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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 Tag: Chris Perri criminal defense attorney Austin

The Dirtiest Little Secret of Texas: Our Civil Commitment Law for Sex Offenders Raises Double Jeopardy Concerns

Chris Perri

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Recently, I read this article in the Fort Worth Star Telegram about Texas’ civil commitment law with respect to sex offenders and was left shocked.

While the article mainly concerns a technical change in the law regarding venue for civil commitment trials, hidden towards the end is the unveiling of Texas’ dirty little secret: Since 1998, more than 350 individuals have been civilly committed to a sex-offender treatment facility in Littlefield, Texas, following their completion of lengthy prison sentences. None have been released upon successful completion of the program, and nearly half were sent back to prison for violations of the treatment program’s rules.

For example, a defendant who is convicted of a sex offense might serve 25 years in prison. As his release date approaches, he discovers that the State of Texas wants him to remain incarcerated after the completion of his long sentence. As a result, a new “civil commitment” trial occurs in which the State seeks to prove that he “has a behavioral abnormality that makes him likely to engage in predatory acts of sexual violence.” This seems like a pretty easy burden to prove since the defendant has previously been convicted of a sex offense.

While this procedure might smack of double jeopardy, Tarrant County prosecutor Bill Vassar defends it by arguing: “During his 25 year imprisonment, [the defendant] never had sex offender treatment from a licensed professional. The jury’s verdict ensures that he will get the treatment he needs, and guarantees the citizens of Texas that he will be monitored 24 hours a day.”

This argument exposes two fundamental problems. First, any prosecutor should be ashamed of a criminal justice system that sends a sex offender to a penitentiary that fails to provide any treatment to that individual prior to release. Right there, Mr. Vassar has unwittingly indicted our entire prison system for ineptitude. Second, Mr. Vassar’s argument that the defendant “will get the treatment he needs” from the Littlefield treatment facility is disproved by the evidence that no one has ever been rehabilitated in the program’s 18 years of operation. Leave it to the government to equate success with this zero percent rehabilitation rate.

I sympathize with victims of sex offenses, and I do believe that offenders need to be punished. However, the proper forum for vindicating victims’ rights and punishing offenders is the criminal process. Once an offender has served his/her sentence, our Double Jeopardy Clause forbids further punishment for that offense. In effect, Texas’ civil commitment law allows Texas to circumvent the Constitution by imprisoning a person a second time for the crime. To continually operate such a “treatment” facility for 18 years despite its zero-percent success rate seems to be a brazen misuse of government resources. Moreover, Texans should be offended by the government’s attempt to disguise the civil commitment facility’s true purpose as rehabilitation. This current system serves no one: not the criminal, not the victim, and certainly not the taxpayer. Littlefield is the island where we send the undesirables to never be heard from again.  

Let’s start with some honesty, and then engage in a legitimate debate about whether the Constitution forbids this type of institution as an unconstitutional subsequent punishment.

For more information on this civil commitment trend for sex offenders, check out the Stateman’s recent write-up here.  

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.

Chris Perri Plans to Use New Law to Overturn Wrongful Convictions

Chris Perri

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Recently, in two separate cases in the Central Texas area, several wrongfully convicted people have been released from prison on the basis of evidence that their convictions were founded upon false scientific testimony. Both cases involved the sensitive matter of child sexual abuse. To read about the “San Antonio Four,” click here. To read about the Keller case in Austin, click here.

This past legislative session, Texas adopted a new law (codified as Article 11.073 in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure) that makes it easier for falsely convicted people to overturn their convictions on the basis of false scientific evidence. Prior to the passage of the new law, defendants had the burden of proving that newly-discovered evidence establishes their actual innocence. But now, defendants only need to show by a preponderance of the evidence that if the new scientific evidence had been presented at their original trial, they would not have been convicted. Essentially, this means that if defendants show that it’s “more likely than not” that they wouldn’t have been convicted, the court must overturn the conviction.

As an example, consider the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of murdering his three young daughters by burning down the house while they slept. At trial, an arson investigator testified that the burn patterns demonstrated that the fire was intentionally started with an ignitable fluid, such as gasoline or paint thinner. This scientific testimony definitively countered the defense’s theory that Willingham was asleep when the fire began, perhaps caused by faulty electrical wiring in the house. Over a decade later, scientific advances in the field of arson investigation revealed that the expert’s “burn pattern analysis” was based on an unreliable scientific theory. Thus, Willingham was convicted on the basis of false science. Even so, he was executed before the Texas Innocence Project could convince a court to overturn his conviction. The new law would prevent such a wrongful execution.

Chris Perri Law has extensive experience with criminal appellate litigation, and we’re prepared to use this new law to benefit our clients. If you or a loved one was convicted on the basis of questionable scientific evidence, there’s a chance that current scientific developments will undermine this conviction. Contact us at (512)917-4378 to take a look at your case.

Chris Perri Argues to the 5th Circuit why Colton Pitonyak Deserves a New Trial

Chris Perri

Last Tuesday, August 27th 2013, Chris Perri argued to a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on why his client Colton Pitonyak deserves a new trial. This notorious case has received expansive media attention, and for good reason.

For the past four years, Chris Perri fought for the case to be reexamined due to an alleged Brady violation. For further background on the case, please view one of our older, informative blog posts here.

Intrigue and mystery have laced this case from the inception. Many have speculated who actually murdered and mutilated Jennifer Cave’s body. Though Colton Pitonyak was convicted of her murder, evidence withheld by the prosecution team points to Laura Hall as the actual killer.

Capturing the attention of the 5th Circuit, Chris stated that while in the Travis County Jail, Laura Hall confessed to two other inmates that she committed the murder. These inmates then told a counselor, who recorded the information in Hall’s electronic jail file. Chris argued that had this information been made available to the defense, Pitonyak’s trial strategy would have been entirely different and most likely led to a not guilty verdict.

The learned judges grilled Chris about whether any prior Supreme Court case had established a duty on the part of a mental-health counselor to disclose such exculpatory evidence to the prosecution team (and, thus, ultimately the defense attorneys).  While conceding that there was no such case, Chris persuasively argued that based on the Supreme Court’s Kyles v. Whitley case, the actual prosecutors had a duty to search Hall’s jail file due to the reasonable foreseeability of exculpatory evidence within that file.  After all, the prosecutors knew that Hall was talking to other inmates, including a cell mate who ended up being the prosecution’s star witness at Hall’s trial on Tampering with Evidence.  By turning a blind eye to the contents of Hall’s jail file, the prosecutors committed a Brady violation. 

Furthermore, even if the prosecutors had been blocked from accessing medical information within Hall’s jail file, they had a duty to obtain a court order or subpoena because the right to a fair trial trumps medical privacy laws. The State’s attorney countered that a subpoena for this information had been quashed, but Chris pointed out that this argument was disingenuous because it was Pitonyak who filed the subpoena while investigating the Brady claim in 2009.  The State, with the prosecutors’ blessing, actually quashed the subpoena in order to hinder Pitonyak’s ability to develop the claim.

The 5th Circuit should issue a ruling in the next month or two, though they have no official deadline.

See below to read a few noteworthy news articles and videos with Chris Perri featured:

Articles: 

Austin Chronicle article

Statesman article

The Daily Texan article

Videos: 

KXAN video 

My Fox Austin video

Keye TV video (1)

Keye TV video (2) 



 

 

 

 

 

 

Chris Perri Defends The Travis County Personal Bond System

Chris Perri

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Investigative reporter Tony Plohetski has recently put the Travis County personal bond system under harsh spotlight with claims that the system is too lenient and endangering Austin’s community. Plohetski’s articles have resulted in an uproar from criminal defense attorneys who believe that Plohetski is not seeing the full picture and misrepresenting the Travis County system.

To fully understand the debate, allow me to provide some basic background information on bonds. Firstly, when individuals are arrested and put in jail, a bond amount is set for their release. If these individuals don’t adhere to the agreements of the bond or fail to show up for their court dates, then the courts will sue them for the full bond amount as well as put them back in jail, taking away bond privileges. Rarely do people get second chances at bond.

There are two major types of bonds: personal and cash. Personal bonds mean that once arrested, you can be released for no cost but a hefty promise.  Of course, you would still have a bond amount set. Let’s say the bond is set at $20,000. You can get out for no cost while your court case is proceeding, but if you fail to show up to court or adhere to the agreed upon conditions, than you will be responsible for paying $20,000.

Cash bonds differ in that you have to actually put up the full bond amount with the understanding that you will get it back as long as you stick to the rules, etc. You can either do this with your own cash, or hire a bondsman who will put the money up but charge you a nonrefundable 10-20% fee (also known as a “surety bond”).  This fee only benefits bondsmen and in no way goes back to the court system. It means that the arrested individuals already have to pay big bucks when they haven’t yet been proven guilty. Remember, we are supposed to live in a country built on the decree: innocent until proven guilty.

The Travis County bond system is known for granting more personal bonds than any other county in Texas. Reporter Plohetski believes that this endangers Austin by allowing more defendants to be out of jail, thus making them more likely to commit crimes or fail to make court appearances. Plohetski feels our current system is too lenient, and he advocates for more involvement by the District Attorney’s office in the personal bond decision process. He feels that individuals either need to wait it out in jail or cough up cash for a surety bond.

However, Chris Perri disagrees, along with most other fellow criminal defense attorneys (click here for opinion of attorney Bradley Hargis), and feels that the Travis County bond system is one of the most progressive programs in the state. Chris believes that when counties fail to offer personal bonds, they create a class system divide. Those who cannot afford to hire bondsmen have to wait in jail, despite not yet being proven guilty. Many individuals spend months in jail. It creates an incentive structure for those stuck in jail to plea out their case just to get out of jail, leading to potentially unjust legal outcomes.

It also hurts both the criminal defense attorneys as well as the county. If defendants are forced to spend their financial resources on bondsmen, then they are less likely to be able to afford a criminal defense attorney and more likely to apply for a county-funded court-appointed lawyer. Also, keeping people behind bars costs tax dollars.

Many criminal defense attorneys are concerned about Plohetski’s misleading claims. In response to the article, judges have made it more difficult for defendants to obtain personal bonds.  And in response to Plohetski calling for more District Attorney involvement, the DA is trying to become more involved. Yet, this is redundant in that the county already pays for a program called Pretrial Services, which assesses whether a personal bond should be granted by investigating an individual’s criminal history and ties to the community, as well as the safety of any victims if the defendant is released.  DA involvement would merely duplicate Pretrial Services’ role, leading to a slower, less efficient process.

Further, Plohetski claims that it is inappropriate for defense attorneys to talk to judges ex parte (without the opposing side present). Chris Perri disagrees, and states that in Travis County, prosecutors talk to judges without the defense attorney present in order to raise bond amounts or add burdensome conditions (such as an electronic monitor).   Also, every judge requires extensive information on each case and reviews the recommendations of Pretrial Services. However, judges can overrule Pretrial Services' recommendations if they see fit.

Chris also says, in his experience, the type of bond doesn't matter as to whether or not a defendant will show up for court. It is uncommon for people to commit crimes while on bond, as people understand the severity of the ramifications. Yet, there will always be people who don’t adhere to the rules, regardless of their type of bond.

The progressive Travis County bond system isn’t broken—it just needs to be better understood.