Theft

In a similar vein to shoplifting, our #4 reason for holiday arrests is package theft. Many shoppers choose the convenience of online shopping and have their Christmas purchases delivered right to their front door. Some people see this as an easy target, following behind UPS or FedEx trucks to steal those would-be Christmas gifts from the front porch. However, with the increase in doorbell cameras, it is getting easier to catch the porch pirates in the act. Further, some law enforcement agencies have begun using dummy packages to bait thieves into getting caught. Package theft can range from a misdemeanor to a felony depending on what unknown treasure lay inside the brown box.

3. Airport Contraband (Guns and Drugs)

Going to visit grandma can require air travel for many families. This means that thousands more people than usual flood through DFW Airport between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. It matters not from where these travelers hail. From Maryland to Oregon to France, if a person is arrested at DFW Airport, their case will be filed in Tarrant County, Texas and they will have to travel back to DFW to attend court. During the holidays, we see a surge in airport arrests when people bring items into the airport that are not allowed. These mostly consist of:

Even if the state from which a traveler is coming has legalized marijuana and the state to which they are traveling has legalized marijuana, if they are caught possessing marijuana in the airport, they will be arrested and charged. The combination of airport gun arrests and airport drug arrests make these types of cases our #3 reason for holiday arrests.

2. Assault Family Violence

In the movie Christmas Vacation, Clark Griswold showed an enormous amount of restraint when his extended family pushed him to the limit (especially Cousin Eddie), but not everyone is blessed with such a cool head. Christmas time brings added stressors into the family environment that can sometimes lead to verbal or physical altercations between family members, so much so, that these arrests rank at #2 in our book. Depending on the nature of the assault, a domestic violence arrest can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. Learn more about Family Violence under Texas law.

1. Driving While Intoxicated

With all of the Christmas and New Year’s parties and the increase in No Refusal Weekends, it is not hard to guess that DWI arrests are #1 on our list. Driving While Intoxicated in Texas can range from a misdemeanor (if it is a first or second offense) to a felony (if there is a child in the car or if the person arrested has been convicted of DWI twice in the past). Our advice is to plan ahead and do not even take your car to a Christmas party when you plan to drink. Catch a ride from a friend or take an Uber or Lyft. That would be a lot cheaper than hiring an attorney and a lot less hassle too. Learn more about Texas DWI law here.

We Hope You Never Need Us, But We’re Here if Your Do.

We wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year. As always, we hope you never need us to represent you or one of your loved ones for a criminal offense. This is even more true during the Christmas season. Hopefully this list will help you avoid trouble that looms during the holiday season. If you do happen to need us, we are only a phone call away at (817) 993-9249.