Articles Posted in Criminal Appeals

One reason we needed the Michael Morton Act (which improved on our State’s horrible discovery rules in criminal cases) is that the State was hiding evidence which convicted innocent people. One problem with the Michael Morton Act, and the prior discovery rules is that there is no penalty if the State fails to turn over evidence, and then chooses to surprise the defense at trial with secret evidence. Let’s contrast this situation to the standard that we hold defendants, in which they are penalized at every stage of a proceeding for the slightest error. Defendant has work and misses a court date? Warrant! Defendant objects to the wrong subarticle of the Code of Criminal Procedure, that issue is waived on appeal! They created a new board certification for criminal appeals in Texas. But you don’t have to be an appellate genius to guess the outcome of any criminal appeal. 95% of the time whatever violations of the evidence rules, code of criminal procedure, or Constitution will be overlooked if the court of appeals can uphold a conviction. That’s the purpose of appellate courts in Texas, to uphold criminal convictions, and to reverse judgments for damages against Defendants in civil cases.

This leads me to our case of the day- Laura Sanders vs State of Texas

What happened?

The Dallas Court of Appeals recently upheld a Rockwall County kidnapping conviction. Let’s look at the laws regarding kidnapping in Texas, and discuss the facts that led to the courts decision. Here’s the case- Wilson vs. State of Texas-  I usually go through all the facts of the case, but this one has a really weird fact pattern, and I think that’s why the defendant got probation. It just not what you think of when you think of a kidnapping. So I’m going to skip it so we can cover some other areas.

First, what’s the law on kidnapping in Texas? 

Good questions, let’s go to the opinion-

If there is one thing law enforcement hates, it’s the 4th Amendment’s requirement to get a warrant before searching. The reason? Warrants require an officer to have probable cause, and to explain said probable cause (in writing) before getting what they want (searching your house, stealing your blood etc). Warrants provide some degree of accountability for LEO, a very minor check on the almost limitless power of the State. Today let’s talk about searching your body, specifically your veins. In our DWI police state your blood is merely another piece of evidence for the State to gather, and they will hold you down GITMO style to do so.

The Supreme Court recently decided a case called McNeely vs. Missouri, which upheld the controversial position that holding down a DWI suspect and taking his blood without consent is a search, and a warrant is required unless there is some kind of emergency. I say this in controversial because a) prosecutors and law enforcement hate this idea and b) the Constitution usually doesn’t apply to DWI suspects.

So the Supreme Court rules on this blood search issue and now it’s up to Texas’ appellate courts to uphold this Constitutional safeguard. The problem is our appellate courts are largely pro-conviction police-state judicial activists who want the Government to win on appeal. Don’t believe me, today’s case of the day is Reeder Vs State from the Texarkana Court of Appeals.

Being a DWI defense lawyer, or defendant, is tough in Texas. One reason is that our appellate courts will go to almost any length to uphold a DWI conviction. We have pro-conviction judicial activism to an amazing degree in Texas. Don’t believe me. Let’s go to the case of the day,

Kristen Aleia Simpson v. The State of Texas


Kristen was convicted of DWI after a jury trial. But it was a rigged trial. Rigged in the fact that the judge allowed jurors who expressed a bias towards the State to remain in the jury pool. Did you think that jurors are not supposed to be biased? That they are supposed to be fair and neutral? That’s only fair right?

If you read criminal appeals you know that our appellate courts desperately want to help the State by upholding as many convictions as possible on appeal. They accomplish this in a few ways, one is by letting the State break rules and laws as often as possible without consequences. How does this look in practice? Our appellate courts embrace the idea of “harmless error”; that the State is making conviction omelettes it’s ok to break a few eggs along the way.

The Rules of Evidence are a great example. These are the rules that govern what kind of evidence can be used at trial. If the Defense objects at trial and the judge erroneously lets the evidence in anyway the idea is that you can file an appeal and have another court fix this mistake by granting a new fair trial. But this is Texas, and we have a conviction machine to protect, so on appeal the courts look for anyway to justify the fact that while the State may have broken the rules, that’s ok because we got the “right” result, which is that the Government got their conviction. The “finality of convictions” is a key phrase to look for in appellate opinions, it always accompanies injustice.

Let’s go to our case of the day.

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.

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