Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

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Appellant William Rhomer was convicted by jury of felony murder for causing the death of another while committing felony driving while intoxicated. He was sentenced to seventy-five years in prison. The court of appeals affirmed. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted Appellant’s petition for discretionary review to decide whether an accident reconstruction expert could testify about a specific type of accident reconstruction in which he had no formal training and whether accident reconstruction should be governed by the tests announced in Kelly v. Texas (824 S.W.2d 58 (1992) or Nenno v. Texas, 970 S.W.2d 549 (1998) for evaluating the reliability of the expert testimony. The Court determined the Nenno test was applicable, and that: (1) the field of accident reconstruction was a legitimate one; (2) the subject matter of the expert's testimony was within the scope of that field; and (3) his testimony properly relied upon and utilized the principles involved in the field, i.e., examining the physical evidence in the context of the crash site to draw conclusions about the location and cause of the crash. The Court therefore affirmed the court of appeals. View "Rhomer v. Texas" on Justia Law

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The Office of Capital and Forensic Writs (OCFW), on behalf of Appellant Justen Hall, sought DNA testing on a power cord that was wrapped around the victim's neck. Appellant was convicted of the murder of Melanie Billhartz, whom he killed to prevent police from discovering a gang drug house. Among the details contained in Appellant’s confession was the fact that Appellant had used an “extension cord” to strangle the victim and that the cord was wrapped around the victim’s neck several times. Appellant’s confession stated that he got the extension cord from the drug house. The confession also stated that an associate used a machete to chop off fingers from the victim’s right hand. An autopsy showed that a black, three pronged power cord was wrapped around the victim’s neck three times and tied tightly. Her nasal bones were fractured, and she had multiple fractures of the lower jaw bone, fractures in her right hand, a fractured rib, cutting or sawing in the fingers area of her right hand, and fingers missing from her right hand. OCFW contended the power cord could be analyzed for touch DNA and that such an analysis could show that someone other than Appellant used the murder weapon. To meet its burden to show that an exculpatory result on such a test would make a difference in Appellant’s case, OCFW argued the evidence connecting Appellant to the murder was weak, pointing to the lack of physical or forensic evidence connecting Appellant to the murder, Appellant’s confession, and the other testimony against him as unreliable. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals concluded OCFW did not show by a preponderance of the evidence that Appellant would not have been convicted if exculpatory results had been obtained in the testing that was being requested. The Court also concluded OCFW did not show by a preponderance of the evidence that a request for such testing was not made to unreasonably delay the execution of Appellant’s sentence. Consequently, the Court upheld the trial court’s decision to deny testing. View "Hall v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Appellant Christian Sims was charged with murder. He filed a pretrial motion to suppress evidence of real-time location information used to track his cell phone by “pinging” it without a warrant. Using that information, police found and arrested him. In his motion to suppress, Appellant argued that the police violated the Fourth Amendment when they searched his phone for real-time location information. He also contended that the search violated the federal Stored Communications Act (the SCA), and articles 18.21 and 38.23(a) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. The trial court denied Appellant’s motion, and Appellant pled guilty pursuant to a plea bargain. The judge sentenced him to 35 years’ confinement. As part of the agreement, he reserved the right to appeal the trial court’s ruling. The court of appeals affirmed the ruling of the trial court. Appellant filed a petition for discretionary review by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which was granted on two grounds: (1) whether suppression is a remedy for a violation of the SCA or Article 18.21; and (2) whether a person was entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy in real-time CSLI records stored in a cell phone’s electronic storage. The Court concluded suppression was not an available remedy under the Stored Communications Act unless the violation also violated the United States Constitution. And suppression was not an available remedy for a violation of Article 18.21 unless the violation infringed on the United States or Texas constitutions. Under the facts of this case, Appellant did not have an expectation of privacy in the real-time location information stored in his phone. Therefore, the Court affirmed the court of appeals' judgment. View "Sims v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Appellee Roger Martinez sought to suppress challenging the legality of his arrest for public intoxication. The motion was granted by the trial court, and the court of appeals affirmed. Because there was probable cause to arrest Appellee for public intoxication, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and remanded the case to that court for further proceedings. "[E]ven if the State failed to prove that Officer Quinn personally had probable cause to arrest Appellee, and there was no evidence that he was directed to arrest Appellee, the sum total of the knowledge of Officers Guerrero, Ramirez, and Quinn amounted to probable cause. Appellee’s motion to suppress should have been denied." View "Texas v. Martinez" on Justia Law

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Christopher Braughton was convicted of murder. On appeal, he challenged the sufficiency of the evidence presented against him, and argued the trial court erred in instructing the jury by omitting a lesser-included offenses instruction on felony deadly conduct. At trial, Braughton acknowledged shooting the complainant, Emmanuel Dominguez, but he claimed that he did so because he reasonably believed the use of such force was immediately necessary to protect himself and his father against Dominguez’s attempted use of deadly force. The jury rejected Braughton’s theory, convicted him of murder, and assessed a sentence of twenty years’ imprisonment. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict and deferring to the jury’s credibility determinations and its resolution of the conflicting testimony, the evidence supported a rational jury’s rejection of appellant’s self-defense and defense of third person claims, and thus the evidence was legally sufficient to uphold his conviction for murder. Furthermore, assuming it was error to deny the instruction on felony deadly conduct, the Court determined Braughton was not harmed by any such error in the trial court’s charge. View "Braughton v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Applicant Steven Chaney was convicted of murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment and fined $5,000. His conviction was affirmed on appeal. He claimed he was entitled to relief because: (1) new scientific evidence contradicted bitemark-comparison evidence relied on by the State at trial; (2) his conviction was secured using false evidence; (3) the State violated Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963); and (4) he was actually innocent. The State and habeas court agreed Chaney was entitled to relief on all grounds. After reviewing the record, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals concurred: “Each piece of the State’s trial evidence is questionable ‘or has since been undermined or completely invalidated.’” When weighing Chaney’s newly discovered evidence against the State’s trial evidence, the Court concluded Chaney had shown by clear and convincing evidence that “no reasonable juror would have convicted [him] in light of the new evidence.” Chaney had proven that he was actually innocent. His judgment of conviction was set aside, and Chaney was remanded to the custody of the Sheriff of Dallas County to answer the charges as set out in the indictment. View "Ex parte Steven Chaney" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeals reversed appellant Cody French’s conviction for the aggravated sexual assault of a child. The appellate court held the trial court erred in not giving a unanimity instruction to the jury as to which orifice Appellant penetrated with his sexual organ. The court of appeals concluded appellant properly objected to the instruction, and it applied a “some harm” analysis under Almanza v. Texas, 686 S.W.2d 157 (Tex. Crim. App. 1985). The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted the State’s petition for discretionary review to address two issues: (1) whether appellant failed to preserve error by not leveling an appropriate objection to the jury charge at trial; and (2) whether appellant suffered any level of harm - either “some” or “egregious” - as a result of the trial court’s jury charge. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the Court of Appeals. The Court found “overwhelming evidence” presented at trial that Appellant contacted and penetrated J.F.’s anus with his sexual organ on multiple occasions, in several different locations. The State said nothing during its final argument to encourage the jury to convict Appellant of genital-to-genital contact and/or penetration. And for his part, appellant offered no defense specifically tailored to suggest that he only contacted and/or penetrated J.F.’s sexual organ and not her anus. Appellant’s defense was that he did not sexually assault J.F. at all. “All of this suggests to us that the erroneous jury instruction in this case was not ‘calculated to injure the rights of the defendant,’” and that any harm resulting from the error was purely theoretical, not actual. As a result, Court held that the record fails to support the court of appeals’ conclusion that Appellant suffered “some” harm from the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury that it must be unanimous with respect to which of J.F.’s orifices was penetrated. It therefore reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "French v. Texas" on Justia Law

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Following a car crash, Appellee Joel Garcia was taken to a nearby hospital. Law-enforcement officers, suspecting that Garcia was intoxicated and concerned that he might soon receive an intravenous treatment, took a sample of his blood without a warrant. The State claimed that this action was necessitated by “exigent circumstances,” but the trial judge disagreed and ordered the blood evidence suppressed. The State appealed, but deferring to the trial judge's findings of fact, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals determined the trial court did not abuse its discretion in its suppression order. View "Texas v. Garcia" on Justia Law

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Applicant David Wood filed a subsequent application claiming that he was exempt from the death penalty due to intellectual disability, and that due process required that he be given tools and a hearing to more fully establish his intellectual-disability claim. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals remanded the case for the habeas court to consider these claims. Upon receiving the case back from the habeas court, the Court considered Applicant’s allegations and denied relief upon the habeas court’s findings and its own review.3After the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Moore v. Texas, 137 S. Ct. 1039 (2017), Applicant filed a suggestion that the Court of Criminal Appeals reconsider his application on its own initiative. Having reviewed the record in this case in light of Moore and the subsequent decision in Ex parte Moore, 548 S.W.3d 552 (Tex. Crim. App. 2018), the Court of Criminal Appeals concluded that no further record development or fact findings were needed and that Applicant was not entitled to relief. "The habeas court’s findings of fact were extensive. Some of those findings, 280 through 322, discussed the Briseno factors and possible alternate causes of any adaptive deficits and are no longer viable after the Moore cases. Nevertheless, the habeas court’s denial of relief remains amply supported by findings 1 through 279." View "Ex parte David Wood" on Justia Law

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This case involved a stabbing after an Austin nightclub closed for the evening. The victim was at the club with her friend and her friend's boyfriend. The boyfriend got into an argument with Appellant's friend. Appellant and the victim started arguing, ending with the Appellant stabbing the victim in the chest. The victim died as a result of her injuries. The issue presented on appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals this case was whether Appellant was entitled to a lesser-included offense instruction on manslaughter during her second murder trial. The trial court denied Appellant’s request, and the court of appeals affirmed. Finding no reversible error, the Court affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals. View "Ritcherson v. Texas" on Justia Law