Significant Decisions Report for May 5, 2017

This week, we lost a legend, Richard “Racehorse” Haynes. One of the first criminal trials I watched as a law student was Mr. Haynes trying a sexual assault of a minor case in Williamson County. It was a major decision in my own choice to pursue criminal law in education and vocation. We are all the poorer for no longer having him among us.

First Court of Appeals

We are also the poorer for instruction this week, as none of our higher courts have issued published criminal opinions (there is an interesting civil opinion from the Supreme Court on the Fair Housing Act and standing, if you’re into that sort of thing).

But on the criminal tip, we first consider Baldit v. State, No. 01-16-00119-CR, in which the First Court of Appeals considered two issues: a boring legal sufficiency issue (surprise! The evidence was sufficient!) and a more interesting one of the competency of a child to testify.

Baldit was convicted of misdemeanor domestic assault for getting into a fight with his girlfriend and dragging her around the living room, causing her to suffer a broken toenail, carpet burns, and bruising (I told you the sufficiency issue was boring). The victim’s six-year-old child testified at the hearing that she watched the assault. On appeal, Baldit argued that the trial court erred by not inquiring as to the child’s competency to testify. Despite a rather strange procedural argument about whether the trial court conducted such a hearing (if it did, and it was recorded, the record was not presented to the Court of Appeals), the Court went on to conclude that a competency hearing for a child witness is not required unless incompetence is raised by the opposing party, and even if the court had been presented with a competency challenge, this six-year-old child appeared to be confident.

Which just goes to show: if you want something from the court, ask for it. If you think the child witness is incompetent, ask the trial court for a determination. Failing to ask will usually get you poured out, and in this case, the only reason that did not happen is the trial prosecutor (!) informed the appellate prosecutor (!!) who correctly sent a letter to the court of appeals informing the court that there might actually be a competency hearing in the record, but not in the portions of the record presented to the court. While I heartily commend these two prosecutors for honesty and forthrightness to demonstrate that the claimed-of error was preserved, we should not count on the magnanimity of others.

Thirteenth Court of Appeals

In State v. Haworth, No. 13-15-00519-CR, the Thirteenth Court of appeals was faced with a State’s appeal over a strange issue. I doubt this is going to come up very often, but let us discuss it anyway so that the next time this happens to you, you can think back to the time when Lane told you this was never going to happen to you and curse his name.

The facts are thus:  an officer sees a man violate a traffic law and pulls him over. The driver is suspected of boozed operation of his motor vehicle, and is arrested. The driver files a motion to suppress, arguing that the officer could not have seen him bust an illegal U-turn from the officer’s vantage point. At the hearing, the officer admits the dash-cam video.

Then this is where things get weird. At the hearing, the judge admits that s/he “had a chance to go out there and inspect the location myself,” and came to the conclusion that the driver was right!

I say this situation is low-probability because how many times are judges going to take it upon themselves to conduct a scene visit? Rarely, one presumes.

But this kind of issue has arisen before, particularly in an unpublished case from Texarkana known as Gentry, No., 06-05-00237-CR. In Gentry, the judge recalled, from personal experience, the incident which led to the criminal charges being filed. In fact, the judge mused, I may have been the one to call the cops! Obviously the Texarkana Court of Appeals found that the judge was disqualified by being a witness to the facts and remanded the case.

Which is exactly what happened here. If there are any judges reading this, we appreciate your dedication and hard work, but y’all can just stay on the bench and rule. No need for scene visits. If defense counsel or the State is so careless as to omit testimony you would dearly like to have to rule in their favor, the correct answer is to rule against them. Any lawyer bears the risk of failing to provide sufficient evidence to convince the court of something. Because if you do leave the bench to gain personal knowledge of the case, you are now a witness, and can no longer be a judge. And we like you. We want you to be our judge. So leave the investigating to us.

And if you are an attorney who finds him or herself suddenly in the position where the judge is interjecting personal knowledge of the facts of the case into their decision, file your immediate motion to recuse.

Then, in Chambers v. State, No. 13-16-00079-CR, the defendant, a police chief in a small municipality, found himself on the wrong side of the law after ordering his deputy to fill out some forms that were found to be missing during an audit. The forms were certifications that his reserve officers had passed their mandated firearms qualification. Whoops.

On appeal, the defendant tried to argue that the forms were not governmental records. In short, any document “belonging to, received by, or kept by government for information” (the statutory definition) is going to be a governmental record. So the legal sufficiency argument falls flat, as the small municipal PD is obviously a governmental body and these forms were required by the audit.

In another issue, the defendant also raised the idea of whether he had the intent to harm or defraud by submitting falsified firearms records. But “intent to harm or defraud” as used in this section does not require proof of an intent to cause pecuniary or property loss to the government; rather, the intent to harm arises from causing someone to “rely upon the falsity of a representation, such that the other person is induced to act or refrain from acting.”

Fourteenth Court of Appeals

And so, we turn at last to the Fourteenth Court of Appeals, who issued but a single published opinion this week. In Cain v. State, Nos. 14-16-00141-00143-CR, the Court of Appeals considered a case in which Mr. Cain pleaded guilty to three counts of aggravated robbery. The trial court required a PSI report, which included a letter from Cain’s mother suggesting he had mental health issues. Cain’s attorney did not require a mental health study as a part of the PSI.

While this may have been beneficial, the Fourteenth Court (correctly) held that the presence of such a report in the PSI was waivable, and that by failing to object and request such a report, Cain’s counsel waived any argument about it. When Cain attempted to raise the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel, the Court of Appeals rejected his claim on the basis that the record is under-developed on direct appeal. This is almost always the case! Never, ever, ever raise ineffective assistance of counsel as a point on direct appeal unless (1) the error is so plain and obvious that no reasonable trial strategy could have excused it (super rare, by the way) or (2) a motion for new trial was filed that permits trial counsel to put the reasons for their strategy into the record.

I routinely run across the issue of people wanting to raise ineffective assistance of counsel on direct appeal. This is bad. Do not do it unless you are sure the record is appropriately developed. You can prejudice your client against being able to raise it again.

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

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