Opinions Released July 21, 2016

In this weekly blog, the Law Offices of Brandy Wingate Voss, PLLC will summarize recent decisions from the Thirteenth Court of Appeals and provide links to decisions on the court’s website.

In the Interest of C.J.N.-S. and J.C.N.-S., No. 13-14-00729-CV (Opinion by Justice Longoria; Panel members: Justices Rodriguez and Garza)

In this direct appeal from a child support order, Kenneth Spear challenges the trial court’s subject matter jurisdiction, asking the Thirteenth Court of Appeals to determine who has standing to sue for support of an adult disabled child under Texas Family Code section 154.303.

Kenneth Spear and Karen Narciso had two children before divorcing in 1998. One child, C.J.N.-S. had continuing medical problems, but she was never held to be “disabled” by any court.

In 2013, when C.J.N.-S. was 20 years old, C.J.N.-S. moved out of her parents’ home and into her own apartment. C.J.N.-S. temporarily held a job until May 2013, when she was diagnosed with gastroparesis. Karen paid for C.J.N.-S. to undergo several medical procedures and began visiting her daughter several times a week to help her with chores.

In 2014, Karen filed for child and medical support from Kenneth to help cover the costs of C.J.N.-S.’s care. Kenneth argued that the trial court did not have jurisdiction under Texas Family Code section 154.303 because C.J.N.-S. was over 18 years of age and Karen no longer had physical possession or guardianship of the child. The trial court disagreed, holding that C.J.N.-S. was an adult disabled child and ordering Kenneth to pay child and medical support to Karen.

Held: A parent must have physical possession or guardianship over a disabled adult child to have standing to sue for support.

Texas Family Code section 154.303(a) provides that the following individuals have standing to sue for support of an adult disabled child:
(1) A parent of the child or another person having physical custody or guardianship of the child under a court order; or
(2) the child if the child:
a. is 18 years of age or older;
b. does not have a mental disability; and
c. is determined by the court to be capable of managing the child’s financial affairs.

The Thirteenth Court of Appeals held that, under the plain language of the statute, a parent must either have physical custody of the child or be the child’s legal guardian to sue for support. This interpretation is supported by the legislative history of the provision, which was intended to expand the class of people who could sue for support to include individuals other than parents. Nonetheless, to avoid abuse, the Texas Legislature required caregivers to establish a continuing obligation to support the child before seeking supporting themselves.

Furthermore, the Thirteenth Court noted that interpreting 154.303(a)(1) to require nothing more than status as a parent—the interpretation urged by Karen—would lead to absurd results. Under Karen’s interpretation, both she and C.J.N.-S. could sue for support. Such duplication could lead to abuse.

Here, Karen did not show that she had either possession or legal guardianship of C.J.N.-S. Thus, she did not have standing to sue, and the trial court lacked the corresponding subject-matter jurisdiction to enter its order for support.

The trial court’s judgment was reversed and remanded.

Read the Full Opinion Here

Sanchez v. State., No. 13-15-00288-CR (Opinion by Justice Longoria; Panel members: Chief Justice Valdez and Justice Garza)

In this interlocutory appeal, the State challenged the trial court’s decision to grant a motion to suppress.

At 5:00 a.m. one morning in April 2015, McAllen Police Officer Mariel Martinez spotted a jeep parked in a deserted lot with the door wide open. Upon approaching, Officer Martinez spotted a man in the car and called for backup. Officer O.T. DeLeon arrived and the two awoke the man in the car, defendant Sanchez. Sanchez did not have identification with him, but told the officers his name and birthdate. Both P.D. dispatch and the defendant himself confirmed that there were outstanding warrants for his arrest stemming from traffic violations. The officers arrested Sanchez and performed a pat-down search, finding two bags of cocaine in a cigarette package.

During the pat-down search, Sanchez kept staring at his vehicle. Thus after the officers handcuffed Sanchez and placed him in the police car, Officer DeLeon stayed with Sanchez while Officer Martinez searched the vehicle. There, Officer Martinez found more cocaine.

Sanchez filed a motion to suppress the cocaine alleging a lack of probable for the arrest, and claiming that the search of his vehicle was not a valid search incident to arrest. The trial court denied Sanchez’s motion with respect to the cocaine found in the cigarette pack, but granted it with respect to the cocaine found in the car. The State appealed, alleging that (1) the trial court abused its discretion because Officer Martinez performed a valid search incident to arrest, and (2) the trial court’s findings did not provide a basis for its ruling.

Held: The trial court’s order is affirmed because Officer Martinez’s search of Sanchez’s vehicle was not a valid search incident to arrest.

The Thirteenth Court of Appeals began by tracing the history of Supreme Court case law on the “search incident to arrest” exception to the warrant requirement.

The Supreme Court first defined the exception in New York v. Belton, 453 U.S. 454 (1981), holding that an officer may search the passenger compartment “as a contemporaneous incident of that arrest.” Over the next two decades, lower courts broadened this exception to allow warrantless searches of the passenger compartment, even when the defendant was no longer at the scene. In Thornton v. United States, 541 U.S. 615 (2004), the Court continued to expand its Belton ruling by extending it to reach occupants of the vehicle as well. Finally, in Arizona v. Gant, 556 U.S. 332 (2009), the Supreme Court clarified its interpretation of the exception and severely restricted its scope. There, the Court held that a search incident to arrest may only occur if the defendant is unsecured and within reaching distance of the vehicle, or where there is reason to believe that the vehicle contains evidence of the crime for which the defendant was arrested.

The State argued that Sanchez was under arrest for both his traffic warrants and his cocaine possession, and Officer Martinez had reason to believe she would find evidence regarding the drug possession in Sanchez’s vehicle. The State compared Sanchez’s case to Thornton, in which the defendant was also under arrest for drug possession.

The Thirteenth Court not only rejected the State’s argument, but questioned the precedential value of Thornton. After noting that Gant clearly restricted Thornton, the court held that, regardless, Sanchez was not under arrest for possession of cocaine. Contraband discovered during a defendant’s search incident to arrest cannot be retroactively deemed the cause of the arrest itself. Furthermore, although the automobile exception to the warrant requirement is broader than a search incident to arrest, the State did not argue such exception before the court. Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by suppressing the evidence discovered pursuant to Officer Martinez’s search of Sanchez’s vehicle.

The Thirteenth Court only briefly addressed the State’s second issue, holding that the trial court’s findings adequately supported its order granting Sanchez’s motion to suppress.

Thus, the trial court’s order was affirmed.

Read the Full Opinion Here