Opinions Released May 4, 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.

State v. Haworth, No. 13-15-00519-CR (Opinion by Justice Hinojosa; Panel Members: Chief Justice Valdez and Justice Rodriguez)

In this appeal from an order granting the defendant’s motion to suppress, the Thirteenth Court of Appeals held that a trial judge’s decision to seek out, obtain, and rely on personal knowledge to resolve the contested fact issues disqualified the judge, created a structural error, and rendered the resulting suppression order void.

Wesley Wolfe Racliff Haworth was stopped by Texas Police Sergeant Van Slusser after Haworth ran a red light and made a U-turn in the intersection. Slusser performed field sobriety tests, and arrested Haworth for driving while intoxicated. Haworth refused to provide a sample of his blood or breath.

Haworth moved to suppress the evidence seized by Slusser, arguing—based on the dash cam video—that Slusser’s view of Haworth’s turn signal was obstructed by trees. At the suppression hearing, the State admitted the dash cam video into evidence and called Slusser to testify. The trial court set the hearing to recommence on a later date to provide time for the court to review the dash cam video.

When the hearing recommenced, the court informed the parties that it not only reviewed the dash cam video but also “had a chance to go out there and inspect the location myself.” The judge explained that, based on the setup he observed, it would be impossible to see from where Slusser was parked. The court then granted the motion to suppress, and the State appealed.

Held: The trial court created a structural error by affirmatively seeking out and relying on personal knowledge, rather than on the evidence admitted at the suppression hearing. This structural error disqualified the judge and rendered the resulting order void. The trial court’s judgment was reversed and remanded.

The Thirteenth Court of Appeals immediately compared Haworth’s case to Gentry v. State, No. 06-05-00237-CR, 2006 WL 932057 (Tex. App.—Texarkana Apr. 12, 2006, no pet.) (mem. op.) (not designated for publication). There, a constable received reports regarding two men who were walking down the side of the highway and, after stopping the men, found marijuana and a switchblade in their possession. The defendants moved to suppress, but the trial court denied the motion commenting that “I’m one of them that almost hit them,” “I’m not so sure that I wasn’t one of them who called Officer Dreesen to be honest with you,” and “my decision is based on what I saw that day.” The Texarkana Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the judge’s reliance on his personal knowledge rather than the evidence adduced at the hearing was a structural error rendering the judge’s actions void.

The Thirteenth Court held that Haworth’s case was not only controlled by Gentry, but that the structural error was even more glaring because the judge affirmatively sought out independent evidence to gain personal knowledge. Moreover, the State did not object to the judge’s reliance on his own personal knowledge, the court of appeals held that the judge’s partiality was a structural error and was not subject to the preservation requirements. The judge was disqualified  because he obtained and relied upon personal knowledge about the contested facts. Thus, the trial court’s order suppressing evidence was void. The case was reversed and remanded.

Read the Full Opinion Here

Ex Parte Hernandez, No. 13-15-00518-CV (Memorandum Opinion by Justice Hinojosa; Panel Members: Chief Justice Valdez and Justice Rodriguez)

In this restricted appeal from an expunction order, the Thirteenth Court of Appeals analyzed whether the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure authorized the expunction of the defendant’s arrest.

Maria Marcos Hernandez was arrested in 2008 for DWI. Hernandez pleaded guilty to the class B misdemeanor and was placed on probation for 180 days. In 2015, Hernandez filed a petition to expunge her 2008 arrest. The Texas Department of Public Safety responded that Hernandez’s arrest did not qualify for expunction because it resulted in a conviction for which she received community supervision. The trial court held a hearing on April 29, 2015 and granted the petition for expunction. The Department filed a restricted appeal.

Held: Hernandez’s 2008 DWI arrest did not qualify for expunction because it resulted in a final conviction and community supervision. The trial court’s expunction order was thus error apparent on the face of the record. The judgment was reversed and rendered.

The Thirteenth Court of Appeals began by reiterating the requirements for a restricted appeal. A party may file a restricted appeal if (a) they did not participate in the hearing resulting in the judgment complained of; (b) they filed the appeal within six months of the signing of the judgment; (c) they did not file any post-judgment motions; and (d) error is apparent on the face of the record.

Here, the Department was a party to the case. Although the court reporter filed an affidavit with the court of appeals stating that the expunction hearing was not held, the Department nonetheless did not participate in any such hearing. Moreover, the Department did not file any post-judgment motions, and appealed within six months. The Thirteenth Court thus analyzed whether error was apparent on the face of the record.

Although the Department raised four alleged errors on appeal, the first was dispositive: Hernandez did not qualify for expunction because her arrest resulted in a final conviction for which she served community supervision. A trial court must strictly comply with the expunction rules set forth in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure; the court does not have the equitable power to expunge arrests beyond the statute’s limits.  The expunction statute requires the petition to demonstrate that she has been released, the charge did not result in a final conviction, and there was no court-ordered community supervision. Yet, the record clearly reflected that Hernandez’s DWI arrest resulted in a final conviction and community supervision. Thus, the trial court’s order expunging Hernandez’s arrest constituted error apparent on the face of the record. The trial court’s judgment was reversed and rendered.

Read the Full Opinion Here