News
 
Varghese Summersett

Looking for the latest crime and courts news? The VS News Desk keeps you current on the headlines, which are delivered by the defense attorneys at Varghese Summersett.

Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association Asks Governor to Veto Blood Draw Bill

In a rare but bold move, the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association is asking the governor to veto House Bill 558, which seeks to increase the number of involuntary blood draws in alleged intoxication cases. Attorney Anna Summersett offers insights on the proposed legislation.

 


Twists, Turns Mark Robert Durst Murder Trial

Last week, the murder trial of Robert Durst resumed in Los Angeles after a 14-month suspension due to the pandemic. And true to form, it hasn’t disappointed. Attorney Anna Summersett brings us up to speed.


No Charges for Man Who Caused Shooting Scare at Dallas Mall

A man who used his skateboard to create panic at a Dallas Mall on Memorial Day, leading to a shooting scare, will not face charges. Attorney Anna Summersett discusses the case.


Bail Bill Dies Due to Walk Out

A priority bill that would have made it harder for people to bond out of jail without cash died on Sunday after House Democrats walked out of the chamber to block the passage of a different GOP priority voting bill. Attorney Anna Summersett explains what happened.


TABC Ramping Up Undercover Stings

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission announced yesterday that they are ramping up undercover stings to stop alcohol sales to minors. So what does this mean for retailers who sell alcohol and what happens if you get caught providing alcohol to a minor?


Texas ‘Constitutional Carry’ on Verge of Becoming Law

The Texas Legislature has given the green light to a proposed bill that would allow citizens to carry handguns in Texas without a permit. Attorney Anna Summersett discusses the so-called “Constitutional Carry” bill.

 


Child Killed in Road Rage Shooting

The mother of a 6-year-old boy is speaking out after her son was fatally shot in an apparent road rage incident in California. Attorney Anna Summersett discusses road rage and how the law applies in Texas.


Fort Worth Man Becomes State’s First Execution in 10 Months

A Fort Worth man was executed last night, becoming the first inmate put to death in Texas since July 2020. He was only the third inmate executed in the Lone Star state since the pandemic swept the U.S. Attorney Anna Summersett discusses the case and the state of the death penalty in Tarrant County and Texas.


Air Conditioning in Texas Prisons?

In the last decade, at least 13 men have died of heat stroke while incarcerated in Texas prisons, which don’t have air conditioning. Last week, the Texas House passed a bill that would require Texas lockups to be cooled at an estimated cost of $300 million. Attorney Anna Summersett discusses prison conditions and whether no air conditioning is cruel and unusual punishment.


Overserved? New TABC Unit Traces Alcohol Consumption to Source

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has launched a new unit that traces alcohol consumption back to its source in DWI cases involving injury or death. The Target Responsibility for Alcohol-Connected Emergency Unit, or TRACE, started this year and is made up of 10 investigators who determine where drunken drivers consumed alcohol and if they were over-served. Defense Attorney Anna Summersett discusses what kind of impact this new unit could have on bars and restaurants in Texas and on intoxication cases.


Prosecutorial Power and Wrongful Convictions

This week a Fort Worth man walked out of jail a free man after spending 24 years in prison after being over-charged and over-sentenced. Attorney Anna Summersett discusses the case and the tremendous power that prosecutors have in deciding whether or not to bring criminal charges against someone and what those charges and enhancements should be.

 


Tarrant Plans to Open Mental Health Diversion Center

Tarrant County will soon have a mental health diversion center to avoid jailing people who suffer from mental illness and are charged with low-level crimes. The County Judge has said that he would like the center to be open by October 1. In today’s VS News Desk, criminal defense attorney Anna Summer discusses why a mental health diversion center is a great idea.

 


Texas Gov. Abbott: ‘Broken Bail System?’

A controversial bill that would alter the way criminal defendants are released from jail is scheduled to be debated today on the floor of the Texas House. House Joint Resolution 4 would authorize magistrates and judges to deny bail for people accused of violent offenses. Attorney Anna Summersett explains how the bail system works and how this proposed legislation would make bad law.


‘Permitless Carry’ in Texas: Perspectives and Pitfalls from a Defense Attorney

Last week, the Texas Senate passed a ‘permitless carry’ bill that would allow Texans to carry a handgun without a license. The governor has previously state that if the bill makes it to his desk, he will sign it into law. So what kind of impact will this legislation have in Texas? Attorney Anna Summersett discusses the proposed law and gives some perspective and pitfalls you may not have considered.


Juror Misconduct in Chauvin Murder Trial?

There has been plenty of twists and turns in the Derek Chauvin murder case and, this week, there was another big one.

A photo has surfaced showing a juror in the Derek Chauvin murder trial at a rally wearing a Black Lives Matter hat and a shirt that reads, “Get Your Knees Off Our Necks.” Does this mean he was impartial? Will it change the outcome?

Attorney Anna Summersett shares some her thoughts in today’s VS News Desk.

 


Granbury Mayor Charged with Felony DWI

On Monday, Hood County prosecutors upgraded the misdemeanor DWI charge against Granbury’s mayor to a felony after learning he had two prior convictions for drunken driving.

Mayor Nin Hulett was arrested on April 25 following a traffic stop by police in Granbury. He was initially charged with DWI, a class B misdemeanor.

On Monday, that charge was upgraded to DWI Felony Repetition after police and prosecutors confirmed he had been twice before convicted of driving while intoxicated – including in Fort Worth  in 2007 and in Missouri in 1999.

In Texas, a third DWI is a felony, punishable by 2 to 10 years in prison and a maximum $10,000 fine. Under Texas law, it does not matter how far in the past or where the previous DWIs occurred.

For example, the mayor’s first conviction was reportedly more than 20 year ago in Missouri. The second conviction is more than 13 years old in Texas.

The state can use those convictions – even though one is decades old and from another state – to enhance his most recent DWI charge.

It’s also important to point out that the priors must be convictions – not just arrests – before they can be used to enhance the charge. In this case, law enforcement are reporting that the mayor was previously convicted of DWI.

The mayor is currently free after posting bond.


Alcohol To-Go Heads to Texas Governor’s Desk

The Texas Senate passed a measure last week allowing Texans to permanently purchase alcohol to-go from restaurants.

House Bill 1024, which cleared the lower chamber last month, would allow beer, wine and mixed drinks to be included in pickup and delivery orders, including from third-party companies like Grubhub and Door Dash.

The new, permanent alcohol to-go option is an effort to boost the restaurant industry that was devastated during the pandemic. Last March, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a waiver allowing restaurants and some bars to sell alcohol-to-go and has continued to extend it.

Now, lawmakers stepped in and made it permanent.

The legislation – which was filed by state Representative Charlie Geren, a restaurant owner in Fort Worth – was approved in an almost unanimous vote.

The Governor has said that if the bill makes it to his desk, he will sign it. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission reported yesterday that they expect the signature within the next 10 days. HB1024 will become law immediately.

It’s important to point out that the proposed legislation does not change Texas’ open container laws.  The to-go beverages must be sealed in their original manufacturer-sealed container or in a tamper-proof container labeled with the business name. The beverage also cannot be transported in the passenger area of a vehicle.


Texas House Passes Bill Requiring Judges to Vet Jailhouse Informants

Last week, the Texas House passed a bill that would require judges to review the reliability and credibility of a jailhouse informant before allowing the inmate to testify during a trial. The bill – dubbed the John Nolley Act –  aims to prevent false informant testimony and stems from a Tarrant County wrongful murder conviction.

On Tuesday, lawmakers passed House Bill 2631, which would require a judge to hold pre-trial hearings to review a jailhouse informant’s testimony before it is presented in court in serious cases. It would also require judges to issue cautionary jury instructions if the testimony is admitted.

The bill has numerous sponsors, but its main author is State Rep. Matt Krause, of Fort Worth. It was approved by 143 of the 150 members of the Texas House last week.

The bill aims to prevent wrongful convictions that stem from the erroneous testimony of jail house informants.

One of those wrongfully convicted was John Nolley. He was convicted of murder in 1996 in the death of his friend, Sharon McLane, who was found stabbed 57 times. During his trial, prosecutors presented no direct evidence or forensic evidence. He was convicted on the testimony of a jailhouse informant who lied.

Nolley was later exonerated after spending 19 years behind bars. He has become the face and name behind House Bill 2631.

Officials said more than a dozen Texans have been wrongfully convicted due to bogus testimony of jail inmates hoping for leniency.

Recently, a former Dallas police officer was arrested and accused of ordering two murders in 2017 based, in part, on the testimony of a prison inmate serving time for murder. A judge ordered the officer’s release, citing no probable cause to proceed on capital murder charges.

House Bill 2631 will now be taken up by the Texas Senate. If passed, it will take effect September 1.


Texas Senate Passes Bill Making Transgender Treatment Child Abuse

The Texas Senate passed a bill this week that would make it child abuse for parents to allow transgender children to get gender transitioning treatment or undergo a sex change before age 18.

On Tuesday, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1646, which would prohibit parents from providing puberty-blocking medication, hormone therapy or surgery to a transgender child while they are a minor. The bill is one of the Legislature’s attempts to prevent children from transitioning before their 18th birthday.

The bill, which was authored by Lubbock Republican Senator Charles Perry, passed in an 18-12 vote that was sharply divided along party lines.

In a Senate committee hearing, there was more than 4 1/2 hours of public testimony by LGBTQ Texans, their parents, and several state and national medical associations.

Opponents of the bill say it intrudes into intimate medical decisions.

Proponents of the bill say it is necessary to prevent children from making irreversible decisions they may regret later.

Parents who break the proposed law would be in violation of the state’s Family Code, which would trigger an investigation by Child Protective Services, resulting in the possible removal of the child from their home.

Doctors who perform sex change treatments would also be accused of child abuse, which could lead to a license investigation by the Texas Medical Board.

The bill now goes to the House, where its chances are unclear.


Tarrant County Defense Lawyers Calling for Investigation into Medical Examiner’s Office

The Tarrant County Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association is demanding an independent investigation into the medical examiner’s office in light of autopsy mistakes in dozens of homicide cases and false or misleading testimony in a death penalty case.

Benson Varghese, President of TCCDLA, presented a resolution to the Tarrant County Commissioners Court on Tuesday during its weekly meeting.

The resolution, which has been passed by the TCCDLA Board, calls for an “independent investigation into the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office and an external audit of the work performed by Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani and Deputy Medical Examiner Marc Krouse.”

It also calls upon the Court to consider whether Dr. Peerwani should continue as the Tarrant County Medical Examiner.

The resolution lays out the numerous issues that have defense lawyers in Tarrant County concerned including:

  • In March 2021, a Tarrant County District Court judge found that Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Peerwani provided false, inaccurate, and misleading testimony in a death penalty case in 2006.
  • That same month Dr. Peerwani’s Deputy Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Marc Krouse, was suspended from performing autopsies in homicide cases due to serious professional deficiencies. Krouse was found to have made at least 59 errors in homicide autopsies over a 10-month period. In one of the cases, a body had to be exhumed as a result of Krouse missing a bullet.

During the Commissioner’s Court meeting, Varghese provided materials to the County Judge, Commissioners Court, and District Attorney. The Medical Examiner is appointed by the Tarrant County Commissioners Court and taxpayers pay nearly $11 million annually for its services.

Varghese told the Court that they want a thorough investigation into Dr. Peerwani’s administration and that a retirement or resignation is not sufficient.


Tesla Facing Questions after Two Killed in Driverless Crash

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has launched an investigation into Tesla following what is believed to be driverless crash earlier this month that left two people dead in a Houston suburb.

Telsa executives deny that autopilot was activated and contend that someone must have been in the driver’s seat.

Just before midnight on Saturday, April 17, two men were killed after the 2019 Tesla S they were riding in crashed into a tree and burst into flames near the Woodlands, about 30 minutes north of downtown Houston.

The crash made national headlines because officials said they were certain no one was in the driver’s seat at the time of the wreck.

One of the men was found in the front passenger side of the vehicle; the other was found in the backseat.

The crash is under investigation by the NHTSA and the NTSB who are trying to determine what caused the crash and if autopilot or full self- driving modes were involved.

Tesla owner, Elan Musk, and top executives are firing back. Musk said data logs recovered so far show the autopilot was not enabled. He said the media should be “ashamed” for saying otherwise.

Yesterday, top executives took it a step further and said the steering wheel was deformed and seat-belts were unbuckled, leading them to conclude someone was in the driver’s seat.

Officials are serving search warrants on Tesla to obtain and secure data from the vehicle. The NTSA has launched more than two dozen investigations into Tesla vehicle crashes.

Stay tuned. This one is worth watching.


Ghislaine Maxwell Pleads Not Guilty to New Sex Trafficking Charges

British Socialite Ghislaine Maxwell has pleaded not guilty to new federal sex trafficking charges accusing her of helping the late Jeffrey Epstein sexually abuse a fourth victim.

Ghilsane Maxwell appeared in a Manhattan federal court on Friday for the first time since her arrest last summer. During the brief hearing, she pleaded not guilty to a new sex trafficking conspiracy charge and an additional sex trafficking charge.

The charges have been included in an eight-count indictment that was unveiled on March 29.

The new charges allege she recruited and groomed a 14-year-old girl to engage in sex acts with Epstein.

Maxwell previously pleaded not guilty to charges she helped Epstein groom three other girls for him to sexually abuse. She also has pleaded not guilty to two perjury counts.

Epstein, 66, was found hanged in a Manhattan jail cell in August 2019, one month after he was arrested on sex trafficking charges.

Maxwell’s trial is scheduled for July 12, but her attorneys have asked for a delay in light of the new charges and more than 3 million pages of discovery that have been turned over.

The lawyers have also cast doubt on whether she can get a fair trial, saying she is being treated as a monster in the media due to the so-called “Epstein Effect.”

Maxwell faces up to 80 years in prison if convicted of all charges.

The judge has not said whether or not she will delay the trial.


Fort Worth Makes it a Crime to Watch Illegal Street Races, Stunting

The Fort Worth City Council has approved an ordinance that makes it a crime to gather to watch an illegal street race or stunts.

The ordinance makes it illegal for people to gather, watch, support or take pictures and videos of street racing or stunting in the city.

Violators of the ordinance face a fine of up to $500.

Texas already criminalizes illegal street racing through the offenses of racing on a highway and reckless driving, but no state statute prohibits spectators from watching an illegal street race.

Racing on a highway is generally a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a maximum $2,000 fine. Reckless driving is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and up to a $200 fine.

The Fort Worth Police Chief said the new ordinance will hopefully deter people from attending races in the first place, which will lead to fewer races.

The new ordinance was passed in response to a rash of deaths last year due to illegal street racing.

Fort Worth Police have reportedly fielded more than 2,500 calls over the past 17 months related to street racing or reckless driving stunts. Dallas also has a problem and established a street racing task force.

The Fort Worth Police Chief said the new ordinance will enable officers to track down and issue tickets to participants after the race. The department plans to identify spectators through social media posts and security cameras.

The new ordinance takes effect immediately.


Derek Chauvin Conviction: What Happens Next?

Jurors deliberated a little over 10 hours on Monday and Tuesday before finding Derek Chauvin guilty of all counts in George Floyd’s death.

The former Minneapolis police officer was convicted of second degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter.

After the verdict, Chauvin – who has been out on a bail – was taken into custody. He will now await sentencing while in jail.

Chauvin is expected to be sentenced in the next eight weeks. His sentence will be decided solely by Judge Peter Cahill, the judge who presided over his trial, because Chavin waived his right to have a jury decide his sentence.

He could face up to 40-years in prison for second-degree murder, up to 25-years for third-degree murder and up to 10 years for manslaughter.

Under Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines, the recommendation for a person with no criminal record is about 12. 5 years in prison for each murder charge and about 10 years for the manslaughter charge. Prosecutors are expected to ask for a tougher sentence, however.

Offenses and criminal penalties vary from state to state. In Texas, for example, Chauvin would have likely faced charges of murder, manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. A murder conviction in Texas carries a maximum life sentence.

As for the three other officers facing charges in Floyd’s death?

They are expected to be tried together this summer with aiding and abetting murder and aiding and abetting manslaughter.


Texas House Passes “Constitutional Carry” Bill


Last week, members of the Texas House of Representatives passed House Bill 1927, which allows citizens over the age of 21 to carry a handgun without a license –  a win for gun activists but a blow for many state Democrats and gun-reform advocates.

Texas law currently requires citizens to obtain a license to carry in order to carry a handgun openly or concealed. If passed into law, the new bill would remove that restriction, allowing Texans to carry guns without having to pass a background check or go through training.

Texas would become the 14th state to implement such a law.

Supporters of permitless carry, including gun rights groups and conservative Republicans, contend that the measure simply allows Texans to exercise rights guaranteed under the Second Amendment.

Democrats, joined by some law enforcement officers and faith leaders, argue against the legislation, citing the need for stricter gun safety measures following the 2019 mass shootings in El Paso and Midland-Odessa.

The bill, spearheaded by state Rep. Matt Schaefer, comes in the wake of at least 45 mass shootings in the past month, including three in Texas alone. The bill passed the Texas House just hours after a deadly mass shooting at a Fed-Ex facility in Indianapolis killed at least eight people.

The “Constitutional Carry” bill now moves to the Senate, where its prospects are uncertain.

Meanwhile, Texas republicans are also vowing to defy any new federal gun rules. They are pushing to make Texas a “Second Amendment” sanctuary state.

There’s a lot to follow locally and nationally. We’ll be watching all fronts.


Officer Charged with Manslaughter in Daunte Wright Fatal Shooting

The Minnesota police officer who fatally shot Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, after reportedly mistaking her handgun for her taser has been charged with second-degree manslaughter.

While it is rare for police to mistake their sidearms for stun guns, it’s even rarer for charges to be brought against them.

Officer Kimberly Pott was arrested on Wednesday, one day after she and her police chief resigned from the Brooklyn Center Police Department, a Minneapolis suburb. She is free after posting $100,000 bond and is expected to appear in court today.

Officials said Potter, who is white, shot and killed Daunte Wright – a 20-year-old black man – during a traffic stop on Sunday night after she drew and fired her gun instead of her taser.

Potter, a 26 year veteran officer, was training a younger officer when they pulled Wright over for expired registration. When officers found Wright had a warrant out for failing to appear in court on a gun charge, they attempted to handcuff him outside his car. He twisted away to get back in his car.

In body-camera footage, Potter warned that she would use a stun gun on Wright and then shouted “Taser!” three times before firing once into his chest.  Potter could be heard swearing and saying, “I just shot him.” The police chief later described the killing as an “accidental discharge.”

The second-degree manslaughter charge suggests that prosecutors believe that Potter didn’t intend to kill Wright but mixed up her weapons. Second-degree manslaughter charges often stem from offenses that are not planned — such as hunting accidents.

Under Minnesota law, someone is guilty of second-degree manslaughter if that person causes the death of another through “culpable negligence” and “creates an unreasonable risk, and consciously takes chances of causing death or great bodily harm to another.” The charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.

Prosecutors may have a difficult time proving this case. The New York Times reviewed 15 other cases of so-called weapon confusion over the past 20 years and found only five of the officers were indicted. And only three were found guilty.

Second-degree manslaughter is also among the charges that Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is facing in his trial in George Floyd’s death, which is nearing its closing arguments and is being held just miles away.


Police Chief, Officer Resign in Wake of Protests Over Daunte Wright Killing

Police Officer Kim Potter resigned Tuesday, two days after fatally shooting Daunte Wright, an unarmed black man during a traffic stop in a Minneapolis suburb. Police Chief Tim Gannon also resigned after revealing Potter likely shot Wright by accident, believing she was firing a taser instead of a pistol.

Protests erupted in Minnesota and across the country last night as demonstrators express outrage over another police killing of a black man. The latest death occurred just 10 miles away from where the murder trial of officer Derek Chauvin is being held in the killing of George Floyd.

Prosecutors have said they expect to have a decision today regarding whether Office Potter will face charges. Potter, who is white, shot and killed Daunte Wright – a 20-year-old black man – during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minn., on Sunday.

Body camera footage shows a struggle as officers tried to handcuff Wright. During the struggle, Potter  drew her and fired her gun instead of a Taser, killing Wright.

By resigning – instead of being fired – Potter could potentially keep her pension and later work for another department.

The community is calling for justice, but will they be satisfied?

Officers involved in police shootings are rarely held accountable for killing someone.

Earlier this month, another police officer who shot a black man returned to work. Rusten Sheskey, a Wisconsin police officer who shot Jacob Blake multiple times in the back in front of his children last August, is back on the job and will not face any discipline charges. Blake survived the shooting and it was determined the officer acted within the law.

The world is watching how the latest officer involved shooting – and the Derek Chauvin trial just miles away – will play out.

 


Racist Bullying: Aledo Students Punished for ‘Slave Trade’ Posts

A group of ninth-grade students in Aledo ISD have been disciplined after it was discovered they set up a group chat and pretended to sell their black classmates. The chat, labeled “Slave trade,” contained racial slurs including the “N” word.

Officials said the students attend Daniel Ninth Grade Campus and were communicating on Snapchat and playing a “game” that put prices on classmates of color and trading them.

In the auction, one student was worth $100, while another was only worth $1 because they he didn’t like his hair.

This story hit the press as racial tensions across the country continue to rise. Protests swarmed as in Minnesota as another black man was killed this week during a routine traffic stop, and the trial against George Floyd’s killer trudges on.

Aledo Independent School District leaders sent a note home to parents and have posted a statement on their website.

The statement said that an immediate and thorough investigation was launched that involved law enforcement. They determined that racial harassment and cyber bullying had occurred and assigned disciplinary consequences in accordance the Student Code of Conduct.

To date, no criminal consequences have been announced. However, cyberbullying and harassment are illegal in Texas.

Cyberbullying is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up 180 days in jail and a maximum $2,000 fine. The offense becomes a Class A misdemeanor, one level higher if the offender has a previous conviction for cyberbullying or if the victim was under 18 years old and targeted with the intent to make the victim commit suicide or hurt themselves.

Cyberbullies can also face expulsion or be sent to alternative school.

If any students is arrested and they are under the age of 17, they would be handled through the juvenile system.

Could a defense exist?

Law enforcement will need to prove the identity of the alleged offenders. It is not enough that a post came from a specific social media profile. They need to confirm the person on the other end of the post is one in the same. With automatic log-ins due to saved passwords, it would be easy to see how seemingly innocent exchanges of phones or tablets between students could lead to incriminating posts that were not the words or intentions of the alleged offender.

Identity issues aside, some parents have said the discipline was not enough and some have even called the incident a hate crime. Parents are planning on showing up at the next school board meeting to demand the community do more to address racism.


Crackdown on Counterfeit Purses, Shoes at Worlds Largest Flea Market

Two women were arrested last week on accusations of selling fake designer purses, shoes, sunglasses and caps at the First Monday Trade Days in Canton, Texas, which is located about 60 miles east of Dallas.

The arrests stemmed from an undercover investigation by Homeland Security Investigations, a federal agency tasked with keeping counterfeit products off U.S. streets.

Over 1,000 counterfeit luxury items, including Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Gucci and Hermes, with a retail value of $1.3 million were confiscated. In addition to federal agents, local, county and state authorities also played crucial roles in the seizure.

The women will be prosecuted by the Van Zandt County District Attorney’s Office.

They are facing charges of trademark counterfeiting. Under Texas law, trademark counterfeiting occurs when a person copies a company’s mark and uses it with the intent to sell, advertise or manufacture a product or service. The punishment depends on the retail value of the item or service.

One of the women is facing a third-degree felony, which applies when the retail value is between $30,000 and $150,000. The other women is reportedly facing a state jail felony, which applies when the retail value is between $2500 to $30,000.

Officials said the crackdown on counterfeit goods is an effort to maintain the integrity of the First Monday trade days, which began in 1850 and has become the largest flea market in the world.

The crackdown should also serve as a caution to others who sell counterfeit designer items from their homes or on the Internet.


Pandemic Liability Bill Passes Senate
April 9, 2021

On Thursday, the Texas Senate passed a pandemic liability protection bill that would prevent certain businesses and organizations from COVID-related lawsuits.

Opponents say the bill goes too far and could give negligent caregivers and nursing homes a free pass.

Senate Bill 6, also known as the Pandemic Liability Protection Act, was introduced by state Senator Kelly Hancock, a Republican from North Richland Hills.

The bill, which was passed by the Senate on Tuesday, seeks to provide COVID liability protections for health care providers, businesses, religious institutions, schools and non-profit organizations that attempt to follow safety protocols with respect to COVID.

Simply put, the legislation would prevent certain organizations, including nursing homes, from being sued by individuals or their aggrieved families for contracting COVID at their facilities or under their care.

It also makes it harder for residents and their families to hold facilities accountable for injuries and death that occur due to substandard, negligent care provided during the pandemic due to staff shortages.

Some legal experts counter, however, that the legislation would not prevent lawsuits in cases where plaintiffs can prove reckless or willful misconduct or malice.

Governor Abbott named pandemic liability protection an emergency item, which means its journey through the legislature can be expedited. On Thursday, the Senate approved the legislation. It now moves to the House of Representatives for further consideration.

This one hits close to home.

My grandmother died of COVID, which she contracted inside a nursing home facility by a staff member who didn’t follow basic CDC guidelines approximately 10 months into the pandemic.

I’m opposed. At the very least, Senate Bill 6 must be revised to protect nursing home residents.


Ex-Cop Accused of Capital Murder is Released for Lack of Evidence
April 8, 2021

On Wednesday afternoon, former Dallas Police Officer Bryan Riser was released from jail after a judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him on two charges of capital murder.

Judge Audrey Moorehead ordered his release after listening to about three hours of testimony from a Dallas homicide detective. The hearing – called an examining trial – was to determine whether the case should move forward to the grand jury.

The hearings are not common, and yesterday there was a surprising twist.

Prosecutors took the unusual step of publicly disagreeing with the lead homicide, and told the judge in open court that they didn’t believe there was sufficient probable cause in the two capital murder cases against Riser.

The judge agreed and ordered his release from the county jail.

Riser was arrested on capital murder charges on March 4 in the separate slayings of Liza Saenz and Albert Douglas in 2017. Riser, who was fired from the force five days later, was alleged to have hired three men to kill the victims.

One of those men – who is already serving a life sentence for a different double murder – came forward and said Riser ordered the killings. However, prosecutors say they don’t have evidence to corroborate the inmate’s story that Riser was behind the murder-for-hire plots.

Texas law prohibits jurors from convicting someone solely on the testimony of an alleged accomplice.

During the hearing, Riser’s defense attorney, Toby Shook, also pointed out several errors in the first affidavit used to arrest Riser. Shook has maintained his client’s innocence.

So what happens next?

The Dallas County District Attorney said that, although there is not enough evidence to prosecute, the investigation will continue. The judge’s ruling, however, means the case will not go to the grand jury without additional evidence.

As for Riser? His attorney and his family are calling for an audit of the police department’s investigation  and the decision to arrest.


Two Children Killed in Bizarre Backhoe Accident
April 7, 2021

Two children were killed and others were injured over the weekend in a bizarre backhoe accident. A family member has been charged in connection with their deaths.

On Saturday evening, emergency personnel responded to a tragic scene in Roanoak Texas, where two children were killed and several other people were injured while riding on various part of a John Deere backhoe.

Officials said several adults and children were riding on the backhoe when the front bucket dumped forward, spilling the people inside to the ground.

Authorities said two children, ages 7 and 11, were run over and died at the scene. Two other children and an adult suffered injuries and were transported to nearby hospitals.

The deceased children have been identified as students of Trinity Valley, a private school in Fort Worth.

The driver of the backhoe was arrested. Officials have not said how he is related to the victims, but he shares their last name. Social media is identifying the driver as the children’s father.

He faces numerous charges, including two counts of manslaughter, three counts of endangering a child and one count of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

In Texas, a person can be charged with manslaughter if they recklessly cause a person’s death. Manslaughter charges often stem from tragedies that occur unintentionally, but where a substantial and unjustifiable risk was present.

Manslaughter is punishable by two to 20 years in prison.

The question we have to ask is why, in the face of unimaginable tragedy, would criminal charges be piled on so quickly? And what defense could potentially apply?

It is going to come down to the defendant’s mental state and whether his actions were intentional, reckless or negligent.  The mechanics of the backhoe will also be a strong consideration and whether the machine was in proper working order.

There is still a lot we don’t know about this incident, including why so many people were riding on the backhoe and what exactly went wrong.


Dallas Police Chase Suspect in Stolen Ambulance
April 6, 2021

A man is in custody after police said he stole an ambulance from a Dallas fire station and led police on a chase through several North Texas counties.

Police said the man, who has not yet been identified, took the ambulance Monday morning from Fire Station No. 53 in east Dallas. He was later spotted by police driving the ambulance in the southeast Dallas.

The driver refused to stop, and led police on a chase for more than an hour, including off-road and through neighborhoods.

Police eventually disabled the ambulance with spike strips, causing the ambulance to bottom out on a curb.

The driver bailed out and tried to outrun police. He was taken into custody a short time later.

No one was injured during the police pursuit, which was captured live by news helicopters.

The man is likely facing a number of charges, including evading arrest in a motor vehicle, evading on foot, and felony theft of a vehicle.

If convicted of the theft, the suspect could also face increased punishment because the offense occurred during a disaster declaration.

Last year, Governor Abbott issued a disaster declaration due to COVID, which increases punishments by one level for a handful of offenses, including theft. Yesterday, that disaster declaration was renewed once again by the governor.

Although it may seem bizarre and rare, there have been numerous cases of stolen ambulances in Texas. Earlier this year, another ambulance was stolen in Dallas. And last year, an ambulance was stolen in Fort Worth.

In an even stranger coincidence, last year an ambulance was stolen from the exact same fire station as the one yesterday. It was later recovered in Louisiana. No word on whether the two cases are connected.

So the entire incident was caught on camera, but is it defensible? The question you have to ask it why this happened? Was the driver suffering a mental health episode at the time? Does he have a history of mental illness or substance abuse? Is his background mitigating enough to warrant leniency from the state?

All of this remains to be seen.


Plano Police Change Marijuana Arrest Policy
April 5, 2021

Last week, Plano Police Chief Ed  Drain announced that his officers will no longer arrest people for possessing two ounces of marijuana or less, which is normally a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to a 180 days in jail.

Instead, officers may, at their discretion, issue a ticket for possession of drug paraphernalia. That is a reduced charge punishable by up to a $500 fine paid in municipal court.

The department changed its policy after a review of costs and trends stemming from marijuana arrests. The Chief said the review showed racial disparity, specifically more African Americans are arrested for minor amounts of marijuana  – even though surveys show white, black and hispanics use marijuana at a similar rate.

The Chief said it also not cost-effective to arrest people for low-level amounts of weed. Now that hemp is legal in Texas, police must pay to have marijuana tested to determine its THC content before cases are accepted for prosecution.

So where do other North Texas cities stand on low-level marijuana arrests?

Under Texas law, police departments can implement a cite and release policy for possession of marijuana under four ounces. Dallas police already follow a “cite and release” policy. And late last year, Fort Worth police announced they are no longer arresting or citing people for low amounts of pot.

Decriminalizing marijuana is a growing trend in the lone star state.

More than 50 marijuana related bills have been filed so far this year in the Texas Legislature, covering a range of issues from decreased penalties to outright legalization.

Well, keep an eye on them to see which ones gain traction.


Audit: Tarrant County Coroner Made Dozens of Mistakes in Autopsies
April 1, 2021

A jaw-dropping audit has revealed that a suspended Tarrant County coroner made 59 mistakes in 40 death investigations – and there were mistakes in the audit as well.

Dr. Marc Krouse, who has been with the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office since 1981, has been suspended and his last day will be April 24.

The audit was ordered after investigators realized Krouse missed a bullet in a homicide investigation during an autopsy in September. The victim’s body had to be exhumed.

The audit, which was conducted by Tarrant County Chief Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani, reviewed 40 death investigations handled by Krouse over a 10-mnth span and found 59 mistakes.

According to the audit, Krouse repeatedly failed to request or review ambulance reports and hospital records. In some cases he failed to confirm a victim’s identity by fingerprint or other scientific means. In two cases, Krouse’s mistakes were called “egregious.”

What’s more, numerous mistakes have now also been found in the audit itself. Some ages, dates and addresses are inaccurate, according to NBC 5. In one instance, the audit claimed the autopsy of the 15-year-old boy was done on June 22 — four days before his death was reported on June 26.

Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani has said the mistakes will be corrected and a new audit will be sent by the Tarrant County District Attorneys Office to defense attorneys.

The Dallas District Attorneys Office has been appointed to do an independent full-scale review of Krouse’s work.

The ramifications of the Krouse’s errors are far-reaching. More than 400 pending cases in Tarrant County could be impacted.


Qualified Immunity for Police: Where Does Texas Stand?
March 31, 2021

 

The New York City Council has passed legislation that effectively ends qualified immunity for police officers in cases of excessive force, making it easier for people to sue officers.

Qualified immunity is a legal doctrine that, for decades, has prohibited police officers from being sued for alleged misconduct – unless the officer clearly violated an established constitutional right. The concept has made it nearly impossible to hold officers personally accountable.

Qualified immunity has become a focus of police reform across the country in the aftermath of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd.

Floyd, who is black, died after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds.  That officer, Derek Chauvin, is currently on trial for murder.

So where does Texas stand on qualified immunity and police reform in the wake of the civil unrest?

A sweeping police reform bill, called the George Floyd Act, was presented last week to the Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety. The bill – House Bill 88 – seeks to ban chokeholds and required deadly force to end the “moment the imminent threat of death” is eliminated. It would also create the duty for officers witnessing excessive force to intervene and render aid.

The bill also addresses qualified immunity – and that has become a sticking point in the Republican-led legislature. Some police officials want that part of the bill removed and that issues was heavily debated last week during the hearing.

The bill’s author, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Houston Democrat, says qualified immunity is a problem and it needs to stay in the bill.

After six hours of testimony, lawmakers left the matter pending without voting on the bill.

 


George Floyd: Testimony Underway in Murder Trial of Ex-Officer Derek Chauvin
March 25, 2021

Jurors are entering their second day of testimony in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death. The trial is one of the most closely watched court cases in decades.

Opening statements got under way on Monday in downtown Minneapolis, where the former police officer is accused of killing George Floyd last year by kneeling on his neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds.

Prosecutors wasted no time showing jurors the video that was taken by a bystander and captured Floyd’s final moments.

They played the video during their opening statement, calling the white officer’s actions against a black suspect “murder.” The jury heard Floyd say “I can’t breathe” 27 times.

Defense attorneys countered during their opening statement that Chauvin was doing his job and what he had been trained to do over the course of his 19-year career.

The defense attorney disputed that Chauvin was to blame for Floyd’s death. He pointed out that Floyd had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system and suggested his drug use, combined with heart disease, high blood pressure and adrenaline, caused a heart rhythm disturbance that killed him.

After opening statements, the jury heard from several witnesses as prosecutors began laying out their case:

  • They heard from a cashier at a gas station across the street who filmed the encounter.
  • They heard from a 911 dispatcher who testified that she saw part of Floyd’s arrest on a city surveillance camera and was so disturbed about the use of force she called a duty sergeant.
  • They also heard from a bystander who was trained in martial arts, including chokeholds. He testified that Chauvin appeared to increase the pressure on Floyd’s neck several times.

The mixed martial artist returned to the stand this morning.

Fourteen jurors or alternates are hearing the case – eight of them white and six of them black or multiracial. Only 12 will deliberate.

Barbed wired and concrete barriers surround the Minneapolis courthouse where the trial is being held. There is also a heavy presence of the National Guard, who will attempt to keep the peace over the next four weeks.


Texas HB 228: Replace Court Reporters with Electronic Recording Devices?
March 25, 2021

A Texas bill that would allow electronic recording devices to replace live court reporters has people in the legal community up in arms.

Hundreds of people in the legal community are voicing opposition over a bill in the Texas legislature that, if passed, would allow electronic recording devices to replace live certified court reporters.

House Bill 228, which is sponsored by Representative Andrew Murr of Kerrville, would allow county commissioners to decide whether to use electronic recording devices in lieu of certified court reporters.

The intent behind the bill is to save money and time – but many say it would do neither.

The bill has sparked outrage among court reporters and others in the legal community who say there is no substitute for live, certified professionals.

Last week, there was a public hearing before the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence and hundreds of court reporters from around the state sent in comments opposing the proposed legislation.

They pointed out that many states that have implemented electronic recording devices returned to court reporters after a long list of problems occurred, including

  • Complaints of quality transcripts
  • Lack of real-time transcription during proceedings
  • Missing or inaudible records
  • Retrials of cases due to lost digital recordings
  • Lack of confidence in the system by attorneys
  • Violation of clients’ rights in criminal matters due to inaudible portions of their records
  • And unexpected costs and additional personnel and equipment to perform all the functions a certified court reporter

The attorneys at our law firm have also voiced our opposition to House Bill 228. Forcing courts to use electronic devices in place of a certified court reporter would be detrimental to the litigants and the judicial process.

Certified court reporters are required by law to make verbatim records of a proceeding to ensure accuracy of what was said. An electronic recording device cannot ensure this accuracy, no matter how good it is.

Court reporters are also ethically bound to maintain these records and protect their authenticity.

We side with the court reporters on this one.


Texas Chief Justice: Zoom is Here to Stay
March 24, 2021

Texas’ Supreme Court Chief Justice delivered his state of the Judiciary speech yesterday. What was the big takeaway? Zoom is here to stay for court proceedings.

On Tuesday, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht delivered his biennial State of Judiciary address and called on the Texas legislature to update laws to ensure remote access to courtrooms will continue long after the coronavirus is tamed.

Hecht said an “unexpected benefit” of switching to remote proceedings was increased participation in the legal process.

He said the remote proceeding are more efficient and cost-effective and will continue to play a role in the “new normal.”

According to Hecht, appearance rates in high-volume dockets, such as traffic cases and child custody cases, went from 80 percent no-shows to 80-percent appearances during the pandemic. He sa

Varghese Summersett

In March 2021, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department executed a search warrant to obtain data from the Event Data Recorder, typically referred to as the “black box,” in the vehicle that Tiger Woods crashed. Police said it was an effort to determine the cause of the wreck and whether a crime occurred.

While black boxes have been associated with plane crashes for decades, the data devices are now becoming a go-to for auto accident investigators, especially in cases involving serious injury or death. The devices can be a treasure trove of information – contradicting or corroborating a driver’s account of what happened while he or she was behind the wheel.

Here’s an overview of black boxes, why they are being increasingly used in criminal investigations, how they can be obtained by the police, and how they can help – or hurt you – in a criminal investigation.

What do we know about Tiger Woods crash?

Golf legend Tiger Woods, 45, was driving a Genesis GV80 SUV on a two-lane road near Los Angelas shortly after 7 a.m. on February 23 when he crossed a median and veered onto the wrong side of the road. His vehicle struck a tree and landed on its side in the brush. He had to be physically removed from the car by emergency responders using a pry bar and ax. Woods was seriously injured and had to undergo surgery on his lower right leg and ankle. Woods told deputies he did not recall driving. Tiger Woods’ family released the following statement about his accident and injuries:

What is a vehicle black box?

Most vehicles today are equipped with a so-called “black box,” which is technically known as an Event Data Recorder, or EDR. Black boxes are not necessarily black or even boxes. A black box may be made up of several different components and a number of sensors placed throughout the vehicle. Black boxes are, therefore, essentially computers that gather and store data from a vehicle’s sensors, including GPS, position, speed, and time. Black boxes are usually installed below the center of the dashboard or beneath seats to protect them from damage. When a vehicle is involved in a crash, the black box can give moment-by-moment data, including speed, acceleration, braking, blinker use, etc. This is why black boxes are increasingly being used in investigations.

Black boxes were introduced in cars around 1994 when they were being used by manufacturers to analyze how cars performed in real-life accidents. By 2014, every new vehicle in the United States was mandated to have a black box. As time went on, event data recorders started tracking more and more information. Today, black boxes record for 20 seconds around the crash and keep at least 15 data points while manufacturers can include up to 30 more. The 15 required data points are:

  • Forward and lateral crash force.
  • Crash event duration.
  • Indicated vehicle speed.
  • Accelerator position.
  • Engine rpm.
  • Brake application and antilock brake activation.
  • Steering wheel angle.
  • Stability control engagement.
  • Vehicle roll angle, in case of a rollover.
  • Number of times the vehicle has been started.
  • Driver and front-passenger safety belt engagement, and pretensioner or force limiter engagement.
  • Air bag deployment, speed, and faults for all air bags.
  • Front seat positions.
  • Occupant size.
  • Number of crashes (one or more impacts during the final crash event).

Who owns the data collected by a black box?

The Driver Privacy Act of 2015 says EDR data is the property of the vehicle owner or lessee. However, the data may be accessed by a person other than the owner or lessee under five circumstances:

  • pursuant to court or administrative order
  • consent of the owner or lessee
  • pursuant to an investigation of a motor vehicle accident by the Secretary of the Treasury of the National Transportation Safety Board as long as personally identifiable information is not disclosed
  • for the purpose of emergency medical response to a vehicle crash
  • for traffic safety research, as long as personally identifiable information is not disclosed.

Do investigators need a warrant to retrieve a black box?

There is almost a century-old precedent in the United States that officers need probable cause to search a vehicle. (Carroll vs. United States, 1925). While not entirely analogous, we know that cell phones are also not subject to a warrantless search. (Riley vs. California, 2014). We don’t have a clear answer from the Supreme Court yet, but the Court has not taken up any case where State prosecutors argued on appeal that black boxes can be obtained without a showing of probable cause. (The Supreme Court’s decision to take a case or not take a case sometimes gives us valuable insight into what the Court’s position might be.) At the state-level, courts vary by jurisdiction. For example, courts in Florida and Georgia have ruled the Fourth Amendment protects a person’s privacy in the vehicle’s black box data while courts in New York and California have disagreed.

Notably, in Tiger Woods’ case, we know a search warrant was obtained to retrieve the black box, despite the fact that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department calling the wreck “purely an accident.”  This means an application was made by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department outlining why they believe there was probable cause that a criminal offense took place. Sources have reported the probable cause statement was based on an allegation that Tiger Woods was committing the criminal offense of driving recklessly.

Probable cause requires “specific and articulable facts that an offense occurred.” Yet sources have also reported the search warrant affidavit does not list any specific crime. You can expect an incredible amount of scrutiny to be placed on the affidavit for the search warrant and the judge’s decision once the affidavit is released to see if probable cause was established or whether this was nothing more than a fishing expedition – the latter would mean any evidence collected could be thrown out.

Can you be prosecuted for just an accident?

If this is just an accident as the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department initially reported, that is not the basis for a criminal offense. Are there factors that could make it a criminal offense? Most jurisdictions have some form of a reckless driving statute. For example, in Texas, reckless driving is a low-level misdemeanor offense and requires proof that the person was driving “in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property.” Whether or not the L.A. County Sheriff had proof under the California equivalent of that law remains to be seen.

How can black boxes help or hurt a criminal case?

When a driver is involved in an accident, investigators will most certainly try and question them about what happened. Were you speeding? Were you drinking? Did you fall asleep at the wheel? Was there a passenger in the car? Were you texting? Talking on the phone?

The black box can corroborate or contradict a driver’s story. If everything checks out and it was truly just an unfortunate, unforeseeable accident, the driver will hopefully not be charged with a crime. However, if there was wrongdoing on the part of the driver and the driver lies about it, the black box will likely uncover the truth – and it can be used against you in court.

Update: What the black box revealed in Tiger Woods’ crash

On April 7, 2021, investigators announced that the black box revealed that Woods was driving 84 and 87 miles per hour in a 45 m.p.h. zone when he crashed his sport-utility vehicle. Authorities said Woods was not cited for driving too fast and no criminal charges will be filed. They added that there were no signs of impairment or intoxication and that Woods was wearing his seatbelt. Investigators said the black box data showed Woods had hit the accelerator throughout the crash, and Woods likely inadvertently hit the accelerator while trying to brake.

Beyond Black Boxes

Don’t forget that modern cars are a treasure trove of information. Computers track GPS locations, navigation history, and some even ping nearby cell towers for phone service. Toll tags can provide speed, location, and heading information. Insurance companies are providing driving behavior data to the insurer by cell service. As law enforcement gets savvier and we collect and store more and more information about ourselves, expect law enforcement to seek warrants to try to get that information.

If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges stemming from a car crash in North Texas, it’s imperative that you speak to a skilled defense attorney as soon as possible. We can help. We have defended dozens of people charged with serious crimes after a car wreck. Call 817-203-2220 for a free consultation with an experienced member of our team.

Varghese Summersett

When frigid weather approaches in North Texas, we like to remind people to protect the four P’s: people, pipes, plants and pets.

Did you know it’s illegal in Texas to leave your pet outside in freezing conditions without adequate shelter, food, and water? It’s considered animal cruelty and it can carry jail time and fines.

Here’s a look at the laws and potential punishments, as well as tips for keeping pets safe in winter weather.

Featured image: Little Annie is cozy under the covers. (Credit: VS Attorney Alex Thornton)

When Is It Illegal to Leave Pets Outside in Snow or Cold?

In Texas, there are actually several laws that would make it illegal to leave a pet outside in extreme weather.  They include cruelty to non-livestock animals and unlawful restraint of a dog. Some cities also have specific ordinances in place to protect pets in extreme weather conditions.

? Cruelty to Non-Livestock Animals: Under Texas Penal Code 42.092, a person commits cruelty to a non-livestock animal if he or she fails unreasonably to provide necessary food, water, care or shelter; abandons an animal in their custody; confines or transports an animal in a cruel manner, injures someone else’s animal, or overworks an animal. Abandoning a dog or cat in freezing temperatures without adequate food, water or shelter would certainly violate this law.

Cruelty to a non-livestock animal is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a maximum $4,000 fine. If the conviction is a third offense, it is a state jail felony, punishable by up to 2 years in a state jail facility and a maximum $10,000 fine.

?Unlawful Restraint of a Dog: Under Texas law, a pet owner “may not leave a dog outside and unattended by use of a restraint that unreasonably limits the dog’s movement” when temperatures dip below 32 degrees. The law doesn’t just apply to cold weather. It also applies to heat advisories, tornado warnings, hurricanes and tropical storm.

Unlawful restraint of a dog is a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by a $500 fine, unless the owner has a previous conviction in which case it is elevated to a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to $180 days in jail and a $2000 fine.

?City Ordinance Violations: Many cities have a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to protecting pets and have specific ordinances in place. For example, in San Antonio, pet owners must provide suitable shelters for a pet – including walls, a roof, and elevated floor – or face a $300 fine.

Riggs stays cozy under the covers. (Credit: VS Office Manager Bresha Shepherd)

Were There Incidents of Abandoned Pets in Last Year’s Snowmageddon?

Sadly, this time last year, Texas was bracing itself for Snowmaggedon, the great Texas snow storm of 2021. More than 246 people died in that February storm, which took down much of the state’s power grid. Pets were also among the casualties.

  • Six dogs, one of which was dead, were discovered abandoned outside an auto shop in Houston, where temperatures had dropped below freezing. According to local news KHOU, authorities responded to a call and found five dogs still alive outside the Texas auto shop — but no sign of the pets’ owners. The temperature outside was 18 degrees when the surviving dogs were rescued. A sixth dog was found dead, partially covered in the snow.
  • In Harris County, a dog owner was arrested after leaving eight dogs outside in freezing temperatures for days with no shelter access. The dogs were discovered after a report was made to the Harris County Animal Cruelty Taskforce.
  • In Grapeland, local police responded to a home after a tip came in about possible animal cruelty. When they arrived, they found four horses, four living dogs, and one dog that had already frozen to death. The dead dog was found in a wire cage in the backyard. The four living dogs were found chained outside, covered in ice without shelter.

This is Jetson when there’s snow outside. (Credit: Media Relations Director Melody Lanier)

What are Some Tips for Protecting Pets in the Cold?

Here are some basic tips for keeping pets safe during winter weather:

  • Bring pets indoors when the temperature drops. That’s the best place for them.
  • While many cities cannot accommodate pets in warming shelters, some make arrangements to make sure furry and feathered family members have accommodations at the warming stations.
  • Avoid shaving your pet’s fur during the winter months.
  • Pets can get frostbite and hypothermia. Bundle up dogs in a sweater or put booties on their paws when going outside in cold weather. Wipe them down if they get wet.
  • Avoid antifreeze and other chemicals used to melt ice, as they are toxic to pets.
  • If you have outside pets, such as horses or goats, make sure they have access to a barn or shelter. Make sure they have access to unfrozen water at all times and feed them more forage during extreme cold.

Huck and Gus are cozy in front of the fire. (Credit: VS Attorney Letty Martinez)

What Should You Do If You See a Pet Left Out in the Cold?

If you see a pet left in the cold or other extreme conditions without food or shelter, contact your local law enforcement or animal control agency. For non-emergency situations, complaints may also be filed online through the SPCA of Texas website.

Facing Animal Abuse Allegations?

Leaving a dog outside in the frigid temperatures will definitely land you in the doghouse – and quite possibly, behind bars. If you or a loved one is facing an animal cruelty charge, it’s imperative to speak to an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. While it is illegal to leave pets outside in snow or cold in many situations, it doesn’t always cross the line to animal cruelty. Call 817-203-2220 for a free consultation with a member of our team.

The post Is it Illegal to Leave Your Dog Outside in Snow or Cold in Texas? appeared first on Varghese Summersett PLLC.

Varghese Summersett

The Coronavirus pandemic has changed how we work, socialize, learn — and even how we punish certain crimes in Texas.

On March 13, 2020, Governor Abbott issued a disaster declaration certifying that Coronavirus poses an imminent threat of disaster for all counties in the State of Texas. In doing so, he triggered the Texas Penal Code’s disaster enhancement provision, resulting in increased punishment range for a select number of offenses. In other words, people who commit certain crimes during COVID are likely to face harsher punishment. This article will outline the consequences of committing an offense during a COVID disaster declaration in Texas.

What Happens During a COVID Disaster Declaration?

When Gov. Abbott issued the COVID Disaster Declaration, he gave the government power to enact policies that ordinarily would not be permitted in an effort to aid local governments in the fight against the virus. Governor Abbott’s disaster declaration resulted in Executive Orders requiring social distancing, mask mandates, and business closures, among other things. The disaster declaration also triggered Texas Penal Code 12.50 which elevates the punishment for certain crimes during a disaster declaration.

What Texas Law Increases Punishment During Disaster Declarations?

Texas Penal Code 12.50 – “Penalty if Offense Committed in Disaster Area or Evacuated Area” – is the statute that increases punishment for a handful of offenses by one level if it is shown that the offense was committed in an area that was, at the time:

  • Subject to a declaration of a state of disaster made by:
    • the president of the United States under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. Section 5121 et seq.);
    • the governor under Section 418.014, Government Code; or
    • the presiding officer of the governing body of a political subdivision under Section 418.18, Government Code.

What Offenses are Subject to Disaster Enhancements?

The following offenses are subject to a punishment enhancement as a result of Governor Abbott’s COVID disaster declaration:

How Long does a Disaster Declaration Last?

Under Texas law, these disaster declarations expire after 30 days unless renewed, but Governor Abbott has continuously renewed the disaster declaration since March 13 in a continued fight against Coronavirus.

How Does the COVID Disaster Enhancement Work? 

Typically, the disaster enhancement increases the punishment range one category or degree. The only exceptions are Class A misdemeanors and first-degree felonies.

The following examples illustrate how the enhancement works:

  • A Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,000, is punished as a Class A misdemeanor by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $4,000.
  • A State Jail felony, punishable by six months to two years in state jail and a fine of up to $10,000, is now punished as a third-degree felony by two to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
  • A third-degree felony, punishable by two to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000, is now punishable as a second-degree felony by two to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.
  • A second-degree felony, punishable by two to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000, is now punishable as a first-degree felony by five to 99 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Exceptions:

  •  Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail, is now punishable by 180 days to one year in jail.
  • A first-degree felony, punishable five to ninety-nine years in prison, remains the same.

Can a Defendant Face Multiple Enhancements?

Defendants may be subject to multiple enhancements with regards to a single offense depending on the unique facts of his case. For example, an offense could be enhanced under Texas Penal Code § 12.42 if the defendant is a habitual offender and under Texas Penal Code § 12.50 if the offense is committed in a designated disaster area. Multiple enhancements may be applied to a single offense to severely increase the defendant’s punishment range. The following example illustrates how enhancements are stacked:

Texas Penal Code § 31.03: Theft

An offense under Texas Penal Code § 31.03(e)(3) is a Class A misdemeanor if the value of the property stolen is $750 or more but less than $2,500.

  • Except as provided by Texas Penal Code § 31.03(e)(4)(D), an offense under this section is a State Jail Felony if the value of the property stolen is less than $2,500 and the defendant has been previously convicted two or more times of any grade of theft
  • The offense is increased to a third-degree felony if it is shown on the trial of the offense that during the commission of the offense, the actor intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly used a shielding or deactivation instrument to prevent or attempt to prevent detection of the offense by a retail theft detector under Texas Penal Code § 31.03(f)(5)(C).
  • The offense is increased to a second-degree felony if it is shown at trial of the offense that the offense was committed in an area that was, at the time of the offense subject to a state disaster declaration made by the presiding officer of the governing body of a political subdivision under Section 418.108, Government Code under Texas Penal Code § 12.50(a)(1)(B).

In the above example, the initial charge was theft of an item valued between $750 to $2,500, a Class A misdemeanor –  an offense that is typically punishable by up to one year in jail, up to a $4,000 fine, or both. As a result of stacked enhancements, the defendant would now face a second-degree felony which is punishable by two to 20 years in prison, up to a $10,000 fine, or both.

Can All Enhancements be Stacked?  

There is a difference between enhanced offenses and enhanced punishment, which may result in situations where enhancements cannot be stacked against a defendant. If a statute says “punishment for the offense” is increased, then the range of punishment applicable to the primary offense increases; it does not increase the severity or grade of the primary offense.  Similar to that of repeat and habitual offender enhancements, the disaster declaration enhancement increases the punishment of the offense, not the degree of the primary offense.

In Henderson v. State, the defendant was arrested for Possession of Marijuana, 4oz to 5lbs, a state jail felony which is punishable by 180 days to two years in prison, up to a $10,000 fine, or both. Henderson v. State, 582 S.W.3d 349, 350 (Tex. App. 2018). Because the defendant exhibited a deadly weapon during the commission of the crime, his punishment range was increased to that of a third-degree felony.  Furthermore, under repeat and habitual offender laws, a defendant will face a second-degree punishment range if the defendant has previously been convicted of a felony other than a state jail felony. Here, despite two separate enhancements, the highest level of punishment range that the defendant faced was a second-degree felony because the primary offense remained the same, a state jail felony.

Now let’s assume that Henderson was arrested for a state jail felony theft offense, exhibited a deadly weapon during the commission of the offense, and had previously been convicted of a felony other than a state jail felony. Under this fact pattern Henderson would still be looking at a state jail felony conviction while facing a second-degree punishment range. Well, what if Henderson had committed the offense in a declared disaster area? The disaster enhancement increases the punishment range to that of the prescribed higher category of offense, in this case it would be a third-degree felony. So, just like the deadly weapon enhancement, a disaster enhancement would not have an impact on the punishment range Henderson faces because the repeat offender enhancement subjected him to a second-degree punishment range. This further illustrates how certain enhancements cannot be stacked against a defendant.

What Should You Do if Facing Disaster Declaration Enhancements?

Enhancements can have a major impact on sentences, especially if faced with multiple enhancements that can be stacked against a defendant. Despite this, however, enhancements can be waived by the prosecutor or argued against, given the specific details of the case and the legislature’s intent behind the law. If you or a loved one is facing an enhanced charge stemming from a COVID disaster declaration, it is important to contract an experienced defense attorney right away.

The post COVID Disaster Declaration Continues to Increase Punishment for Certain Crimes appeared first on Varghese Summersett PLLC.

Varghese Summersett

One of the highlights of this year’s big game was undoubtedly the Super Bowl streaker.

With 5:03 left in the fourth quarter, a man wearing a bright pink thong leotard and skintight shorts (which he later dropped) sprinted onto the field. The game came to a standstill as the streaker dashed past the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buckaneers as they lined up for a play. He used a spin move to evade a security guard before making a beeline for the goal line, where he was ultimately brought down in the end zone by a squad of officers.

Many joked on social media that he made more progress on the field than the Chiefs had all evening.

So what will happen to the man who bared his backside in SuperBowl LV in Tampa, Florida? And what charges would he face if he were to pull that prank in Texas?

Punishments for fans who streak during sporting events can vary from a slap on the wrist to jail time. The punishment depends on what laws were violated in the state in which the streaking occurred. At a minimum, streakers can probably count on an overnight stay in jail and a lifetime ban from the venue.

According to USA Today, the Super Bowl LV streaker — identified as 31-year-old Yuri Andrade — is facing a misdemeanor trespassing charge for running on the field at Raymond James Stadium. He was released from jail Monday morning after posting a $500 cash bond.

If he had pulled the prank in Texas, he likely would have been arrested for criminal trespass or disorderly conduct. Criminal trespass is a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a maximum $2,000 fine. Disorderly conduct is generally a Class C misdemeanor, which is a ticket punishable by a maximum $500 fine.

And while streaking at a sporting event is definitely against the law, many pranksters believe the reward (notoriety, advertising, stories to tell your friends) outweighs the risks of any legal hurdle they may have to jump over after the fact.

Kevin Harlan’s call of the Super Bowl Streaker has gone viral.

The post Super Bowl Streakers: What Punishments Do Pranksters Face? appeared first on Varghese Summersett PLLC.

Varghese Summersett

More than 200 people have been charged by federal prosecutors in connection with the January 6, 2021, breach at the U.S. Capitol, which left five people dead and caused millions of dollars in damages. Some defendants have been accused of extremely serious charges such as assaulting a federal officer, while others are charged with the lesser offense of entering a protected building. Here’s a look at the charges and punishments stemming from the riot and insurrection in Washington, DC.

What happened at the Capitol?

On January 6, 2021, thousands of protesters surrounded the U.S. Capitol to contest Congress’ proceedings to certify the presidential election. Some members of the crowd went past police barriers and entered the Capitol. Some were armed, some vandalized government property, others were simply present. The Department of Justice is aggressively pursuing individuals who were present on Capitol grounds during the protest.

Who is conducting the investigation?

The FBI is working closely with the United States Attorney’s Office and the Department of Justice’s National Security Division’s Counterterrorism Section. Federal law enforcement officials announced that they are treating the investigation into the riot “like an international counter-terrorism investigation.”

What charges do the Capitol rioters face?

Many capitol riot charges are ones you might expect — disorderly conduct, trespass, destruction of property, and assault. However, there are also a number of unique, albeit, serious charges, given that the riot took place at the U.S. Capitol, was meant to disrupt official government business, and is being treated as an international counter-terrorism investigation.

Charges that have been filed by the Department of Justice against Capitol rioters include:

  • 18 USC 1752(a)(1) – Knowing Entering or Remaining in any Restricted Building or Ground Without Lawful Authority
  • 18 USC 1752(c)(2) – Knowingly Engaging in Disorderly or Disruptive Conduct in any Restricted Building or Ground
  • 18 USC 111 – Assaulting a Federal Officer
  • 18 USC 231(a)(3) – Obstructing Law Enforcement Engaged in Official Duties Incident to Civil Disorder
  • 18 USC 131 – Destruction of Government Property over $1,000
  • 40 USC 5104(e)(2) – Violent Entry and Disorderly Conduct.

Other charges being filed include:

  • Conspiracy
  • Conspiracy to impede or injure an officer
  • Theft of public money, property, or records
  • Obstructing, influencing, or impeding any official proceeding, or attempting to do so
  • Carrying a firearm without a license
  • Carrying or having readily accessible to any individual on the grounds or in any of the Capitol Buildings a firearm, a dangerous weapon, explosives, or an incendiary device
  • Possession of unregistered ammunition
  • Possession of large capacity ammunition feeding device (magazine)
  • Knowingly and willfully transmitting in interstate or foreign commerce communications containing threats to injure the person of another.

What are the possible punishments for Capitol rioters?

The punishment ranges vary widely depending on the charge. Not to mention, individuals also face penalties specific to their own circumstances.

One recent indictment charges a Burleson, Texas, man and another man from Hawaii with six separate violations, including conspiracy, theft of government property, destruction of government property, and obstruction of an official proceeding. If convicted, the men each face a maximum sentence of 20 years imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000.

The charge for unlawfully entering a restricted building or grounds exemplifies how punishment ranges can vary dramatically. Those charged only with entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority may face up to one year imprisonment and $100,000 fine. However, if the person carried or used a deadly or dangerous weapon while committing the offense, or the offense resulted in significant bodily injury, then the person could face up to 10 years in prison and be fined up to $250,000.

Many of the capitol rioters are being charged with Violent Entry and Disorderly Conduct on Capitol Grounds which is defined as “uttering loud, threatening, or abusive language, or engaging in disorderly or disruptive conduct, at any place in the Grounds or in any of the Capitol Buildings with the intent to impede, disrupt, or disturb the orderly conduct of a session of Congress or either House of Congress, or the orderly conduct in that building of a hearing before, or any deliberations of, a committee of Congress or either House of Congress.”

The maximum punishment for such conduct is six months imprisonment and a $5,000 fine. However, any person charged with such conduct while also carrying or having readily available a firearm, dangerous weapon, or explosive will face a maximum punishment of five years imprisonment and $250,000 fine.

Were any Texans charged in connection with the Capitol riots?

At least a dozen Texans have been charged in connection with the Capitol riots, including residents of Burleson, Colleyville, Grapevine, Frisco, and Westlake. Among the group from the Metroplex is a real estate agent who is facing charges of entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds without lawful authority and disorderly conduct on Capitol Grounds.  She may also face state licensing disciplinary actions.

Facing Capitol Riot Charges? Contact Us

If your loved one is facing any charges associated with the Capitol riot, it’s imperative that you contact an experienced defense attorney as soon as possible. The government is taking this investigation very seriously. Our team of attorneys has extensive experience defending federal criminal charges. Call today for a complimentary strategy session with a member of our team.

The post What Federal Criminal Charges Do the Capitol Rioters Face? appeared first on Varghese Summersett PLLC.

Varghese Summersett

Last week, two of our attorneys tried a case in federal court in front a jury.

Not only that, the trial had multiple defendants.

Yes, a jury trial with three defendants during a pandemic.

It happened.

“The trial marked the first time since the pandemic that jurors have been called to hear a federal case with multiple defendants in North Texas,” said Defense Attorney Benson Varghese, who tried the case with partner Christy Jack. “It was truly a trial without precedent – everything from jury selection to jury deliberation was different.”

Jack said it felt fantastic to be back in front of a jury again – mask and all.

“It was so surreal to be arguing in front of a masked jury,” she said. “But there’s nothing I love more than being in trial. There’s no substitute for being live and in person.”

The trial was held in U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor’s court, which is located in the Eldon B. Mahon Courthouse in downtown Fort Worth. Judge O’Connor put numerous safeguards in place to allow for social distancing in the courtroom, even with three defendants. The defendants on trial included a doctor and two pharmacists who were prosecuted in connection with an opioid pill mill.

Everyone was required to wear masks. The 12 jurors were socially distanced, with some seated in the jury box and others seated in chairs in front of the jury box. Each defendant was seated at a separate table with his or her attorneys, which were six feet apart from the other tables.

Jack joked that the prosecution table was perilously close to the lectern, however.

“The only hiccup came when, in the midst of some animated cross-examination, I put my hand on the government’s notebook on their table,” Jack said. “When I apologized, I instinctively touched the prosecutor’s shoulder. Unfortunately, I doubled down on my mistake. My family has dubbed me the worst social distancer ever.”

Most people seemed to be satisfied with the protections in place. During jury selection, one prospective juror expressed concern about potentially exposing his infant to COVID – and the long daily commute to the courthouse. He was excused. (Unlike state court where jurors come from one county,  jurors for federal court come from the federal division – which in this case was made up of eight different counties.)

Spectators were also allowed in the courtroom during the four-day trial, as long as they wore masks. Most of the court watchers were other attorneys who are representing other defendants indicted in the case. The case involves 49 co-defendants.

“The rest of the attorneys came to see the real life logistics of trying a case before a jury in the midst of a pandemic,” Jack said.

Varghese and Jack said friends and family were surprised to learn that they were trying a case in federal court. Most people assumed that jury trials were not happening anywhere in Texas.

That’s true in state court, where in-person jury trials are prohibited by the Office of Court Administration until at least April 1 unless special permission has been granted. The federal system, however, has continued to operate, adjusting accordingly to the rise and fall of COVID-19 cases and the challenges that come with it.

For example, the attorneys said jury deliberations were delayed on the final day of trial because a juror got called to get vaccinated.

“That’s a first — a trial schedule revolving around COVID vaccinations,” Varghese said. “Definitely, it’s a sign of these times.”

The post Trying a Multi-Defendant Federal Jury Trial During the Pandemic appeared first on Varghese Summersett PLLC.

Varghese Summersett

FORT WORTH, TX – Police arrested a man they believe stabbed two other men at a bar in south Fort Worth at about midnight on Saturday, the Star-Telegram reports.

At approximately 12:40 a.m, police were alerted to a fight at the La Botica Bar in the 3700 block of Hemphill Street which had resulted in two stabbings. They apparently already had a suspect in custody at the time, a 27-year-old man they had arrested a short distance from the bar on South Adams Street. The suspect was booked into jail several hours later, and faces charges of aggravated assault causing serious bodily injury and evading arrest with a vehicle.

The man was one of 11 people booked on assault charges on Saturday, January 23, 2021.

What legal defenses can a Fort Worth assault lawyer raise?

Just because you have been arrested and charged, does not mean you are guilty of assault. There are numerous criminal defenses that could lead to your actual innocence of this offense: self-defense, defense of others, defense of property, duress, and necessity, to name a few.  Consult with our assault lawyers in Fort Worth to determine if the facts of your case meet the requirements for a legal defense.

The post News: Man arrested on assault charges following stabbing at bar in South Fort Worth appeared first on Varghese Summersett PLLC.

Varghese Summersett

FORT WORTH, TX – Police have arrested a man they believe robbed a bank in southwest Fort Worth earlier this month, according to a tweet from the Fort Worth Police Department’s official Twitter account.

CBS DFW reports that the robbery occurred at a First Convenience Bank inside the Kroger grocery store on Altamesa Boulevard on the afternoon of January 10. A man handed a bank teller a note that said he had a weapon and demanded cash. He ran away on foot after the teller complied.

The suspect was described as being six feet tall and aged 35-45 years old. Photos show him wearing a dark plaid shirt and what appears to be a hospital ID band.

Police took a suspect into custody on January 15. No additional information is available at this time.

A total of 28 people were booked into the Tarrant County Jail on charges of robbery the same week that the suspect was arrested.

Hire a Fort Worth Robbery Attorney to Handle Your Case

Not only could a robbery conviction result in prison time and fines, but you could also lose the right to carry a firearm, vote or work in certain industries. Our Fort Worth robbery lawyers will exhaust all avenues to fight your robbery charge and obtain the most favorable outcome. Call today at (817) 203-2220 to schedule a free consultation or reach out online.

The post News: Fort Worth police arrest Arlington man for bank robbery appeared first on Varghese Summersett PLLC.

Varghese Summersett
Pin on Pinterest

FORT WORTH – Benson Varghese, managing partner of Varghese Summersett, is the new president of the Tarrant County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (TCCDLA). Varghese took helm on January 1, 2021.

Varghese was elected on December 11 during the bar association’s virtual monthly luncheon in Fort Worth. He was among 12 criminal defense attorneys named to the 2021 TCCDLA Executive Board.

“I am honored to have been selected by the defense bar to serve in this capacity,” Varghese said. “We have a lot planned for 2021 and I look forward to working with the Board to build on past initiatives and implement new ones. We are focused on equipping our members with the resources they need to be the most zealous advocates, particularly in light of how the pandemic has changed the legal landscape.”

The Tarrant County Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Association is a non-profit association of lawyers who practice criminal defense in Tarrant County. The organization’s focus is to protect citizen’s Constitutional rights, keep its members updated on the latest developments in criminal law, and educate the public about the need for strict adherence to ethical standards in the criminal justice system.

The organization’s membership is overseen by officers and directors who are elected annually. The outgoing president, Gary Smart, officially passed the torch on New Year’s Day to the new executive board:

  • President, Benson Varghese
  • President Elect, Harold Johnson
  • 1st Vice President, Emily LaChance
  • Vice President, Leigh Davis
  • Treasurer, William Biggs
  • Secretary, Miles Brissette
  • Membership, Monroe Solomon
  • Director, Gary Smart
  • Director, Rose Anna Salinas
  • Director, Dewayne Huston
  • Director, Elizabeth Cortright
  • Director, Brad Shaw

Benson Varghese is the founder and managing partner of Varghese Summersett PLLC,  one of the largest and fastest growing criminal defense firms in Tarrant County.  A former prosecutor, Varghese has handled thousands of state and federal criminal cases and taken more than 100 to jury trial. He is a Fellow of the Texas Bar Foundation and a Member of the College of the State Bar of Texas, honors reserved for few Texas attorneys. He also guided his firm to be included in Inc. 5000, an exclusive ranking of America’s fastest-growing private companies. Varghese has been named an Entrepreneur of Excellence, a Minority Leader in Business, a Top Attorney, and a Super Lawyer Rising Star, among numerous other accolades. In May 2019, he was named the Outstanding Young Lawyer of Tarrant County.

Learn more about Benson Varghese on the firm’s website, www.versustexas.com.