Significant Decisions Report for April 28, 2017

This week saw the High Court issue an opinion in the case of Lewis v. Clarke, which is (sadly) not about America’s two greatest explorers suing each other for whose name should get precedence in the history books. But William, when you think about it, the Clark and Lewis Expedition sounds like a late-70s progressive rock band, not a merry jaunt across the American West, so Lewis and Clark it shall remain. Sadly for us, however, the case is not one of criminal significance, so we are bereft of guidance from on high. However, the Fifth Circuit, Court of Criminal Appeals, and Texas courts of appeals will ride to our rescue.

Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals

Alexander v. City of Round Rock et al.

Officers with Round Rock PD pulled over Mr. Alexander after they witnessed what they considered “suspicious activity.” Naturally, Mr. Alexander did not want to answer questions, and, finding their authority so challenged, the officers “forcibly removed Alexander from his car, handcuffed him, and ultimately arrested him for resisting a search.” Ah, the jackboots of authority are already stamping on the human face, forever.

Alexander sued the officers under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of numerous constitutional rights. The District Court granted the officers’ motion to dismiss on grounds of immunity. The Fifth Circuit affirmed in part, and reversed and remanded in part.

The facts are thus: Alexander was a patron of a hotel in Round Rock, Texas. Just after 9:00 p.m., he returned to the hotel from a grocery trip, when he spied a stray cat in the parking lot. He stopped his car and attempted to induce the kitty into coming out of hiding so that Alexander could feed him (I promise there won’t be too many animal cases this week, but, like the good dogs in last weeks, feeding stray kitties is something I heartily endorse, because animals are awesome and people sometimes suck). Anyway, his animal welfare deed done, Alexander returned to his car, at which point he was pulled over by Officer Garza. Alexander identified himself but told Garza that he would not answer any of Garza’s questions, which prompted Garza to call for backup for “noncompliance” (there’s your dystopian tip-off of the day).

On appeal, Alexander argued that the officers violated his constitutional rights by: (1) unlawfully detaining him; (2) arresting him without probable cause; (3) retaliating against him for exercising his constitutional rights to remain silent; and (4) using excessive force. In order to overcome the nefarious defense of qualified immunity, Alexander had to show that the official seeking immunity has violated a statutory or constitutional right. If that showing is made, the reviewing court must then determine whether the official’s actions were objectively unreasonable in light of the clearly-established law for the time.

So while Alexander may not ultimately prevail on these, the Court of Appeals, taking his well-pleaded allegations as true, found that he was at least entitled to survive the motion to dismiss stage. Which makes this a case to watch for those of us interested in vindicating the civil rights of those who find themselves inappropriately on the wrong side of the law.

Lincoln v. Barnes

In another qualified immunity case, the Fifth Circuit discussed whether a Texas Ranger violated the Fourth Amendment right of a citizen to be free from unlawful seizure when he arrested Erin Lincoln without a warrant, probable cause, or justifiable reason. The rationale for her detention was that she was a witness to her father’s shooting. The Fifth Circuit did find that this was a Fourth Amendment violation, and then considered whether the right violated was clearly established at the time of the violation. The Court of Appeals found that the arrest and custodial detention of a “witness” violated the Fourth Amendment, and thus Erin could maintain her suit against the Texas Ranger for violating her civil rights.

I included both of these cases in this week’s Significant Decisions Report to highlight the difficulty, and potential reward, in bringing civil rights cases against police officers. Qualified immunity is a hell of a hurdle to overcome, but it can be overcome. The secret is in a well-pleaded complaint and good lawyering to carry one through the motion to dismiss and summary judgment stages. If you have one of these cases in your office, it would behoove you to get the petitions from these cases and/or talk with the attorneys representing these citizens.

Court of Criminal Appeals

Ex Parte Pete

Following conviction, Mr. Pete decided he would testify at punishment. But when he approached the stand, he was still shackled, and who should espy such a circumstance but the jury. It should be noted at this juncture that the jury should never see the defendant shackled. Pete asked for a mistrial, but the Court took it under advisement and allowed the punishment trial to continue. The trial court interrupted the proceedings and granted the mistrial. Following the grant of mistrial, Pete filed an application for habeas corpus and tried to reinstate his trial bond.

The issue on appeal is whether a mistrial granted at the punishment stage resets the entire trial or merely the punishment stage. The Court of Criminal Appeals discussed the fact that a defendant ordinarily has the right to have the same jury assess both guilt innocence and punishment. But because Pete’s motion for mistrial was only as to the punishment stage, and thus his motion for mistrial necessarily indicated that there would be another jury to hear his punishment case, he would have “invited” the error of which he might complain. So regardless of what the real answer is to the question, in this case, invited error means the defendant loses.

Judge Walker dissented without written opinion, which is a shame. I’d have like to read it.

Miller Jr. v. State

Miller Jr. was charged with aggravated sexual assault of a child and indecency by contact. He waived his right to a jury trial and sought a bench trial. After his conviction, he received a prison sentence. Miller Jr. filed a motion for new trial alleging ineffective assistance in that his counsel allegedly promised him that he would receive probation if found guilty at a bench trial. This advice was wrong because under the former Art. 42.12 that applied at the time of the commission of the offenses, only the jury could recommend a probated sentence. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion for new trial, applying a deferential standard of review. On discretionary review, the Court of Criminal Appeals addressed the proper standard of prejudice to be shown in cases of erroneous advice about probation eligibility. So for Texas law, the standard of prejudice to be shown regarding ineffective assistance of counsel is NOT (I repeat, NOT) whether the defendant’s decision to waive a jury would be different. It is whether a jury would have decided differently than the judge. And since that is the appropriate ineffective assistance prejudice standard, the Fifth Court of Appeals was correct to deny Miller Jr.’s motion for new trial.

Judge Yeary dissented without a written opinion, which, again, I would dearly have loved to read. Come on, dissenters. We, your loyal fan(s), want to hear from you!

First Court of Appeals

In Sanchez v. State, No. 01-16-00862-CR, the First Court of Appeals considered the legal sufficiency of the proof of value in a theft case. Our intrepid thief stole his neighbor’s VW Bug, whose value was sought to be established at trial by the testimony of the owner and the investigating officer. The owner’s testimony was insufficient, because she did not describe the timeframe in which she purchased the vehicle nor the length of her ownership. However, the investigating officer’s testimony, though rather on the anemic side, was nevertheless sufficient because he referenced the Kelley Blue Book (no, hashtag appellatetwitter, not that Blue Book, nerds). So even though the officer had never seen the car in question, he could nevertheless bring in a hearsay valuation from a book that is hardly regarded as entirely authoritative within the car sales context. Don’t believe me? Try getting your Kelley Blue Book value on a trade-in.

Sixth Court of Appeals

In Oringderff v. State, No. 06-16-00085-CR, the Texarkana Court of Appeals, the defendant challenged his conviction for felony DWI on the ground that the trial court erred in overruling his motion to suppress and that the evidence was insufficient. However, the Court of Appeals found that, under the totality of the circumstances, the arresting officer had probable cause to pull Oringderff over due to a combination of Oringderff’s bad driving (going over the fog line) and information from a 911 caller. Not that even had Oringderff prevailed on this point would it have changed the legal sufficiency calculus, because in a legal sufficiency review, the court considers all evidence, whether rightfully or wrongfully admitted. So there’s a good lesson – raising legal sufficiency on the grounds that the evidence was insufficient because the trial court stubbornly refused to grant your brilliant motion to suppress is going to get you nowhere.

Tenth Court of Appeals

In Ex parte Billy Mack Maddison, No. 10-16-00081-CR, the defendant filed an application for a pretrial writ of habeas corpus challenging the constitutionality of Texas Penal Code § 33.07, online harassment. The trial court granted the writ, declaring subsection (a)(1) unconstitutional. A majority of the Tenth Court of Appeals, however, disagreed.

At issue is whether Texas Penal Code § 33.07 is a content-based regulation. Once again, the dreaded demon of Scott v. State, 322 S.W.3d 662 (Tex. Crim. App. 2010) rears its bestial head, with the pernicious (and incorrect!) line that there is no First Amendment protection for speech which invades “privacy interests” (seriously, someone find me that exception in the First Amendment), and the Tenth Court of Appeals merrily traipses down wrong path from the outset. The Court of Appeals concludes that Sec. 33.07 is content-neutral because it is viewpoint-neutral, which confuses the two analyses.

Chief Justice Gray, writing in dissent, gets the issue absolutely correct. I’ll leave it in Chief Justice Gray’s words: “Because you must look to the content of the speech, or into the mind of the speaker (intent), to determine if the statute is violated, the prohibited speech is properly characterized as content based. As just one simple example, support in favor of a political candidate would not be prohibited under the statute although it showed a photo of the candidate and was made to appear to be posted by the candidate, even though it was not. On the other hand, a negative political ad posted on a web site or sent over the internet without the candidate’s approval would fall within the prohibition of the statute. The statute sweeps clearly protected political and expressive speech within its prohibition. But you have to look at what is said and how it is said to determine if it is prohibited the statute. That makes it a content based impairment of speech.”

Could not have said it better myself, Mr. Chief Justice.

 

 

About Lane A. Haygood

Lane A. Haygood is a board-certified criminal appellate lawyer who practices throughout the State of Texas. Contact him at http://www.haygoodlawfirm.com

Speak Your Mind

*