Weekly Case Summaries: January 16, 2015

United States Supreme Court

Heien v. North Carolina

No. 13-604                        12/15/14

Issue:

When an officer stopped the defendant for having only one working brake light and subsequently found drugs in the car, should the drugs have been suppressed after the appeals court determined that the ambiguous traffic statute actually permitted the operation of a vehicle with only one working brake light?

Holding:

No. An objectively reasonable mistake of law by an officer does not offend the Fourth Amendment. In this case, no North Carolina court had ever held that the officer’s interpretation of the statute was legally incorrect, and both the state appeals court and U.S. Supreme Court concluded the officer’s interpretation of the statute was a reasonable one given the statute’s ambiguous language. Read the opinion.

Concurrence (Kagan, J.):

The government cannot defend an officer’s mistaken legal interpretation on the ground that the officer was unaware of or untrained in the law. A mistake of law is reasonable only if the statute is genuinely ambiguous, such that overturning the officer’s judgment requires hard interpretive work. Read the concurrence.

Dissent (Sotomayor, J.):

Officers are best suited to determine facts, not law. Allowing them to make erroneous legal conclusions puts the innocent public at risk of seizures they cannot avoid even when they are following the law. Read the dissent.

Commentary:

Unfortunately for us, Texas codified the “good faith” exception in Article 38.23 and limited it to an officer’s good faith reliance on a warrant based on probable cause. But all may not be lost even when an officer is wrong about the law. The CCA upheld an arrest under similar circumstances in State v. Mazuca, 375 S.W.3d 294 (Tex. Crim. App. 2012), where the officer’s conduct was not flagrant and he discovered a valid warrant during the traffic stop.

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals 

Arrington v. State

No. PD-1448-13            1/14/15

Issue:

In a case with multiple counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child and indecency, was the defendant egregiously harmed by jury instructions that did not specify that the verdict must be unanimous as to what acts the defendant committed when the defense’s entire theory was that the victim had completely fabricated her story?

Holding:

No. The jury could not have credited both the defendant’s testimony and the State’s evidence in the case, or else it would have acquitted him entirely, rather than convicting him on six counts and hanging on a seventh. Read the opinion.

Commentary:

Different facts might lead to a different result. This opinion is of interest mainly to prosecutors defending similarly defective jury charges on appeal. When prosecuting a case where multiple acts might fit in the offense(s) charged in an indictment, trial attorneys should ensure there is a jury instruction requiring that the jury be unanimous as to the particular act underlying their verdict. This situation most often occurs in child abuse cases like this one.

Texas Courts of Appeals

Williams v. State

No. 14-13-00527-CR                        12/23/14

Issue:

When officers saw the defendant “panicking” and “fidgeting” with the center console while being pulled over for traffic violations, were they justified in removing him from the vehicle and searching his center console for weapons? And was the contraband they found during the search admissible?

Holding:

Yes to both. Because the totality of the circumstances (high crime area, suspected involvement in a drug transaction, defendant’s physical actions) made it reasonable to suspect the defendant had a weapon, and because the defendant was not arrested and handcuffed yet, the search of the area within the defendant’s reach was justified, and any evidence collected via that search was admissible. Read the opinion.

Commentary:

A straight-forward opinion addressing street policing post-Gant.

Leming v. State

No. 06-13-00264-CR                        12/17/14

Issue:

After a tip reported the defendant was driving erratically, and a responding officer observed the defendant repeatedly swerving within his lane—and possibly out of his lane once—in such a way as to make the officer concerned for the driver’s safety, was evidence obtained from the resulting “community caretaking” stop admissible?

Holding:

No. The swerving was not enough to create a reasonable belief that the defendant was in need of assistance. Read the opinion.

Commentary:  

Another battle in the war of “weaving within the lane” lost by the prosecution. Make sure to argue reasonable suspicion of DWI if your facts support it. The court’s holding about the reliability of the 911 caller seems weak in light of the Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Navarette v. California, 134 S.Ct. 1683 (2014).

Peraza v. State

No. 01-12-00690-CR                        12/30/14

Issue:

Is the “DNA Record Fee” authorized to be assessed by courts under CCP Art. 102.020 unconstitutional under the separation of powers clause of the Texas constitution?

Holding:

Yes. It is a tax collected by the judiciary, of which 65 percent is dedicated to the state’s criminal justice planning account and 35 percent goes to the state highway fund. Those uses are not related closely enough to criminal trials to justify collection by the courts. Read the opinion.

Concurrence and Dissent (Brown, J.):

Because the defendant made a facial challenge to the statute, the court should have looked to uses from the funds that are related to criminal trials to preserve the statute’s constitutionality, as courts are required to save statutes when possible, and a facial challenge must show a statute’s unconstitutionality across every conceivable circumstance.  Read the concurrence and dissent.

Commentary:

A very interesting opinion. Expect this one to go up because the Legislature has enacted a number of costs and fees in recent years that might have similar allotments to non-criminal purposes.

 

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, it's staff, or any member of the association. Please email comments, problems, or questions to [email protected]