U.S. Supreme Court
No. 18-1259 4/22/21
When a defendant under 18 is convicted of homicide, must a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility be made before the defendant can be sentenced to life without parole?
No. “[A] discretionary sentencing system is both constitutionally necessary and constitutionally sufficient.” The Court explained that its previous decisions in Miller (states may impose life without parole for a defendant under 18 so long as the sentencer has discretion to impose a lesser sentence)and Montgomery (Miller applies retroactively on collateral review cases) do not require a separate factual finding of permanent incorrigibility—only consideration of “an offender’s youth and attendant characteristics” before imposing a life-without-parole sentence. Read opinion.
Concurrence (Thomas, J.):
“[T]he majority adopts a strained reading of Montgomery …, instead of outright admitting that it is irreconcilable with Miller…—and the Constitution. The better approach is to be patently clear that Montgomery was a ‘demonstrably erroneous’ decision worthy of outright rejection.”
Dissent (Sotomayor, J. joined by Breyer and Kagan, JJ.):
“In the Court’s view, a sentencer never need determine, even implicitly, whether a juvenile convicted of homicide is one of ‘those rare children whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption.’… Even if the juvenile’s crime reflects ‘unfortunate yet transient immaturity,’… he can be sentenced to die in prison. This conclusion would come as a shock to the Courts in Miller and Montgomery. Miller’s essential holding is that ‘a lifetime in prison is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest children, those whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption.’”
This decision will have no effect on current Texas law, as a Texas defendant is not subject to life in prison without the possibility of parole if he was under 18 years of age when he committed the offense. The decision basically reaffirms Miller and prevents the addition of any new requirements that Miller had already imposed.
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
No. PD-0894-18 4/28/21
Did the failure to properly admonish a defendant about the potential immigration consequences of his guilty plea constitute harmless error when he was already removeable before pleading guilty as a result of several prior convictions?
Yes. In concluding the defendant “was likely already subject to removal when he entered his guilty plea in this case,” the Court determined “because of the strong evidence of [the defendant]’s guilt, we have a fair assurance that [the defendant] would not have changed his mind about entering the plea, even had he been properly admonished by the trial court.” Read opinion.
This decision will be of interest only to appellate lawyers. Because it involves a harm analysis, the decision is necessarily very fact-bound. But for any case with a defendant who was not properly admonished as to potential deportation consequences, you might find some helpful analysis in this case, especially if the defendant has multiple prior convictions.
Texas Courts of Appeals
No. 02-19-00427-CR 4/22/21
Was a defendant’s extraneous-offense evidence and expert testimony regarding the cycle of violence properly admitted at trial?
Yes. Under Art. 38.371, the defendant’s extraneous-offense evidence was relevant for a non-character-conformity purpose—to prove the nature of the relationship between the defendant and victim. In addition, because “the average juror will not typically be familiar with” the cycle of violence and the power-and-control wheel as it relates to domestic violence, the Court held the expert testimony evidence was relevant and admissible. Read opinion.
This decision should be of great help in domestic-violence prosecutions, but take great care to follow the requirements of the statute and the requirements of Texas Rule of Evidence 403. The court’s analysis is exhaustive, so it should be helpful in guiding on how to offer and admit this evidence. And do not forget the necessity of a jury instruction, both at the time that the evidence is admitted and in the trial court’s final charge to the jury. The facts of this case are atrocious, and the case will bear watching to see if the Court of Criminal Appeals decides to review it. You might also expect review of the decision regarding the admissibility of the expert testimony, as only a few decisions deal with the admissibility of “cycle of violence” testimony. Read this decision very carefully to make sure that the State’s expert witness can testify similarly.
No. 06-18-00197-CR 4/23/21
May a defendant represent himself at his own retrospective competency hearing?
No. Federal courts have concluded that a defendant may not be permitted to waive the right to counsel at a competency hearing. Although the case at hand involved a retrospective competency hearing, the Court held the logic was the same, and the defendant was entitled to a new retrospective competency hearing in which he would be represented by counsel. Read opinion.
The facts of this case are exhaustive, but the analysis is very sparse, citing to several federal appellate court decisions in a single paragraph. Maybe the analysis should be sparse if the federal appellate court decisions are correct and they would apply to retrospective competency determinations as well. A defendant has a constitutional right to represent himself at trial, but it is a due process violation to put a defendant to trial if he is (or was) incompetent to stand trial. So it would seem to be reasonable that a defendant should have the assistance of counsel at a competency hearing (retrospective or otherwise). Code of Criminal Procedure Article 46B.006 would seem to require counsel as a matter of statutory law, but that statute is not mentioned in the court’s opinion. Stay tuned to see if the Court of Criminal Appeals wishes to review this significant decision.
No. 14-20-00670-CR 4/22/21
Did the trial court correctly deny habeas corpus relief for bail reduction when the defendant’s attorney presented only unsworn assertions at the hearing on the defendant’s application?
Yes. “[The defendant]’s lawyer’s unsworn statements about [the defendant]’s financial status were not made from first-hand knowledge. … Further, counsel did not discuss the majority of the Article 17.15 factors or Rubac factors.” Because of this, the defendant did not show the trial court abused its discretion in denying the application for habeas relief. Read opinion.
This was not a proceeding to deny or revoke a defendant’s bail or to increase a defendant’s bail. The defendant in this case offered no evidence, and that precluded the court of appeals from being able to do anything but deny his relief on appeal.
No. 14-20-00254-CR 4/22/21
Did a district attorney have statutory authority to file an appeal on the State’s behalf from a county-level court?
Yes. “We conclude that the Harris County District Attorney’s statutory authority to represent the State in appeals from county-level courts at law in Harris County is evident from the plain language of the statutes [[Tex. Const. Art. V, §21; Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Art. 2.01; and Tex. Gov’t Code §§25.103(k), 42.001, and 43.180] … read in conjunction with the statute authorizing state’s appeals [Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Art. 44.01].” Read opinion.
These are some of the weirder cases that you will ever see. Eleven defendants said that the charges against them were invalid, but they did not really say why. Nevertheless, the trial court granted all of the motions to quash. The defendants likely realized tht they could not win on the merits, so they suggested that the Harris County District Attorney cannot file a State’s appeal from a county court ruling. Their position was based upon the fact that the controlling constitutional and statutory provisions only referred to “district and inferior courts of the county,” but not county courts specifically. Okay.
Texas Attorney General Opinion
Does a county attorney have the authority to file a lawsuit against a city to enjoin a violation of a restriction contained in a properly recorded plat of property within the county?
“Subsection 203.003(a) of the Property Code authorizes a county attorney to sue to enjoin or abate violations of a restriction contained in a properly recorded plat affecting a real property subdivision located in the county. The authority granted exists independent from and regardless of whether a complaint was filed with the county attorney to initiate the lawsuit.” Read opinion.
This opinion deals with a dispute between Williamson County and the city of Austin over the Austin city council’s purchase of a hotel within the boundaries of Williamson County for use as a homeless shelter. The opinion is short and to the point. The statute does not require a complaint, so a complaint is not required.