Weekly Case Summaries: May 17, 2013

Court of Criminal Appeals

Celis v. State

Nos. PD-1584-11 & 1585-11        5/15/13

Issue:

Did the trial court properly instruct the jury in the defendant’s trial for falsely holding himself out as an attorney under Penal Code §38.122?

Holding:

Yes. The statute requires proof of intent to gain an economic benefit but does not include a culpable mental state as to the other elements of the offense, so the court properly denied the defendant’s requested instruction applying “intentionally” to the other elements. Nor was the defendant entitled to a mistake of fact instruction because his mistaken belief that he was licensed in Mexico could not negate the required culpable mental state. Finally, the court’s inclusion of a definition of “foreign legal consultant” was not an improper comment on the weight of the evidence because, although not statutorily defined, the term has acquired a technical meaning.
Read opinion

Concurrence (Keller, P.J.):

The majority correctly analyzes the “mistake of fact” instruction issue, as the mistake of fact defense applies only to negate culpable mental state.
Read concurrence

Concurrence (Cochran, J.):

The mistake of fact defense can negate any element of culpability of an offense, not merely the culpable mental state.
Read concurrence

Commentary:

There is clearly a rather heated divide on the court concerning the nature of the mistake-of-fact defense. Two judges did not participate in this decision, but Judge Cochran’s concurring opinion (which is really a dissent) makes it clear that the court’s opinion is in fact a “majority” opinion. And that majority opinion settles (perhaps once and for all) that the mistake-of-fact defense is limited in application to an offense’s culpable mental state, and not to mistakes concerning all of the elements of an offense. Because this particular offense had only one culpable mental state, as shown by the court’s first holding, then the defendant’s alleged mistakes about the other elements of the offense did not entitle him to a mistake-of-fact instruction. This should help clear up the nature of the defense. There is also some guidance on when a non-defined term can still be included in the jury charge and not constitute an improper comment on the weight of the evidence. Overall a very helpful opinion from the court.

Gelinas v. State

No. PD-1522-11        5/15/13 (plurality opinion)

Issue:

Did an erroneous CCP art. 38.23 instruction, which stated that if the defendant committed a Transporation Code violation the resulting traffic stop was illegal, result in egregious harm?

Holding:

No. The court disavows its opinion in Hutch v. State, 922 S.W.2d 166 (Tex. Crim. App. 1996), a case involving similar facts, because it improperly weighed several of the factors in the Almanza harm analysis. Given that the abstract portion of the charge was correct, both the prosecution and the defense correctly argued the law to the jury, and no evidence suggested the jury was confused by the contradictory language in the charge, the court found no egregious harm.
Read opinion

Concurrence (Keller, P.J.):

The court should have also emphasized that the error in the charge was to the defendant’s benefit.
Read concurrence

Concurrence (Cochran, J.):

“I conclude that the error in this jury charge did not cause appellant egregious harm because the jury instruction was just an indecipherable lump of legal gobbled-gook that no one (including the lawyers and the judge) understood or paid any attention to.”
Read concurrence

Dissent (Meyers, J.):

The majority should have disavowed Almanza, and its inconsistent applications by appellate courts, instead of Hutch. All jury charge error should be analyzed under the “some harm” standard.
Read dissent

(Dissent (Price, J.):

The correct statement of the law in the abstract portion did not ensure the jury understood and corrected the error in the application portion; both parties read and argued the incorrect statement in the charge before the jury; and the evidence at trial was vigorously contested—all factors weigh in favor of finding egregious harm.
Read dissent

Dissent (Johnson, J.):

Hutch correctly applied the Almanza analysis.
Read dissent

Commentary:

I have always said that jury charges are not for juries—they are for appellate courts. And that is never more true than in this case. It appears that the court’s decision is a plurality opinion. Regardless, I am not certain that there is any reliable takeaway from these opinions, other than an assurance that jury charges continue to be far too hypertechnical. When there is a clear mistake in a jury charge, even when viewed only by a layman’s common sense, then that mistake should be viewed that way.

Okonkwo v. State

No. PD-0207-12        5/15/13

Issue:

Was trial counsel ineffective for failing to request a jury instruction on the mistake of fact defense in defendant’s trial for forgery of money where the defendant claimed he mistakenly believed the bills to be authentic?

Holding:

No. Forgery of money requires the State to prove intent to defraud or harm another, which also requires the State to show the defendant knew the bills were forged. Proof of the culpable mental state necessarily proves lack of mistake regarding authenticity of the bills, so trial counsel was not objectively unreasonable in failing to request the instruction.
Read opinion

Concurrence (Cochran, J.):

Even if trial counsel had been deficient, the defendant could not show prejudice because the jury instructions as given were more favorable to the defendant than they would have been if the mistake of fact instruction had been granted.
Read concurrence

Commentary:

With this decision, and the court’s decision in Celis v. State above, the court has gone a long way toward clarifying the mistake-of-fact defense.  A defendant is not entitled to the charge if the mistake does not relate to a culpable mental state, and a defendant is not entitled to the charge if it would not make any sense or any difference in the context of the charged offense and/or the facts of the case.

Texas Courts of Appeal

State v. Sanders

No. 14-12-00284-CR        5/9/13 (not desig. for pub.)

Issue:

Did the trial court incorrectly grant a motion for new trial when 1) the trial was not seriously flawed and 2) the trial court relied on its thoughts, personal feelings, and emotions about the case?

Holding:

Yes, the trial court abused its discretion to the extent it granted the defendant’s motion for new trial 1) in the interest of justice based on legally insufficient evidence, and 2) the State’s opening statement because nothing established improper argument or prosecutorial misconduct.
Read opinion

Commentary:

This is a great decision, as it reaffirms what the Court of Criminal Appeals stated in State v. Herndon, cited in the court’s opinion—that a motion for new trial can be granted in the interest of justice, but only if the defendant has articulated a legal reason for the granting of the motion for new trial. Keep watch over State v. Thomas, in which the Court of Criminal Appeals has granted the defendant’s petition for discretionary review in a similar case, in which the trial court granted a defendant’s motion for new trial in the interest of justice, but the court of appeals reversed because the defendant did not articulate a legal reason for granting the motion.

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