Opinions Released March 9, 2017

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.

Rogers v. State, Nos. 13-15-00600-CR, 13-15-00601-CR (Opinion by Justice Longoria; Panel Members: Justices Contreras & Benavides)

In this direct appeal from a conviction for burglary of a habitation and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, the Thirteenth Court of Appeals analyzed whether the charges against the defendant violated the double jeopardy clause.

William Rogers was having an affair with Sandra Watson and, on February 14, 2013, shot her husband, David Watson. Rogers and David gave very different versions of the events leading up to the shooting.

Rogers stated that he came by the house to feed Sandra’s cats, at her request. When David returned home, Rogers claimed he hid in the closet but was discovered by David and threatened with a knife. Rogers grabbed a nearby gun and pointed it at David, firing only when David attempted to grab the gun. Rogers then attempted to flee to his truck, and David shot at him.

David, however, stated that he came home and went to his closet to change clothes. Rogers was hiding in the closet and cursed and shot at David. David attempted to flee to the neighbor’s house, and Rogers shot at him from the front porch.

Rogers was charged with burglary of a habitation (Count 1) and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (Count 2). At the close of the evidence, Rogers submitted jury charges on self-defense and necessity. The trial court rejected the charges, and the jury found Rogers guilty on both counts. The jury sentenced Rogers to 45 years’ confinement on Count 1 and 25 years’ confinement on Count 2.

Rogers appealed, challenging the trial court’s omission of his requested jury instructions and arguing that the charges against him punished him twice for assaulting David.

Held: Prosecuting Rogers for both aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and burglary of a habitation violated the double jeopardy clause. Rogers’ conviction was vacated in part and affirmed in part.

Jury Instructions

First, the Thirteenth Court held that, even if the trial court erred in failing to submit Rogers’ proposed jury questions, the error was harmless. The Thirteenth Court evaluated the harm by looking at the jury charge, the arguments of counsel, the state of the evidence, and other relevant information in the record.

The jury charge itself did not include any defenses, but simply asked the jury to determine if the State proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Although Rogers wanted to raise the self-defense and necessity defenses in front of the jury, he was expressly forbidden from doing so by a motion in limine. Rogers thus did not mention self-defense or necessity in his statements to the jury, instead emphasizing the inconsistencies in the State’s case. Furthermore, although Rogers’ evidence raised the issues of justification and self-defense, the weight of the evidence supported David’s version of events. For example, the shell casings and blood were found in the locations consistent with David’s version rather than with Rogers’ version of the incident. Finally, the jury chose to impose a sentence substantially above the minimum, indicating that they believed Rogers was to blame for the incident.

Consequently, the Thirteenth Court held that any error in omitting the requested jury instructions was harmless.

Double Jeopardy

Rogers next argued that prosecuting him for both counts was a violation of his constitutional protection against double jeopardy because he was punished twice for assaulting David. The court of appeals analyzed this argument by focusing on the Blockburger test, which prohibits multiple punishments for lesser-included offenses. Under Blockburger, two offenses can be prosecuted without violating double jeopardy if “one requires proof of an element that the other does not.” The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has held that the offenses must also rely on different “facts required.” Although Rogers did not raise the issue during trial, the Thirteenth Court noted that such challenge could be raised on appeal if the undisputed facts showed the violation on the face of the record.

The Thirteenth Court noted that prosecuting a defendant for both burglary in the commission of a felony, and the underlying felony itself has been held to violate the double jeopardy clause. Similarly here, Rogers was prosecuted for burglary of a habitation in the commission of aggravated assault (Count 1), and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (Count 2). Count 2—aggravated assault with a deadly weapon—did not require any proof not also required to prove Count 1.

Thus, the Thirteenth Court held that a double jeopardy violation was apparent on the face of the record, and no legitimate state interest was served by enforcing the usual rules of preservation. The court affirmed the conviction of the most serious offense—Count 1—and vacated the remaining offense.

Read the Full Opinion Here

Briggs v. State, No. 13-15-00147-CR (Opinion by Justice Rodriguez; Panel Members: Justices Contreras and Longoria)

In this direct appeal from an intoxication manslaughter conviction, the Thirteenth Court of Appeals analyzed whether developments in Fourth Amendment case law rendered the defendant’s plea involuntary.

Sandra Coy Briggs was involved in a car accident resulting in serious bodily injury to a public servant. Briggs’s blood was drawn with neither her consent nor a warrant, and the blood test revealed a blood-alcohol content level of 0.14 percent. Briggs pleaded no contest to intoxication manslaughter of a public servant in 2012. A jury sentenced Briggs to 45 years’ confinement.

After the time for appeal had expired, Briggs filed a writ of habeas corpus with the Court of Criminal Appeals. The Court granted Briggs an out-of-time-appeal and ordered that all timelines be calculated as if the sentence had been imposed on the date the Court issued its mandate.

Briggs then filed a motion for new trial, arguing that her plea was involuntary. Briggs argued that her counsel misrepresented the law by advising her that her warrantless blood draw would be admissible because such blood draw was mandatory under Texas Transportation Code section 724.012. However, since Briggs’s plea, the Supreme Court issued Missouri v. McNeely, 133 S.Ct. 1552 (2013), and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued State v. Villarreal, 475 S.W.3d 784 (Tex. Crim. App. 2015), both holding that a per-se rule such as section 724.012 could not serve as an exception to the warrant requirement.

The trial court held a hearing on Briggs’s motion for new trial. Briggs’s trial counsel testified that he had advised her that the blood evidence would be admissible because Texas Transportation Code section 724.012 provided an exception to the warrant requirement. Briggs testified similarly, stating that she believed her blood was drawn pursuant to the mandatory blood-draw statute, and that she would have wanted a trial on the merits if she had known the evidence would be inadmissible.

The State called several witnesses who testified to alternative bases for exigent circumstances that could have justified the warrantless blood draw. Briggs objected to the testimony, noting that the issue before the court was whether Briggs relied on a misrepresentation of the law; not the existence of exigent circumstances. The trial court overruled the objection and heard testimony from a police sergeant. The sergeant opined that a case involving serious bodily injury was always exigent due to the need for an accurate read of the defendant’s blood-alcohol level. Moreover, three hours had already elapsed by the time Briggs’s actions were determined to be the cause of the accident. It would have taken an additional 1.5 hours to obtain a blood warrant, which would have risked the blood decaying.

The trial court issued findings of fact and conclusions of law, holding that that, although McNeely applied retroactively, the State nonetheless had exigent circumstances justifying the warrantless blood draw. The findings did not explicitly address the involuntariness of Briggs’s plea, but overruled her motion for a new trial regardless.

Briggs appealed.

Held: Briggs’s plea was involuntary because it was entered in reliance on a misrepresentation of the law, which has since been clarified by McNeely and Villarreal. The trial court’s judgment is reversed and remanded.

The Thirteenth Court addressed three issues on appeal: (1) whether McNeely establisheda new rule; (2) whether such rule applied retroactively; and (3) if McNeely did apply retroactively, whether it rendered Briggs’s plea involuntary.

The Thirteenth Court first held that McNeely did not establish a new constitutional rule, but simply clarified Schmerber. Schmerber established a totality of the circumstances test, and McNeely merely reiterated that the State could not rely on a per-se rule regrading exigent circumstances due to metabolization of alcohol. Yet, even if McNeely were a new rule, it would apply to Briggs’s case because new rules regarding constitutional criminal procedure apply retroactively to all non-final cases, including those pending on direct appeal. Here, when Briggs’s writ and out-of-time appeal was granted, it put her in the position to request a new trial and challenge her conviction on direct appeal. Thus, even if McNeely announced a new rule, it would apply to Briggs’s non-final conviction regardless.

The court then proceeded to analyze the trial court’s denial of Briggs’s motion for new trial under an abuse of discretion standard. The court began by noting that a plea of no contest based on erroneous information is involuntary.

After McNeely, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held in Villarreal that Texas Transportation Code section 724.012—which requires a blood draw in motor vehicle accidents involving serious bodily injury—is not an exception to the warrant requirement. Although a police officer must conduct a blood draw, he still needs to obtain a warrant for the blood draw if no other exception to the warrant requirement exists. But both the arresting officer and Briggs’s counsel testified at the hearing on Briggs’s motion for new trial that they understood section 724.012 to be an exception to the warrant requirement, and that they advised her accordingly. Briggs also testified at the hearing that this was her understanding of the law.

The Thirteenth Court thus concluded that Briggs entered her plea based on a misunderstanding of the law as it related to the admissibility of her blood evidence. Consequently, Briggs’s plea of no contest was involuntary.

Moreover, although the trial court explicitly ruled on Briggs’s motion for new trial based on the existence of exigent circumstances, it did not explicitly rule on Briggs’s claim that her plea was involuntary. The Thirteenth Court held that it would not imply a ruling by the trial court that Briggs’s plea was voluntary because such ruling would have been unreasonable. Thus, the court of appeals held that the trial court abused its discretion by denying Briggs’s motion for new trial.

Read the Full Opinion Here