Articles Posted in Criminal Appeals

Lesser included offenses can be an important part of a criminal jury trial. Some offenses, like misdemeanor DWI, don’t have any lesser included offenses. Others, like Aggravated Assault, are full of lesser included opportunities.

What is a lesser included offense? Let’s take an aggravated assault case. The difference between an aggravated assault (felony) and a misdemeanor assault is “serious bodily injury”. Aggravated assaults require that someone suffer a serious bodily injury, where misdemeanor assault just require some injury. So if you are on trial for aggravated assault, and you want to argue over whether the injury was “serious”, then you can ask that the jury be allowed to consider the lesser included offense of assault. That means, instead of just deciding if the defendant is guilty or not guilty of aggravated assault, the jury could consider finding the defendant guilty of only a misdemeanor assault. Confused? That’s ok, this isn’t an exciting topic for the lay person.

This being Texas, we do all sorts of mental gymnastics to uphold convictions on appeal. So if you want to appeal a conviction because the trial judge would not allow a lesser included instruction, here is how the court will decide that issue (spoiler alert, they will rule against the Defendant, but this is how they will rule against the Defendant).

A recent appeal from Kaufman County highlight the dangers of self representation in criminal cases. In misemeanor cases it’s alarmingly common for defendants to walk into court and sign away their right to counsel. These pro se defendants talk to the prosecutor and almost always end up accepting whatever plea bargain is offered. It’s common for these defendants to later try and change these guilty pleas when they realize that a) this criminal case is on their record forever b) they weren’t guilty and they wished they hadn’t pled to the charge or c) they realize they got a horrible deal and now they want to renegotiate.

For felony cases it is less likely that a defendant will proceed sans counsel. For felony jury trial it is even more rare. It is the height of hubris for someone to think that they can walk in and pick twelve jurors when they are facing both a skilled and experienced prosecutor and years behind bars. You may not be surprised to know that some felony defendants are not known for making great life choices, and hence we have the occasional pro se jury trial. It’s usually a train wreck of sorts, and the defendant always loses.

When the defendant loses they often ask their appellate lawyer to try and get the case reversed because they realize that going without a lawyer was a horrible idea. Which leads us to our case of the day-

Some prosecutors will seek to punish a Defendant who demands a trial and start digging through the case to find an “enhancement” (enhancement increase the possible sentence or limit parole etc). This is more common for Defendants with lengthy criminal histories, but some prosecutors apply this approach to anyone who dares seek a jury trial.

For example, a prosecutor may try to enhance certain felony cases because the county did not receive enough rain last year and was declared a disaster area. Our laws are so poorly written, and prosecuting in Texas is so poorly regulated, that these revenge charge enhancements (or trial penalties) are easy to come by if a prosecutor is so inclined. There is literally no risk to the State for piling on new charges or enhancements on every Defendant who seeks a trial.

This leads us to our case of the day-

Mark Bennett runs my favorite Texas defense lawyer blogs, Defending People. Mark has been arguing that part of the Texas law regarding Online Solicitation of a Minor is unconstitutional since 2008. Today, the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed and ruled 9-0 that part of the statue, 33.021(b)(1) is a violation of the First Amendment. Congrats to Mark. Let’s look at the opinion.

Online Solicitation of a Minor- What’s the law? 

The statute is a mess to read, so I’ll summarize. Basically, a person who is 17 years of age or older commits an offense if, with the intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person, the person, over the Internet or by electronic mail or a commercial online service  communicates in a sexually explicit manner with a minor; or distributes sexually explicit material to a minor, or knowingly solicits a minor to meet with the intent that the minor will engage in sexual contact, sexual intercourse, or deviate sexual intercourse.

Corey Freeman had a bench trial and was convicted of online solicitation of a minor. Corey challenged the law as being unconstitutional for two reasons. One, was that he claimed the law was a strict liability offense in that there was no requirement that he actually believe he was talking to a 13 year old, and second that the statute infringed on his first amendment. The Dallas Court of Appeals disagreed, which is not surprising, almost every conviction and statute is upheld on appeal. This is Texas after all. On a side note, it’s the exact opposite situation for civil appeals, where judgments for plaintiffs are routinely thrown out to better serve our corporate overlords. But that’s a story for another day. Let’s take a closer look at Freeman vs. State.

Facts- Freeman was in a chat with a person identified by the screen name of “brook_chick13.” BrookChick13 stated in communications to Freeman that she was a thirteen-year-old girl. I’ll quote from the opinion here.

Their conversations, over the span of several months, gradually escalated in sexual explicitness. During the correspondence, appellant mentioned wanting to take the girl’s clothes off, kissing her, pulling off her pants and licking her, and “sliding into” her–all the while being reminded by her that she was only thirteen years old. In actuality, appellant was communicating with a male police officer.

Texas has over 600 news laws going into effect this month. One law aims to reverse our State’s wrongful conviction epidemic by allows writs to be filed challenging convictions based on junk science.

From the article-

“I’m going to predict right now that at least several hundred people over the next few years will come out of prison because of this law,” Innocence Project founder Jeff Blackburn said.

Our State’s highest criminal court recently reversed a marijuana conviction out of Kaufman County Court at Law 2, just in time for 4/20. Whenever I discuss marijuana prohibition I always mention how much court time, prosecutor time, appointed lawyer time, police time and tax dollars we waste we waste prosecuting cannabis cases like this one.

It can take years for a case to move form arrest to appeal, and the whole time you are footing the bill so that the criminal justice system can have something to do (besides prosecute real crime that is). Marijuana prohibition is like an evil version of the WPA. Which reminds me, our lege is in session, so why not call your rep and ask them to support bills like this?

Enough editorializing, on to the case, our case of the day is Abney vs State.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in McNeely vs Missouri this week. The issue was whether the 4th Amendment’s requirement for a warrant actually applies to DWI blood draws. The defendant in Mcneely refused to give a breath specimen, so the police just held him down and took his blood, which was allowed by statute in Missouri.

This should be a straight forward issue; the State shouldn’t be able to simply over turn the bill of rights by statute.. Blood draws are a search, a very intrusive search at that, and we require warrants for searches. Of course, DWI and drug prosecutions are the tip of the spear when it comes to destroying the bill of rights. We’ve lost more freedom to save dope convictions and DWI cases than we’ll ever get back.

The Government in McNeely argued that every DWI is an emergency, so they shouldn’t have to get a warrant. That’s a pretty broad definition of emergency and it really makes the government look lazy. I’m sure it would be easier to just ignore the 4th Amendment and let the conviction machine run unabated. But that’s the point, we require warrants because we can not trust the government to do the right thing. We want to limit the power of government to act without oversight.

You know, I can be pretty hard of appellate decisions I don’t agree with. One of my main sources of blog inspiration is outrage at the loss of civil liberties through appellate decisions. It’s only fair that I point out when our State’s highest criminal court does something right, and today is that day.

Today’s case of the day is Leonard vs. State, the Sequel!

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