Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
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While on probation for child endangerment charges, Robvia Simpson struck her roommate with an ashtray. She contended she did so in self-defense. But at the hearing to determine whether her probation would be revoked, Simpson did not claim self-defense. Instead, she simply pleaded “true” to the allegation that she assaulted her roommate. The question presented for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was whether Simpson’s plea of “true” precluded her from claiming self-defense in a subsequent criminal trial. The Court concluded that it did not, and affirmed the court of appeals’ judgment. View "Simpson v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Appellant Thomas Dixon, was a plastic surgeon in Amarillo, Texas. Joseph Sonnier was a physician in Lubbock. David Shepherd was a friend of Dixon’s. In 2012, David Shepard killed Joseph Sonnier. The State’s theory was that Dixon hired Shepard to kill Sonnier. Although Dixon had originally told the police that he knew nothing about Sonnier, he admitted at trial that this was untrue. Dixon testified that he had hired Shepard to track and photograph Sonnier (hoping to obtain photos that would cause Dixon’s former girlfriend to break up with Sonnier) and that he understood that Shepard would be planting a camera at Sonnier’s house for this purpose. Also, Shepard’s phone records revealed that Dixon called Shepard within minutes after the police finished speaking to Dixon. Appellant was convicted under a murder-for-hire theory. The Court of Appeals reversed Appellant’s conviction for two reasons: (1) because cell phone location information was improperly admitted; and (2) because the trial court deprived him of a public trial. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals determined neither of these reasons "appears to stand up to close scrutiny." Appellant’s whereabouts on a date other than the date of the murder were not particularly important to the case, so any error in admitting the evidence was harmless. As for the public trial complaints, two were not preserved and the other had no merit. Consequently, the Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals. View "Dixon v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Appellant Ruben Lee Allen made a facial challenge to the constitutionality of Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Article 102.011, subsections (a)(3) and (b). That statute assessed court costs against a convicted defendant to recoup law enforcement expenses incurred in serving and summoning witnesses for the defendant’s prosecution. The statute was silent with respect to where the funds are directed once received by the district clerk. Appellant argued that because Article 102.011 did not direct the collected fees toward a specific account to be expended for legitimate criminal justice purposes, the statute operated as an impermissible tax on criminal defendants rather than as a permissible court cost, thereby violating the separation of powers provision in the Texas Constitution. The Court of Appeals rejected Appellant’s challenge, acknowledging the statute did not contain any language expressly directing that the collected fees be used for a legitimate criminal justice purpose. But, the court found that because the summoning witness/mileage fee was imposed to reimburse an expense directly incurred by the State in the prosecution of this particular case, it was “unquestionably for a legitimate criminal justice purpose,” which rendered it a constitutional court cost, as opposed to an impermissible tax. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed and affirmed. View "Allen v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Freddy Garcia was indicted on one count of aggravated sexual assault, but at trial, the victim described two separate sexual assaults. When the State rested its case in chief, Garcia asked for an election between the two incidents. This request was denied. The court of appeals held that denying Garcia’s request was error of constitutional magnitude and reversed Garcia’s conviction. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed that the trial judge committed constitutional error but disagreed that the error was harmful. The Court therefore reversed the court of appeals’ judgment and affirmed Garcia’s conviction. View "Garcia v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Appellant International Fidelity Insurance Company (Agent: Glenn Strickland) DBA A-1 Bonding, appealed the trial court’s denial of its motion for new trial in a bond forfeiture proceeding arising out of a criminal case. Appellant posted three bonds, in the amount of $30,000 each, for Defendant Israel Fernando Rivera. When Rivera failed to appear for a court hearing, the trial court entered a final judgment against Rivera, and the clerk’s office issued a bill of costs. Appellant timely filed a motion for new trial and a motion to retax costs. The trial court held a hearing on Appellant’s motion for new trial, at which the parties announced that a court reporter was needed. A court reporter was called into the courtroom and appeared to transcribe the proceedings, evidence was offered, and, believing the hearing had been transcribed, the attorneys exchanged contact information with the court reporter. After the trial court denied Appellant’s motion, Appellant timely filed a notice of appeal and timely requested a reporter’s record. But no reporter’s record was filed. At the state’s request, the court of appeals abated the appeal and remanded to the trial court to determine whether: (1) a reporter’s record was created; (2) that record was lost or destroyed; (3) that record was necessary to resolve the appeal; and (4) the parties could agree on a replacement of the lost or destroyed record. The trial court found that the hearing “was not stenographically or otherwise recorded” and was “neither lost nor destroyed.” The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling, holding that Texas Rule of Appellate Procedure 34.6(f) did not afford Appellant relief because Appellant could not show that the hearing had been recorded, and Appellant failed to show the trial court abused its discretion in denying the motion for a new trial. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the court of appeals. View "Int'l Fidelity Ins. Co. v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Appellant Steven Curry was convicted of failure to stop and render aid after he hit a bicyclist, John Ambrose, who later died from his wounds. The jury sentenced Curry to six years’ imprisonment, but did not fine him. On appeal, Curry argued that the evidence was legally insufficient and that he was entitled to a mistake-of-fact jury instruction. The court of appeals overruled Curry’s points of error and affirmed his conviction. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with the court of appeals that the evidence was legally sufficient to support Curry’s conviction for failure to stop and render aid, but disagreed with its conclusion that he was not entitled to a mistake-of-fact instruction. The matter was remanded for the court of appeals to assess whether Appellant was harmed. View "Curry v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Andrew Williams was charged with manslaughter for killing a pedestrian with his vehicle. One of the State’s theories was that Williams was intoxicated when the crash occurred. To support this theory, pursuant to Texas Code of Criminal Procédure Article 38.41, the State offered an analysis of Williams’ blood without calling the analyst who tested the blood as a sponsoring witness. The court of appeals decided that the trial judge properly admitted this evidence over Williams’s confrontation objection. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals concurred with the appellate court’s judgment and affirmed. View "Williams v. Texas" on Justia Law

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At issue in this case was whether the State could prosecute Appellant Brandon Adams for aggravated assault for stabbing Joe Romero after Appellant was acquitted in an earlier trial of aggravated assault for stabbing Joe’s brother, Justin Romero, in the same incident. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals determined the issue the specific issue this case involved the doctrine of collateral estoppel within the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy clause. The Court found collateral estoppel was inapplicable to the facts of this case, and the State was not barred from prosecuting Appellant. The Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals which held to the contrary. View "Ex parte Brandon Adams" on Justia Law

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Shanna Lynn Hughitt was living with Kevin Sliger, a self-described drug addict and methamphetamine dealer. The Brown County, Texas Sheriff’s Office was conducting an investigation into methamphetamine distribution. In furtherance of that investigation, the Sheriff’s Office executed a search warrant at Hughitt and Sliger’s home. When executing the warrant, police found Sliger in the dining room with illegal drugs on his person; Hughitt was found in a bedroom with about one gram of meth and a glass pipe under her clothes. There was also an ounce of marijuana in the bedroom closet and a gallon-sized ziploc bag with meth residue under the mattress. Other items found in the house included cash, drug packaging, rolling papers, syringes, scales, a digital police scanner, and a large amount of MSN “cut.” Hughitt was charged with and convicted of engaging in organized criminal activity (“engaging”) based on the predicate offense of possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver. The issue her case rose before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals was whether that offense - possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver - was a valid predicate offense for the crime of engaging. The Court determined the issue turned on whether the phrase “unlawful manufacture, delivery” as it modified “controlled substance” in Section 71.02(a)(5) of the Texas Penal Code referenced the offense of “possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver.” If it did, then possession with intent to deliver was a predicate offense. If not, then it was not. The court of appeals concluded that the words “manufacture, delivery” were inconsistent with the offense of “possession with intent to deliver.” Consequently, the court of appeals held that possession with intent to deliver was not a predicate offense for the crime of engaging. The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed and affirmed. View "Hughitt v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Two officers from the Columbus Police Department responded to a mid-morning call about people suspected of drinking alcohol inside a parked car at the Department of Public Safety driver’s license office. Appellant Lisandro Beltran De La Torre was in the driver's seat, a female in the front passenger seat, and a second female passenger in the back seat. The officers also saw a man standing outside the vehicle on the passenger’s side. That man was asked to sit down nearby, but he was not questioned and later walked away from the scene. One of the officers noticed a small plastic bag containing a powdery substance on the car’s center console while standing at the driver’s door. Appellant and his passengers were asked to step out of the car; officers noticed Appellant smelled of alcohol, had bloodshot eyes, and appeared to have not slept in a day or more. Both officers stated that Appellant had dilated pupils, which they believed based on their training and experience indicated the use of narcotics. The officers removed the bag with the white powdery substance and field tested it. The test yielded a positive result for cocaine. Appellant and the two female passengers were then arrested for possession of a controlled substance. The issue this case presented for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals concerned a challenge to the trial court’s jury instructions relating to the car's occupants and their close proximity to the drugs. Appellant contended the court of appeals erred by rejecting his two complaints of jury-charge error by: (1) incorrectly upholding the trial judge’s decision to give a non-statutory instruction on “joint possession,” informing the jury that “two or more people can possess the same controlled substance at the same time;” and (2) by upholding the trial judge’s denial of his request for an instruction on “mere presence,” which would have informed the jury that a person’s mere presence at a location where drugs are found is insufficient to demonstrate possession. The Court of Criminal Appeals determined the proposed instructions would have been improper comments on the weight of the evidence, and should not have been included in the jury charge. "By upholding the trial court’s inclusion of the joint-possession instruction the court of appeals erred, but it was correct to uphold the trial court’s refusal of the mere-presence instruction." Accordingly, judgment was reversed due to error regarding the joint-possession instruction, and the case remanded to the court of appeals for a harm analysis. View "De La Torre v. Texas" on Justia Law