Tuesday, March 29, 2011

One Need Not Be Present to Be Robbed

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals released an opinion this month in a case where a man entered a convenience store brandishing a rifle. When the man looked around, however, he noticed that there wasn’t anyone in the store. The store clerk was in the back office watching the man on the security camera. When the clerk saw the man enter the store, he locked the office and called 911. Unable to open the cash register, the "robber" stole the clerk’s wallet and some money that was behind the counter. The "robber" never saw anyone inside the store.  Then he left.

The man was later charged with and convicted of Aggravated Robbery under Texas Penal Code Section 29.02, which provides in relevant part:
a person commits [robbery] if, in the course committing theft…and with intent to obtain or maintain control of the property, he intentionally or knowingly threatens or places another in fear of imminent bodily injury or harm.
Appellant argued that “because there was no evidence of interaction between him and [the victim], the evidence was legally insufficient to support a robbery conviction, and the conviction should be reformed to that of theft. Accordingly, the CCA was faced with a question of first impression in Texas: Does the Offense of Aggravated Robbery Require Interaction Between the Accused and the Purported Victim?

Appellant contested that he could not intentionally or knowingly place a person in fear, if that person was unknown to him. A unanimous CCA disagreed, explaining that
'knowingly' does not refer to the defendant’s knowledge of the actual results of his actions, but knowledge of what results his actions are reasonably certain to cause. Using this definition, robbery-by-placing-in-fear does not require that a defendant know that he actually places someone in fear, or know whom he actually places in fear. Rather, it requires that the defendant is aware that his conduct is reasonably certain to place someone in fear, and that someone is actually placed in fear.
In this case, because Appellant brandished the rifle in the convenience store, the CCA held that his culpable mental state was not negated by the fact that the victim did not happen to be in his presence. In sum, the CCA answered the question presented in the negative.

The offense of Aggravated Robbery does NOT require interaction between the accused and the purported victim.

Read the full CCA opinion in Howard v. State HERE.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Many Ways to Commit Assault with a Motor Vehicle in Texas

Faced with the question of whether Reckless Driving is a lesser-included offense of Aggravated Assault With a Deadly Weapon (A Vehicle), the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals explained that there are, indeed, many ways in which a vehicle can be used as a deadly weapon apart from the vehicle being driven, to wit:

• Locking the victim in a hot car,
• Slamming the victim’s head again the car frame,
• Rigging the car’s gas tank to explode,
• Placing the car in neutral and allowing it to run into the victim or a building,
• Suffocating the victim in the trunk, or
• Running the car in an enclosed area to cause carbon monoxide poisoning.
The CCA used this creative list to reverse the 5th Court of Appeals (Dallas), which had previously held that the trial court erred by not instructing the jury that it could find appellant guilty of the LIO of Reckless Driving if it believed the State did not prove Aggravated Assault w/a Deadly Weapon. The appellant argued at trial and on appeal that the LIO should apply, thereby giving the jury another option.

I apologize for the lack of analysis, but this case is really only interesting for nerds like me. I just found the CCA’s list of ways to use a vehicle for assault comical.

You can read the unanimous CCA opinion (Rice v. State) HERE.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

No Need For a Proper Instruction. The Jury Probably Got it Right Anyway.

It seems like all I write about anymore is the Court of Criminal Appeals reversing a Court of Appeals case and siding with the State. Well, this post is no different.

In Taylor v. State, the appellant was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to 70 years confinement and a $10,000 fine for each offense. Much of the testimony at trial, however, related to acts appellant committed while he was a minor. The evidence showed that appellant began sexually abusing a young girl when he was 13 years old and she was 8. The abuse continued for several years, the final occurrence happening when appellant was 20 years old and the victim was 15.

Texas Penal Code Section 8.07(b) provides that unless a juvenile court waives (or has previously waived) jurisdiction and certifies an individual for criminal prosecution, "a person may not be prosecuted for or convicted of any offense committed before reaching 17 years of age."  Accordingly, while evidence was admitted at trial regarding appellant’s acts before he turned 17, he can only be convicted of those acts that occurred after he was 17.

The trial court failed to instruct the jury of this requirement and the jury returned a guilty verdict. On appeal, appellant argued that the jury charges were erroneous because they did not limit the jury’s consideration to evidence of acts committed after he turned 17. The 1st Court of Appeals (Houston) held that the Court was required to instruct the jury that appellant could not be convicted of criminal acts committed before he turned 17, and that appellant was denied a fair and impartial trial as a result. The Court of Appeals reversed the case.

The CCA now reverses the Court of Appeals. It agrees with the Court of Appeals that the instruction should have been given to the jury, even if neither party requested the instruction. But the CCA held, nonetheless, that the error did not deprive appellant of a fair and impartial trial. The CCA states:
Here, the error was the omission of an instruction, rather than the presentation to the jury of an erroneous instruction…[T]he jury in this case could have convicted Appellant based upon evidence presented, even if the proper instruction had been given and Appellant’s pre-seventeen acts were disregarded by the jury. The evidence showed an eight-year pattern of escalating sexual abuse of J.G. by Appellant. Appellant turned 17 years old midway through the abusive period, meaning that he is subject to prosecution for his conduct beginning on that birthday…and evidence of molestation that occurred after that date was introduced at trial.
So, basically the CCA is saying – “We don’t know from the face of the record exactly which instances of abuse the jury believed, and we can’t say with 100% certainty that they believed any of the instances after appellant was 17, but we know they definitely believed something happened at some time.”

The CCA ultimately concludes that Appellant was not denied a fair and impartial trial. My question is – “How do we know that?” I realize that appellant said he didn’t commit any of the alleged acts and I also realize that the jury, by their verdict, believed that he did.  But how do we know that the jury didn’t conclude that the appellant was guilty of only those acts that occurred when he was a minor?  We don’t. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Why Ask Why? The Fundamentals of Cross-Examination

Last week I had the privilege of escorting Mr. Vincent Bugliosi around Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, as he was the guest speaker at a trial advocacy conference my office organized.  Mr. Bugliosi, 76 years old, is best known as the prosecutor that put Charles Manson away.  He is also a renowned true crime author, writing such books as Helter Skelter, And the Sea Will Tell, 'Till Death Us Do Part, and Outrage.  He will tell you, however, that his biggest claim to fame is his victory over Gerry Spence in the mock trial of Lee Harvey Oswald for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  Other than this mock trial, Gerry Spence boasts a perfect trial record.

One of the things about which Mr. Bugliosi spoke was cross-examination.  He noted that many of the best-selling books on cross-examination caution lawyers from asking a witness WHY they took a certain action.  Lawyers are warned that they should never allow a witness to explain themselves on cross.  Well, Mr. Bugliosi does not exactly agree with that maxim.  Here's what he had to say on the subject:

Even if I do not ask "why," the lawyer who called the witness, if alert, will do so on redirect.  The witness has then often had a court recess or perhaps overnight to think up the very best answer to the "why" question.  I would much rather force the witness to answer on cross, not giving him extra time to fabricate.
Although both lawyers can avoid asking the "why" question and, as in some other situations, "save for final argument" the implications of the witness' testimony, by that late point in the trial the witness' reason for his improbable act is a matter of competing speculations by the lawyers, not the court record.
The "why" question, of course, can be a dangerous one, but I feel this is so only if the lawyer hasn't first blocked off possible and anticipated escape hatches.  Admittedly, real witnesses, unlike their fictional counterparts in novels and on the screen who cave under pressure of the first or second good question, are as doughty and elusive as all hell.  When all but trapped, and at the brink of a public, courtroom humiliation, human beings seem to secrete a type of mental adrenaline that gets their minds working extremely fast, and well.  So the witness a lawyer faces on the stand, for some curious reason, is almost inherently formidable.  But a witness can't go somewhere when he has nowhere to go.
If I feel a witness if lying, a technique I frequently employ is to first elicit answers from him on preliminary matters (blocking off all escape hatches), answers which, when totaled up, show he would be expected to take a certain course of action.  The witness having committed himself by his answers, I then ask him what course he in fact took (which is not the course he would be expected to take), and follow this up with the "why" question.  If time after time a witness is unable to satisfactorily justify conduct which is incompatible with what would be expected of a reasonable person, the jury will usually conclude that his testimony is suspect.
Mr. Bugliosi made sure to caveat that we should never ask the "why" question unless all possible escape hatches have been blocked off.  He was truly an outstanding speaker on this and many more topics.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Confrontation of an Available Witness That Cannot Remember

What happens when a witness cannot remember facts to which she previously testified before the grand jury? Can the State simply read her grand jury testimony into evidence as past recollection recorded even though the Defendant was not present to cross-examine her during that hearing? Normally, I would say yes, but I’m not talking about a witness that cannot remember one fact or another.  I'm talking about a witness that cannot remember ANYTHING about which she testified before the grand jury.  To me, that changes the game a bit.

The CCA recently considered this issue in Woodall v. State. I say they “considered" it – actually the Court was careful not to provide a definite holding on the matter. Instead, it punted the case on procedural (waiver) grounds. Nonetheless, the CCA did provide some dicta that is a helpful insight into its thinking.

We believe that, under the facts of this case, memory loss did not render [the witness] “absent” for Confrontation Clause purposes…The Supreme Court has generally rejected the notion that a present and testifying witness is nevertheless absent for confrontation purposes if the witness suffer from memory loss.
Curiously, the CCA cites only pre-Crawford cases. For example, citing a 1970 Supreme Court case, the CCA quoted the concurring opinion of Justice Harlan, in which he opined that
a witness’s lack of memory should have no Sixth Amendment Consequence.
However, the legal landscape has drastically changed since the time of Justice Harlan’s opinion. I doubt Scalia would agree with such reasoning today. Then again, as a strict constructionist, maybe he would.  If the witness is available at trial, even if she cannot remember anything, is that enough to satisfy the 6th Amendment? I would argue NO, but perhaps I’m wrong. Either way, we will not find out with the Woodall case, because the CCA passed on the ultimate issue.

Download the federal government's forfeiture complaint against the St. Louis Art Museum from the News and Events box located at the link below


Thursday, March 17, 2011

US Attorney Takes the Offensive in SLAM Litigation by Seeking Forfeiture of Egyptian Mask

Last month the St. Louis Art Museum (SLAM) sued the US government to claim ownnership of the ancient mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer. The US government yesterday sued to forfeit the mask.

Fearing that federal authorities could seize the Egyptian mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer, SLAM filed a preemptive complaint on February 15 to have a federal district court declare that the mask is the museum’s property. US Attorney Richard Callahan responded on March 16 by initiating a lawsuit against the mummy mask.

In a complaint titled United States v. Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer, Callahan petitions a Missouri federal court for forfeiture of the ancient object pursuant to 19 U.S.C. § 1595a. That statute permits officials to seize and forfeit items that have been illegally stolen, smuggled, or clandestinely imported into the United States. Callahan also asks that a restraining order be placed on the mask so that it remains available while the court case progresses.

In its petition for declaratory judgment, SLAM argues the following points:
• The museum conducted thorough due diligence before purchasing the mask on April 3, 1998.

• “The Museum’s investigation revealed no evidence that the Mask was owned by Egypt under applicable Egyptian law at the time of excavation, that the Mask was stolen from Egypt, or that the Mask had unlawfully entered the United States.”

• “The United States government cannot show probable cause the Mask was ‘stolen, smuggled, or clandestinely imported or introduced’ into the United States.’” Therefore, the mask cannot be seized or forfeited under 19 U.S.C. § 1595a.

• If the mask was stolen, the United States government is barred by the statute of limitations from seizing or forfeiting it because federal authorities had information more than five years ago “sufficient to discover the alleged theft of the Mask from Egypt.”

It should be noted that SLAM’s court complaint is hesitant to admit that the mask is stolen property. At best SLAM remarks that the mask may have been “allegedly stolen.”

The US Attorney’s complaint, by contrast, argues a more forceful claim, detailing why the mask is known to have been stolen. An excerpt from the government’s complaint is reproduced below:

“In 1952, Egyptian archaeologist Mohamed Zakaria Goneim, working for the Egyptian Antiquities Service, excavated the mat burial of a 19th Dynasty noblewoman named Ka-Nafer-Nafer inside the funerary enclosure of the 3rd Dynasty king Sekhemket at Saqqara. The Mask was placed in storage in the Sekhemkhet magazine, also located at Saqqara, where it was registered as the property of the Egyptian Antiquities Service and where it remained until 1959. In July of 1959, the Mask and four other items from Saqqara were packed for shipping to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in preparation for an exhibit in Tokyo. The packing list identified the Mask as registration number 6119 and packed in box number six. The Mask was received by police guards at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo on July 28, 1959. Ultimately, the Mask did not travel to Tokyo for the exhibit. The Mask remained in Cairo, Egypt until 1962 at which time the Mask was transferred back to Saqqara. In 1966, the Mask and other objects from the same burial assemblage were removed from packaging in Saqqara and given to the Egyptian Antiquities Organization Restoration Lab located in Cairo in preparation for future display. The Mask traveled to Cairo from Saqqara in box number fifty-four. This was the last documented location of the Mask in Egypt. In 1973, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo took an inventory of all the objects that traveled in 1966 from Saqqara to Cairo in box number fifty-four. It was discovered at that time that the Mask was missing. The register did not document that the Mask was sold or given to a private party during the time frame of 1966 to 1973. In or around 2006, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities became aware that the Mask was accessioned by the Saint Louis Art Museum located in Saint Louis, Missouri for approximately $500,000.00 in 1998. Subsequently, the Secretary General for the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities sent letters and documentation to the Saint Louis Art Museum detailing the history of the Mask and requesting its return to Egypt. To date, the Saint Louis Art Museum has refused to return the Mask.”

The US Attorney’s office describes the mask’s source of discovery and its subsequent provenance. Should these claims be proven by the government, SLAM may find it difficult to maintain its dual and nuanced positions that either the mask may not have been stolen, or that the museum's investigation “revealed no evidence that the Mask was owned by Egypt under applicable Egyptian law at the time of excavation, that the Mask was stolen from Egypt, or that the Mask had unlawfully entered the United States.”

If evidence of the mask’s stolen character is proven by the government, SLAM might also have to revisit its February 14, 2006 position, reproduced in the museum’s legal complaint, “expressing its willingness to return the Mask to Egyptian authorities upon verifiable proof the Mask was stolen.” Any thought about returning the mask may have vanished, however, now that SLAM has argued that the statute of limitations forbids authorities from seizing or forfeiting the mask.

Knowing the statute of limitations claim asserted by SLAM, the US Attorney’s recent legal action does not address the issue at all. SLAM’s court petition points to episodes where federal officials directly or indirectly possessed knowledge to take action to investigate the possible illicit provenance of the mask. It remains to be seen how the federal government will take on this argument when SLAM inevitably raises the claim in its response to the government’s forfeiture action.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Stop the Shilly-Shallying

In a felony DWI case, (Gaal, v. State) the defendant was set to plead guilty. When the time came for him to plead, however, he refused. The trial judge stated, “All right. We’re supposed to have a plea here today. It appears that [the defendant] does not want to plea. For the record, I will not accept any plea bargain in this matter, unless it’s for the maximum term of ten years.

The defendant later filed a motion to recuse the trial judge, contending that his statement that he would not accept a plea deal for less than the maximum, showed that he could not be fair and impartial. Another judge, at a recusal hearing, denied the request. On appeal, the 2nd District Court of Appeals (Fort Worth) held that appellant was denied due process by the trial judge’s statements and that the judge should have been recused.

The Court of Criminal Appeals now holds that the lower court got it all wrong. The CCA characterizes the trial judge’s statement not as a denial of due process.
The trial judge’s comment could quite logically and reasonably have been a short-hand rendition of a statement that it was time for the defendant to quit shilly-shallying because he has twice rejected favorable plea bargains…and was continuing to drink in violation of his bond conditions.
The CCA goes on:
A reasonable person, based on the totality of the circumstances, would translate the judge’s statements as, “I’m not going to reset this case for any more plea negotiations; we’re going to trial.”
And as the Court points out, a “defendant does not have an absolute right to enter into a plea bargain” and “the trial judge doesn’t have to take a plea bargain.”

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Changing Course: Enhancing Homeland Security's Policy of Seizure and Repatriation with Investigation and Prosecution

Illegal antiquities trafficking is a global business, linked to major transnational crimes such as money laundering. Additionally, cultural property crimes target humanity’s heritage and spirit. In order to successfully tackle crimes against cultural heritage, federal officials must pursue a strategy of investigation and prosecution.

The current policy of seizure and return does not go far enough. To seize a stolen or smuggled artifact at the American border and return it to its country of origin only serves to repatriate the object. Its confiscation and return does little to deter antiquities trafficking since there is minimal consequence to the perpetrators or accomplices. Building legal cases that lead to arrests and prosecutions would provide both specific deterrence and general deterrence.

The seize and return policy maintained by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently came into public view when Customs and Border Protection (CPB) and DHS investigators seized two Chinese artifacts illegally crossing America's border at Newark Liberty International Airport around March 3. Eight days later DHS announced the return of fourteen cultural objects to China, many obtained as a result of an enforcement initiative titled Operation Great Wall. The objects repatriated apparently included one of the artifacts seized at Newark Airport, specifically a Tang Dynasty horse. At least four other Chinese cultural objects that were seized in the New York metropolitan area over the past year were returned to China as well.

Typically when law enforcement officials seize the fruits of a crime or contraband they secure the evidence in anticipation of a prosecution. The return of the Tang Dynasty horse sculpture only a few days after federal officials seized it illustrates how smuggled cultural objects are not treated as criminal case evidence. That is to be expected when the primary mission of DHS is to seize and return, not to investigate and prosecute.

US Customs Director Robert Perez articulated this seize and return policy, declaring that federal authorities are "dedicated to intercepting [cultural] items and ensuring their safe return to their rightful owners." DHS’s news release about the repatriation of Chinese artifacts supports this view, highlighting that “2,300 artifacts have been returned to 18 countries since 2007.” While DHS touts the number of seizures and returns of cultural property, its press statement does not boast of any prosecutions or convictions against looters, smugglers, fences, or receivers of illegally stolen or trafficked cultural heritage.

Combating crimes against cultural heritage requires authorities to investigate and prosecute trafficking rings. Effective law enforcement is characterized by thoughtful investigation, careful handling of physical evidence, and assembly of evidence for review and use by prosecutors. While seizing and repatriating illegally smuggled artifacts serves some purpose to curb antiquities trafficking, federal officials cannot be credited with performing a thorough job if this remains the sole accomplishment.

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement investigators and Customs and Border Protection agents are skilled law enforcement officers who are capable of combating antiquities trafficking effectively. We need to call on DHS policymakers to directly engage illegal antiquities networks by adopting a policy of investigation and prosecution that enhances the existing policy of seizure and repatriation.



Friday, March 4, 2011

Court Watching

I went over to the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday to watch the Bullcoming argument and was surprised to get to listen as the Chief Justice read the Court's opinion in the Westboro Baptist Church case (you know, the crazy family that protests at military funerals).  I, along with most of America, I'm sure, wanted the Court to uphold the million-dollar jury award against the church simply due to the outrageous nature of the speech.  However, from what little I recall of First Amendment law, I knew this was all but impossible.

As the Chief Justice read the opinion, ruling in favor of the Westboro church, he made sure that all of us there understood that he took no pleasure in the opinion.  He maintained a look of utter disdain every time he mentioned the church or its "pastor" Mr. Phelps.  In the end, the Court held that because the speech was about public issues, in a public location, and was performed in a peaceful manner, the First Amendment protected the speech.  Chief Justice Roberts definitely made a few verbal jabs at the church and its message, like when he stated that the church's contribution to the public discourse it "negligible."  A victory for the First Amendment, but a loss for common decency.

Perpetuating the Fiction of the Consensual Police Encounter

In a case released yesterday from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (State v. Castleberry), the CCA went to great lengths to defend and perpetuate the fiction of the “consensual police encounter.”

In Castleberry, the defendant and a friend were walking behind an Uncle Julio’s restaurant in Dallas. They were not engaged in and did not appear likely to engage in criminal conduct. A Dallas police officer approached them and asked for identification. The defendant reached for his waistband. The police officer then ordered appellant to place his hands in the air. The defendant grabbed a baggy of cocaine from his waistband and tossed it on the ground. The trial court suppressed the cocaine, reasoning that the officer did not have “reasonable suspicion” to justify the stop. The 5th District Court of Appeals agreed.

The CCA, on the other hand, held that the lower courts applied the wrong legal standard and characterized the stop as a “consensual police encounter.” Writing for the majority, Judge Keasler, stated:
Even if the officer did not tell the citizen that the request for identification or information may be ignored, the fact that a citizen complied with the request does not negate the consensual nature of the encounter…We conclude that a reasonable person in [the defendant’s] position would have felt free to decline [the officer’s] request for identification and information.
The obvious question then becomes, what would the CCA preferred the defendant to do? “No, thanks officer, I prefer not to provide any identification or tell you what I am doing. Thank you. Have a nice night.” Had the appellant said that, there is no doubt the court would now be using his noncompliance to justify a more intrusive search. There is absolutely no way for the defendant to win here.

The opinion goes on to suggest police officers (even when they are in uniform) are just like any average citizen.

Because an officer is just as free as anyone to question, and request identification from, a fellow citizen, [the officer’s]conduct shows that the interaction was a consensual encounter.
Ultimately, the CCA reasons that because the defendant could have been reaching for a weapon when he reached into his waistband, the officer’s further pat-down search was justified under Terry.

The CCA concludes:

The Court of Appeals failed to separate [the encounter] into two distinct parts: (1) [The officer’s] initial approach of [the defendant], which was a consensual encounter; and (2) [The defendant’s] act of reaching for his waistband, which provided [the officer] with reasonable suspicion to detain and frisk [the defendant]. We therefore reverse the court of appeals’s judgment, hold the seized contraband to be admissible, and remand the cause to the trial court.