Significant Decisions Report May 19, 2017

Our high appellate courts are back, with opinions for us to read, digest, and integrate into our practices. Strap in, buckaroos, it is this week’s Significant Decisions Report!

Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals

In USA v. Martinez-Rodriguez, the Fifth Circuit decided that a violation of injury to a child (Texas Penal Code § 22.04(a)(3)) was not an “aggravated felony” for sentencing enhancements under the Guidelines applicable to illegal reentry. No big discussion, no surprising new law, just a thing to remember the next time the USPO decides to add the 2L1.2(b)(1)(C) enhancement for deportation following an aggravated felony if the felony conviction was for injury to a child (even if the act relied upon was deliberate).

Court of Criminal Appeals

State v. Arizmendi

After a well-deserved hiatus in which I hope all our Court of Criminal Appeals judges went on awesome vacations with their families, we are back with a published case with multiple concurrences and dissents, or as I like to call them, “manna from Heaven for appellate lawyers.”

First up is State v. Arizmendi. Presiding Judge Keller delivered the opinion of the Court, joined by Judges Keasler, Hervey, Yeary, Newell, and Keel (by my count, that’s six judges joining the opinion). However, Judge Hervey concurred (which was joined by Judges Keasler and Newell). Judge Newell also wrote a separate concurrence, in which Judges Keasler, Hervey, and Yeary joined (a four-judge concurrence, meaning the only points of departure from the majority were Presiding Judge Keller and Judge Keel). Judge Alcala filed a dissent, joined by no judges, and Judge Walker dissented without separate opinion. Judge Richardson did not participate. So that is a 6-2 breakdown for the result, but really a 6(ish) to 2 to 4 to 2 breakdown. Which is wild, since judges were joining concurrences and majorities like the last days of Caligula.

Let’s dive in.

Arizmendi pleaded guilty with a plea agreement, but moved for a new trial when her co-defendant prevailed on a motion to suppress. The facts are thus: Arizmendi and Cortez, her co-defendant, were traveling in a van that was stopped for driving illegally on the improved shoulder. During the stop, officers discovered methamphetamine in an amount greater than 400 grams. Arizmendi’s counsel negotiated and plead her to confinement for 25 years and a $5,000.00 fine. As a normal part of the plea agreement, Arizmendi agreed to waive her rights to an appeal or other post-judgment motions, including a motion for new trial.

Cortez did not plead, however. He filed a motion to suppress, which was granted (read all about it in State v. Cortez, 501 S.W.3d 606 (Tex. Crim. App. 2016)). The trial court found that the video showed the van’s right rear tire or its shadow appear to touch the white fog line but did not cross it, which is not a violation of the “driving on the improved shoulder” statute.

Arizmendi, feeling her goose had been prematurely cooked, filed a motion for new trial, asking for a new trial in the interest of justice (the catch-all provision). The motion alleged that the arresting officer’s testimony at Cortez’s motion hearing was “new evidence that was not available for known” at the time of Arizmendi’s guilty plea.

Arizmendi’s trial counsel, to her enormous credit, testified at the motion for new trial hearing that her representation of Arizmendi was likely ineffective because they did not discuss the possibility of a motion to suppress. The State objected, claiming that Arizmendi had waived her right to file for a new trial in the plea paperwork. The trial court granted the motion on the catch-all grounds, and the State appealed.

As the basis for the new trial was alleged “newly-discovered” evidence, the Court of Criminal Appeals’ analysis focuses heavily on that. In particular, and on this I agree with the majority, the so-called “newly-discovered evidence” was neither new or unable to be discovered. First, Arizmendi’s counsel stated that she did watch the video and did not think a motion to suppress would be successful. Wrong call, possibly, but reasonable minds are allowed to differ on that. Likewise, the trial court’s ruling on Cortez’s motion is not “evidence” within the meaning of newly-discovered evidence.

Which leaves the officer’s testimony at the motion to suppress hearing as the only thing that, conceptually, could be newly-discovered evidence. But in this case, there is a video. And videos are weird. Appellate courts are usually bound by the record below and the credibility determinations made therein. But not with videos. Videos speak for themselves, and reviewing courts are allowed to review de novo “indisputable visual evidence contained in a video recording.” State v. Duran, 396 S.W.3d 563, 570-71 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013). So, the Court of Criminal Appeals viewed the video, read the Cortez transcript, and concluded that the video and the officer’s testimony were very similar, to the point where nothing about the officer’s testimony was “newly-discovered.”

Which makes sense; the ruling in the motion to suppress was based on whether the tire has to merely contact the fog line or wholly cross it, which does not rely on determinations of officer credibility but rather statutory construction. The majority denies relief on these grounds, finding that Arizmendi was not entitled to prevail on the motion for new trial on the ground of so-called “newly-discovered evidence.”

Judge Hervey, in her concurrence (joined by two other judges), raises two interesting points. First, she would say that Arizmendi’s waiver of her right to file a motion for new trial was not knowing and voluntary because she did not know, at the time of the motion for new trial hearing, that she had an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. Judge Hervey would apply the same rule that applies to post-conviction writ waivers – they are enforceable except where the defendant learns at some point after the waiver has been signed of a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.

Second, Judge Hervey points out that the trial court could and did grant Arizmendi the right to file a motion for new trial even barring the waiver when it set the motion for new trial for a hearing.

Judge Hervey concurs in the result reached by the majority – Arizmendi’s counsel did not properly raise ineffective assistance in a motion for new trial (which, again, is weird if you’re the attorney bringing the motion for new trial), so Arizmendi cannot recover on the ground… yet. Judge Hervey seems to leave open the very real possibility that she would move to grant post-conviction relief to Arizmendi on ineffective assistance grounds.

Judge Newell also filed a concurrence. In a very long and scholarly opinion, he describes the genesis and history of the catch-all provision, correctly (to my mind) noting that it is not an independent basis for relief (as in, reviewing courts cannot simply grant a new trial because they feel the jury reached an incorrect result) but rather an attempt to ameliorate the difficulty imposed by specifically enumerating grounds for a motion for new trial. As such, Arizmendi’s motion for new trial alleged only a single ground for granting the new trial (a verdict contrary to law and evidence), but the problem there is that pleading that ground raises only a sufficiency issue, and I hope if there is one thing you have taken away from these little chats, dear reader, is that sufficiency is usually the weakest issue an appellate advocate can raise.

Judge Alcala’s dissent presents the opposite view to Judge Newell’s concurrence (though, I would state that Judge Newell has at least three other judges backing him up, whereas Judge Alcala stands alone here). Judge Alcala would grant trial courts the ability to grant a free-standing “in the interest of justice” new trial (something along the lines of a JNOV in civil cases) subject to review for abuse-of-discretion.

I think both Judges Newell and Alcala may be dancing around the same thing. To grant a free-standing new trial in the interest of justice, without more, would almost certainly be an abuse of discretion. Trial courts do not have the power of the pardon. On the other hand, it does seem to insist on hypertechnical pleading to require a motion for new trial to state specific grounds in magic words to enable relief. I think the disagreement here mainly comes from the fact that Arizmendi’s motion for new trial did not comport with the arguments she actually made at the hearing, which should impress upon us all the need for careful and conscientious drafting.

These are all four very well-written and well-researched opinions. I am inordinately happy to have such thoughtful people on the Court of Criminal Appeals, because, even where we disagree, I respect deeply the jurists who write these opinions. I commend majority, concurrences, and the dissent to my readers for a prime example of excellent legal scholarship.

Larue v. State

In our second case, the Court of Criminal Appeals considered whether it was error to deny a post-conviction DNA testing motion.

As I have stated before regarding these motions, they have a deceptively high burden. After making a showing that the evidence still exists in testable form, the applicant must then show that the result would matter. DNA testing is not some magic philter which, when applied to the facts of a case, presents a glow of guilt or innocence. DNA testing is like a really high-tech fingerprint. The presence of DNA at a crime scene or on a piece of evidence is indisputable proof that someone was present. The presence of a third party’s DNA, on the other hand, is proof that someone else was there. The presence of a third-party DNA with no evidence that the defendant was at the scene could be an exculpatory result, however.

But Code of Criminal Procedure Ch. 64 requires that post-conviction DNA testing establish that no rational jury would have convicted if they had had the new DNA evidence. Merely “muddying the waters” is never going to be enough. I know, I know… every one of us on the defense bar believes that if she or he could muddy the waters, the jury would return to us and say, “Mr. Haygood, the State did not prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt!” But let us be honest with ourselves here, and honest about our juries: we can’t know that. So maybe muddying the water is not enough to satisfy the burden for post-conviction DNA testing. I do know this – if we want that changed, our recourse is with the drafting of Chapter 64.

Here are the facts: a woman named Pentecost was murdered in 1989, and our fledgling DNA testing at the time was unable to determine the murderer. Larue was one of six suspects from whom the police obtained blood samples (one other person, Augustine, was, for a time, a suspect, but no blood sample was obtained). In 1991, DNA typing of the blood eliminated every suspect but Larue. The police did not focus on Augustine for a “number of small things,” in the words of the investigator.

In 2001, DNA testing occurred that confirmed Larue’s presence at the scene – semen from an oral swab and fingernail samples. The testing did not implicate any third parties.

At trial, Larue implicated Augustine in Pentecost’s murder, but was impeached with numerous prior statements in which he had blamed people other than Augustine, and in fact never mentioned Augustine’s name.

Judge Newell, writing for the Court, reiterates the Court’s position that evidence of another person at the scene is simply that: we know that Larue was either at the scene of the crime or with the victim shortly before her death. While a finding that Augustine’s DNA was also at the scene might implicate Augustine, it does not exonerate Larue. In other words, because credible DNA evidence connected Larue to the murder, it would be very difficult to show that the presence of a third party’s DNA would exonerate him, especially given other evidence that indicated that there might have been two assailants of Pentecost.

Cahill v. State

In this case, the State Prosecuting Attorney sought discretionary review of a matter involving the Interstate Agreement on Detainers. In brief, as this opinion is unpublished (for reasons I will explain shortly), the IADA requires that a defendant who requests final disposition under the IADA to be brought to trial within 180 days.

The IADA is the mechanism by which an out-of-state defendant can be brought to Texas for trial. In this case, Cahill was an overnight guest of an Oklahoma jail when he received the detainer from the Collin County District Attorney’s Office. Cahill agreed to waive extradition proceedings if Collin County would bring this matter to trial within 180 days. The IADA provides a form for requesting this type of speedy trial. Cahill sent in the form as required. Cahill was not brought to trial within 180 days. Cahill subsequently filed a motion to dismiss, claiming that the IADA provision requiring dismissal was now in force.

The trial court denied the motion to dismiss because Cahill’s trial counsel did not offer any evidence showing that the District Attorney’s Office had received the IADA forms. After trial, in the motion for new trial, Cahill presented the certified mail return receipt (“green card”), showing that one “B. Sommers” had signed for the IADA paperwork at the District Attorney’s Office. Sommers was apparently a mail room employee tasked with collecting and distributing mail to the District Attorney’s Office. The trial court denied the motion for new trial.

The Fifth Court of Appeals, in an unpublished memorandum opinion, granted relief, as the evidence was that Cahill complied with the IADA, and it was Sommers, an agent of the Collin County District Attorney’s Office, who failed to deliver the IADA paperwork to the prosecutor. The State Prosecuting Attorney sought discretionary review.

After briefing and oral argument, the Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed the proceeding as improvidently granted. That is why the opinion is unpublished, as the Court of Criminal Appeals did not weigh in on this issue. Instead, the unpublished opinion of the Fifth Court of Appeals stands as written.

First Court of Appeals

In Gonzalez v. State, No. 01-15-00902-00903-CR, the First Court of Appeals considered yet another case relating to the constitutionality of Texas Code of Criminal Procedure art. 39.15, the statute which limits access to forensic interviews of children in abuse cases. As with other cases, the First Court here holds that the procedures in Art. 39.15 do provide “reasonable” access for defense counsel and defense experts. A novel argument that was raised, however, was whether Art. 39.15 is square with the Sixth Amendment right to confrontation. However, because Gonzalez was able to use the forensic interviews to impeach the credibility of his accusers, the Court of Appeals found that he was given his confrontation rights.

In Rodriguez v. State, No. 01-16-00401-CR, the First Court of Appeals considered an evidence sufficiency challenge to an armed robbery conviction. Rodriguez, along with two cohorts, attempted a series of robberies in the Houston, Texas, area, and by triangulating their position based on very nearly simultaneous 911 calls regarding robberies, the police were able to track the dastardly trio to a Whataburger, whereupon the bandits gave chase, and were ultimately apprehended. However, none could say whether Rodriguez was a gunman, a bagman, or a wheelman, and so the charge set forth robbery both as a principal and under the law of parties.

The Court found no dispute that Rodriguez was not one of the two men who robbed a woman at gunpoint. However, when that woman ran back to her house to call 911, she was able to overhear another call come in about an attempted robbery at a Shipley’s Donuts nearby, this time with three men in a white Chevy Impala. The officers dispatched to help the purse-snatched woman responded to Shipley’s, which led them to put a BOLO for the white Impala, which was located at the Whataburger. Inside the Impala was our first victim’s purse, indicating that at least two of the three men in the Impala were the assailants of the woman.

So there was some evidence, albeit circumstantial, that Rodriguez was the third man in the car, had taken part in the attempted donut caper, and then fled from the police when spotted at the Whataburger. Only in movies and TV shows is circumstantial evidence somehow less probative than direct evidence, so the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, was legally sufficient to convict Rodriguez under the law of parties.

In Rawlins v. State, No. 01-16-00435-CR, the Court of Appeals considered whether the trial court properly admitted evidence that Rawlins was a gang member. But because Rawlins did not object to the evidence of gang affiliations, he did not preserve the complaint for appeal. Even a pretrial motion in limine will not preserve an issue for appeal without a contemporaneous objection to the same evidence when it is offered at trial.

Second Court of Appeals

In Ette v. State, No. 02-16-00173-CR, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals considered a case in which the defendant was found guilty of misapplication of fiduciary property and assessed probation and a fine. Ette raised two issues on appeal: confrontation and a variance between the written judgment and oral pronouncement. The confrontation issue was easily disposed, as the alleged impeachment Ette sought was on a piece of property completely separate from the fiduciary property for which he was on trial. The fine issue was meatier; the trial court did not orally pronounce a $10,000.00 fine during sentencing, but included it in the judgment. Open and shut case, right? Oral pronouncement controls in criminal cases, right? Wrong.

When a judge’s oral pronouncement of punishment inadvertently omits the fine, Texas law permits a reviewing court to “harmonize” the record before it – considering the jury verdict (which included the fine), the oral pronouncement (which did not), and the written judgment (which did). Plus, Ette signed conditions of community supervision which specifically mentioned the fine, so he could not be heard to complain about the fine’s imposition on appeal.

Justice Kerr dissented, arguing that the harmonization rule should only apply in cases where the sentencing is ambiguous. She would apply the general rule about the superiority of the oral pronouncement, because there was no indication in the record that the trial court forgot or was confused. It simply did not mention the fine.

Who’s right? I don’t know. Maybe this one will get PDR’d and we will get an answer.

Fourth Court of Appeals

In Warden v. State, No. 04-16-00099-CR, the defendant was found guilty of tampering with physical evidence. On appeal, Warden claimed that the trial court erred in failing to suppress evidence seized from a pat-down search. Guadalupe County deputies, responding to a disturbance call at the home of a known drug user very recently released from the pen, saw a red passenger car and a black SUV pulling a trailer tear-assing through a field. Finding this more than moderately suspicious, one deputy pulled in behind the vehicles. The red car stopped before a gate, and Warden jumped out, hopped the fence, and continued up to the residence. Warden, the homeowner, and officers had a chat from opposite sides of the fence. Officers asked if anyone had dumped burgled items on the property; the homeowner said he had given permission for people to dump “whatever” on his property. Warden offered to show the officers to the dump site. Warden got inside a deputy’s vehicle. Department policy requires a pat-down before that can happen, and the deputy testified he felt something in the front pocket of Warden’s jacket. The officer asked Warden what it was, and Warden withdraw a syringe and shot the contents onto the ground.

Now upset that someone had just withdrawn a sharp instrument from his jacket and was holding it, the deputy drew his weapon and trained it on Warden. Warden was restrained and arrested for tampering with evidence.

On appeal, Warden claimed that this was somehow not a consensual police/citizen encounter and that the pat-down was a search under the Fourth Amendment. But recall – until Warden voluntarily moved outside the fence to get into the patrol car of the deputy, he was well within his rights to turn around and march back into the house. No lights were flashing. No sirens blaring. Just officers chatting with two guys over a fence. A fence that the officers did not attempt to enter. So despite the fact that Warden was patted down, he was only patted down because he willingly submitted himself to the ministrations of the Guadalupe County deputies. Motion to suppress denied, conviction affirmed.

Eighth Court of Appeals

In Flores v. State, No. 08-16-00025-CR, a pro se appellant appealed his conviction for burglary of a building. Flores raised several issues on appeal, none of them meritorious. First, he argued that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to excluded jurors who had a bias against people with tattoos. But the court did exclude four jurors who stated they had such a bias, and Flores did not challenge any additional jurors on this basis. Flores also alleged that Jurors 4 and 8 spoke to him outside of the courtroom and told him they were going to find him guilty because of his tattoos. During trial, Flores made a similar objection, but identified Jurors 3 and 8 as the ones he had spoken to (he was silent as to the tattoo matter). The trial court, in interviewing the jurors, found that each juror denied speaking to Flores. Flores sought to offer his ex-wife to shore up his testimony, but admitted she would not testify truthfully.

Flores also claimed the trial court prevented him from putting on a defense that the charges were laid against him in retaliation for his grievances with the El Paso Police Department. In particular, the trial court permitted Flores to call an officer unrelated to the case and ask whether that officer had shot and killed Flores’s brother. The officer testified that he had shot Flores’s brother, but that the shooting was unrelated to the present case. Flores was not permitted to ask other questions regarding the nature of the shooting or whether the officer had planted a knife on Flores’s brother, because such was not relevant. Thus, Flores did get to present evidence of retaliation; he is merely upset that the jury chose to reject it.

Finally, in a quite ballsy move, Flores objected to the surveillance video which showed him entering the room where the stolen money was kept on the basis that it was irrelevant. The Court of Appeals very succinctly pointed out that, yes, Virginia, surveillance videos are almost always going to be relevant, and overruled this point of error.

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