Weekly Case Summaries: June 18, 2010

Supreme Court of the United States

Ontario v. Quan

06/17/10 : Cite No. 08-1332

Issue:

Was the search of a SWAT team member's city-issued pager reasonable?

Holding:

Yes. The search was for work-related purposes (an audit of the paging services contract) and was not excessive in scope. Read Opinion.

Commentary:

The Court bypasses a "reasonable expectation of privacy" basis for its decision because the parties essentially assumed the officer's reasonable expectation of privacy. But if you have a search or alleged search of a governmental employees' property by the employer, you need to carefully read this decision. The decision may give you some alternative arguments to assert in justifying the search or in claiming that the employer's action was not a search in the first place.

Court of Criminal Appeal

Estrada v. State

06/16/10 : Cite No. AP-75,634

Issue:

Was it a violation of the defendant's constitutional rights when the State's rebuttal witness from the Special Prosecution Unit presented incorrect information on TDCJ's criminal classification system during the punishment phase of the trial?

Holding:

Yes. There is a fair probability that the defendant's death sentence was imposed based on this faulty information. Read Opinion.

Commentary:

A prosecutor's primary duty is to see that justice is done, and the prosecutors in this case admirably conceded that the defendant was entitled to a new sentencing hearing because it was discovered that the witness' testimony was incorrect. The jury sent out a note, revealing that it was relying upon the incorrect testimony. One hopes that a death sentence could be obtained for this defendant yet once again. As a youth group leader, he took advantage of a young girl, having sexual relations with her on numerous occasions. She got pregnant three times as a result of their "relationship," with the first two times resulting in an abortion and a miscarriage. When the victim decided to carry the third child to term, the defendant strangled the victim and stabbed her thirteen times in her own home, so that her father and siblings could find her murdered body. The defendant was having sexual relations with another girl in his youth group at the time, and he committed indecency with a child with a third member of the youth group.

Davis v. State

06/16/10: Cite No. AP-75,796

Issue 1:

Was the defendant's confession for capital murder voluntary when the defendant claimed to be under the influence of cocaine, anesthetics, and other drugs?

Issue 2:

Did the defendant invoke his right to counsel by saying "I should have an attorney?"

Holding 1:

Yes. The video from the confession showed the defendant was coherent and responsive. Read Opinion.

Holding 2:

No. The statement was ambiguous and not a clear invocation of his right to counsel. Read Opinion.

Commentary:

The defendant had mental illness claims, and he was apparently denied the opportunity to smoke a cigarette. But it was not apparent that his statement was involuntary for either of those reasons. The court also held that the defendant's statement, "I should have an attorney," was ambiguous, and was not necessarily an invocation of his right to counsel. The court also rejected the admissibility of expert testimony in support of a "diminished capacity / intoxication" defense. This opinion should be very helpful for all of those issues.

Irby v. State

06/16/10 : Cite No. PD-1097-08

Issue:

Was the defendant required to show some causal connection or logical relationship between a witness being on probation and his potential bias to testify favorably toward the State before the defendant may cross-examine the witness about his probation status?

Holding:

Yes. Here the witness's status as a probationer was irrelevant absent evidence of such a causal connection. The witness had already passed the information on to several other people prior to involving the police or creating any link between his testimony and potential bias. Read Opinion.

Dissent

Judge Holcomb's dissent argues that the defendant was denied his right to cross examination and that there was evidence of a link between the testimony and a possible bias.Read Dissent.

Commentary:

This is a wonderful decision from an admittedly sharply divided court. But it takes a necessary step in clearing up confusion that has existed among some of the court's prior decisions. The majority opinion is short, but well-written and to the point. All trial prosecutors need to read this decision and have it available to give to your judge. A defendant cannot question a witness about a criminal difficulty just to make the witness look bad.

Gonzalez v. State

06/16/10 : Cite No. PD-1389-08

Issue:

Must a trial judge conduct a competency hearing on his own initiative after hearing evidence that the defendant suffered intoxication-related amnesia with respect to events giving rise to the charged offense?

Holding:

No. While there may be a case where amnesia may constitute mental incapacity to stand trial, it would have to be an "extraordinary" case where the amnesia affected the defendant's ability to think rationally. Read Opinion.

Commentary:

There is now a significant body of case law developed under the recently enacted Chapter 46B of the Code of Criminal Procedure, and it has provided some good guidelines for courts to follow in deciding whether to conduct a competency inquiry for a defendant.

Ex Parte Briseno

06/09/10 : Cite No. No. AP-76,132 (Not Published)

Issue:

Did the jury instructions at the defendant's capital murder trial meet the requirements of the Eighth Amendment as interpreted by Penry and Tennard?

Holding:

No. The jury instruction did not provide a way for the jury to give full mitigating effect to his evidence of significantly sub-average intelligence. Read Opinion.

Commentary:

This is yet another case in which the jury was given a so-called "nullification" instruction on mitigating evidence in an old capital murder case. It will have no effect upon the current law, but it is certainly having an effect on numerous older capital murder convictions. Many prosecutors are definitely going to need to be well-versed in retrying these "older" capital murder cases.

Texas Courts of Criminal Appeals

Steadman v. State - 11th COA

06/10/10 : Cite No. 11-08-00183-CR

Issue:

Were the defendant's Fifth Amendment rights violated by an officer's testimony that the defendant neither admitted nor denied the sexual offense allegations?

Holding:

No. Although Texas law is unsettled, federal law informs the result. In contrast to a defendant's pre-arrest/post-Miranda silence, a defendant's pre-arrest/pre-Miranda silence may be introduced. The court also expressly states that it does not want its opinion to be read as addressing a defendant's post-arrest/pre-Miranda silence or silence during interrogation. Read Opinion.

Commentary:

If this decision is reviewed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, you should certainly expect it to be upheld. This decision is also significant because it upholds the trial court's exclusion of some members of the defendant's family during jury selection-as long as the appropriate findings are made for the partial closing of the trial.

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