Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
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Applicant Mathew Lozoya pled guilty to two counts of third-degree felony obtaining a controlled substance by fraud. Applicant pled guilty to two counts in a plea bargain; the State abandoned two. The State agreed to recommend a four-year sentence of confinement in one count and to place Applicant on community supervision for 10 years in the other. The trial court followed the agreement and ordered Applicant’s sentences to run concurrently. However, the maximum initial period of supervision for this offense, without a lawful extension, which is absent here, is five years. In year six, the prosecutor filed a motion to revoke Applicant’s community supervision. The trial court revoked the community supervision and sentenced him to five years’ incarceration. The issues this case presented for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals were: (1) whether Applicant should have been estopped from challenging the trial court’s revocation of his community supervision because he accepted benefits under his plea agreement; (2) whether the trial court had jurisdiction to revoke Applicant’s supervision after the five-year period expired if estoppel did not apply; and (3) the proper remedy if Applicant was entitled to relief. The Court concluded Applicant was not estopped from challenging the trial court’s order revoking his community supervision, the trial court lacked jurisdiction to revoke the supervision, and the proper remedy was to vacate the trial court’s order revoking Applicant’s community supervision. View "Ex parte Lozoya" on Justia Law

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Appellant Anthony Ruffins was convicted by jury of aggravated robbery. He was sentenced to life. With respect to the testimony of an accomplice in fact, the trial court instructed the jury that it had to find an accomplice in fact to be an accomplice beyond a reasonable doubt. The court of appeals determined that the reasonable doubt portion of the accomplice-witness application paragraph in the jury charge was erroneous, and Appellant suffered hard from that error. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found the trial court record reflected Appellant specifically asked the trial court to ensure that the jury be instructed they had to agree “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the witness in question was an accomplice. The Court held that Appellant, once he stated “I’m good” with the instruction, was estopped from thereafter claiming that the instruction was improper. The Court therefore reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and remanded the case to that court to address Appellant’s remaining points of error. View "Ruffins v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Appellant Jerel Igboji worked at a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Stafford, Texas. Shortly after the restaurant closed for the night on December 10, 2015, two armed men entered the restaurant through an unsecured back door. The men forced Appellant and his coworkers into the freezer while they took the money from the cash registers. After taking the money, the men fled, and the manager triggered the security alarm. Officers with the Stafford Police Department responded to the restaurant and began investigating the robbery that night. Officers interviewed the employees that were present during the robbery and learned the robbers entered through the back door, which Appellant had left unsecured when he took the trash out that night. Appellant cooperated with the investigation and told officers that he was asked to take the trash out by the manager, Tammi Ball. When officers spoke to Ball, however, she told them that Appellant had offered to take the trash out, which she found to be suspicious because, according to her, Appellant usually avoided work. Ball also said that Appellant took the trash out through the restaurant’s back door, which was against the restaurant’s policy. Appellant agreed to meet with a detective, who asked whether Appellant had video taken of the robbery that was posted to Snapchat. Appellant explained that Snapchat automatically deleted the videos after 24 hours and told the detective he did not have any other videos. The detective gave Appellant two options: (1) give consent to search the phone, or (2) police would seize the phone and obtain a search warrant. Appellant responded that the detective should get a search warrant, at which point Appellant’s phone was seized. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals remanded this case back to the court of appeals to reconsider whether exigent circumstances existed to justify the warrantless seizure of Appellant’s cell phone, and whether the officer’s conduct in seizing the property to obtain a warrant was reasonable under those circumstances. View "Igboji v. Texas" on Justia Law

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The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found the trial court record was void of explanation for the trial court’s decision to grant Appellant Donnell Sledge’s motion for new trial and because the language “contrary to the law and evidence,” without additional context, raised a legal sufficiency challenge. Appellant’s second trial violated double jeopardy and acquittal was the required result. Further, because Appellant was afforded more relief than he originally sought, the Court dismissed the State’s second issue regarding ineffective assistance of counsel as improvidently granted. The Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Sledge v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Appellant Justin King was charged with evading arrest or detention with a motor vehicle and with theft of a firearm. The trial court held a pre-trial hearing on Appellant’s motion in limine regarding punishment evidence. Appellant’s trial counsel attended the hearing, but Appellant was not present in the courtroom. The trial court granted the unopposed motion in limine. While appellant was still outside the courtroom, the attorneys and trial court discussed whether Appellant intended to stipulate to the enhancements alleged in the indictment and whether Appellant might be disruptive at trial. Back on the record, the trial court and attorneys discussed how they would conduct voir dire under the assumption that Appellant would plead not guilty. Appellant then entered the courtroom. The State’s attorney said he would be trying only the evading arrest charge and would use the theft of firearm charge as an unadjudicated pending offense during the punishment phase. At this point, Appellant’s trial counsel left the courtroom. The trial court advised Appellant of his right to plead not guilty and asked whether he wanted to plead not guilty and go to trial. Appellant said that he wanted to plead guilty on the evading arrest charge and have the jury assess punishment. The trial court then asked Appellant to confirm this with his trial counsel. Appellant’s trial counsel returned to the courtroom, and Appellant told his attorney, “I want to apologize to you. I want you to represent me to the fullest extent. I want to plead ‘guilty’ to the evading and use the jury for sentencing.” The court then explained that pleading guilty would affect the way the attorneys conducted voir dire. Appellant said that he understood and wanted to plead guilty. The jury found Appellant guilty and assessed punishment at twenty years’ confinement and a $10,000 fine. On direct appeal, Appellant argued that his absence from the hearing violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and Article 28.01, Section 1 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. The Court of Appeals agreed that Appellant’s absence was error but found the error to be harmless because Appellant’s presence did not bear a reasonably substantial relationship to his defense and his absence did not affect the outcome of the trial. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found no due process violation and any Article 28.01 violation was harmless. View "King v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Baby L.B. was born in 2017 to her mother, Appellant Danielle Edwards, and her father, Morris Branton. At some point, Child Protective Services (“CPS”) opened an investigation into Appellant for suspected child abuse. During the course of the investigation, in June 2018, Appellant tested positive for cocaine and admitted to CPS that she had used cocaine several times in the past two weeks. In response, CPS removed L.B. from Appellant’s care and requested that a hair-follicle test be conducted on L.B. to evaluate whether she had been exposed to cocaine. The hair-follicle test revealed that L.B. had a significant amount of cocaine and cocaine metabolites in her system, with results exceeding 20,000 picograms per milligram, the maximum reportable amount. Appellant was subsequently indicted for injury to a child for recklessly causing L.B. a “serious mental deficiency, impairment, or injury” by “allowing [L.B.] access to cocaine and the infant was able to ingest the cocaine[.]” The issue presented for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' review was whether the mother, who repeatedly used cocaine while breastfeeding her baby, could be found guilty of reckless injury to a child for causing serious mental deficiency, impairment, or injury when the baby becomes addicted to cocaine and suffers withdrawals. The Court found that the burden was on the State to provide the jury with sufficient evidence to prove that the cocaine, addiction, and/or withdrawal actually caused the baby serious mental deficiency, impairment, or injury. Because the State in this case failed to provide such evidence, we reverse the court of appeals’ judgment and remand the cause to that court for further proceedings. View "Edwards v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Relator, Lubbock County District Attorney K. Sunshine Stanek, sought mandamus relief without first having sought the same relief from the Court of Appeals. Relator did not learn of this case until after the court of appeals delivered its opinion in the companion case, In re City of Lubbock, WR-93, 137-01. "While this scenario arguably justifies the exercise of this Court’s original mandamus authority," the Court declined review because Relator’s arguments were largely the same as those presented by the City of Lubbock in the companion case, and its resolution of those arguments necessarily resolved the arguments raised in this case. Consequently, the Court of Criminal Appeals dismissed the motion for leave to file as improvidently granted. "To the extent that Relator’s arguments in this case enhance the arguments raised in In re City of Lubbock, we will address them in that case by treating the filing in this case as an amicus brief." View "In re K. Sunshine Stank, Lubbock County Dist. Atty." on Justia Law

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The Lubbock County Criminal District Attorney charged the Real Party in Interest, Rodolfo Zambrano, with the sexual assault of a child. The Real Party in Interest filed a pre-trial “Ex Parte Motion for Court Ordered Production of Documents and/or Things,” seeking a court order for the production of documents held by the Lubbock Police Department. The motion, filed under seal, referred to itself as “an ex parte motion for third party discovery,” and requested that the trial court order the Lubbock Police Department to “provide all records” regarding J.G., a child, “including but not limited to: records where she was reported to be a child victim of sexual abuse” to counsel for the Real Party in Interest. The motion further requested that the trial court order the Lubbock Police Department to “maintain the confidentiality of this request and not reveal it to the State.” In support of the motion, the Real Party in Interest alleged that the requested items were relevant and material to his defense without providing any factual support for his claims. Respondent, Presiding Judge of the 140th District Court, granted the motion and ordered the Lubbock Police Department to provide the requested records to the Real Party in Interest and not disclose the order to the Lubbock County District Attorney’s Office. Relator, the City of Lubbock, filed a response to the ex parte order along with a motion to stay the order. Relator argued that the request exceeded the narrow scope of Ake v. Oklahoma, 470 U.S. 68 (1985) and Williams v. Texas, 958 S.W.2d 186 (Tex. Crim. App. 1997), which were limited to requests for the funding of experts for indigent defendants. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held that the trial court did not have the authority to hold an ex parte hearing and enter an ex parte order compelling the police department to produce documents without notice to the prosecutor. The Court therefore conditionally granted the City's petition for mandamus relief. View "In re City of Lubbock" on Justia Law

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Applicant Jaime Covarrubias was convicted in 2000 of capital murder and sentenced to life in prison for killing his one-time girlfriend, Erica Estrada, and her father, Enrique Estrada. He filed a habeas application in 2019, alleging that trial and appellate counsel were ineffective for a number of reasons. To show prejudice, an applicant must show “a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different. Hindsight can eliminate prejudice, if what was once thought to be a meritorious claim is later determined to not have had merit after all." The habeas court recommended that relief be granted, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that none of Applicant’s claims had merit. View "Ex parte Jaime Covarrubias" on Justia Law

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Appellant Kennie Cook, Jr. was convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a child. He argued on appeal the trial court erred in admitting an officer's direct opinion on the complainant’s credibility, which he contended, harmed Appellant. The Sixth Court of Appeals found the evidence legally sufficient to support the jury’s guilty verdict, but found the trial court erred in admitting the officer's opinion on whether the complainant was testifying truthfully. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed Appellant was harmed by the admission. Finding this ground dispositive, the Court dismissed the State's first two grounds for review as improvidently granted. The judgment was reversed and remanded to the court of appeals to reach the merits of Appellant’s remaining grounds. View "Cook v. Texas" on Justia Law