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Sexual Assault Defense Attorneys Fort Worth

The Importance of Reading Statutes in Context

By | Sex Crimes

Texas Stacking Sentences in Sexual Offenses

Sexual Assault Defense Attorneys Fort WorthNguyen v. State.

Section 3.03(b)(2)(B) of the Texas Penal Code authorizes consecutive sentences when the State convicts a defendant of multiple sex crimes arising from the same criminal episode. An interesting situation occurred when Appellant was charged in two separate indictments with aggravated sexual assault and sexual assault of two of his daughters. While the initial charges fell under Section 3.03(b)(2)(B), Appellant pled guilty to two counts of injury to a child (not a sex offense). He received a five year deferred adjudication sentence. Five months after he was placed on community supervision, the State filed a motion to revoke based on a violation of the “no contact” condition. The Judge revoked Appellant’s community supervision and sentenced him to 10 years confinement in each of the two cases, to run consecutively. Appellant appealed the sentence, arguing that Section 3.03(b)(2)(B), authorizing consecutive sentences in sex crimes cases, did not apply to his convictions because he had not been “formally” convicted of a sex offense.

The primary language at issue in the case was the portion of Section 3.03(b)(2)(B) that stated:

“(B) for which a plea agreement was reached in a case in which the accused was charged with more than one offense.”

The State argues that this provision, by its plain language, permits the trial judge to impose consecutive sentences for multiple nonsexual offenses if the defendant was originally charged with qualifying sexual offenses. Appellant argued that because 3.03 (b)(2)(A) excludes any nonsexual offense, the legislature never intended to authorize consecutive sentences for nonsexual offenses.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held that the statutory language of Section 3.03(b)(2)(B) was ambiguous as to the specific issue brought up by Appellant’s case. Finding that the language of the statute was ambiguous, the Court looked to the legislative intent behind passing Section 3.03(b)(2)(B). The Court explained that,

the history shows that the legislature enacted this provision to ensure that defendants who, pursuant to a plea bargain, are placed on deferred adjudication for certain sex offenses are subject to the same requirements, disabilities, and punishments that had previously been applied only to those formally ‘convicted’ of a sex offense.

This case showed the willingness of the CCA to read a statute as a whole and to look to the legislative intent of the entire section vice a small portion. In the law, as in politics and elsewhere, a sentence or two taken out of context can be a dangerous thing.

The “charged with” language could have been easily misconstrued by isolating only subsection (B) and reading it apart from the rest of Section 3.03. It can also be misconstrued to not only read it in isolation, but to ignore the legislative intent behind the statute in the first place. Like anything, small snippets of statutes can be isolated and taken out of context. The State tried to capitalize on another poorly worded statute but the CCA looked past that argument to determine the meaning of 3.03 as a whole.

Finding that Section 3.03(b)(2)(B) refers only to plea bargain agreements resulting in convictions for child sex offenses, the CCA agreed with the Court of Appeal’s decision to modify the trial court’s judgment and ordered Appellant’s sentences on his two convictions for injury to a child to run concurrently.

Right to an attorney in Fort Worth, Texas

Lost in Translation: A Defendant’s Right to Counsel

By | Miranda, Right to Counsel

Right to an attorney in Fort Worth, TexasUnder the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, a criminal suspect is guaranteed the right to counsel.  But there’s a difference between what the two amendments provide.  The Fifth Amendment right to counsel was created by the Supreme Court decision in Miranda v. Arizona, where the Court held that a person has the right to have counsel present during custodial interrogation (interrogation counsel).  The Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant the assistance of counsel for his defense at trial (trial counsel).

Over the past four decades, the jurisprudence concerning the Fifth Amendment right to counsel during police interrogation (interrogation counsel) and the Sixth Amendment right to counsel at all critical stages of criminal proceedings (trial counsel) had become intertwined in complex and confusing ways. It was increasingly difficult for courts to determine which right can be invoked when and whether invocation of the right to counsel under one amendment invoked the right to counsel under the other amendment.

Pecina v. State, a recent Texas Court of Criminal Appeals case, illustrates the confusion that existed between the two rights to counsel.  In Pecina, Arlington Police officers arrested the defendant for the murder of his wife and took him to the hospital rather than the jail because he had suffered significant stab wounds (allegedly self-inflicted).  Because Mr. Pecina could not be transported to see a magistrate within 48 hours as required by the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, the police officers brought a magistrate to him.  A bilingual magistrate.  The magistrate advised Mr. Pecina (in Spanish) of his Article 15.17 rights including, inter alia, the right to have an attorney present throughout the criminal trial process (i.e. trial counsel – 6th Amendment).

“After reading appellant his rights, [the magistrate] asked if he wanted a court-appointed attorney.  And he stated that he did.” She then asked Mr. Pecina if he “still wanted to talk to [the detectives]?” He said that he did.  The magistrate (as she later testified) believed that, when Mr. Pecina asked for counsel, he was asking for trial counsel, not interrogation counsel.  The two detectives then entered the hospital room and issued Mr. Pecina his Miranda warnings (in Spanish).  Mr. Pecina waived his Miranda rights, did not request an attorney, and gave a statement.  He was later convicted for murder after his statements to the detectives were admitted against him at trial.

These facts raise important questions:

When Mr. Pecina told the magistrate that he wanted a court-appointed attorney, did he invoke his rights under both the 5th and 6th Amendments? Should the police have refrained from initiating further questioning until he had an attorney present?

Prior to the 2009 Supreme Court decision in Montejo v. Louisiana, 556 U.S. 778, the controlling case regarding the two intertwining rights to counsel was Michigan v. Jackson, 475 U.S. 625 (1986). “In Michigan v. Jackson, the Supreme Court had held that ‘if police initiate interrogation after a defendant’s assertion, at an arraignment or similar proceeding, of his right to counsel, any waiver of the defendant’s right to counsel for that police-initiated interrogation is invalid.’”

Under Michigan v. Jackson, Mr. Pecina’s assertion of his right to counsel that he made to the magistrate in the hospital would have been enough to preclude the police from initiating further interrogation. Or, if the police did later initiate interrogation, any statement Mr. Pecina made should have been suppressed at trial.

But all of that changed under Montejo in 2009. In Montejo, the Supreme Court disentangled the right to interrogation counsel with the right to trial counsel.

Distilled to its essence, Montejo means that a defendant’s invocation of his right to counsel at his Article 15.17 hearing says nothing about his possible invocation of his right to counsel during later police-initiated custodial interrogation. The magistration hearing is not an interrogation event.

Analyzing the Pecina case in the wake of Montejo, the CCA explained that “[i]n this case, there were two separate events: magistration followed by a custodial interrogation.” The CCA then held that “under the totality of the circumstances…an objective and reasonable police officer, conducting a custodial interrogation would conclude that appellant had voluntarily waived both his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights to counsel for the purposes of custodial questioning.”

The CCA went further to clarify the new rule, explaining that under the Supreme Court decisions in Montejo, Miranda, Edwards, and Minnick, a suspect’s Fifth Amendment rights (to interrogation counsel) are only triggered “AFTER THE POLICE INFORM HIM OF HIS RIGHT TO COUNSEL AT THE BEGINNING OF A CUSTODIAL INTERROGATION.” Emphasis added.  Ultimately, the CCA held that the magistration hearing (in which Mr. Pecina requested an attorney) did not trigger any Fifth Amendment right concerning custodial interrogation; that, the CCA explained, was done by the detectives at the beginning of their interrogation.

PRACTICE NOTE: A criminal defendant/suspect must now request an attorney, unequivocally, at every stage of the criminal justice process.  Interrogation.  Arraignment.  Magistration.  Every stage.  This is a significant change in Texas criminal procedure.

Judge Alcala joined the majority opinion but wrote a separate concurring opinion, in which she notes:

The magistrate’s interpretation (that Mr. Pecina only requested trial counsel and not interrogation counsel) misses the whole point of the warning, which is the right to have an attorney present ‘during any interview with peace officers.’ I conclude that the record indisputably shows that appellant’s request for an attorney was a request to have an attorney present during interrogation, as well as during court proceedings. …Appellant’s request for an attorney was, at most, a pre-invocation of his right to counsel.

Judge Alcala believes that the “Legislature could easily fix [the confusion between the two rights to counsel] by adding one sentence to the Article 15.17 admonishments: ‘If you desire to have an attorney present during police interrogation, you must make that request at the time of the police questioning.’”

Judge Price dissented, opining that “[a]ny reasonably objective viewer would conclude from the peculiar facts of this case that [the magistrate] was acting as a de facto agent of the interrogating detectives.” He went further:

That the invocation [of Mr. Pecina’s rights] also occurred during a simultaneous “magistration,” while accurate, does not detract from its essential character for Fifth Amendment purposes. And once a suspect has made it clear that he desires the assistance of counsel in coping with police interrogation, we are not entitled to look at his subsequent responses to official entreaties “to determine in retrospect whether the suspect really meant it when he unequivocally invoked his right to counsel.”

Judge Price believes that Mr. Pecina’s Fifth Amendment right to interrogation counsel was violated.  I agree.

State v. Kerwick, Terry Stop

“There They Are Right There!” – A Defective Terry Stop

By | Investigative Detention

State v. Kerwick, Terry StopThe propriety of a Terry stop (a.k.a. investigative detention) can be, and often is, a hotly contested issue during pre-trial suppression hearings and on appeal.  I’ve written about the legal standard required for a Terry stop many times, but one can never get enough Terry law, so here it is again, complete with case citations, as recited by the 2nd District Court of Appeals (Fort Worth):

A temporary or investigative detention is a seizure.  Francis v. State, 922 S.W.2d 176, 178 (Tex. Crim. App. 1996); Josey v. State, 981 S.W.2d 831, 838 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 1988, pet. ref‘d).  An investigative detention occurs when an individual is encountered by a police officer, yields to the officer‘s display of authority, and is temporarily detained for purposes of an investigation.  Johnson v. State, 912 S.W.2d 227, 235 (Tex. Crim. App. 1995).  Because an investigative detention is a seizure, reasonable suspicion must be shown by the officer to justify the seizure.  State v. Larue, 28 S.W.3d 549, 553 n.8 (Tex. Crim. App. 2000).

An officer conducts a lawful temporary detention when he has reasonable suspicion to believe that an individual is violating the law. Ford, 158 S.W.3d at 492.  “[T]he police officer must be able to point to specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.”  Davis v. State, 947 S.W.2d 240, 242 (Tex. Crim. App. 1997) (quoting Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 21, 88 S. Ct. 1868, 1880 (1968)).  The articulable facts must show unusual activity, some evidence that connects the detainee to the unusual activity, and some indication that the unusual activity is related to a crime. Martinez, 2011 WL 2555712, at *2.  Articulable facts must amount to more than a mere inarticulate hunch, suspicion, or good faith suspicion that a crime was in progress. Crain v. State, 315 S.W.3d 43, 52 (Tex. Crim. App. 2010).

In State v. Kerwick, a recent case designated for publication by the 2nd COA, the Court was called upon to consider whether the trial court abused its discretion when it suppressed the evidence of a defendant’s warrantless arrest.  The arresting officer had been dispatched to the Stockyards after a brawl was reported outside a bar.  When he arrived, an unidentified person pointed at a group of people in a car and said “There they are right there.”  The car was pulling away when the officer approached on foot and ordered the driver to stop.  The driver was later arrested for DWI.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court (or at least found that the ruling was not outside the reasonable zone of disagreement) that the officer did not have “reasonable suspicion” to justify the Terry stop when the only facts he had were that a brawl was reported and an unidentified person said “There they are.”

While I agree that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to justify the stop in this case, I think this case really hinged on the trial court’s initial ruling.  The standard of review (abuse of discretion – outside the zone of reasonable disagreement) is very deferential and had the trial court ruled for the State, it would not be hard to imagine the appellate court upholding that ruling as well (with the exact same facts).  Perhaps an obvious observation on my part.

Texas 404(b) Evidence

Fort Worth Court of Appeals Cheapens the Meaning of “Modus Operandi”

By | Jury Trial

Texas 404(b) EvidenceThe general rule is that the defendant is to be tried only for the offense charged, not for any other crimes or for being a criminal generally. However, evidence of extraneous acts of misconduct may be admissible if (1) the uncharged act is relevant to a material issue in the case, and (2) the probative value of that evidence is not significantly outweighed by its prejudicial effect. Because the propensity to commit crimes is not a material fact in a criminal case, Texas Rule of Evidence 404(b) explicitly prohibits the admission of uncharged acts to prove conduct in conformity with a bad character.

Last week the 2nd District (Fort Worth Court of Appeals) considered the issue of modus operandi (i.e. criminal signature) in the case of Price v. State. In Price, the appellant had been convicted at trial of aggravated robbery after he was identified by a convenience store clerk as the African American man who entered the store armed with a crowbar and wearing a towel on his head demanding money from the cash register. The State offered evidence of other uncharged convenience store robberies as evidence of “identity” or modus operandi under Texas Rule of Evidence 404(b). Over appellant’s objection, the trial court allowed the evidence of the extraneous offenses to come in.

If you were to read only the majority opinion, you might agree that because the defense attempted to impeach the convenience store clerk on the issue of identity, the defendant opened the door to (i.e. made relevant) the evidence that there were three similar robberies done by a man in the local area. However, from Justice Dauphinot’s dissent, we learn that there was more to it than that.

Justice Dauphinot demands the majority to answer how it was that the defense opened the door to the issue of identity of when all the defense counsel did during his cross of the State’s witness was to repeat the questions that the prosecutor already asked. You see, the prosecutor in this case, in an effort to take the sting out the some of the weak points, raised the issue of identity during direct examination. How then, asks the dissenting Justice, can the prosecutor then rely on the issue of “identity” to survive a 404(b) objection to the admissibility of the extraneous offenses?

Justice Dauphinot also points out that mere “identity” is typically not enough to survive a 404(b) objection in cases like this. What the court should really be concerned with is modus operandi.

One of the main rationales for admitting extraneous-offense evidence is to prove the identity of the offender. Here, the theory of relevancy is usually that of modus operandi in which the pattern and characteristics of the charged crime and the uncharged misconduct are so distinctively similar that they constitute a ―signature. Usually, it is the accretion of small, sometimes individually insignificant, details that marks each crime as the handiwork or modus operandi of a single individual.

In this case, the majority noted that the offense at trial and the extraneous offenses were all committed by a black man. After all, how many black men can there possibly be in North Texas? The court further noted, without discussion, that the men in the extraneous offenses also wore a towel on his head. Lastly, the majority mentions that the man or men in the extraneous offenses carried a weapon. Not always a crowbar. In one offense the perpetrator carried a knife and in another he carried a steel pipe. To Justice Dauphinot, these facts are not markedly similar enough to indicate a modus operandi. In her opinion, the State did not meet its burden to show that that “the extraneous act has relevance apart from its tendency to prove character conformity.”