Of Beaumont, Justice, and Waffles

January 1, 2013 | By Shane Phelps Law
Of Beaumont, Justice, and Waffles

My criminal defense practice has grown considerably in the past two years. So much so, in fact, that I find myself traveling all over Central and East Texas handling cases. In the past few months, I have been to Houston, Austin, Georgetown, Centerville, Madisonville, Huntsville, Franklin, Caldwell, and Richmond. I’ve put almost 10,000 miles on the new car I bought just three months ago.

Appealing the Case

This past Thursday, I found myself in Beaumont, Texas, on my birthday, to argue a case before the Beaumont Court of Appeals. I drove in to Beaumont the night before to get away from the hustle of my law office so that I could spend several uninterrupted hours preparing for the arguments, which were scheduled at nine the next morning.

I have always been a trial attorney. Since I left prosecution, however, I have found myself handling appeals as well as trying cases. I love the law and I write well, even though it is a difficult process for me. So, I have agreed to undertake a number of appeals. It is a given in trial work that handling appeals makes you a better trial lawyer and I have found that to be very true. There is no experience like reading a transcript of yourself in trial. It makes you think about what you say and how you say it the next time you are before a judge or jury.

Appealing the Case in Beaumont

I recently completed an appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas’s highest criminal court, in a case I have written about in a previous post. It was the “cell phone case” and I am anxiously awaiting the Court’s decision. I think it will be significant. I recently attended the annual Rusty Duncan Advanced Criminal Law Seminar in San Antonio and was gratified to hear several speakers highlight the case, State v. Granville, as one of the hot cases expected out of the Court very soon.

But I digress. Beaumont (“Beautiful Mountain”?). It’s an interesting city with an even more interesting legal landscape. I was appointed by a District Judge to investigate and, if appropriate, prosecute two Beaumont police officers for allegedly falsifying a probable cause statement following an arrest of an alleged drug dealer. After an exhaustive grand jury investigation, I offered the two officers the opportunity to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of tampering with a governmental record to avoid being indicted on more serious felony charges. I thought it was the right thing to do under the circumstances. The relationship between prosecution and the police department in Beaumont is, and has been, toxic, largely as a result of several prosecutions of police officers for various offenses and a scandal or two.

Both officers accepted the deal, pleaded guilty, and were sentenced to deferred adjudication, meaning that they would not be convicted of any offense if they successfully completed the probation period. As a part of the agreement, I required that they waive any claim that either may have had to invoke the statute of limitations. The statute of limitations for the felonies they were facing was three years, but the statute of limitations for the offense to which they pleaded guilty was two years. Depending on how you looked at the facts, an argument could have been made that the statute of limitations had passed on the misdemeanor charges. But plea bargains are about compromise and defendants routinely waive even the most important constitutional rights (trial by jury, the right to remain silent, the right to confront witnesses, the right to an attorney, among others) to obtain the benefit of a better deal than they think they can get from a jury or judge. Without such waivers, there would be no plea bargaining. Without plea bargaining, our justice system would collapse.

The officers successfully completed the deferred adjudication probation period and were discharged. About a year ago, one of the officers filed an application for writ of habeas corpus claiming that the court did not have jurisdiction to receive his plea of guilty because…wait for it…the statute of limitations had passed and the court had no jurisdiction.

As I said in my brief to the Court of Appeals, no good deed goes unpunished.

Ultimately, the County Court at Law judge hearing the application for writ of habeas corpus granted relief, vacated the deferred adjudication order, and dismissed the case against the officer. I appealed the Court’s decision to the Beaumont Court of Appeals, because I believe the judge, respectfully, was wrong. In an interesting twist, I appealed as the State of Texas as I had been appointed Criminal District Attorney Pro Tem following the recusal of the Jefferson County Criminal District Attorney. So, at least for this case, I’m back on the other side: prosecution.

Standing Before the Court of Appeals

We argued the case before a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals. I argued for the State of Texas as the appellant and Stanley Schneider, a well-known and very capable appellate attorney out of Houston, argued for the defendant, as appellee. I spoke first for about 16 minutes followed by Mr. Schneider. Because I was arguing as the appellant, I argued last in rebuttal.

The Justices of the Court asked a lot of very pertinent questions. It always seems to work out that way. I spent hours preparing my outline of my argument and never got to look at it once. I like it that way. The key, I think, to a successful argument is simply to know the facts, the record of the court, and the law…cold.

The issue is simple for the Court: can the statute of limitations be waived by agreement of the parties? At the time of the plea, a case called Proctor v. State, out of the Court of Criminal Appeals, made the answer pretty clear: yes. However, a case that came out six months after the plea, Phillips v. State (also the Court of Criminal Appeals), made it a much more difficult call for the Court of Appeals.

It is a significant question. Can a defendant facing more serious charges agree to waive his claim to invoke the statute of limitations to benefit himself? Depending on the answer from the Court of Appeals, some future defendant wishing to get out from under a felony charge may not have that option. It may be a win for the defendant in this case, but a big loss in the future for other defendants hoping to better their positions in plea bargaining.

We’ll see what the Court says. Regardless of the outcome out of the Court of Appeals, the case is almost certain to be appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals for the definitive answer. At least until the next opinion.

And to celebrate my birthday? I went to Waffle House. In Beaumont.