Articles Posted in Texas Criminal Law Glossary

The term “probation” applies to a variety of outcomes in criminal cases, usually ordered by a court as an alternative to a jail or prison term. Courts impose sentences based on statutory authority and sentencing guidelines, and they often have discretion to “probate” sentences for a specified period of time. If the defendant abides by all of the conditions set by the court for the duration of the probation period, their case will be closed. If they do not meet all of the requirements, or they commit an act found to be in violation of their probation terms, the state may ask the court to revoke their probation. This can result in the imposition of the original sentence. When probation revocation coincides with another criminal case, the proceedings can appear very confusing. A recent case in a Georgia court, for example, involved a man acquitted in a criminal case but sent to prison anyway because of probation revocation.

Texas uses the term “community supervision” to refer to “a continuum of programs and sanctions” that a court may order. Tex. Code Crim. P. Art 42A.001(1). Two types of community supervision are possible:

– “Probation” generally refers to the suspension of a sentence after an adjudication of guilt, based on either a verdict or a plea. The court enters a finding of guilt or recognizes a plea of no contest and imposes a sentence. Rather than ordering the defendant to begin serving the sentence, however, the court orders that the sentence be probated, identifies the length of the probation period, and sets conditions for the defendant.
– “Deferred adjudication” is a form of community supervision in which the court accepts a defendant’s guilty or no contest plea, but it does not enter a final adjudication of guilt. Id. at Art. 42A.101. The court orders services and sanctions for the defendant, much like with probation.

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Marijuana possession under Texas drug crime laws ranges from a misdemeanor offense to a major felony, depending on the amount. The Texas Legislature passed a law in 2007 that allows a “cite and release” policy, rather than arrests, for minor marijuana possession and other misdemeanors. Some, but far from all, Texas cities have adopted this policy. Law enforcement officials in neighboring or overlapping jurisdictions might disagree over cite and release. For example, the District Attorney’s Office in Bexar County, where San Antonio is located, announced the implementation of cite and release last year, while the San Antonio Police Department and other local police departments have expressed disagreement with the policy.

Possession of small amounts of marijuana is a misdemeanor offense under Texas law. If the amount is no more than two ounces, it is a Class B misdemeanor, increasing to a Class A misdemeanor for an amount that does not exceed four ounces. Tex. Health & Safety Code §§ 481.121(b)(1), (2). A Class A misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $4,000 fine. Tex. Pen. Code § 12.21. The maximum punishment for a Class B misdemeanor is half of that:  180 days in jail and a fine of $2,000. Id. at § 12.22.

The 80th Texas Legislature passed HB 2391 in May 2007. It took effect on September 1 of that year. Analysis of the bill noted the burdens on county jails throughout Texas, many of which were filled to capacity. The law at the time effectively required police to take people into custody for Class A and Class B misdemeanors. The bill amended Article 14.06 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure to create exceptions to this requirement. For certain offenses, police could issue a citation instructing a person to appear before a magistrate at a specified time and place, much like a ticket issued for a traffic violation. This applies to Class A and B marijuana possession, as well as certain misdemeanor offenses under the Texas Penal Code.

Pardons are part of the constitutional authority of an executive, such as the President of the United States or the Governor of Texas, in criminal cases. Late last year, the presidential pardon power was in the news after the president pardoned an Arizona sheriff who had been convicted of criminal contempt of court. This led to debates, both in and out of the courtroom, over the extent of the pardon power. In Texas criminal cases, the governor’s pardon power is specifically limited by the Texas Constitution, requiring the prior recommendation of a board appointed by the Texas Legislature.The U.S. Constitution grants the president the “Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States,” with impeachment as the only specified exception. U.S. Const. Art. II, § 2, cl. 1. The Office of the Pardon Attorney (OPA), part of the U.S. Department of Justice, accepts petitions for clemency for convictions in federal district courts, the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, and military courts-martial. See 28 C.F.R. § 1.1 et seq. The president may decide to issue a pardon, however, without the recommendation of the OPA, or even without a petition for clemency. Presidents may issue a pardon at any time during their term. Recent presidents have often issued multiple pardons shortly before leaving office.

The Texas governor has authority to grant full pardons “upon the recommendation and advice of a majority of the” Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP). Tex. Const. Art. 4, § 11(b); 37 Tex. Admin. Code § 143.1. The governor can grant a temporary reprieve of up to thirty days in capital cases without going through the BPP. Recently, the governor of Texas has issued a small number of pardons at the end of each calendar year.
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A new law that took effect in Texas in September 2017 allows people with convictions for driving while intoxicated (DWI), if they meet various criteria, to petition for an order of nondisclosure. This order prevents state and local law enforcement agencies from releasing information about the arrest, prosecution, conviction, and sentence. In addition to the limitations on eligibility for DWI nondisclosure, the new law might exclude some people in possibly unexpected and unintended ways. Defendants charged with a Texas DWI should understand how the new law might apply—or not apply—to them when considering a plea agreement.

The Texas Penal Code classifies DWI as a Class B misdemeanor when a driver’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is at least 0.08 percent but less than 0.15 percent. Tex. Pen. Code § 49.04. If the BAC is 0.15 or higher, it is a Class A misdemeanor. Texas law allows two different types of “community supervision” as alternatives to the punishment prescribed by the Penal Code. Probation involves a formal finding of guilt after a guilty or no contest plea, followed by a period of time during which the punishment is probated. If the defendant successfully completes the services the court orders, the punishment is deemed completed. With deferred adjudication, the court accepts a guilty or no contest plea but does not make a formal finding of guilt. If the defendant abides by the court’s orders for a defined period of time, the case is dismissed with no final adjudication. Defendants charged with DWI are not eligible for deferred adjudication in Texas. Tex. Code Crim. P. Art. 42A.102(b)(1)(A).

The new DWI nondisclosure law, H.B. 3016, may apply to cases that ended with probation and cases in which the defendant served a sentence. It only applies to Class B misdemeanor DWI cases, and it excludes cases that involved vehicular accidents involving any person other than the driver, whether or not anyone was injured. The earliest date a person can file a petition for nondisclosure ranges from two to five years after the conviction date, depending on whether the defendant received probation and whether they were ordered to use an ignition interlock device.

Texas criminal proceedings are, in most cases, part of the public record. This means that anyone who knows where to look can obtain information about specific criminal cases, including arrest records and records involving probation and other outcomes. It is possible, in limited circumstances, to obtain an expunction or an order of nondisclosure, which directs public officials and agencies not to release information about a particular criminal case to the public. A new law passed by the Texas Legislature, H.B. 3016, expands the availability of nondisclosure orders in Texas DWI cases, with some exceptions.DWI is a misdemeanor criminal offense under Texas law. “Intoxicated” is defined as either lacking “the normal use of mental or physical faculties” because of alcohol or drugs, or having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of at least 0.08 percent. Tex. Pen. Code § 49.01(2). A DWI offense is ordinarily a Class B misdemeanor with a minimum jail sentence of three days, or a minimum sentence of six days if a defendant had an open container of alcohol in their “immediate possession.” Id. at §§ 49.04(b), (c). If a defendant’s BAC was 0.15 percent or more, however, it becomes a Class A misdemeanor. Id. at § 49.04(d).

The Governor of Texas signed H.B. 3016 into law on June 15, 2017. It took effect in September, and it applies retroactively to all DWI cases in the state, not just convictions entered on or after the effective date. The bill amended the provisions of state law that establish procedures for orders of non-disclosure, see, e.g., Tex. Gov’t Code § 411.074, and added new sections specifically addressing DWI cases at §§ 411.0731 and 411.0736.

In order to qualify for a nondisclosure order, a petitioner must not have been convicted of DWI as a Class A misdemeanor, with a BAC of 0.15 percent or higher. The DWI case also must not have involved an accident with another person, which could involve a driver of another vehicle or a passenger in the same vehicle, even if nobody was injured. The petitioner must have no prior convictions, including probation or deferred adjudication, for anything other than minor traffic offenses.

The right against self-incrimination is a well-known part of the U.S. Constitution, but it is not always well understood. Applying this principle in the real world, with all of its ambiguity and uncertainty, has proven quite challenging for the courts. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled on a claim that police violated a person’s First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights by allegedly retaliating against a person after he refused to answer their questions. The court ruled for the plaintiff on his Fourth Amendment claims but not the other claims. Alexander v. City of Round Rock, No. 16-cv-50839, slip op. (5th Cir., Apr. 18, 2017). The case is a civil lawsuit, rather than a criminal prosecution, but its interpretation of the Fifth Amendment’s right against self-incrimination could affect future Texas criminal cases.

The Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination generally means that a person cannot be compelled or coerced into saying something that could place them in criminal trouble. A refusal to answer questions because of this right is commonly known as “pleading the Fifth.” The Fifth Amendment has also been interpreted as requiring courts to suppress confessions by defendants that were not given voluntarily. The caselaw remains unclear on which remedies may be available when a Fifth Amendment violation occurs outside the context of a custodial interrogation.

According to the court’s statement of the facts of the case, all drawn from the plaintiff’s complaint, an officer stopped the plaintiff “in a hotel parking lot after observing what he perceived as suspicious activity.” Alexander, slip op. at 1. The plaintiff stated that he had stopped his vehicle and gotten out to look for a stray cat he had seen. He told the officer that he would not answer any of his questions.

Law enforcement officials in Texas have used a variety of tools to help them investigate suspected drug-related offenses. Some of these tools have resulted in profound injustice in the form of wrongful convictions. A kit used by many officers around the state to test substances they believe are an illegal drug has returned “positive” results for substances later revealed to be innocuous. By the time more accurate test results were available in many of these cases, defendants had already pleaded guilty rather than risk going to trial against what police had represented as incontrovertible evidence of guilt. Now, the Houston Police Department has announced that it will no longer use these field kits, but not because of concerns about justice. Instead, the department cited risks posed to officers from opiate exposure during testing. Still, this is welcome news for Texas criminal defense advocates.

In any criminal prosecution, the state has the burden of proving every element of the charged offense, as it is defined by statute, beyond a reasonable doubt. Field-testing kits are often used by police to test substances believed to be cocaine. The relevant criminal charge would likely be possession of a controlled substance in Penalty Group 1. This would require proof beyond a reasonable doubt of four elements:  that a defendant (1) possessed a controlled substance (2) that is included in Penalty Group 1, (3) that the defendant did so “knowingly or intentionally,” and (4) that the defendant did not have a valid prescription for the substance from a medical doctor. Tex. Health & Safety Code §§ 481.102(3)(D), 481.115(a).

In a cocaine possession case, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the substance is, in fact, cocaine. The requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt means that the “finder of fact” concludes that no reasonable doubt exists as to whether the substance is cocaine. The “finder of fact” is either the judge presiding over the case or a jury of the defendant’s peers. Results from a drug-testing kit routinely used by police can appear very convincing, unless the defendant is able to challenge the accuracy or validity of those test results. An innocent defendant without the resources to challenge the test results might choose to plead guilty rather than risk turning the decision over to a jury.

More than half of the states in the U.S. now allow the use of medical marijuana to some extent. At the same time, federal law still treats marijuana as having “no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States.” 21 U.S.C. §§ 812(b)(1)(B), (c)(I)(c)(10). This has, obviously, created conflicts between federal and state law enforcement. Congress relieved this tension somewhat in 2014, when it passed legislation known as the Rohrbacher-Farr amendment as part of a spending bill. This amendment prohibits the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) from spending funds on law enforcement activities that interfere with lawful state medical marijuana systems, which range from the extensive in California to the restrictive in Texas. Texas marijuana lawyers are aware, however, that officials in the new White House administration have sought to use federal resources against state medical marijuana. So far, the Rohrbacher-Farr amendment remains in force.

California was the first state to allow the use of medical marijuana with a doctor’s prescription. Voters approved Proposition 215 in November 1996, also known as the “Compassionate Use Act.” Cal. Health and Safety Code § 11362.5. Twenty years later, in November 2016, voters in that state approved Proposition 64, which authorized the sale, purchase, and possession of limited amounts of marijuana for recreational use. Id. at § 11362.1. Most states have not gone this far, but states that allow medical marijuana in some form outnumber those that do not. Texas is among the states that allow medical marijuana use, although it is strictly limited to “low-THC cannabis” to treat “intractable epilepsy.” Tex. Health & Safety Code Ch. 487, Tex. Occ. Code Ch. 169.

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected at least two challenges to the applicability of federal marijuana laws over state medical marijuana laws. The court rejected a common-law medical necessity defense in U.S. v. Oakland Cannabis Buyers’ Cooperative, 532 U.S. 483 (2001). Justice Thomas, writing for the court, noted that federal criminal law generally does not recognize common-law defenses unless Congress specifically includes them in a statute. He concluded that “a medical necessity exception for marijuana is at odds with the terms of the Controlled Substances Act.” Id. at 491. The court held that the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution allows a federal prohibition of marijuana production, distribution, and possession, regardless of state medical marijuana laws, in Gonzales v. Raich, 545 U.S. 1 (2005).

Prosecutors are obligated to turn over evidence that could potentially exonerate a defendant in a criminal case. This is known as the Brady rule, after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). A federal appellate court recently ruled on a defendant’s claim that the prosecution violated his rights by failing to disclose information about criminal charges against two federal agents for conduct during the investigation of the defendant. The court was harshly critical of the two agents, who each received lengthy prison sentences, but it held that their criminal activity did not affect the reliability of the government’s case against the defendant. United States v. Ulbricht, No. 15-1815, slip op. (2d Cir., May 31, 2017).

The Brady rule arose from a murder prosecution against two defendants. The named defendant, Brady, maintained that the other defendant committed the murder. The prosecution withheld a statement by the other defendant confessing to committing the murder alone. Without that evidence, Brady was convicted. The Supreme Court held that the prosecutors had violated Brady’s rights under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It is now common for defendants to request all “Brady evidence” from prosecutors during criminal cases.

The defendant in Ulbricht was convicted of multiple counts in connection with his operation of an online marketplace known as “Silk Road,” where people could anonymously exchange contraband, such as drugs and false identification documents, using the virtual currency known as Bitcoin. As part of the investigation into Silk Road, law enforcement agents would obtain the cooperation of low-level administrators and then pose as them using their online Silk Road accounts. A Secret Service agent and a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent were eventually charged with using this access to the Silk Road system to steal millions of dollars worth of Bitcoins.

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The criminal justice system must constantly adapt to changes brought by the increased use of the internet. Legal doctrines that once only applied to physical searches of people’s homes must now regulate “virtual” searches. Several years ago, federal prosecutors charged an individual with multiple offenses arising from his alleged administration of an online marketplace for illegal drugs and other contraband. It was reportedly the first prosecution involving the drug trade on the so-called “dark net.” A jury convicted the defendant on all seven counts in the government’s indictment, which included drug-related offenses, racketeering, and computer fraud. A judge sentenced him to life imprisonment. In May 2017, a federal appellate court denied his appeal, in which he argued in part that his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. United States v. Ulbricht, No. 15-1815, slip op. (2d Cir., May 31, 2017).

Federal law allows law enforcement to monitor electronic communications under strict limitations. Two types of surveillance allowed by federal law are known as “pen registers” and “trap and trace devices.” A pen register “records or decodes dialing, routing, addressing, or signaling information transmitted by” a telephone or other device. 18 U.S.C. § 3127(3). A trap and trace device “captures the incoming electronic or other impulses,” allowing law enforcement “to identify the source of a wire or electronic communication.” Id. at § 3127(4). Neither device may capture or record “the contents of any communication.” Id. They provide law enforcement with a record that shows the source, destination, and duration of phone calls and other communications.

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