by
Appellant Ricardo Zuniga was convicted of two counts of engaging in organized criminal activity and one count of capital murder based on his participation in a shooting that caused the deaths of two individuals. On appeal, he argued that the evidence was insufficient to support his convictions for engaging in organized criminal activity because the record failed to show that he committed the shootings while possessing the intent to establish, maintain, or participate “as a member of a criminal street gang.” Agreeing with appellant’s argument, the court of appeals vacated his convictions and entered judgments of acquittal as to both counts of engaging in organized criminal activity. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed with the court of appeals’s analysis and holding. Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the jury’s verdict as measured against a hypothetically correct jury charge, the Court concluded a rational factfinder could have determined that appellant participated in the shootings “as a member of a criminal street gang,” in the sense that he was acting in the role, capacity, or function of a gang member in carrying out the offenses. Therefore, the Court held the evidence was sufficient to support appellant’s convictions for engaging in organized criminal activity; the trial court's judgments of conviction were reinstated. View "Zuniga v. Texas" on Justia Law

by
Appellant Jose Oliva was charged by information with DWI. The information contained two paragraphs: the first alleged the commission of the current DWI, and the second alleged a prior DWI conviction. The focus of the guilt stage of trial was solely on the first paragraph. The prior-conviction allegation was not read to the jury at the guilt stage, no evidence of the prior conviction was offered at the guilt stage, and there was no mention of a prior conviction in the guilt-stage jury instructions. Appellant was found guilty. At the punishment stage, the State read the prior-conviction allegation to the jury and introduced evidence of a prior DWI conviction. The jury found the prior-conviction allegation to be true and assessed punishment at 180 days’ confinement. The judgment labeled Appellant’s current conviction as a “DWI 2ND” and the degree of offense as a “Class A Misdemeanor.” The court of appeals held that the existence of a prior conviction was an element of the offense of “Class A misdemeanor DWI.” The court reasoned that a fact that elevates the degree of an offense is necessarily an element of the offense and that Penal Code Section 49.09 lacked the “shall be punished” language present in other statutes containing punishment enhancements. Because no evidence of a prior conviction was introduced at the guilt stage of trial, the court of appeals held that the evidence was legally insufficient to support the prior-conviction allegation. Consequently, the court of appeals reversed and remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to reform the judgment to reflect a conviction for Class B misdemeanor DWI and to conduct a new punishment hearing. Under Penal Code section 49.09(b), the existence of two prior convictions for DWI elevated a third DWI from a Class B misdemeanor to a third degree felony. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals addressed the status of section 49.09(a), which provided that the existence of a single prior conviction elevated a second DWI offense from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class A misdemeanor. The Court held in this case that, unlike the existence of two prior convictions for felony DWI, the existence of a single prior conviction for misdemeanor DWI was a punishment issue; the litigation of the prior-conviction allegation at the punishment stage of trial was proper. The Court reversed the court of appeals and affirmed the judgment of the trial court. View "Oliva v. Texas" on Justia Law

by
Appellant Jose Oliva was charged by information with DWI. The information contained two paragraphs: the first alleged the commission of the current DWI, and the second alleged a prior DWI conviction. The focus of the guilt stage of trial was solely on the first paragraph. The prior-conviction allegation was not read to the jury at the guilt stage, no evidence of the prior conviction was offered at the guilt stage, and there was no mention of a prior conviction in the guilt-stage jury instructions. Appellant was found guilty. At the punishment stage, the State read the prior-conviction allegation to the jury and introduced evidence of a prior DWI conviction. The jury found the prior-conviction allegation to be true and assessed punishment at 180 days’ confinement. The judgment labeled Appellant’s current conviction as a “DWI 2ND” and the degree of offense as a “Class A Misdemeanor.” The court of appeals held that the existence of a prior conviction was an element of the offense of “Class A misdemeanor DWI.” The court reasoned that a fact that elevates the degree of an offense is necessarily an element of the offense and that Penal Code Section 49.09 lacked the “shall be punished” language present in other statutes containing punishment enhancements. Because no evidence of a prior conviction was introduced at the guilt stage of trial, the court of appeals held that the evidence was legally insufficient to support the prior-conviction allegation. Consequently, the court of appeals reversed and remanded the case to the trial court with instructions to reform the judgment to reflect a conviction for Class B misdemeanor DWI and to conduct a new punishment hearing. Under Penal Code section 49.09(b), the existence of two prior convictions for DWI elevated a third DWI from a Class B misdemeanor to a third degree felony. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals addressed the status of section 49.09(a), which provided that the existence of a single prior conviction elevated a second DWI offense from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class A misdemeanor. The Court held in this case that, unlike the existence of two prior convictions for felony DWI, the existence of a single prior conviction for misdemeanor DWI was a punishment issue; the litigation of the prior-conviction allegation at the punishment stage of trial was proper. The Court reversed the court of appeals and affirmed the judgment of the trial court. View "Oliva v. Texas" on Justia Law

by
The issue presented in this case was whether Samuel Osvaldo Garcia’s claim that he was entitled to relief because his attorney gave him affirmative misadvice regarding his possible deportation is cognizable or whether it is barred as a non-retroactive “Padilla” claim. The court of appeals held that the claim was cognizable as an affirmative misadvice claim, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals agreed. Consequently, the Court affirmed the court of appeals. View "Ex parte Samuel Garcia" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law

by
Russell Estes had an ongoing sexual relationship with K.A. when K.A. was fourteen years old. Estes was legally married to someone else. So, in addition to charging Estes with sexual assault of a child, ordinarily a second-degree felony, the State also alleged that K.A. was a person “whom the defendant was prohibited from marrying or purporting to marry or with whom the defendant was prohibited from living under the appearance of being married[.]”This additional fact, if proven true, would subject Estes to first-degree-felony punishment under Texas Penal Code Section 22.011(f). Estes was also charged with various counts of indecency with a child. Estes filed a pre-trial motion to quash the child-sex-assault counts within the indictment, in which he objected to what he called the “[b]igamy element of this allegation[.]”Specifically, Estes argued that Section 22.011(f) “is unconstitutional both facially and as applied to [him] because it treats married people more harshly than . . . unmarried people in violation of the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the United States and Texas Constitutions.” When this motion was denied, Estes asked for, and was granted, a running objection along these lines. As relevant here, Estes was ultimately found guilty of all five counts of sexual assault of a child. In a single special issue, the jury also found “that [K.A.] was a person whom [Estes] was prohibited from marrying or purporting to marry or with whom [Estes] was prohibited from living under the appearance of being married,” thereby triggering the Section 22.011(f) enhancement. Within the first-degree-felony punishment range, Estes was sentenced to 12 years’ confinement on each count of sexual assault of a child. In enacting the current form of Penal Code Section 22.011(f), the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found the Texas Legislature apparently wished to provide higher penalties for polygamists “who sexually assault their purported spouses.” But the resulting statute had the potentially unintended effect of punishing married offenders more harshly than unmarried offenders. The Court determined the State had a rational interest in enforcing this scheme, and reversed the court of appeals’ holding that the statute was unconstitutional. View "Estes v. Texas" on Justia Law

by
Appellant Kelvin O’Brien was tried on one count of engaging in organized criminal activity. That count alleged that Appellant, with the intent to establish, maintain, or participate in a combination or in the profits of a combination, committed second degree theft or second degree money laundering. The theory was that Appellant was part of a criminal ring that committed multiple jewelry store heists. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found that in order to convict someone of “engaging,” the jury does not have to unanimously agree on the specific predicate crime committed by the defendant. “[T]he commission of each predicate crime constitutes a different manner and means of committing the single offense of engaging in organized criminal activity. We affirm the court of appeals’ holding that the trial court did not err in instructing the jury in the disjunctive regarding the predicate offenses in this case.” View "O'Brien v. Texas" on Justia Law

by
Appellant Crystal Boyett contended the court of appeals erred by upholding the trial court’s denial of her request for a formal determination of her competency to stand trial for manslaughter. Appellant was speeding excessively when she caused a collision with another car that was occupied by three women. Two were killed; one was seriously injured. The State charged appellant with manslaughter for one of the deaths. Appellant pleaded not guilty, and the case proceeded to trial, at which appellant was convicted and sentenced to twenty years in prison. The trial court found that there was “not sufficient evidence to support a finding of incompetence,” and it declined to undertake a formal competency trial aided by expert evaluation. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed, finding the court of appeals improperly considered evidence of appellant’s competency rather than considering only evidence of her incompetency, and it mistakenly applied a more burdensome evidentiary standard than the “some evidence” standard required by the applicable statute. Because appellant was convicted and sentenced in this case, the case was remanded to the trial court for it to determine the feasibility of a retrospective formal competency trial and, if feasible, to conduct such an inquiry. View "Boyett v. Texas" on Justia Law

by
Appellant Crystal Boyett contended the court of appeals erred by upholding the trial court’s denial of her request for a formal determination of her competency to stand trial for manslaughter. Appellant was speeding excessively when she caused a collision with another car that was occupied by three women. Two were killed; one was seriously injured. The State charged appellant with manslaughter for one of the deaths. Appellant pleaded not guilty, and the case proceeded to trial, at which appellant was convicted and sentenced to twenty years in prison. The trial court found that there was “not sufficient evidence to support a finding of incompetence,” and it declined to undertake a formal competency trial aided by expert evaluation. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed, finding the court of appeals improperly considered evidence of appellant’s competency rather than considering only evidence of her incompetency, and it mistakenly applied a more burdensome evidentiary standard than the “some evidence” standard required by the applicable statute. Because appellant was convicted and sentenced in this case, the case was remanded to the trial court for it to determine the feasibility of a retrospective formal competency trial and, if feasible, to conduct such an inquiry. View "Boyett v. Texas" on Justia Law

by
On August 5, 2011, some time after 2 A.M., Adrian Mendez and several friends arrived at Big Man Diesel Repair. The group had spent the evening socializing and consuming a variety of drugs. They were later joined by Roger Guzman and Jacob Castillo, who had also been smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol. Soon thereafter, Mendez and Castillo got into a fight. The men exchanged blows until Mendez drew a knife and stabbed Castillo several times. Castillo was hospitalized and, although his initial prognosis was good, he died two months later due to complications from his stab wounds. The State charged Mendez with murder. The jury acquitted Mendez of murder, but convicted him of the lesser-included offense of aggravated assault. Mendez was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment and assessed a $10,000 fine. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals sought to resolve a conflict among the lower courts, with some holding that, when a trial court sua sponte issues a defensive jury instruction but fails to apply it to a lesser-included offense, the court commits no error unless the defendant objects. Other courts have held that is error, even if the defendant doesn't object. The Court of Appeals determined the trial court in this case erred in sua sponte charging the jury on the issue of self-defense, and the Court of Criminal Appeals agreed: "[w]hen the trial court charged the jury on the issue of self-defense in the abstract, it thereby declared that issue to be law applicable to the case. The jury was informed under what circumstances it should convict Mendez of aggravated assault. Self-defense being law applicable to the case meant that the trial court should also have informed the jury under what circumstances it should acquit him of that offense." View "Mendez v. Texas" on Justia Law

by
Appellant Jamel Fowler was convicted of stealing a Kawasaki Mule all-terrain vehicle (ATV) (valued at $1,500 or more but less than $20,000) from complainant Paul Blassingame. The jury assessed his punishment at confinement for two years. Fowler appealed; the Court of Appeals found the evidence sufficient to support Fowler’s conviction; however, it reversed the conviction, holding that the trial court committed reversible error by admitting an unauthenticated videotape exhibit into evidence. After review, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed and held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting the video. View "Fowler v. Texas" on Justia Law