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Debit Card Abuse

Consummation Optional for Credit Card Abuse

By | Theft

Debit Card AbuseSection 32.31(b)(1) of the Texas Penal code provides that a person commits the offense of Credit Card Abuse or Debit Card Abuse if that person “presents or uses” a credit/debit card that was not issued to him and is not used with the owner’s consent.  But what does it mean to “present” or “use” a credit/debit card? Can someone “present” a credit/debit card without “using” it?

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals considered this issue recently in the case of Clinton v. State.  In this case, the appellant had been convicted of the state-jail felony of debit card abuse after she used a stolen debit card to attempt to purchase cigarettes at Wal-Mart.  Notwithstanding the fact that the store declined the card and appellant never completed the transaction, the jury convicted her of “using” the stolen debit card under Section 32.31 (the State did not charge her with “presenting” the card).

On appeal, the 6th District Court of Appeals (Texarkana) reversed the conviction and reformed the judgment to reflect a conviction for the lesser-included offense of attempted debit card abuse.  The COA reasoned that appellant did not “use” the debit card, but rather “presented” it.  Because the transaction was not ultimately consummated and she did not obtain a benefit, the COA held that the evidence was insufficient sustain her conviction for “use.”

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals took the case on the State’s petition for discretionary review.  The State argued that the COA erred by requiring that “use” of a debit card include proof of consummation of the transaction.  The CCA held:

Based on the ordinary meaning of the words as used in the statute, we conclude that the statutory terms “use” and “present” may overlap in meaning, that a transaction need not be consummated to support a jury finding that a defendant used a debit card, and that the court of appeals erred by determining that the evidence is insufficient to establish debit card abuse.

The CCA concluded that appellant “used” the debit card when she swiped it through the card reader for the purpose of purchasing cigarettes.  Accordingly, the CCA reversed the COA and reinstated the judgment of the trial court.

Judge Price concurred in the opinion, but wrote separately to opine that presentment is subsumed by use and should not be given independent legal significance apart from use.

Homeless Thief

Homeless Thief Trades Laptop and iPhone for Egg McMuffin

By | Just For Fun

Homeless ThiefIn lieu of a post on an obscure Texas law this week, I have a bizarre story for you. This is a true story about something that happened to a coworker of mine in Washington DC this past week. I’m trying to convince her to write something about it for the Washington Post, but she doesn’t think it’s newsworthy. I disagree simply because it is so crazy and bizarre (and funny to everyone but her). So here goes.

My coworker, we’ll call her Lindsay, is a Marine officer and lawyer. Lindsay lives alone in a basement apartment in a, how should we say it, not-so-well-to-do section of Washington DC. She calls it a “transitional community.” On Monday morning, Lindsay woke up, got dressed, put on a pot of coffee and plugged her cell phone into her computer that was on the coffee table in the living room. Then she noticed a package waiting for her outside her front door. Lindsay went outside to get the package and did not lock the front door when she came back in. After all, who needs to lock the front door when they are about to walk right back out of it in 10 minutes to go to work?

Lindsay then went back to her bathroom to tie her hair into a neatly shaped bun, a daily requirement for female Marines (those with long hair at least). When she returned to her living room (only 10 minutes later) to retrieve her piping hot cup of Joe she went to grab her cell phone and found that it was missing. Not only that, the computer to which she had just plugged it in was also missing. Knowing good and well that her coffee had not yet begun to take the desired effect, Lindsay began questioning whether she had actually plugged her phone into her computer 10 minutes ago. “Was this the early onset of Alzheimer’s?” she thought as she checked the refrigerator and freezer for her computer and phone. Finally, after scouring the house, she gave up and went to work.

Lindsay told me about her troubles as soon as she walked in the door to our Pentagon office and then she called her bank and credit card company. Believing now that someone had entered her house and stolen her laptop and phone, she also tried to report the incident to the DC police, but they refused to take the complaint. “You have to be calling us from inside your home or we cannot do anything.” She protested by kindly pointing out that the perpetrator had stolen her phone, but they weren’t convinced.

Right about now you might be thinking, “Okay, so what? She was burglarized. What’s so crazy about that?” Well here’s the crazy (and ridiculously lucky) part of the story. About an hour after she got to work, Lindsay received an odd message. Someone had called our office to report that she was in possession of Lindsay’s computer and cell phone. Lindsay called the woman who confirmed that she indeed had the laptop and cell phone and they arranged a time and place to meet up. When Lindsay met the woman she received the rest of the story.

This woman (the one that found the laptop and phone) was walking to work near the Washington Navy Yard when she saw a little homeless man walking down the street carrying a laptop and an iPhone. In fact, the iPhone was still plugged into the computer.  Finding the Apple-laden homeless man a bit out of place, the woman approached the him and said “Hey, I don’t think that laptop and cell phone belong to you. How about I buy you some breakfast at McDonald’s and you give me the laptop and cell phone so that I can return them to their rightful owner.” (After all, what’s a MacBook Pro when you can have a tasty egg McMuffin, right?) The homeless man agreed, enjoyed a McDonald’s breakfast and promptly relinquished the contraband items.

Later Lindsay paid the kind woman back for the homeless man’s breakfast and thanked her for stepping in. She is still pretty “creeped-out” as she puts it, that a random homeless man just let himself into her apartment while she was in the back room, but she has learned a valuable lesson about locking the door behind her. As Lindsay told us the story while we went for a jog around Capitol Hill, we wondered whether we would stop a homeless man to ask where he got a laptop/phone. We’re not sure we would have done that, but Lindsay sure is glad someone did.

Intent to Commit Theft

The “Don’ cha know” Standard | Intent to Commit Theft

By | Burglary

Intent to Commit TheftHere’s the scenario – man is caught entering a home through a window that he broke. A female occupant of the home comes face-to-face with him and he then runs away. Is there evidence that the man was attempting to unlawfully enter the woman’s home? Certainly. Is there evidence to support the notion that he intended to commit a theft (or other felony) therein? That’s the question.

In Gear v. State, when posed with this question, the 12th District Court of Appeals (Tyler) held that the evidence was insufficient to prove that the man intended to commit a theft or other felony on the premises. Yes, the man tried to break in and yes the man was poor, but the State simply did not prove that an attempted “burglary” had occurred.

Enter the CCA (and exit the burden of proof). The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the Court of Appeals, holding:

On this record, we decide that a factfinder could reasonably find beyond a reasonable doubt that the recently unemployed appellant with about one dollar in his pocket intended to commit theft inside the complainant’s home when he attempted to enter the home through the window that he had just broken and where the evidence also shows that appellant ran when interrupted by the complainant and that appellant gave conflicting and implausible explanations for his actions.

If you ask me, who cares what explanations appellant gave for his actions? The State must prove this specific intent crime. The burden doesn’t shift to appellant to prove his innocence. If the State doesn’t prove the specific intent to commit theft, a verdict of acquittal is required.

Judge Cochran dissented from the majority. She writes,

[The majority opinion] seems to me to be a “Don’cha know” standard; appellant broke the window and was about to climb inside, therefore “don’cha know” he intended to commit theft…Looking at all of the evidence in this case, even in the light most favorable to the trial judge’s verdict, I cannot find the evidence sufficient in quality, character, or weight…

While everyone can probably agree that the man intentions were not honorable, if the State is going to charge something, the State must prove up the charge.

Walmart Theft

Walmart Theft Case Charged with the Wrong Name

By | Theft

Walmart TheftByrd v. State

In Byrd, the state charged appellant with theft of certain property from owner “Mike Morales.” At trial, however, the State did not prove, in any way whatsoever, that the property belonged to Mike Morales. The overwhelming proof showed that the property, in fact, belonged to Walmart. On appeal, appellant argued the the evidence was insufficient because the State did not prove that the property belonged to Mike Morales. The 4th Court disagreed, holding that the name of the owner was not required, as it was simply a variance of proof.

This week, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals. In a unanimous opinion written by Judge Cochran, the CCA held that:

Although the name of the owner is not a substantive element of theft, the State is required to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the person (or entity) alleged in the indictment is the owner is the same person (or entity) – regardless of the name – as shown by the evidence.

The CCA explained that a conviction would still stand if an indictment alleged an incorrect name, such as Buddy Smith, when the proof at trial revealed that the victim’s name was, in fact, John Smith (Buddy was simply a nickname). In that instance, there would be sufficient evidence showing that the person alleged in the indictment is the same person from whom the property was stolen.

In this case:

Not only did the State fail to offer any evidence that “Mike Morales” – the person alleged in the theft indictment – has any ownership interest in or relationship to the property appellant shoplifted, but the jury, without any apparent concern the missing “Mile Morales,” convicted her nevertheless.  According to the State, the “only explanation for this exceptional circumstance seems to be that it was so clear to all the parties involved – and possibly to the jury as well – that the real victim (both alleged and proven) was Wal-Mart that the discrepancy seemed not to matter.”  An alternate, less generous explanation, is that everyone was asleep at the wheel.

As a rule for future Walmart theft cases (and all theft cases), the majority opinion states:

The parties, the court, and the jury must know the identity of the owner [of the stolen property] regardless of how the State names him.

It is worth noting that the CCA did not foreclose the option of the State reindicting the appellant for theft from “Walmart,” as jeopardy has not attached to that specific offense. But as far as theft from Mike Morales goes, the appellant stands acquitted.

Identity Theft in Texas

Girlfriend Destroys Expectation of Privacy in Identity Theft Case

By | Identity Theft

Identity Theft in TexasAfter being convicted of aiding and abetting mail fraud and aggravated identity theft, Lonnie Oliver Jr., challenged his convictions on appeal, arguing that federal agents conducted an illegal search of the contents of a cardboard box that his girlfriend provided to them and that his statements to police officers were involuntary.

See the full opinion in United States v. Oliver  (5th Circuit, 2011)

Mr. Oliver left an unsecured cardboard box, which contained ample evidence of his identity theft operation, in the dining room of his girlfriend’s apartment. When agents interviewed his girlfriend, she gave them the box, but did not tell them she had already examined its contents.

Does a person have a Reasonable Expectation of Privacy in the contents of a box that was not kept private from his girlfriend?

The court held that the girlfriend’s prior search of the box destroyed Appellant’s reasonable expectation of privacy in it, and rendered the subsequent warrantless police search permissible under the Fourth Amendment. The court stated that the girlfriend’s search made the agents’ warrantless search permissible, regardless of whether the agents knew about it. The court cautioned that his holding was limited to the unique facts of this case and was not intended to expand significantly the scope of the private search doctrine.

Does a waiver of Miranda Right to remain silent need to be in writing?

Appellant also argued that incriminating statements he made to the agents during his custodial interrogation should have been suppressed, claiming that he had not waived his Miranda rights. After agents arrested Appellant, they advised him of his Miranda rights and provided him two forms. Appellant signed the first form acknowledging that he understood his rights, but he refused to sign the second form waiving those rights. Nevertheless, Appellant told the agents that he wished to answer their questions and he confessed to his role in a mail fraud and identity theft scheme.

The Court explained that suspect may waive his Miranda rights if the waiver is made voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently. The mere refusal to sign a written Miranda waiver does not automatically make subsequent statements by a defendant inadmissible. The court held that the circumstances surrounding Appellant’s arrest and interview established that Appellant’s waiver was voluntary, even though he refused to sign the wavier form. Specifically: (1) agents provided Appellant with a copy of the Miranda warning waiver form and read it aloud to him as he followed along, (2) Appellant expressly told the agents that although he would not sign the Miranda waiver form, he would discuss the fraud scheme, (3) Appellant never requested an attorney, (4) Appellant was articulate, coherent and not under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and appeared to understand what was going on, (5) Appellant clearly understood his rights since he signed the first form that acknowledged this, and he had extensive experience with the criminal justice system, and (6) Appellant was not coerced in any way during the interview.

Walmart Greeter Forgery Case

Man Convicted of Forgery for Showing a Fake Walmart Receipt

By | Forgery

Walmart Greeter Forgery CaseAllen walks into Walmart, picks out a nice computer and matching desk, loads both into a shopping cart and proceeds to the exit. Of course, before he can make it out of the store, the infamous receipt-checker stops him at the door. Allen shows a fake Walmart “receipt.” Unfortunately for Allen, the receipt-checker isn’t as dumb as he was hoping. The receipt checker quickly identifies the receipt as a phony and Allen is detained while police are called.

These are the general facts of Shipp v. State, a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals case released last week and designated for publication. In Shipp, the appellant was tried and convicted of the state jail felony offense of Forgery of a Commercial Instrument. With his enhancements, punishment was assessed at 20 years in TDCJ-ID.

Is a Walmart receipt a “Commercial Instrument” under Texas’ Forgery laws?

Shipp argued on appeal that the phony receipt didn’t qualify as a “commercial instrument” under 32.21(d) of the Penal Code. The 6th District Court of Appeals (Texarkana) agreed, holding:

There was no testimony provided here to demonstrate that a receipt issued by this Wal-Mart store is anything more than the memorialization of a past transaction, as opposed to other kinds of things granting or ceding future benefits or rights listed in Section 32.21(d).

The 6th Court of Appeals used the statutory construction doctrine of Ejusdem generis (you can read the opinion for more, but simply put, when general words in a statute follow specific words, courts should look to the specific words for meaning) to arrive at its conclusion that the legislature did not intend to include such items as a Walmart receipt in the statute .

The CCA, on the other hand, declined to use the doctrine here because of the wide range of writings set out in 32.21(d).  Instead, the CCA looked to the legislative history behind 32.21(d) and held that this degree of forgery (state jail felony) was meant to include “documents of commerce.”  The CCA did not define “other commercial instrument” but nevertheless concluded that a store receipt falls within the definition of “documents of commerce.” Adressing Ejusdem generis the CCA states:

To invoke the rule of ejusdem generis to exclude such a patent example of a ‘commercial instrument’ would serve to defeat rather than effectuate the intent of the Legislature…

Dissenting, Presiding Judge Keller joined by Judge Johnson agree with the Court of Appeals’ use of Ejusdem generis stating:

the phrase ‘or other commercial instrument’ must also refer to a document that creates or discharges an economic obligation or that transfers property.

Presiding Judge Keller points out that a receipt has consistently been considered a “document” for purposes of the forgery statute (citing all the way back to 1884 – wow!) but is not an “other commercial instrument” for purposes of making it a state jail felony level. Thus, in her opinion, Shipp should have been prosecuted for a misdemeanor offense.

I would never have imagined a Walmart receipt being a “commercial instrument,” but apparently it is, so says the Court.