Weekly Case Summaries: August 28, 2015

Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals

United States v. Bowen

No. 13-31078      8/20/15

Issue:

Was it an abuse of discretion for a trial court to grant a motion for new trial in the face of numerous instances of prosecutor misconduct, including instances of prejudicial online commenting by prosecutors?

Holding:

No. According to Brecht v. Abrahamson, in an unusual case, a deliberate and especially egregious error of the trial type, or one that is combined with a pattern of prosecutorial misconduct, might so infect the integrity of the proceeding as to warrant the grant of habeas relief, even if it did not substantially affect the jury’s verdict. The Court of Appeals found that the breadth of the government’s misconduct and continued obfuscation makes this the “unusual case” contemplated by Brecht. Prosecutorial misconduct commenced even before indictments were handed down and continued throughout trial and into the post-trial proceedings, and that misconduct affected the prosecution and trial in ways that cannot be fully evaluated due to the government’s mishandling—to put it politely—of the investigation into cyberbullying. Read opinion.

Dissent (Prado, J.):

Judge Prado would deny habeas relief because the original motion for new trial was not properly filed; thus, such a motion should only have been granted if based on newly discovered evidence, which was not the case here. Read.

Commentary:

Prosecutors should read this decision with an eye toward discerning a legal principle that we can apply to future cases. The whole intention of this decision is to point out the egregious nature of prosecutors in this particular office and note that the only possible recourse is to grant the defendants a new trial. There is some discussion about relying upon a footnote in Brecht v. Abrahamson, but make no mistake, even if that footnote did not exist, the court of appeals would have found some way to grant relief to the defendants because of the remarkable breadth of the prosecutors’ misconduct. If you ever want to show an example of how something as commonplace as anonymous online posting can damage cases and careers, look no further than this case.

Texas Courts of Appeals

Zuniga-Hernandez v. State (14th COA)

No. 14-14-00346-CR        8/18/15

Issue:

Did officer have to specifically testify that the defendant’s driving was unsafe to have reasonable basis for a stop?

Holding:

No. A stop requires reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and the detaining officer testified that the defendant weaved between lanes of traffic more than once in a short period of time. This testimony is enough to support reasonable basis for the stop, even if there is no testimony of other traffic or that the defendant posed a danger to others. Read opinion.

Commentary: 

This should be a very helpful decision in cases where a DWI defendant weaved within his lane and between lanes of traffic. Most of these cases are fact-bound, but this decision should be helpful nonetheless in urging a trial court to deny a DWI defendant’s motion to suppress.

Harris v. State (14th COA)

No. 14-14-00152-CR        8/20/15

Issue:

Is Code of Criminal Procedure art. 38.37 constitutional?

Holding:

Yes. Although the general rule is to exclude evidence of extraneous offenses at trial, the Legislature clearly carved out certain exceptions to this rule, including art. 38.37. It did so specifically because sexual assault cases involving children are difficult to prosecute due to the nature of child victims. Additionally, the defendant is protected by the procedural safeguards in the statute itself (pre-trial notice to the defendant and a hearing before the judge before evidence can be introduced), and defendant’s presumption of innocence is not affected. Read opinion.

Commentary:

This should be a very helpful decision because we should expect this statute to be challenged by other defendants in the future and because defense lawyers seem to be challenging the constitutionality of Texas criminal statutes on a much more regular basis. This decision should hold up on petition for discretionary review.

Rivas v. State (4th COA)

No. 14-14-00180-CR        8/19/15

Issue:

Was the defendant entitled to a jury instruction on “sudden passion” during the punishment phase of trial?

Holding:

No. The court did not decide whether there was evidence to at least minimally support an inference of sudden passion, but regardless, the defendant was not harmed. The fact that the jury rejected a self-defense claim during the guilt/innocence phase of trial does factor into harm analysis. Except in rare instances, when the State’s evidence is sufficient to overcome a claim of self-defense, it will also be sufficient to show the absence of sudden passion. Read opinion.

Commentary:

We probably should not rely too heavily upon this decision because it only stands for the proposition that the defendant was not harmed by any error (if there was error) in the trial court’s failure to charge the jury on sudden passion. The defendant undeniably was not harmed, but it would have been better for the court of appeals to first address the merits and hold that this defendant was not entitled to a sudden passion instruction in any event. The victim’s body was found several feet from the location of the shells from the bullets that were fired at him. As a matter of law, the individual who shot and killed the victim could not have been acting under the influence of sudden passion.

State v. Drummond (1st COA)

No. 01-14-00962-CR        8/20/15

Issue:

Does a complaint filed in a criminal district court toll the two-year statute of limitations period for a Class A misdemeanor?

Holding:

No. Code of Criminal Procedure art. 12.02 states: “An indictment or information for any Class A or Class B misdemeanor may be presented within two years from the date of commission of the offense, and not afterward.” A timely presented complaint is not enough to toll the limitations period for a Class A or B misdemeanor; instead, and indictment or information must be filed. Read opinion.

Commentary:

This is a decision of pure statutory construction. The tolling statute allows the statute of limitations to be tolled if a complaint is filed in a court of competent jurisdiction, but the statute setting forth the statute of limitations for misdemeanor offenses does not mention complaints as the instrument that can determine the running of the limitations period.  This decision is directly contrary to a previous decision of the Amarillo Court of Appeals, so the case may be reviewed by the Court of Criminal Appeals.

TDCAA is pleased to offer these unique case summaries from the U.S. Supreme Court, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the Texas Supreme Court, the Texas Courts of Appeals and the Texas Attorney General. In addition to the basic summaries, each case will have a link to the full text opinion and will offer exclusive prosecutor commentary explaining how the case may impact you as a prosecutor. The case summaries are for the benefit of prosecutors, their staff members, and members of the law enforcement community. These summaries are NOT a source of legal advice for citizens. The commentaries expressed in these case summaries are not official statements by TDCAA and do not represent the opinions of TDCAA, its staff, or any member of the association. Please email comments, problems, or questions to [email protected].