Opinion Released November 21, 2017

Briggs v. State, No. 13-15-00147-CR (Opinion on En Banc Reconsideration by Justice Rodriguez; Dissenting Opinion on Reconsideration by Justice Contreras, joined by Justice Longoria)

In this reconsideration of a 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’ 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’ 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’ motion for new trial. Briggs’ 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’ 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’ plea, but overruled her motion for a new trial regardless.

Briggs appealed. The case was transferred from the Fourth Court of Appeals to the Thirteenth Court of Appeals pursuant to an order from the Texas Supreme Court. The Thirteenth Court of Appeals issued an opinion reversing the trial court’s judgment on March 9, 2017. Then, the court granted the State’s motion for en banc reconsideration, withdrew its March opinion, and issued a nearly-identical en banc opinion in its place, along with a dissent from Justice Contreras.

Held: Briggs’ 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 established  a new rule; (2) whether such rule applied retroactively; and (3) if McNeely did apply retroactively, whether it rendered Briggs’ 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 regarding exigent circumstances due to metabolization of alcohol. Yet, even if McNeely were a new rule, it would apply to Briggs’ case because new rules regarding constitutional criminal procedure apply retroactively to all non-final cases, including those pending on direct appeal. Here, when Briggs’ writ was granted allowing an out-of-time appeal, 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’ non-final conviction regardless.

Next, the court addressed the State’s argument that Briggs failed to preserve her challenge to the blood evidence by neglecting to file a pretrial motion to suppress. The Thirteenth Court of Appeals rejected this argument, noting that Briggs was challenging the denial of her motion for new trial on the basis of her involuntary plea, not the introduction of the blood evidence.

The court then proceeded to analyze the trial court’s denial of Briggs’ 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. Yet, both the arresting officer and Briggs’ counsel testified at the hearing on Briggs’ 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’ plea of no contest was involuntary.

Moreover, although the trial court explicitly ruled on Briggs’ motion for new trial based on the existence of exigent circumstances, it should not have considered the issue, since the motion for new trial was based on voluntariness. Furthermore, the court did not explicitly rule on Briggs’ claim that her plea was involuntary. The Thirteenth Court held that it would not imply a ruling by the trial court that Briggs’ 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’ motion for new trial.

Read the Full Opinion Here

Dissent

Justices Contreras and Longoria were members of the original three-justice panel that issued the initial decision in March 2017, but dissented on reconsideration. Justice Contreras wrote the dissenting opinion, in which Justice Longoria joined.

Justice Contreras quoted extensively from Brady v. United States and McMann v. Richardson, two United States Supreme Court cases involving claims that the defendant’s plea was involuntary because it was based on legal advice that was undermined by subsequent case law. In both cases, the Supreme Court held that the pleas were voluntary because a reasonably competent attorney’s miscalculation of the strength of the State’s case does not negate voluntariness. Justice Contreras noted that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held similarly in Ex parte Palmberg. In Palmberg, the Court held that a defendant’s plea was not rendered involuntary by his subsequent discovery that the State could not prove the substance he possessed was cocaine because there was not enough to test. Citing Brady and McMann, the Court reiterated that “the voluntariness of a defendant’s guilty plea is not contingent upon the awareness of the full dimension of the prosecution’s case,” and clarified the voluntariness question as “whether [the defendant] was aware of sufficient facts—including an awareness that there are or may be facts that he does not yet know—to make an informed and voluntary plea.”

Justice Contreras acknowledged that Brady, McMann, and Palmberg were petitions for habeas corpus, but stated that the same standard and law governed direct attacks on the voluntariness of a plea.  Justice Contreras further acknowledged that McNeely applied retroactively, but disputed whether Briggs’s counsel’s advice rose to the level of a misrepresentation so as to render Briggs’s plea involuntary. Furthermore, to the extent Briggs wished to challenge her counsel’s advice as a misrepresentation, it should be analyzed under the Strickland standard as an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. The Court of Criminal Appeals has recognized that Strickland applies when a defendant enters an allegedly involuntary plea upon the advice of counsel, and Briggs did not satisfy the Strickland standard. Strickland requires a defendant to show (1) that counsel’s behavior fell below the standard of objective reasonableness; and (2) that the deficient behavior was prejudicial and resulted in a fundamentally unfair outcome. When Briggs’s counsel gave his advice, the majority of the legal community shared his view that Briggs’s blood evidence was admissible. Regardless, the trial court found that there were exigent circumstances justifying the blood draw, and thus Briggs’s  counsel’s behavior was not prejudicial.

Justice Contreras thus found that the record supported the trial court’s implicit finding of voluntariness and dissented from the en banc opinion on reconsideration.

Read the Full Opinion Here