Weekly Case Summaries: September 18, 2015

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

Ex Parte Moore

No. WR 13,374-05      9-16-15

Issue:

Was it error for the trial court to consider a new definition of intellectual ability when considering the defendant’s Atkins claim?

Holding:

Yes. The court upheld its current framework for determining intellectual disability developed in Atkins and Briseno, even though some of the medical opinions regarding diagnosis of mental impairment have changed. As a rule, the court has the authority to set the legal standard unless and until the Legislature chooses to act on the subject. Additionally, the court confirmed that any Atkins claim must not only prove sub-average intellectual and adaptive functioning, but also that such the adaptive functioning deficit is related to the intellectual deficit rather than some other cause. Read opinion.

Dissent (Alcala, J.):

Judge Alcala wrote to express her desire that the court reevaluate the Briseno standard to keep up with the current consensus of the medical community regarding intellectual disability. Indeed, she is worried that the current Texas method is in conflict with the Supreme Court’s decision in Hall,that states should rely on current standards of the medical community. Read.

Commentary:

This is an extremely fact-bound decision. We will probably hear more about this case as it wends through federal court because the defense has evidence that supports its argument. If you are fighting a post-conviction Atkins claim, study this opinion. The Court again sends a message to the Legislature that a legislative fix is needed. Unfortunately, the Court’s opinion in In re Allen, 462 S.W.3d 47 (Tex. Crim. App. 2015), makes it unlikely that the Legislature will enact a fix.

Blasdell v. State

No. PD-0162-14                      9-16-15

Issue:

Did a defense expert meet the reliability requirements to testify regarding the “weapon-focus -effect”?

Holding:

No. To testify regarding a soft science, the proponent must show that the field of expertise is legitimate, the subject matter of the expert’s testimony is within the scope of that field, and the expert’s testimony properly relies upon or utilizes the principles involved in that field. Without determining the reliability of this evidence as a whole, there was nothing on the record in this case that indicated the defendant’s proposed expert evidence was reliable. Read opinion.

Dissent (Meyers, J.):

Judge Meyers noted that the reliability of this evidence was not questioned at trial by either the State or the trial court; thus it seems unfair to punish the defendant procedurally for this issue. Read.

Commentary:

To best understand this case, you may need to read the lower-court opinions. It looks like a case of a “throw down” expert who was not supported very well by the sponsor. Do not read this opinion as holding that testimony regarding the “weapon-focus effect” will never be admissible.

Guthrie-Nail v. State

No. PD-0125-14                      9-16-15

Issue:

Was it a “useless task” to remand this case to the trial court because the nunc pro tunc judgment  in question was properly issued?

Holding:

No. It would not be a “useless task” because the judgment included a deadly weapon finding; however, there was no conclusive evidence that such a finding was made at or before the time the written judgment was signed. If such a finding was made, it would merely be a clerical error and the nunc pro tunc judgment would be properly issued. If such a finding was not made, it is not enough that the indictment alleged a deadly weapon and the finding would not be applicable. Read opinion.

Concurrence (Richardson, J.):

Judge Richardson wrote to include additional comments that support the majority opinion. Read.

Dissent (Meyers, J.):

Judge Meyers dissented because in his view, the majority improperly established a precedent that a deadly weapon finding can now be entered for a plea to the inchoate crime of conspiracy, without any evidence that a weapon was used by the defendant. Read.

Dissent (Keasler, J.):

Judge Keasler dissented on the basis that the majority is wrong by relying on Hooks, and instead should be using Ex parte Poe, Crumpton v. State, and Polk v. State. Each of these cases supports the idea that if an indictment includes the use of a deadly weapon, and adjudication of guilty as charged includes the deadly weapon finding. Additionally, Judge Keasler would find that regardless of the authority used, the record as a whole establishes that the error corrected by the nunc pro tunc was clerical, and thus the case should not be remanded to the trial court. Read.

Dissent (Yeary, J.):

Judge Yeary’s dissent focused on the idea that the trial court in a bench trial does not have discretion to refuse to make a deadly weapon finding if it is otherwise shown that a deadly weapon was “used or exhibited.” Read.

Commentary:

Studious readers will note that the author of the Court’s opinion was the losing lawyer in the Hooks decision so thoroughly discussed in this opinion. If it seems counterintuitive that an offense that requires a deadly weapon does not require a deadly weapon finding then your legal compass is working correctly this morning. If a judge actually does this in one of your cases, consider taking it up and asking the Court to overrule Hooks.

Jaganathan v. State

No. PD-1189-14                      9-16-15

Issue:

Did the appeals court’s potential justifications for the defendant’s conduct negate the reasonable suspicion of the officer pulling him over?

Holding:

No. “A determination that reasonable suspicion exists . . . need not rule out the possibility of innocent conduct,” and the mere possibility that an act is justified will not negate reasonable suspicion. Additionally, it was improper for the appeals court to consider the purpose of the law in question. So long as an offense occurs, law enforcement is free to enforce the law and detain a person for that violation. Read opinion.

Dissent (Meyers, J.):

Judge Meyers wrote to express his belief that driving in the left lane in a “Left Lane for Passing Only” zone should not be a crime at all because the criminal element of this regulation is vague and confusing. Read.

Commentary:

How trial courts utilize video evidence to review traffic stops has been troublesome of late. Here, the Court reminds us (and lower courts) that we must review these tapes in the role of the officer making the stop. Officers cannot rewind tapes or loop them back and forth before deciding whether to intervene and make a traffic stop. Perhaps we should look to the NFL rule for guidance—a referee must see "incontrovertible visual evidence" for a call to be overturned. In any event, the Court reminds us: “The reasonable suspicion standard ‘accepts the risk that officers may stop innocent people.’” Just because a trial court might not make the same call as the officer does not mean the officer was wrong. A very useful case for prosecutors as our files increasingly contain this type of video evidence.

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