Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
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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

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Appellant Joseph Diruzzo was convicted on sixteen counts of illegally practicing medicine. On appeal, he argued the district court never acquired subject matter jurisdiction over the case because the indictment only charged him with misdemeanor offenses. He argued the trial court erred to deny his motion to quash the indictment raising this issue. The Corpus Christi Court of Appeals rejected Appellant’s claim, holding that “the indictment sufficiently alleged the third degree felony offense under [Texas Occupations Code S]ection 165.152, thereby invoking the subject-matter jurisdiction of the trial court.” On discretionary review, Appellant contended that, construing Section 165.152 in pari materia with neighboring provisions in the Texas Occupations Code, it was evident the indictment alleged no more than a misdemeanor offense under Section 165.151 of the Texas Occupations Code, and because the indictment alleged only a misdemeanor offense, the court of appeals erred to hold that the district court acquired subject matter jurisdiction over the case. And because the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, he concluded, it erred to deny his motion to quash the indictment. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed the indictment on its face alleged no more than a misdemeanor offense. The Court therefore reversed the court of appeals’ judgment, vacated the trial court’s judgment, and remanded back to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Diruzzo v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Appellant Marian Fraser ran a licensed day care center out of her home. She provided care for twelve children, all typically under two years of age. During an afternoon nap at the center, one of the children, C.F., stopped breathing, vomited, and became unconscious. Emergency personnel transported C.F. to the hospital, but despite the best efforts of the doctors, she died. A toxicology report revealed that C.F. had a high level of the drug diphenhydramine in her body. In Johnson v. Texas, 4 S.W.3d 254, 258 (Tex. Crim. App. 1999), the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held that any felony may serve as a predicate for felony murder as long as it is not manslaughter or a lesser-included offense of manslaughter. Furthermore, the Court held that for the purpose of serving as a predicate felony, “[t]he offense of injury to a child is not a lesser included offense of manslaughter.” Nevertheless, the court of appeals in this case concluded that certain versions of the offense of injury to a child could be lesser-included offenses of manslaughter for the purpose of the felony-murder statute. The court of appeals held that the same could be said for certain versions of the child-endangerment offense. The Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed and reversed the court of appeals: “Because the victim’s status as a child is necessarily an element of the offenses of injury to a child and child endangerment, and that element is not within (or deducible from) the statutory elements of manslaughter, the offenses of injury to a child and child endangerment are never lesser-included offenses of manslaughter for the purpose of the felony-murder statute’s manslaughter exclusion.” View "Fraser v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Appellee Jose Ruiz was charged with felony driving while intoxicated after the State took a blood sample from him without a warrant and while he was unconscious. The trial court granted his motion to suppress his blood test results, and the court of appeals affirmed. The State sought discretionary review to determine whether: (1) implied consent to a blood draw from an unconscious driver was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment; and (2) exigent circumstances justified the warrantless blood draw. The Court of Criminal Appeals granted review of the first ground, and held that implied consent was not a valid basis for a blood draw in the circumstances presented here. The Court then granted review of the second ground concerning exigent circumstances, vacated the lower court’s holding on that issue, and remanded the case to the court of appeals for reconsideration of it in light of Mitchell v. Wisconsin, 2019 U.S. LEXIS 4400, 139 S.Ct. 2525 (2019). View "Texas v. Ruiz" on Justia Law

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Appellee Lauro Ruiz, a former substitute teacher at a private high school, was charged with attempted production of sexual performance by a child for pictures found on his cell phone. The trial court granted his motion to suppress the pictures, but the court of appeals reversed the trial court’s order. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted Appellee’s petition for discretionary review to consider whether the court of appeals misapplied the standard of review and failed to indulge every presumption in favor of the trial court’s ruling. The Court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals. View "Ruiz v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Appellant Demond Franklin was charged with capital murder, and the State waived the death penalty. Upon conviction, he was sentenced to the mandatory sentence of life without parole. On appeal, Appellant claimed for the first time that the age of a defendant at the time of an offense was an element of the offense that had to be proven by the State. On the basis of this proposition, he argued that his sentence should be life with the possibility of parole. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed and affirmed the court of appeals. View "Franklin v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Appellant Pablo Alfaro-Jimenez carried around a fake social security card in his wallet and admitted that he used it to get work. But to convict Appellant of tampering with a governmental record under the theory of liability authorized by the indictment in this case, the State had to prove that Appellant possessed or presented a real social security card. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found the State did not prove that in this case. Consequently, it reversed the court of appeals’ holding that the evidence was sufficient to support Appellant’s conviction. View "Alfaro-Jimenez v. Texas" on Justia Law

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At the punishment-phase of trial for aggravated robbery, Appellant Joseph Smith presented evidence he suffered from a severe drug addiction. The State asked for, and received, an instruction stating that “[v]oluntary intoxication does not constitute a defense to the commission of a crime.” Smith argues that such an instruction is never appropriate in the punishment phase of trial. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held that although it is within a trial judge’s discretion to give a voluntary-intoxication instruction in the punishment phase, its application must be expressly limited to extraneous offenses. The Court "defined with greater particularity" the way in which it thought the charge was erroneous, the Court remanded this case to the court of appeals to decide whether that error was preserved, which of "Almanza’s" harm analyses ought to apply, and ultimately whether the error was harmful. Smith’s remaining issues were dismissed as improvidently granted. View "Smith v. Texas" on Justia Law

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The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement audited the Indian Lake Police Department and found what it believed to be deficiencies in firearms-proficiency records for several volunteer reserve officers. To cure the deficiencies, Appellant John Chambers, then-Police Chief John Chambers, directed a subordinate to falsify the records. The jury found Appellant guilty of 14 courts of tampering with a governmental record with the intent to defraud or harm. On discretionary review, Appellant challenged the denial of a requested jury instruction on whether the records were required to be kept and the sufficiency of the evidence to show his intent to defraud or harm the government. He also claimed the court of appeals did not address his argument about the sufficiency of the evidence to overcome a statutory defense that applied when the falsification of the record has no effect on the governmental purpose for the record. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held: (1) Appellant was not harmed by the denial of the requested jury instruction; (2) the evidence was insufficient to show intent to defraud or harm; and (3) the court of appeals should be given the opportunity to address his argument about the sufficiency of the evidence to overcome his statutory defense. The Court therefore reversed and remanded for the court of appeals to evaluate Appellant’s statutory defense. View "Chambers v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Texas Penal Code Section 12.42(c)(2) mandates a life sentence for defendants who are convicted of a listed sex offense and have been previously convicted of an enumerated sex offense. The question this case presented for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ review centered on whether the elements of sodomy with a child as defined by Article 125 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) were substantially similar to the elements of sexual assault as defined by the Texas Penal Code. The Court granted review to determine whether the two-pronged test for substantial similarity should be amended and, if not, whether the lower court correctly applied it. The Court held the first prong of the test should be applied to the elements of the previous conviction, if proven, and that the second prong of the test should be abandoned View "Fisk v. Texas" on Justia Law