Thursday, September 6, 2012

To Trial or Not to Trial, that is the question!

There is a common dilemma among criminal defense attorneys: what to do when you have a very tempting offer from the DA and yet you believe the State still cannot prove it’s case?  It’s an extremely difficult position.  Or is it?

As attorney’s we all know that trial is a toss-up.  When you place a case in front of a jury, you never know what’s going to happen.  As a prosecutor, I once lost a case wherein the jury came back with a verdict of “not guilty” and attached a handwritten note to the verdict form that said, “and we hope you’ve learned your lesson and never do this again.” What?!?  Yes, it was clear that the guy had done it, but it was a classic case of jury nullification.  On the other hand, as a defense attorney, you always fear that even though the State doesn’t have the evidence to prove the case, that a jury will convict simply based on emotion, public perception or sentiment towards a particular alleged offense.  Hopefully, as criminal defense attorneys, we do our job and explain to the jury that these factors are not to be considered in their decision on the facts of the case….but, ultimately, we never know.

In our practice as criminal defense lawyers in Keller, Texas, we typically represent average citizens who have made mistakes. Sometimes our decisions are made easy when we have clients with criminal records a mile long and facts too egregious to advise our clients to trial. But when we represent the average citizen with no history, the decision on whether to go to trial can be a very difficult one. But, ultimately, you have to make a call and advise your client. I have found that the best way to handle this situation is the way you are supposed to handle this situation: make a decision, advise your client, but leave the ultimate decision up to the client. Remember, a citizen has a right to a jury trial. You may think that the offer is great and that there is no way that you’re going to beat it at trial. Make that abundantly clear to the client. After that, make it also abundantly clear that the ultimate decision is up to the client.  To trial, or not to trial can sometimes be an easy question to answer. But when it is not, give it thorough evaluation, advise your client and then throw the ball into the client’s court.

It goes without saying, but it’s always good to hear, your client has a constitutional right to a jury trial and they should always know that no matter how much you might advise against it, it is their right to exercise should they choose to. Plus, no matter how bad you might think your case is, there is the added benefit that you holding the State to their burden in front of the citizens that they work for. We maintain the integrity of our judicial system by holding the State to that burden and there is no better way to reinforce that integrity than through a jury trial.

“To trial or not to trial?” It never has an easy answer, but it is always the question that you should be focusing on when representing your clients.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Back to School Blues

This year in Texas it's not just students that have the back to school's drivers too.  Texas has now equipped every school bus with a camera on the stop sign arm.  Now, the school bus will automatically video every impatient driver that decides to go around a stopped school bus during loading time.  The ticket that the State will send in the mail can range from $200 to $1000.  So be careful out there.  Watch out for kids and school buses.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Makes You Wonder About Your Jury

I saw this video the other day and it got me to thinking about jury selection and jury deliberations.  How much can we really learn about the folks that sit in judgment of our clients?  Are we ever really getting truthful, candid responses to the questions we ask in a group setting or are they just following each other's lead?  Of course, there is never a way to select a perfect jury.  Our adversarial system ensures that.  But perhaps, if we follow Bennett's simple rules, we will achieve some level of success.  And hopefully, if you end up with an "elevator" scenario, the folks on the elevator end up facing in the direction of reasonable doubt.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

You’ll Get a Jury and Like It!

“I want a hamburger…no, a cheeseburger.”


Although every criminal defendant is innocent until proven guilty and has the absolute right to a trial on the merits, there are times when it is in the defendant’s best interest to plead guilty.  Sometimes, that is the best advice I can give.  In these times, our goal is to mitigate the sentence.  However, if you can believe it, the State does not always offer a fair an acceptable plea bargain on sentencing.  In these cases, one of the options is for the defendant is to plead open (i.e. without the protection of a deal) to the court.  This is a tactical choice.  Some cases are better for a judge and others for a jury. But in Texas it is not exactly the defendant’s choice.

In my Marine Corps days, operating under the military justice system, an accused has the right to sentencing by a jury or by judge alone.  It is the defendant’s choice alone and no one can interfere with that choice.  Seems fair enough, right?

In Texas, however, if a defendant wants to plead guilty and waive his right to a jury, thereby allowing the judge to impose the sentence, the State (i.e. the prosecution) has to consent to it.  If the judge allows a defendant to plead guilty and waive his right to a jury trial without the State’s consent, the judge risks a mandamus action directing him to vacate the judgments.

That is exactly what happened in Travis County in the case of State v. Gonzales (In Re Escamilla).

As the appellate court noted:

Article 1.13 of the code of criminal procedure provides that, other than in a capital felony case in which the State will seek the death penalty, a criminal defendant may enter a plea and waive his right to a jury trial as long as the waiver is made "in person by the defendant in writing in open court with the consent and approval of the court, and the attorney representing the state." Tex. Code Crim. Proc. Ann. art. 1.13(a).
The 3rd District Court of Appeals (Austin), in a memorandum opinion, granted mandamus relief and directed the trial court to vacate its judgment. Now they’ll have to see what a jury thinks of the case.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Attack By Dog Statute Upheld

The Texas Attack By Dog Statute (TEX. HEALTH & SAFETY CODE § 822.005(a)(1)) was itself attacked recently, in the case of Watson and Smith v. State.  The Attack By Dog statute provides, in relevant part:
(a) A person commits an offense if the person is the owner of a dog and the person:
     (1) with criminal negligence, as defined by Section 6.03, Penal Code, fails to secure the dog and the dog makes an unprovoked attack on another person that occurs at a location other than the owner’s real property or in or on the owner’s motor vehicle or boat and that causes serious bodily injury, as defined by Section 1.07, Penal Code, or death to the other person;
After being convicted for failing to secure their pit bulls which resulted in the death of a seven year-old neighbor boy, appellants challenged the statute as being unconstitutionally vague.  They argued that the terms “unprovoked” and “attack” are undefined in the statute, rendering it vague and open to disparate jury interpretation.  In a unanimous opinion drafted by Judge Myers, the CCA upheld the convictions, explaining that the terms “unprovoked” and “attack” are not part of the mens rea of the crime in that they relate to the actions of the dog, not the omissions or failings of the dog owners.  Further, the CCA reasoned that:
Terms not defined in a statute are to be given their plain and ordinary meaning, and words defined in dictionaries and with meanings so well known as to be understood by a person of ordinary intelligence are not to be considered vague and indefinite.
The prohibited conduct in this case (and in every Attack By Dog case) was the dog owners’ failure to secure the dogs.  The CCA noted that in determining whether a dog owner has taken reasonable efforts to secure a dog, the court uses the reasonable person standard.

TAKEAWAY: Lock up your dogs.  If they get out and kill someone, you will go to jail.  Fancy legal arguments are not likely to save you when your pit bulls kill a seven year-old boy.

See our post about a previous (and somewhat similar) attack to this statute HERE.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

CCA Holds Reckless Agg Assault is LIO of Intentional or Knowing Agg Assault

In Hicks v. State, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals unanimously reversed the 14th District Court of Appeals (Houston) and held that reckless aggravated assault is a lesser included offense of intentional or knowing aggravated assault.
Appellant was charged with intentional or knowing aggravated assault after he and Angelo Jackson got into a fight over borrowed shoes that ended with Angelo being shot in the leg. The trial judge instructed the jury on intentional or knowing aggravated assault, as charged in the indictment, and he also gave a separate instruction for reckless aggravated assault. The jury convicted appellant of reckless aggravated assault. The court of appeals held that the trial judge erred in giving any instruction on reckless aggravated assault because (1) the original indictment did not charge a reckless state of mind, and (2) reckless aggravated assault is not a lesser-included offense of intentional aggravated assault.

We granted review to resolve a conflict between the courts of appeals on whether "reckless aggravated assault" is a lesser-included offense of intentional or knowing aggravated assault. Applying the plain language of Article 37.09 and adhering to our opinion in Rocha v. State, we conclude that it is. Therefore, the trial judge did not err by instructing the jury on reckless aggravated assault as a lesser-included offense.
See the CCA's full opinion HERE.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

No More Bites of the Apple: Probation Revocation and Res Judicata

A community supervision (probation) revocation hearing is distinct from a criminal trial, but are its issues and procedures similar enough to a criminal trial to bind parties in future criminal trials?

That was the question presented the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Ex Parte Doan.  Doan was serving community supervision in Brazos County when he was alleged to have committed theft in Travis County.  The Brazos County DA moved to revoke Doan’s community supervision but was unable to obtain sufficient proof.  As a result, the court denied the motion to revoke.  When the Travis County DA later charged Doan with misdemeanor theft, Doan filed a pretrial application for writ of habeas corpus “seeking to bar any further prosecution of the theft offense under the doctrine of issue preclusion.”
The issue in this case is whether the doctrine of res judicata applies to bar a prosecution for a criminal offense in one county after a prosecutor in another county unsuccessfully attempted to revoke the defendant’s community supervision on the ground that he committed the same offense.
In a 6-3 opinion authored by Judge Womack, the CCA noted that probation revocation hearings were often tagged as “administrative” in nature, but wrongly so.
In this case…the issues and procedures were nearly identical in the Travis County (criminal) and Brazos County (revocation) proceedings. In both proceedings, prosecutors plead and sought to prove that the appellant committed the same act. Both were criminal, judicial proceedings with nearly identical procedural rules, in which the State was represented by sworn prosecutors. The Brazos County Attorney had the authority to litigate the matter to a final adjudication. The only difference between the interests of the Brazos County Attorney and the Travis County Attorney in this case is that one sought to prove theft in order to criminally punish the appellant for theft, while the other sought to prove theft in order have the appellant’s criminal punishment from a prior case altered to his detriment.
Judge Womack held that while the difference in procedures is enough to narrowly escape the “grasp of the Double Jeopardy clause,” it is not enough to avoid the application res judicata to the later criminal trial. The CCA reversed the lower court (which previously held that the two prosecuting authorities were not the same party for res judicata purposes).

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Soliciting a Criminal Defense Case

Let it be known, I would like to defend THIS GUY, if he is indicted (which I doubt will happen in Texas).

Monday, June 11, 2012

Searching for Evidence or Community Caretaking?

U.S. v. McKinnon, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 7806, May 8, 2012

An officer stopped the car Appellant was driving because it had an expired registration sticker.  The officer arrested Appellant after he could not produce a valid driver’s license.  Based on the Houston Police Department’s (HPD) towing policy, the officer ordered the car to be towed.  During the “inventory search,” the officer found a handgun under the driver’s seat.  At trial, Appellant moved to suppress the handgun as being the fruit on an unlawful search in violation of the Fourth Amendment, arguing that:
[the officer’s] inventory search violated his Fourth Amendment rights because (1) the inventory search was merely a pretext for searching for evidence related to the burglaries that had recently taken place in the neighborhood where McKinnon was stopped; and (2) the inventory search was conducted pursuant to a policy that provided HPD officers with impermissible discretion in deciding when to tow a vehicle.
The trial court denied the motion.

The Supreme Court has recognized that the police may seize vehicles without a warrant in furtherance of their “community caretaking” function.  This usually occurs when officers impound damaged or disabled vehicles or vehicles that violate parking ordinances or impede the flow of traffic.  As long as an officer’s decision to impound a vehicle for community caretaking purposes is reasonable, it will not violate the Fourth Amendment. 

Here, the court held that the officer’s decision to have the car towed was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.  It was undisputed that the neighborhood in which the stop occurred had experienced a series of burglaries.  Although these were house burglaries, there was nothing to suggest that the vehicle would not have been stolen or vandalized if left parked and locked at the scene.  By impounding the car, the officer ensured that it was not left on a public street where it could have become a nuisance or where it could have been stolen or damaged. 

In addition, while one of the passengers possessed a valid driver’s license, the car’s registration sticker was expired, so it could not have been lawfully driven away from the scene.  Finally, the HPD tow policy provides for the towing of vehicles when the owner is not able to designate a tow operator to remove the vehicle and no other authorized person is present.  The registered owner of the vehicle was not present to designate a tow operator and there was nothing to suggest that she had authorized either of the two passengers, who were present, to operate her car.

The Court further held that HPD’s inventory search policy was constitutional.  By its clear terms, the policy is consistent with preserving the property of the vehicle’s owner while ensuring that the police protect themselves against claims or disputes over lost or stolen property and protecting the police from danger.

Community caretaking...Hmmm.  Seems like alot of things could fit under that title.  I suppose that is the point.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Is That Your Final Answer? Double Jeopardy and Partial Verdicts

The United States Supreme Court released its decision in Blueford v. Arkansas last week.  The case dealt with the double jeopardy clause and whether it applies to partial or informal verdicts.

In Blueford, the defendant was being tried for capital murder.  The trial judge instructed the jury that if it did not find the defendant guilty of capital murder, it should consider the lesser included offense of first degree murder.  The court further instructed that if the jury did not find the defendant guilty of first degree murder, it should consider manslaughter…and so on and so forth.  After several hours of deliberations, the jury reported that it could not reach a unanimous verdict.  The judge inquired into how the voting was going and the jury reported that it had decided that the defendant was not guilty of capital murder or first degree murder, but that it could not agree on manslaughter.  The judge instructed the jury to go back and keep trying, but they were unable to break the impasse.  Accordingly, the trial judge declared a mistrial.

During the retrial for the same offense, the defendant objected on double jeopardy grounds to the charge of capital murder, arguing that the jury’s informal verdict that he was not guilty of capital or first degree murder precluded him being retried for that same charge at a later trial.  The trial court disagreed, as did the appellate courts.

In a 6-3 opinion (Majority: Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer, Alito), the Supreme Court held that :
The Double Jeopardy Clause does not bar retrying Blueford on charges of capital murder and first-degree murder.  The jury did not acquit Blueford of capital or first-degree murder.  Blueford contends that the foreperson’s report that the jury was unanimous against guilt on the murder offenses represented a resolution of some or all of the elements of those offenses in his favor.   But the report was not a final resolution of anything.  When the foreperson told the court how the jury had voted on each offense, the jury’s deliberations had not yet concluded.  The jurors in fact went back to the jury room to deliberate further, and nothing in the court’s instructions prohibited them from reconsidering their votes on capital and first-degree murder as deliberations continued.  The foreperson’s report prior to the end of deliberations therefore lacked the finality necessary to amount to an acquittal on those offenses.  That same lack of finality undermines Blueford’s reliance on Green v. United States, 355 U. S. 184, and Price v. Georgia, 398 U. S. 323.  In both of those cases, the verdict of the jury was a final decision; here, the report of the foreperson was not.
This holding appears to be consistent with Texas law, in that a jury foreperson must sign a verdict form and the court must accept the verdict, before it is given any legal significance.

Justices Sotomayer dissented (joined by Ginsberg and Kagan), and would hold that partial verdicts should be required before a mistrial is granted on the grounds of a deadlock.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Attenuating the Taint

In Brown v. Illinois, 422 U.S. 590 (1975), the U.S. Supreme Court identified three factors that courts should consider when determining whether the taint of an unlawful arrest was attenuated prior to obtaining a confession:

     1. The temporal proximity of the arrest and the confession;
     2. The presence of intervening circumstances; and
     3. The purpose and flagrancy of the official misconduct (in making the arrest).

In State v. Mazuca, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals considered the proper application of the “attenuation of taint doctrine,” not to a confession, as in Brown, but to contraband that is seized immediately following an unconstitutional detention or arrest.  The question presented was this:
Will the discovery of an outstanding arrest warrant in the relatively few moments that ensue between the illegal stop and the seizure of the contraband invariably serve as an intervening event sufficient to purge the taint of the primary illegality?
In Mazuca, an El Paso police officer stopped the car in which appellee was a passenger because the officer believed he saw white light (rather than red) emitting from the tail lights.  Photos at trial would later prove that the tail lights were indeed red and that the car was not in violation of the Texas Transportation Code.  During the stop, the officer requested to see appellee’s driver’s license, and quickly learned that appellee had outstanding warrants.  During the course of the stop (after learning about the warrants) the officer seized both ecstasy and marijuana from appellee.  Appellee moved to suppress the contraband as the fruits of an illegal search.  The trial court granted the motion, making, inter alia, the following findings of fact and conclusions of law:
1. The driver of the Mustang did not violate Section 547.322 of the Transportation Code on December 11, 2008.
2. The Police Officers did not have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to perform a traffic stop on that date.
3. The arrest warrants of the Defendant did not purge the taint of the illegal stop due to the flagrancy of the police action, the close temporal proximity and the fact that no Miranda warnings were read.
The 8th Court of Appeals (El Paso) affirmed.  The CCA considered the Supreme Court precedent, as well as the Texas Court of Appeals opinions in coming up with the rule below:
When police find and seize physical evidence shortly after an illegal stop, in the absence of the discovery of an outstanding arrest warrant in between, that physical evidence should ordinarily be suppressed, even if the police misconduct is not highly purposeful or flagrantly abusive of Fourth Amendment rights. Under this scenario, temporal proximity is the paramount factor. But when an outstanding arrest warrant is discovered between the illegal stop and the seizure of physical evidence, the importance of the temporal proximity factor decreases. Under this scenario, the intervening circumstance is a necessary but never, by itself, wholly determinative factor in the attenuation calculation, and the purposefulness and/or flagrancy of the police misconduct, vel non, becomes of vital importance.
While the rule sounds simple enough, the CCA’s application of the rule to the facts of the case is a bit troubling.  The CCA reversed the Court of Appeals, and held that…
[T]he behavior of the arresting officers, although clearly unlawful at the outset, was not so particularly purposeful and flagrant that the discovery of the appellee’s outstanding arrest warrants may not serve to break the causal connection between the illegal stop and the discovery of the ecstasy in the appellee’s pants pocket, thus purging the primary taint.  We hold that the trial court erred to conclude otherwise.
This opinion was a tease.  I read all 29 pages expecting a certain outcome and then the CCA (by a 5-4 vote) pulled the rug out from under me in the final two paragraphs.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one that felt this way.  Here’s what Judge Meyers had to say in his dissenting opinion:
The result fashioned by the majority opens the door for police to ignore the probable cause requirement and make traffic stops without adequate grounds for doing so.  The majority’s analysis of the weight of the Brown factors may be correct, but the result discounts the trial court’s findings as to the credibility of the officers.
Judge Johnson dissented as well, writing:
I would hold that the court of appeals correctly recognized that, without the highly improper traffic stop, the officers could not have learned appellee’s name, found active warrants, or searched him and recovered contraband, all fruits of the poisonous tree.  We, like the court of appeals, should “afford almost total deference to a trial court’s determination of historical facts that are supported by the record, particularly when such findings are based on an evaluation of witnesses’ credibility and demeanor” and affirm its suppression of the evidence that was obtained because of the improper traffic stop.  I respectfully dissent.
While it is beneficial for the CCA to create precedent where none previously existed, if it cannot apply that precedent to the facts of the case correctly, what good is it?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

From Dry Land to Swimming: A Few Thoughts on Transitioning from Government Attorney to Private Practice

On March 1st of this year I stepped away from the dry land of a steady government paycheck (with benefits and retirement) to swimming in the ocean of private practice. Before I did, I asked a few attorneys (who shall remain nameless) some advice about making the leap. The general consensus from the attorney’s I talked to was, “Don’t do it!” While their misgivings were discouraging, something about that advice didn’t add up to me. Now that I’ve been practicing for a couple of months I understand why they advised me against the move…and I respectfully dissent.

Why did they tell me not to do it?

First, there is no more “steady”. The leap from government attorney to sole practitioner has been as far from steady as you can get. The word I use to describe my life to friends and family is “chaos”. That word is about as accurate as it gets. Between evaluating new clients, balancing current clients and keeping up with court dates and deadlines there is always something I need to be doing and staying on top of. (It really makes sitting down to write a blog post excruciatingly painful!). In government work, I worked from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Now, I’m on-call 24/7.

Second, there is the “unknown” factor. As a government attorney, I new how much I made and what I was supposed to do. My paycheck was always the same and automatically deposited into my account at the same times every month. I was able to budget, plan, save and keep my finances very organized…not so much now. Everything now is unknown. Week-to-week and even day-to-day, I don’t know what income I will be bringing in. There’s no way to know how many clients I will sign up. There’s no way to know what kind of case I’ll be working on in the future. There’s no way I’ll know what costs are going to pop up unexpectedly. There is so much unknown that it’s impossible to feel safe.

Third, it’s all me! When I worked for the government, I had a two legal assistants and a handful of attorney’s to bounce things off of. Now, it’s all me. I find that the tasks of researching, preparing motions, phone calls, emails and making decisions regarding my clients cases can be overwhelming at times. The responsibility of not only keeping my business sustained, but effectively representing my clients seems impossible sometimes. Psychologically, the stress and pressure has been taxing.

Now, the dissent:

It’s not steady, but it’s exciting. There is no boredom in what I do now. Now, I’m not going to say I was bored working for the government…but I will say that the pace of things now definitely keeps me on my toes. Deep-down, I enjoy the chaos. It’s stressful, and can make me irritable at times. But, for the first time since graduating law school (outside of my courtroom experience), I really feel like a lawyer. Plus, there’s always some new problem, some new situation that stimulates me to bring out my potential.

There is so much “unknown”, but some of it is really good! I don’t know what my income will be but it could be so much more than it used to be (and I’m finding that if I work hard and serve my clients to the best of my ability it likely will be). There have also been some great rewards in getting to know the people I’ve been helping and building relationships with. Those rewards were unknown when I started. Sure, it’s impossible to feel safe…but it’s also exciting to know that something really great and rewarding could walk through the door at any minute. That “unknown” is something that is constantly exciting and always hovering in the back of my mind.

Finally, it’s all me!!! When you help a client, or help them make a decision that they had not previously thought of, the rewards are indescribable. The pride I have in my work now does exceed what I previously did for the government because I know that nobody helped me come to my final decision but me. In addition to taking stock in your own work, there is that added benefit of being your own boss. I can take off when I want to as long as I'm caught up on my work. (Granted, that has not been often...but at least I know it's a possibility!)

All-in-all, I completely understand why attorneys would advise me not to go out on my own. But, it fits my personality and I’m happier now (despite the chaos and stress) than I ever have been. So, if you’re out there making a nice, steady safe paycheck and you’re comfortable with that, then my advice is to stay there. But, if something about that routine leaves you wanting for more and you’re willing to live with the fast-pace chaos, then jump on in…the water is fine!!!

Comment Rejected (Sorry SEO gurus)

As most bloggers do, I enjoy reading thoughtful comments.  It confirms that there is indeed someone out there reading my ramblings.  When I first began this blog, I published every comment that came in.  I was completely unaware of the SEO underground with its own agenda.  Now I’m wiser, savvier.  I can spot an SEO comment a mile away, and I reject them all.  This blog does not exist to drive traffic to your law firm.  If you write a thoughtful comment, even if you embed your firm’s link in the name, I will probably publish it.  But if you do as those listed below, your comment will be rejected.  I know that the SEO gurus could care less.  They probably submit thousands of comments a day, indiscriminately.  But they won’t be getting any link love here.

Here are some of the recent comments that I received and rejected (all from the same Criminal Defense firm in San Antonio).  Notice how the commenter does not even try to use a fake name – they just call themselves what they hope someone might be googling.  Shameless.

Comment from “San Antonio Criminal Defense Attorney”
This is a very good post. Especially as it contains information I haven’t read before.
Comment from “San Antonio Criminal Defense Attorney”
You have brought up very good details, appreciate it for the post.
Comment from “The DWI Sharks” (a.k.a. San Antonio Criminal Defense Attorney)
Thank you for sharing this post about the Criminal Defense Attorney, this is a big help for me and to the others as well on how to choose the right criminal defense lawyer. Thanks again :)
It is abundantly clear (from the grammar and syntax alone) that these comments were not submitted by lawyers.  I enjoy writing this blog.  I enjoy reading slip opinions and other current legal issues and posting about them.  But this blog does not exist to help drive internet traffic to your law firm’s website.  Sorry SEOsters - find another way.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Beauty of Specialty Courts

As I'm sure you've noticed by now, specialty courts (drug courts, DWI courts, reentry courts, etc.) are rapidly becoming the norm in most criminal jurisdictions.  Why the increase in popularity?  Simple.  They work.

The National Association of Drug Court Professionals' website cites the five primary goals these programs are working to achieve.

     1) They reduce crime
     2) They save money
     3) They ensure compliance
     4) They combat addiction
     5) They restore families

Incarcerating addicts only delays their inevitable addiction cycle.  Specialty courts offer a real, life-changing alternative that not only aid individuals in their battle against addiction, but also improve the crime rates in every community in which they exist.  These specialty courts work to provide intense supervision through the cooperative efforts of local probation offices, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and, most importantly, judges. Read more about it here.

If you haven't researched specialty courts in your jurisdiction, I'd highly encourage you to do so immediately.  These programs could offer your present clients an incredible opportunity your previous clients didn't have.  Let's hope specialty courts continue to gain traction, and that more specialty court keep popping up throughout Texas.  It is important to remember that the criminal justice system is not always about punishment, it's also about rehabilitation.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Nothing to Report

I’ve written a couple of blog posts recently and then deleted them. They weren’t very good and I didn’t want my name at the bottom of them. I guess I need an alias for those posts that I don’t wish to claim. I’ve also read several recent Texas decisions, but I didn’t find any of them particularly blogworthy. I’ve trawled the internet in search of something worth sharing…nothing. So, just like I use to do when I was the firewatch in the squad bay and a senior officer approached me, I have nothing to report.

But check these guys out if you’re in the mood for a good law-related read:
Or...for a completely ridiculous YouTube video of Finland's version of the song YMCA with some very sketchy looking backup dancers, see HERE

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Wow...Just Wow.

I cannot believe what I just saw - outrageous police brutality and utter disregard for human life.

See what I'm talking about HERE.  This video is unbelievable.

Greenfield posted about this HERE as well. 


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

More Rules of the Road: Passing on the Shoulder is A-Okay

It appears that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is also becoming the State’s highest traffic court.  Last week, I posted about a CCA case involving merging traffic.  This week, the CCA issued an opinion on the legality of using the right shoulder of a road to pass a slower vehicle.

In Lothrop v. State, the Appellant was pulled over after a police officer observed him using the right shoulder of the road to pass a vehicle that was slowing down.  Appellant was later arrested for Driving While Intoxicated.  At trial, he filed a motion to suppress the evidence gained from the stop, arguing that the police officer did not have reasonable suspicion to make the stop.  Appellant pointed to Section 545.058(a) of the Texas Transportation Code, which provides:

(a) An operator may drive on an improved shoulder to the right of the main traveled portion of a roadway of that operation is necessary and may be done safely, but only:
     (2) to accelerate before entering the main traveled lane of traffic;
     (3) to decelerate before making a right turn;
     (4) to pass another vehicle that is slowing or stopped on the main traveled portion of the highway, disabled, or preparing to make a left turn;
     (5) to allow another vehicle traveling faster to pass;
     (6) as permitted or required by an official traffic-control device; or
     (7) to avoid a collision.

The trial court denied the motion and Appellant pled guilty to DWI.  The 2nd Court of Appeals (Fort Worth) affirmed the conviction, holding that “driving on an improved shoulder, regardless of circumstance, is prima facie evidence of an offense, and that Section 545.058(a) merely establishes defenses that a defendant may raise at trial.”

Think again, said the Traffic Court (a.k.a. CCA):
[T]he offense of illegally driving on an improved shoulder can be proved in one of two ways: either driving on the improved shoulder was not a necessary part of achieving one of the seven approved purposes, or driving on an improved shoulder could not have been done safely.  Merely driving on an improved shoulder is not prima facie evidence of an offense.  Thus if an officer sees a driver driving on an improved shoulder, and it appears that driving on the improved shoulder was necessary to achieving one of the seven approved purposes, and it is done safely, that officer does not have reasonable suspicion that an offense occurred. 
With that, the CCA reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded the case back to the trial court.  So there you have it - traffic lesson number two from the CCA this month.  You are free to drive on the improved shoulder of the road (without worrying that you will be pulled over) IF you are doing it safely and for one of the seven listed purposes.

Judge Johnson concurred, noting that driving on the right should at or near a railroad crossing is typically unwise.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Lane Ends, Merge Left

Back in 2010, I posted about Mahaffey v. State, a case in which the CCA directed the 12 District Court of Appeals (Tyler) to determine whether a "lane merge" is a "turn" under the Texas Transportation Code, such that it requires a driver to signal.  If a "merge" does not require a turn signal (as the appellant failed to do in this case), then the police stop was improper (without reasonable suspicion) and the evidence of his DWI gained from the stop should have been suppressed.

The 12th Court took another look at the case and once again determined that a "merge" was a "turn" and thus required a turn signal.  Apparently, the 12th Court did not get the CCA's hint the first time around.

In a 5-3 opinion (HERE) with Judge Meyers concurring, the CCA reversed (again), holding:
We disagree with the State's contention that the termination of a lane does not affect whether a driver changes lanes under the signal statute.  As a practical matter, "changing lanes" requires the existence of more than one lane: In order to change lanes from Lane A to Lane B, Lane A must exist.  Appellant did not change lanes.  The two lanes became one. ...[N]o signal is required when two lanes become one. 
Presiding Judge Keller dissented and was joined by Judges Price and Keasler.  She would hold that because Appellant's lane ended, he had to change lanes, and that changing lanes requires a turn signal.

Well, it looks like logic prevailed in this one.  You cannot change lanes if there is only one lane in which to drive.  The majority got it right here.  No signal is required for a lane merge.  Remember that if a police officer tries to pull you over for failing to signal.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Pre-Arrest, Pre-Miranda Right to Remain Silent

You have the right to remain silent…as long as you’re in custody and have been mirandized.

In Salinas v. State, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals addressed an issue about which it and the Supreme Court have remained silent while many other courts across the nation are split; whether the state may comment on an accused's silence prior to his arrest and Miranda warnings.

In Salinas, the appellant was convicted for murder and sentenced to 20 years in the penitentiary after the state introduced evidence during guilt/innocence about his refusal to answer a question about the possibility of the shotgun shells found on scene matching the shotgun found at his residence.  Appellant refused to answer the question, choosing to remain silent, at a time prior to his arrest and before the police had issued any Miranda warnings.  The defense argued the state was solely using the testimony regarding appellant’s silence as evidence of his guilt in violation of the 5th Amendment.

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals (Houston) affirmed the trial court’s decision to allow the questioning, focusing on the difference between post-arrest, post-Miranda silence and pre-arrest, pre-Miranda silence.  The court of appeals noted that the appellant voluntarily answered questions by police for over an hour before refusing to answer the ballistics question.  Citing Justice Stevens concurring opinion in Jenkins v. Anderson, 447 U.S. 231 (1980) the CCA held:
the Fifth Amendment right against compulsory self-incrimination is "irrelevant to a citizen’s decision to remain silent when he is under no official compulsion to speak."
The CCA spent little time in this opinion to proclaim loudly it affirms the Fourteenth Court’s holding:
The plain language of the Fifth Amendment protects a defendant from compelled self-incrimination.  In pre-arrest, pre-Miranda circumstances, a suspect’s interaction with police officers is not compelled.
Now, we will continue waiting for SCOTUS to speak up on the issue hoping they don’t continue exercising their right to remain silent…

Monday, April 30, 2012

Mental Retardation and the 8th Amendment

In 2002, the United States Supreme Court determined that the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment bars the execution of mentally retarded persons. Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304 (2002).  The Court reasoned that neither retribution nor deterrence could be achieved by executing mentally retarded persons and that, because mentally retarded persons have a reduced ability to participate in their own defense, there is an enhanced risk that they would be sentenced to death unnecessarily.  However, the Supreme Court left it to the individual states to determine which offenders are, in fact, retarded, in order to enforce this constitutional restriction. 

In Ex Parte Briseno, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals established non-mandatory guidelines to determine “that level and degree of mental retardation at which a consensus of Texas citizens would agree that a person should be exempted from the death penalty.” 135 S.W. 3d 1 (2004).  If an offender meets the definition of mental retardation, then the guidelines are designed to consider some more subjective criteria. The definition of mental retardation that the CCA adopted was:
(1) Significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning, generally shown by an IQ of 70 or less, (2) accompanied by related limitations in adaptive functioning, (3) the onset of which occurs prior to the age of 18.
If a person meets that definition, the following guidelines were designed to help factfinders in criminal trials focus upon weighing the evidence as indicative of mental retardation or of a personality disorder:
Did those who knew the person best during the developmental stage – his family, friends, teachers, employers, and authorities – think he was mentally retarded at that time, and, if so, did they act in accordance with the determination?

Has the person formulated plans and carried them through, or is his conduct impulsive?

Does his conduct show leadership, or does it show that he is led around by others?

Is his conduct in response to external stimuli rational and appropriate, regardless of whether it is socially acceptable?

Does he respond coherently, rationally, and on point to oral or written questions, or do his responses wander from subject to subject?

Can the person hide facts or lie effectively in his own or others’ interests?

Putting aside any heinousness or gruesomeness surrounding the capital offense, did the commission of that offense require forethought, planning, and complex execution of purpose?
The CCA cautioned that these factors should not be considered in isolation, but rather in the context of the concerns expressed by the Supreme Court in the Atkins decision. 

Last week, the CCA considered a capital murder habeas case (Ex Parte Sosa) wherein the applicant alleged that he was mentally retarded at the time of the offense.  The habeas court found that the applicant established mental retardation.  The CCA cited some inconsistencies and ultimately remanded the case back to the convicting court for the judge gather more information and consider the Briseno factors in determining whether the applicant was (or is) indeed mentally retarded.

This is an interesting area of law to me.  I've had the occasion to dig into some literature on autism recently, and at first glance it would seem that some autistic indviduals (those that are higher on the spectrum) might satisfy the factors laid out by the CCA.  Of course, the Briseno and Atkins cases deal only with the death penalty and capital punishment, but as far as retribution and deterrence go, this could be good extenuation and mitigation evidence for the factfinder to consider in other cases as well.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Good Texas DWI Resource

As I was trawling (not trolling) the TDCAA website this week, I came across a helpful resource on Texas DWI law.  The DWI Case Law Update, written by the Tarrant County District Attorney's Office, is a comprehensive collection (a 204-page PDF file) of case law concerning DWI.  It is broken down by sub-topic in a user-friendly table of contents.  I'll be putting this one of my iPad for quick reference.  Thanks TDCAA.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Czech Republic Sued in Florida for Return of Art

National Gallery in Prague.
Source: Chmee2.  CC.
A newly created Florida entity filed a civil complaint on April 19 in federal district court against the Czech Republic and two of its cultural institutions.  The lawsuit of Victims of Holocaust Art Theft v. Czech Republic; National Gallery in Prague; Museum of Decorative Arts of Prague seeks the return of Nazi looted art, according to a complaint filed in the United States District Court, Southern District of Florida, Palm Beach Division. (Docket 12-80420-CIV)

The suit claims that 125 pieces of art were plundered during World War II, but the plaintiff specifically seeks the return, or the cash equivalent, of at least 50 pieces valued at over $50 million.  The complaint states that the “Popper Collection” was “among the valuable art and other objects that was looted and seized by the Nazi authorities . . . .”

Richard and Regina Popper, owners of the “Popper Collection,” are said to have been “stripped of their nationality and citizenship rights” and “were deported from Prague to the Lodz Ghetto and murdered in Lodz after arrival (in 1941 or 1942); however the exact date of their murder is not known.”

According to the court complaint, Victims of Holocaust Art Theft is a Florida business formed by Edward D. Fagan and Michal Klepetář, who is a descendant of Richard and Regina Popper.  Documents submitted to the Florida secretary of state's office show that Fagan, who lists a Boca Raton address, registered the fictitious name (i.e. trade name) on April 18, one day before filing the federal lawsuit on behalf of Victims of Holocaust Art Theft.

The lawsuit claims jurisdiction over the Czech Republic because of its commercial activities in the United States.

Coaching a Child Victim

Texas courts have routinely held that an expert witness, such as a child psychologist, may not offer an opinion about the truth of a certain child victim's specific allegations or about the truth of child victim allegations in general. But they haven't shut that door completely.

A couple of weeks ago, the 7th District Court of Appeals (Amarillo) reaffirmed the legal principle that:
Expert testimony that a child did not exhibit indications of coaching or manipulation [does] not to constitute an opinion on the child's truthfulness. 
In Cantu v. State, one of the defense theories was that the child victim had been coached by her mother to make false allegations against Appellant. To counter this theory, the State brought an experienced child interviewer from the Advocacy Center to testify that in her expert opinion, the child victim in this case did not exhibit any "red flags" that would indicate that she had been coached or manipulated. The State was careful not to elicit testimony that the victim was being truthful and thus, the conviction was affirmed on appeal.

To me, this is still an area ripe for objections at trial and a special inclusion in the jury charge. You may get a judge that will exclude it. Okay, probably not, but it's worth a shot. While most lawyers can see the technical difference between an opinion on truthfulness and an opinion on coaching, many jurors will not. 

You can read the opinion here.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Accomodating Public Attendance at a Prison Trial

Lilly v. State
The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees an accused the right to a public trial in all criminal prosecutions.
Appellant Conrad Lilly, was charged with two counts of assault on a public servant while he was in prison.  The trial court sua sponte convened his trial in the prison-chapel courtroom in lieu of the local courthouse.  Appellant objected to his case being tried in the prison chapel and moved for a change of venue, arguing that his 6th Amendment right to a public trial was violated because "prisons are not open to the public and are more like military zones than public places."  The trial court denied his change of venue request and the 11th Court of Appeals (Eastland) affirmed.

To support his claim, appellant pointed out the following facts to show that, as applied in his case, the prison chapel trial violated his constitutional rights:
  1. The prison is protected by double razor fences, locked metal doors, and high-security procedures;
  2. Only people listed on an inmate-defendant's approved visitor list could enter the branch courthouse to attend proceedings (only 10 names can appear on that list and the names can only be modified once every 6 months);
  3. Media and other members of the public would be prohibited from entering unless TDCJ officials in Huntsville preapproved the media's request;
  4. People attempting to attend the proceeding could be denied entrance if they wore offensive clothing; and
  5. Unaccompanied minors and people released from confinement within the last two years are prohibited from entering the prison at all.
In this case, "the court of appeals held that Appellant's trial was not closed to the public because there was no evidence that anyone was 'dissuaded from attempting' to attend, and no one was actually prohibited from attending his trial."  The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed with this analysis.  The focus of the inquiry, the CCA explained, "is not whether the defendant can show that someone was actually excluded.  Rather, a reviewing court must look to the totality of the evidence and determine whether the trial court fulfilled its obligation 'to take every reasonable measure to accommodate public attendance at criminal trial.'"
[E]ven though many of the individual admittance policies in this case would not, standing alone, necessarily amount to a per se closure, the cumulative effect of the Unit's policies undermines our confidence that every reasonable measure was taken to accommodate public attendance at Appellant's trial.
Having found that Appellant's trial was indeed closed to the public, the CCA further held that the trial court failed to make findings of fact on the record that justified closing Appellant's trial.  Because Appellant's 6th Amendment right to a public trial was violated, the CCA reversed the judgments of the court of appeals and the trial court, and remanded the case for a new trial.

The CCA refrained from considering or commentin on whether prison trials are inherently violative of the 6th Amendment, noting that there could be occasions where a "public trial" is held in a prison.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

5th Circuit Opens the Barn Door on 4th Amendment Searches

Below is a case update from the 5th Circuit (Federal)

U.S. v. Cooke, 5th Circuit, March 13, 2012

While appellant was in jail, federal agents approached him and asked for consent to search his house.  He refused.  A week later, while he was still in jail, federal agents went to his house to conduct a knock-and-talk interview.  Appellant’s house was a windowless structure that had two large sliding exterior barn doors.  Behind the barn doors was a large area with a dirt floor and a paved sidewalk path that led to a stoop and another set of doors.  Behind these interior doors were the living quarters where appellant, his wife and his mother lived.  When the agents approached the house, they noticed that one of the exterior barn doors was damaged, allowing them access to walk directly up to the interior doors.  Believing that knocking on the barn door would be futile, the agents walked through the open barn door and knocked on the interior set of doors.  Appellant’s mother answered the door and granted the agents consent to enter the house.  Once inside the house, the agents saw a shotgun shell and gun safe in plain view.  Based on these observations, the agents obtained a search warrant and found illegal firearms, ammunition and a bulletproof vest in appellant’s house.

Appellant argued that the agents unlawfully entered the curtilage of his house when they crossed the threshold of the barn door without a warrant or consent.  The court held that the area inside the barn doors, but outside the interior doors was not part of the curtilage, so the agents did not violate appellant’s Fourth Amendment rights by entering the area without consent or a warrant in order to knock on the interior doors.  First, the area had a dirt floor and a paved sidewalk that led to the interior doors.  Second, the contents of the area included non-operating washing machines and dryers, ladders, a grill and other items indicating that the space was used for storage.  Finally, the barn door was open wide enough such that the items stored there were exposed to the elements, the public could see into the area from the street, and anyone would reasonably think that they would have to enter and knock on the interior doors when visiting.

Appellant also argued that under Georgia v. Randolph the warrantless search was invalid because his mother’s consent to the agents’ entry into the house was trumped by his previous refusal to consent.  The court disagreed, stating that Randolph only applied to co-tenants who were physically present and immediately objected to the other co-tenant’s consent.  Here, appellant was not a present and objecting co tenant, but rather was miles away from his home and in jail when he objected to the search.

The Seventh and Eighth Circuits agree and allow searches under similar circumstances; however, the Ninth Circuit does not.

A Praiseworthy Prosecutor

Last week, Sarah Roland posted about a Brady violation in Denton County.  When such a serious violation occurs, swift and decisive action should be taken by the elected District Attorney.  I don't know what happened to the violating prosecutor in Denton County (aside from the judge barring the prosecutor from the courtroom indefinitely).  But here's how it would have been handled had the prosecutor been working for Oklahoma County, Oklahoma District Attorney David Prater.  Pretty impressive if you ask me. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Reasonable Suspicion for Traveling Below the Speed Limit?

Delafuente v. State (14th Court of Appeals) April 3, 2012
I observed a traffic congestion in the inside westbound lane [on Interstate 10 in Waller County].  Traffic volume was moderate.  I inspected further and observed a grey Chevrolet 4 door sedan . . . traveling below the prima facie limit of 65 miles per hour and Impeding Traffic.  I paced the vehicle, which was traveling at approximately 52 miles per hour . . . . I initiated a traffic stop of the vehicle.
This traffic stop led to the search of the vehicle and the seizure of marijuana.  The driver of the vehicle was later convicted of Class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana.  The primary question on appeal to the 14th District Court of Appeals (Houston) was whether a vehicle traveling 13 miles an hour below the posted speed limit necessarily creates reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop.

The appellate court explained:
Under Texas law, a vehicle “may not drive so slowly as to impede the normal and reasonable movement of traffic, except when reduced speed is necessary for safe operation or in compliance with law.” Tex. Transp. Code § 545.363(a). “Slow driving, in and of itself, is not a violation of the statute; a violation only occurs when the normal and reasonable movement of traffic is impeded.” Tex. Dep’t of Pub. Safety v. Gonzales, 276 S.W.3d 88, 93 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 2008, no pet.).
Noting that the only evidence at trial on this issue was the police officer’s report which contains a conclusory statement that appellant was “impeding traffic,” but no articulable facts (other than the speed of his vehicle), the court held that the trial court erred in denying appellant’s motion to suppress.

The dissent believed that there were enough facts in the record to support the stop, and would have upheld the trial court’s ruling.

Analysis: While traveling below the speed limit may indeed be enough to get you pulled over, the officer must indicate, either in his report or on the stand at trial, what specific articulable facts led to the reasonable suspicion that you were “impeding traffic” such that his stop was justified. Short of that, it is an unreasonable stop under that law.

The District and County Attorney’s Association was not too pleased with this opinion. Here is its analysis:
This is the kind of decision that drives me crazy. The officer testified that the defendant was “impeding traffic” based upon his slower speed. The trial court found and ruled in his favor. Should not the trial court’s ruling be upheld? Unfortunately, this holding is line with a similar decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals in which the court held that the State failed to prove that a defendant committed a traffic violation of following too closely because all that the officer testified was that the defendant was following too closely. I suppose that when an officer testifies that the defendant was “impeding traffic,” you should then ask the officer, “In what observable way was the defendant impeding traffic?” Were cars having to constantly go around him? Were they honking? Still, a trial court’s ruling should be upheld if it is supported by the record. Maybe the Court of Criminal Appeals will review this decision, especially since there is a dissenting opinion.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Blawg Review

I've been traveling for the last couple of weeks, which included dodging a couple of tornadoes in the the DFW Metroplex, so I've fallen behind on my posting.  Sorry.  I'll gather the recent cases and see if there's been anything blogworthy.  In the meantime, please check out the most recent Blawg Review authored by Jamison Koehler, a criminal defense attorney in Washington D.C.  Well-written and sharp-witted, with a touch of self-deprecation, Jamison's blog has quickly become the gold standard for issues relevant to criminal defense lawyers.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

VOA Visits Cambodian Statue's Original Location

As readers are aware, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York is seeking to forfeit an ancient Cambodian statute located at Sotheby's in Manhattan.  Daniel Schearf of VOA went to the statue's original location in Koh Ker.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Public Comments Submitted to CPAC Amid Coup and Unrest in Mali

Public comments have now been submitted to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) regarding Mali’s request for a renewal of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the United States.  The request for the renewed bilateral agreement under the Cultural Property Implementation Act (CPIA) comes amid a March 21 army coup d’etat that removed Mali’s president and other elected leaders. The government overthrow leaves open the question of how the State Department will deal with Mali's request for continued American import protections covering cultural objects from that nation.

The United States government yesterday criticized Captain Amadou Sanogo and his coup supporters’ illegitimate grip on Mali and its people.”  It also demanded that “all armed rebels in the north of Mali to cease military operations that compromise the Republic of Mali’s territorial integrity . . . .”  (See the U.S. Department of State’s Daily Press Briefing here).

In the midst of Mali’s turmoil, the CPAC comment submission process received a dozen remarks concerning the proposed MoU renewal.

Among those expressing support for the Malian request were the Penn Cultural Heritage Center Executive Director.  Richard Leventhal and his colleagues wrote that there is “a situation of serious pillage jeopardizing the cultural patrimony of Mali [that] exists” to warrant a “renewal of import restrictions on archaeological and ethnological material from Mali.”  The Penn Center also urged the State Department to negotiate several items with the Malian government, including updating its inventory of cultural property to facilitate loans to American museums and creating “an interministerial committee to coordinate activities to preserve cultural heritage in Mali and strengthen efforts to reduce the internal sale and export of restricted antiquities.”  A copy of the Penn Center’s complete letter and position paper appears here.

Douglas Park, a Yale University educated anthropologist who has worked in Mali stated in his prepared remarks: “The beneficial effect of the Mali Cultural Property Protection MOU cannot be overstated. Local Malian capacity to carry out cultural heritage management programs is a direct result of the MOU. In light of the lamentable circumstances currently straining Malian political stability, a renewed bi-lateral agreement with the United States will undoubtedly assist in curbing opportunistic looting and black market trade by outside actors eager to take advantage of the presently difficult and fluid conditions.”

Roslyn Walker of the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) made the following comments:  “Not only are there few antiquities in the [DMA] collection, few works of art are from Mali. Ideally, I would like to display objects that reach back in time, for example a Djenne-jeno or Bankoni-style terracotta figure or a Tellem ritual vessel or wooden headrest from Mali.
The Dallas Museum of Art is neither buying nor accepting gifts of Malian antiquities as per the Cultural Property Implementation Act. The only way the Museum can obtain Malian antiquities is to borrow them from the National Museum of Mali. . . . I understand the Museum’s being protective of its collection, but I would like to offer a suggestion. The Museum could post a form of loan application on the website with an invitation to only accredited museums. If the National Museum of Mali is satisfied with the applicant’s credentials, the National Museum can make their inventory available electronically or on-site. There would follow the formal request, approval of the loan by either the director or a government official, determination of the loan fee if it is not standardized, the logistics of crating and shipping the objects and/or an agreement on exchange of services, and granting of an export permit.”

Support for the MoU came from the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), but with concerns:  “The recent coup d’état in Mali puts in peril the stability of Malian government that we have known over the last two decades as well as its ability to take steps to protects its cultural patrimony. The ability of the Committee now to evaluate . . . e.g., security efforts at sites, police pursuit of criminals, enforcement of export restrictions, education of citizens, etc., is more difficult.”

The AAMD added: [E]ven before the recent coup there existed challenges for American museums that wanted to undertake loans. In order to have a meaningful dialogue about loans, one must have an idea of what is available to be leant and Mali has few if any publically available inventories. Furthermore, access to storage areas to determine what might be available to borrow is severely limited. In addition to these specific concerns about Mali’s compliance with the 2007 MOU, the AAMD hopes that the Committee has or will inquire as to other efforts Mali has undertaken . . . .”

Access to the full comments described above and to the others submitted can be found here.

Monday, April 2, 2012

District Court Dismisses Government’s Case to Forfeit SLAM Mummy Mask

The U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri, today published an order dismissing the government's’ forfeiture complaint against the Ka Nefer Nefer mummy mask.  The Egyptian artifact is located at the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM).

The government filed a claim in March 2011 to forfeit the 19th Dynasty Egyptian mummy mask of a noblewoman from SLAM, alleging that it was stolen from Egypt.

Judge Henry Autrey brought the government’s case to a halt after concluding this past Saturday that the federal attorneys failed to specifically articulate how the mask was stolen and smuggled, or how it was brought into the United States "contrary to law."

Excerpts from the court’s nine page opinion are quoted below with citations omitted:

The Government bases its claim for forfeiture on Section 1595a of Title 19. Section 1595a(c) provides in relevant part:

Merchandise which is introduced or attempted to be introduced into the United States as contrary to law shall be treated as follows: (1) the merchandise shall be seized and forfeited if it – (A) is stolen, smuggled, or clandestinely imported or introduced.

In order to exercise the seizure and forfeiture of the Mask, the statute requires pleading the following: (1) facts relevant to whether the Mask was “stolen, smuggled or clandestinely imported or introduced” and (2) facts related to some predicate unlawful offense, presumably a law with some “nexus” to international commerce from which the Title 19 customs regulation arises. The Government’s verified complaint lacks both of these pleading prerequisites. Indeed, the verified complaint fails to state sufficiently detailed facts to support a reasonable belief that the government will be able to meet its burden of proof at trial.

The verified complaint does not provide a factual statement of theft, smuggling, or clandestine importation. Rather, the complaint merely states that the Mask was found to be “missing” from Egypt in 1973. Although the Government alleges, in a conclusory fashion, that “the register did not document that the Mask was sold or given to a private party during the time frame of 1966 to 1973,” the complaint is completely devoid of any facts showing that the Mask was “missing”
because it was stolen and then smuggled out of the country. The closest the Government comes to any type of allegation of theft or smuggling is in paragraphs 19 and 20 of the complaint, which note that in 2006 “the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities became aware that the Mask was accessioned by the Saint Louis Art Museum . . . and [t]o date, the Saint Louis Art Museum has refused to return the Mask.” The Government’s legal conclusion, in paragraph 22 of the verified complaint, that “[b]ecause the Mask was stolen, it could not have been lawfully exported from Egypt or lawfully imported into the United States,” misses a number of factual and logical steps, namely: (1) an assertion that the Mask was actually stolen; (2) factual circumstances relating to when the Government believes the Mask was stolen and why; (3) facts relating to the location from which the Mask was stolen; (4) facts regarding who the Government believes stole the Mask; and (5) a statement or identification of the law which the Government believes applies under which the Mask would be considered stolen and/or illegally exported.

The Government cannot simply rest on its laurels and believe that it can initiate a civil forfeiture proceeding on the basis of one bold assertion that because something went missing from one party in 1973 and turned up with another party in 1998, it was therefore stolen and/or imported or exported illegally. The Government is required under the pleading standards set forth in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure to provide specific facts, or plead “with such particularity,” that the claimant will be able, without moving for a more definite statement, to commence an investigation of the facts and to frame a responsive pleading. As it now stands, claimant cannot even be sure of the who, what, when or where of the alleged events surrounding the alleged “stealing,” nor can the Museum ascertain if the Government is pursuing seizure of the Mask based on an alleged theft or a unlawful import/export, or both. (The Court presumes that the Government is not accusing any unnamed parties of clandestinely smuggling the Mask out of Egypt and into the United States; however, given the lack of specificity in the verified complaint, perhaps the Court should not make any assumptions on the Government’s behalf.)

Additionally, as noted previously, the Government has been completely remiss in addressing the law under which the Mask would be considered stolen. The phrase “contrary to law” under § 1595a refers to how merchandise, such as the Mask, is introduced in the United States illegally, unlawfully, or in a manner conflicting with established law. The Government has completely failed to identify, in its verified complaint, the established law that was violated when the Mask was purportedly brought illegally into the United States or purportedly stolen from Egypt or some other undisclosed party, and it has failed to provide any facts relating to the time period surrounding these supposed events. Thus, the Government's verified complaint fails to assert specific facts supporting an inference that the Mask is subject to forfeiture.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Ka Nefer Nefer Case Resumes After Lengthy Hiatus

St. Louis Art Museum
Lawyers for the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM) filed a sur-reply last week in the case of U.S. v. Mask of Ka Nefer Nefer after activity in the case--at least with regard to legal filings--abruptly ended in August 2011.  SLAM submitted its pleading to the eastern district federal court in Missouri.  The court submission comments on the running dispute about whether the museum has legal standing to remain in the case.

The government filed a claim in March 2011 to forfeit the mask of Ka Nefer Nefer located at SLAM.  The 19th Dynasty Egyptian mummy mask of a noblewoman is alleged by the government to have been stolen from Egypt.

The government's forfeiture action was a response to SLAM's legal effort in February 2011 to quiet the title of the mask so that the museum potentially could own the artifact without worry.  In July 2011, federal lawyers filed a motion to knock SLAM off the forfeiture case, arguing that the museum could make no colorable legal claim to ownership because the mask is a stolen object.  The motion to strike SLAM from the case set off a volley of legal pleadings related to whether the Ka Nefer Nefer mask is contraband.  The federal government argued that possession of the mask was akin to possessing cocaine, which is illegal.

After a long absence of legal submissions, SLAM's most recent sur-reply picks up the argument once again.  The museum charges that it "has consistently taken the position that the Government’s claim is barred from the outset by the statute of limitations and that its forfeiture claim must fail because the Government is unable to prove the Mask was stolen. In raising the arguments it does, the Government is attempting to delay or avoid the consideration of those questions by confusing the standard for constitutional standing and making the bizarre suggestion that the Court pretend that the Museum claims an interest 'not of a centuries old Egyptian mask, but rather a kilogram of cocaine.'  In doing so, the Government so muddles and confuses the term 'contraband,' and the significance that the term carries, that some clarification is necessary." (citations omitted).

SLAM adds that the mummy mask is not contraband per se (such as illegal drugs) "as [artifacts] may be lawfully owned and become contraband only based on a connection with a criminal act."  Relying on U.S. v. Jeffers, 342 U.S. 48, 52-54 (1951), the museum asserts that "[t]he Supreme Court has recognized that, in the absence of a law foreclosing property rights, artifacts can be privately owned."

SLAM criticizes the government, saying that "[t]he Government’s evolving positions with respect to the ownership issue seem to be at war with themselves."  The museum argues that Egypt's patrimony law, which claims ownership of cultural objects found on its soil, is argued by the government to be a law granting private ownership in one pleading and alternatively, in another pleading,  a law that restricts private ownership.

SLAM concludes by reasserting that it has made a colorable claim to ownership to the mummy mask.

The government filed papers on March 28, 2012 for leave to reply to the sur-reply.


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Rubin v. Iran Cases Move Forward in First Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court

Photo credit: Alborzagros.  CC.
Jenny Rubin and others hurt by a 1997 terrorist attack in Israel filed a 92 page brief yesterday in the First Circuit Court of Appeals.  Rubin et al. v. Islamic Republic of Iran v. Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard University et al. is a case where the appellants seek to enforce a judgment awarded to them under the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act of 2002 (TRIA) by acquiring cultural artifacts claimed to be owned by Iran.  The objects sought are located in Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Meanwhile, Rubin et al. have also filed an appeal of their Seventh Circuit court case with the U.S. Supreme Court. That case involves an attempt to attach objects located at museums in Chicago.

Hamas carried out multiple suicide bombings on September 4, 1997.  The Rubin plaintiffs sued under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia against Iran, and the court found that Iran supported Hamas’ terrorist efforts.  It ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor and awarded money damages.

To collect the judgment against Iran, Rubin et al. sought to attach Iranian assets located in the United States.  They attempted to attach artifacts held at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Harvard’s several museums, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, and the Chicago Field Museum.  The museums in the Boston and Cambridge objected, fighting the case in federal district court in Massachusetts.  The Chicago based institutions battled the case in the federal court in the northern district of Illinois, and later the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Seventh Circuit on March 29, 2011 sent the case back to the district court in Illinois for review.  But the Rubin appellants petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari (i.e. a review by the higher court).  Briefs were filed in the Supreme Court (docket 11-431) by both the University of Chicago and Iran on January 6.  Jenny Rubin et al. filed a reply brief on January 18.  There was a waiver of the Field Museum’s response filed on January 4.  The Supreme Court on February 21 invited the Solicitor General to file the U.S. government’s position in the case.  It has not been submitted to the court thus far.

In Massachusetts, meanwhile, the district court ruled on September 25, 2011 to grant the MFA’s and Harvard’s motions to dismiss the case.  Jenny Rubin et al. then brought the matter before the First Circuit Court of Appeals.  They filed an appellate brief on March 28, 2012, arguing three primary issues.

First, the appellants argue that TRIA preempts all other federal and state laws because the case involves the enforcement of judgments by victims of a terrorist attack.  Their brief states:

“Pursuant to TRIA, and Treasury Regulations set forth at 31 CFR §535.201, governing collection actions on behalf of victims of state sponsored terrorism, any interest that Iran retains in the Iranian objects in Harvard and the MFA’s collection is subject to levy by the Appellants. Due to federal preemption by TRIA and 31 CFR §535.201 of any inconsistent state laws, neither Harvard nor the MFA can rely on any conflicting state laws such as those imposing statutes of limitation or governing adverse possession claims to bar or otherwise defeat the Appellants’ right to attach and levy on objects of Iranian origin in each of their possession in which Iran retains any interest.”

Second, the appellants say that Iran maintains an interest in the artifacts at the museums in Massachusetts.  The appellants claim that “[t]he Iranian government has always retained a private ownership interest in artifacts from Persepolis, the former capital of the Persian Empire. For the thousands of years beginning in the reign of Darius, this historic site has never been privately owned and always has been the sole property of the government of Persia and subsequently Iran. In addition, pursuant to the Persian Law Concerning the Preservation of National Antiquities (the “1930 Law”) enacted and in effect since November 3, 1930, all antiquities in Iran, whether movable or immovable, created up through 1794, the end of the Zand Dynasty, fall under the protection, control and ownership of the Iranian government.”

Third, the appellants argue that Iranian law gives Iran an interest in its antiquities unless that country gave a specific license.  They allege that the museums cannot demonstrate that any licenses were given.  The appellants’ brief argues:

“With the exception of objects removed from Persepolis . . .which have always been owned by the Persian government, other antiquities removed from Persia prior to November 3, 1930, were not recognized as owned by Iran. Accordingly, the Appellants always have indicated that the order of garnishment against the MFA and Harvard does not encompass any artifacts of Persian origin, other than those from Persepolis, that provably were exported from Iran prior to November 3, 1930. Nor do the Appellants assert any claim to any artifact from Iran acquired either by Harvard or by the MFA or on loan to either obtained from excavations by scientific expeditions to Iran occurring on or after November 3, 1930, if the holder Museum’s documentation as to the artifact establishes that the Museum acquired each such antiquity as part of the share of a “division” of finds assigned to a scientific archeological expedition as approved by the Persian/Iranian government and as required by the 1930 Law. Similarly, with respect to antiquities exported from Iran as a seller’s purported private property, the 1930 Law vests the government of Iran with an automatic 50 percent interest in all objects found in Iran on or after November 3, 1930. As to antiquities provably in private hands as of the enactment of the 1930 Law, the government is vested with a right of first refusal to acquire the object and a right to seize and confiscate the object if the seller attempts to circumvent his obligation to secure an export permit from the government, which if obtained, requires payment of an export duty equal to five percent of the value of the object as calculated by government appraisers.”

“Without documentary proof that an artifact was assigned to the scientific expedition or that the Iranian government approved the export of purportedly privately held property, Iran retains an interest in all objects under the 1930 Law that is subject to levy by the Appellants pursuant to TRIA.”

The appellees in the case are expected to file their reply shortly.