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hris Perri Law is a criminal defense law firm located in Austin, Texas.

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Chris' Blog

The blog of Chris Perri Law, written by Chris Perri and Shannon Perri. Read the latest in exciting cases where justice is served.

Filtering by Category: Traffic Tickets

You may not go to jail for pot possession in Austin, but you can’t ignore the ticket

Chris Perri

It’s a beautiful December day in Austin, and Sue, a student at the University of Texas, wants to celebrate the end of the semester with friends at the Greenbelt. While relaxing in the 70-degree weather near a swimming hole, one of Sue’s friends lights up a joint. Sue doesn’t usually smoke pot, but she’s cutting loose today, so she closes her eyes as she takes a long drag off of the joint, the stresses of the semester exhaling out of her with the sweet smoke of her friend’s kindbud. She then opens her eyes, and her momentary relaxation gives way to full-fledged panic as she spots a uniformed police officer on a bicycle stopped on a nearby trail. The officer calls out for her to bring him the joint. Sue’s mind and heart race, as she remembers what happened to her older brother in their small town where he was arrested for marijuana possession and spent the night in jail.

The cop sternly warns Sue about the illegality of smoking marijuana: “This isn’t Colorado, young lady.” However, to her delight, he bikes off after handing her a citation that looks almost exactly like a speeding ticket. Sue can’t believe her luck in not getting arrested! Maybe she won’t even have to tell her parents. There’s a date listed on the ticket to report to “Justice of the Peace – Precinct 5” on December 22. Sue’s going to be back home for the holidays by then, so she later tosses the ticket on a stack of old books in her apartment, figuring that she can just deal with it when she returns to school in January for the spring semester.

 

Given that the ticket doesn’t look a whole different than a traffic citation, it’s understandable that Sue might think it’s no big deal. In reality, Sue’s offense is a class B misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 180 days in the county jail and a $2,000 fine. Unlike most counties in Texas, where you’ll be cuffed and carted off to jail for anything worse than a class C misdemeanor traffic offense, Travis County is different. Here, the police are authorized to issue tickets for misdemeanor marijuana possession (four ounces or less), along with a few other class B misdemeanors (driving with license invalid, theft, graffiti, criminal mischief). These tickets are called “field-release citations” because the police release the defendants without booking them into jail. The rationale behind this policy is that arresting people takes several hours, resulting in fewer police officers patrolling the streets.

However, just because Sue received a citation doesn’t mean that she’s avoiding an arrest record. Instead, the arrest occurs during what is called a “jail walkthrough” when Sue reports to the Justice of the Peace at the time designated on her ticket. Below, I’ve outlined the steps of the process:

1.     Report to Justice of the Peace – Precinct 5 (located at 1000 Guadalupe Street in downtown Austin) to receive paperwork and instructions about the walkthrough process.

2.     Report to Pretrial Services in order to apply for a personal bond.

3.     Return to the Justice of the Peace, who will magistrate the defendant, meaning that the defendant is informed about constitutional rights and the penalty range of the offense.

4.     Obtain approval of the personal bond from the Justice of the Peace.

5.     Report to the Travis County Sheriff’s Office at their bonding desk in the courthouse.

Upon reporting to the sheriff, Sue is officially arrested. The sheriff’s deputy would take her fingerprints and a mugshot. Sue would then be released from custody without ever being handcuffed. She would also receive a copy of her personal bond with a court date.

Following this “arrest,” Sue’s case would be assigned to one of the county courts-at-law, and her lawyer could then begin resolving your case by requesting discovery materials (offense reports, video/audio of the incident, etc.) and negotiating with the prosecutor.

Like many people issued similar citations, Sue doesn’t immediately realize the importance of reporting to the Justice of the Peace on the date and time designated on the ticket. This is a very bad idea because failure to appear results in an arrest warrant. There is no “jail walkthrough” for Sue if she is later arrested on a warrant, and the process of getting booked in and out of jail would take 12-24 hours. Her initial fear of spending a night in jail would become a reality.

Here’s what Sue should do immediately upon receiving the citation: contact an experienced attorney, such as Chris Perri Law, to assist her with the jail walkthrough process. An attorney can waive the third step of the process (magistration by the judge) in order to ensure that Sue is one of the first people to report to the sheriff’s office for the booking procedures. Often, Chris Perri Law can get somebody through the entire process in less than an hour. Without an attorney, the process can take up to four hours because there’s often a long line of people with similar tickets, and the sheriff’s office only has two deputies (at most) working on the walkthrough process at any given time.

Chris Perri Law also would assist Sue in resolving her case in a manner that leads to an eventual expunction of her arrest record. Even though Sue might feel like she was never arrested because the jail booking procedure was so quick, information about the offense is automatically forwarded to the Department of Public Safety (DPS), who enters it into their crime records database. Background checks will reveal the incident unless Sue successfully expunges the records of the arrest. Given that she’ll be graduating from UT and on the job market in a few years, it’s very important that Sue hires an experienced attorney who knows how to ensure that her arrest record from this incident is ultimately wiped clean.


***Sue is not a real person.

Recent Supreme Court Decision Protects 4th Amendment Rights During Traffic Stops

Chris Perri

Last week, in Rodriguez v. United States, the Supreme Court clarified that police officers may not prolong a traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff on a vehicle, unless there is reasonable suspicion to believe that the occupants are engaged in criminal activity.

In this case, the defendant was pulled over in Nebraska for illegally driving on the shoulder of the highway. About 20 minutes later, the police officer issued a warning ticket for the traffic infraction. However, the defendant was not yet “free to leave.” The police officer instructed the defendant to exit his vehicle and stand in front of the patrol car while they waited for another police unit to arrive. About seven more minutes elapsed before the arrival of the backup unit. At this point, the officer led a drug-detecting dog around the defendant’s vehicle. The dog alerted to the presence of drugs, and a subsequent search of the defendant’s vehicle revealed a large quantity of methamphetamine. The defendant was convicted and sentenced to five years in federal prison.

On appeal, the Government argued that waiting a mere seven minutes for the drug dog to sniff the outside of defendant’s vehicle constituted a de minimus (minimal) intrusion on the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights, meaning that the intrusion was so minor that it was constitutionally permissible. Fortunately, our Supreme Court rejected this argument. The Court noted that certain intrusions, such as asking a person to step outside the vehicle during a lawful traffic stop, are “negligibly burdensome precautions” that allow an officer to complete the traffic stop “mission” safely. “On-scene investigation into other crimes, however, detours from that mission,” wrote Justice Ginsburg, who authored the majority opinion.

An officer may not prolong a traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff unless facts are developed during the traffic stop that support reasonable suspicion of drug activity. For example, if an officer smells drugs during the stop or notes a contradiction between the driver’s and passenger’s statements regarding their travel itinerary, the officer might have reasonable suspicion to prolong the stop in order to investigate drug activity. However, an officer can’t conduct a dog sniff on a car based on a mere hunch that’s not supported by actual observations of suspicious activity.

Even if the officer had conducted the dog sniff prior to issuing the warning ticket, the result would be the same: “The critical question, then, is not whether the dog sniff occurs before or after the officer issues a ticket, but whether conducting the sniff ‘prolongs’ – i.e., adds time to – ‘the stop.’”

This recent case enhances Chris Perri Law’s arsenal for attacking unlawful searches at suppression hearings. We’ve begun 2015 with three victories on suppression issues, and we’ll continue to fight to protect our clients’ constitutional rights.

Recent U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Gives Cops Even More Leeway, But Chris Perri Law Will Strike Back

Chris Perri

Last month, the United States Supreme Court issued a surprising opinion that’s created waves of concern in the criminal defense circle. In Heien v. North Carolina, a North Carolina police officer noticed that one of the brake lights on the defendant’s vehicle was not working, so the officer pulled the defendant over believing that having a broken brake light was a violation of North Carolina law. A subsequent search of the defendant’s vehicle revealed cocaine, resulting in his arrest. The defendant attempted to suppress the evidence on the basis that he didn’t commit a traffic violation. The North Carolina courts reviewed the relevant traffic statute, and they determined that as long as one brake light is working, no crime has occurred.

Since the defendant didn’t commit a traffic violation, the stop was illegal, and the evidence of the cocaine should be suppressed. Seems simple, right? According to an 8-1 majority of the Supreme Court, that doesn’t end the inquiry, as courts must examine whether the officer’s mistaken belief about the law was reasonable. Here, the North Carolina law was somewhat ambiguous because another statute mandated that all “rear lamps” be functioning, and it’s not unreasonable to interpret a brake light as a type of rear lamp. Thus, even though the officer’s interpretation of the law was incorrect, this interpretation was reasonable at the time of the stop.

The Supreme Court’s analysis is problematic. Aren’t police officers supposed to know the law? And if they don’t know the law, how can anyone deem this lack of knowledge reasonable when the officers are trained experts on what’s illegal? If a medical doctor performing an appendectomy mistakenly removes your spleen instead of your appendix, we call that malpractice, and there’s no wiggle room for the doctor to argue that the mistake was reasonable. Apparently, cops get much more leeway.

Many defense attorneys are concerned that Heien might be a slippery slope. Will prosecutors now defend all unlawful stops on the basis that the officer’s mistaken belief about the law was reasonable at the time of the stop?

I say bring it on. I plan to argue that Heien applies to only a tiny set of scenarios: those in which the law is ambiguous and there’s no case precedent that clarifies this ambiguity. In Texas, most of the traffic laws are pretty clear cut. For example, it’s not a crime to swerve within your own lane as long as your car doesn’t cross into another lane. If an officer stops someone for swerving but the defense proves that the car never crossed into another lane, the prosecution won’t be able to argue that the officer reasonably believed that swerving within one’s own lane is against the law. That’s because, unlike the North Carolina law at issue in Heien, there’s no ambiguity in the law in my hypothetical example.

Still, I anticipate that prosecutors will attempt to use Heien as a tool to validate otherwise unlawful stops. As a result, it’s important to retain an experienced, knowledgeable defense attorney to persuade the courts that Heien doesn’t apply.

Not Guilty in Austin Municipal Court!

Chris Perri

“Not guilty.” Those are the two sweetest words that a criminal defense attorney can ever hear. Today, the jury returned this coveted verdict in a speeding trial at the Austin Municipal Court. Sure, it was just a speeding ticket. But for my client, who holds a commercial driver’s license (CDL), it was a very important case. Most people can easily get their tickets dismissed by taking a defensive driving course. However, under the law, anyone holding a CDL does not have this option. Instead, they must either fight the ticket or take a conviction. One of the most common misperceptions is that simply driving over the speed limit is against the law. In actuality, the law states that “an operator may not drive at a speed greater than is reasonable and prudent under the circumstances then existing.” See Tex. Trans. Code §545.351. I discussed this law with the jury panel during the voir dire process, and they were very surprised that there’s more to speeding than simply driving above the speed limit. As I pointed out to them, discovering the actual wording of the speeding law is analogous to finding out that there’s no such thing as Santa Claus.

There’s one wrinkle here: when the State proves that a vehicle was travelling over the speed limit, that’s “prima facie” evidence that the driver’s speed was not reasonable and prudent. I explained to the jury that this only means that if the State proves the speed was over the limit and I present no further evidence regarding the reasonableness of the speed, then I lose. But once I bring forth any evidence that the driver’s speed was reasonable, the State has the burden of proving the speed was unreasonable. Plus, this burden is a heavy one: “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

At the trial, we presented evidence that on the morning of the alleged speeding incident, my client was stuck behind a boat trailer on Highway 183. The boat was being hauled by an undersized pickup truck, and my client testified that he felt that the trailer was creating a hazard on the road. A car in front of my client passed the trailer, and my client followed suit. In order to do so, he had to increase his speed to about 78 mph on a highway that had a speed limit of 65 mph. Other vehicles behind my client also passed the trailer. I successfully argued to the jury that it could consider the other drivers’ behavior as evidence of the reasonableness of my client’s decision.

The State attempted to counter our evidence through the testimony of the police officer, who stated that my client was speeding before and after he encountered this boat trailer. The officer further testified that there was a curve on the road that made it unsafe to travel above 65 mph. The jury was unconvinced. After all, this was a dry day, and my client was a “professional driver.” He testified that he made a “judgment call,” and who was the jury to disagree with his professional judgment?

After about 20 minutes of deliberating, the jury returned its two-word verdict. My client exited the court triumphantly with his clean driving record intact.