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Varghese Summersett

By now, you’ve probably heard about the car theft TikTok trend that’s sweeping the nation. Teenagers and young adults are using USB cables to hotwire Kia and Hyundai vehicles and then taking them on a joyride – sometimes even intentionally crashing the vehicles.

The motive behind the trend appears to be “street cred,” but people who are participating in the social media challenge are risking a lot more than just their reputation.

In Texas, stealing a car is generally a felony that can result in jail time, steep fines, and a criminal record. If someone is injured or killed as a result of car theft, the charges and penalties can be even more serious and life-altering. In this article, we are going to discuss the trend and the possible criminal consequences associated with it in Texas.

What is the car theft TikTok trend?

The car theft TikTok trend – which is also referred to as “KIA Boys” or the “Kia Challenge” – is being blamed for a spike in thefts of Kia and Hyundai vehicles across the country, including in North Texas. The challenge involves using a USB cable to hotwire the car and then driving it around before abandoning it or intentionally crashing it. The “joyride” is often filmed and posted on TikTok, YouTube or other social media platforms.

The trend started in 2021 in Milwaukee and began picking up steam nationwide in the late spring and summer of this year. Certain Kia and Hyundai model vehicles are being targeted because they have a keyless ignition system that can be fooled by a USB cable.

What kind of charges could you face if you are arrested in the car theft TikTok challenge in Texas?

There are various charges in Texas that people who participate in this challenge could face, depending on the specific facts and circumstances. Whether the vehicle was damaged and if anyone was injured or killed in the commission will factor heavily into what charges are filed. Some of the potential charges include:

  • Unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, also known as “joyriding;”
  • Vehicle theft;
  • Evading arrest;
  • Manslaughter.

We are going to take a look at the crime and punishment for these charges below. If you are under investigation for any of these offenses or have been arrested stemming from the car theft TikTok challenge, you will need a skilled criminal defense attorney to defend you.

What is unauthorized use of a motor vehicle in Texas?

Unauthorized use of a motor vehicle (UUMV) in Texas is also sometimes referred to as joyriding. This charge would apply to the car theft TikTok trend if the person who took the vehicle later returned it.

Under Texas law, a person commits unauthorized use of a motor vehicle if he or she intentionally or knowingly operates a vehicle without the owner’s consent. UUMV is a state jail felony in Texas, which is punishable by 6 months to 2 years in a state jail facility and up to a $10,000 fine.

What is vehicle theft in Texas?

In Texas, vehicle theft, or auto theft, falls under the general theft statute, which means a person commits this offense if he or she takes a vehicle without the owner’s permission and without legal justification and has no intention of giving it back.

The classification and penalty for auto theft depends on the value of the vehicle. For example, if the car was valued between $2500 and $30,000 it would be a state jail felony punishable by 6 months to 2 years in a state jail facility and a maximum $10,000 fine.

The table below will break down the classifications and penalty ranges based on values.

Amount Offense ClassificationsPenalty
under $100Class C Misdemeanor$500 fine
100750Class B MisdemeanorUp to 180 days in jail
7502500Class A MisdemeanorUp to 1 year in jail
250030000State Jail Felony180 days - 2 years state jail
30000150000Third Degree Felony2-10 years in prison
150000300000Second Degree Felony2-20 years in prison
300000+First Degree Felony5-99 years or life

The difference between vehicle theft and UUMV is that when a person commits UUMV, they intend on returning the vehicle. When a person commits auto theft, they have no intention of returning the vehicle.

What is evading arrest in Texas?

In Texas, a person commits evading arrest in a vehicle if he or she intentionally flees a law enforcement officer who is attempting to detain or arrest them. So if a person is participating in the car theft TikTok challenge and tries to run from the law, he or she could be charged with evading arrest, as well as vehicle theft.

Evading arrest in a vehicle is a state jail felony, punishable by 6 months to 2 years in a state jail facility and a maximum $10,000 fine.

What is manslaughter in Texas?

Manslaughter is an extremely serious charge in Texas that occurs when someone recklessly causes another person’s death. We often see this charge stemming from accidents; there was no intent to kill anyone but it occurred as the result of reckless behavior.

For example, if you steal a car as part of the Kia TikTok trend and then fatally strike a pedestrian in a crosswalk, that could constitute manslaughter.

Manslaughter is a second-degree felony punishable by 2 to 20 years in prison and a maximum $10,000 fine.

Arrested in the car theft TikTok trend?

Many people who have been arrested in connection with the car theft TikTok trend are juveniles or young adults. In Texas, a person is considered a juvenile if they are under the age of 17. Juveniles are handled differently than adults by the justice system so it’s important to have an attorney who is skilled in juvenile law if you or a loved one is a minor. One of our partners at Varghese Summersett is board certified in juvenile law and has extensive experience handling these types of cases.

Many young people are arrested for mistakes and bad decisions that stem from peer pressure, impulsivity, or lack of maturity. Unfortunately, an arrest for theft can have life-altering consequences that can affect your ability to get a job, housing or financial aid for college.

If you or a loved one has been arrested in connection with the car theft TikTok trend, call us today at 817-203-2220 for a free consultation with an experienced North Texas criminal defense attorney. We will work tirelessly to resolve your case in a manner that will not have a lasting negative impact on your future. We serve Fort Worth, Dallas, and the surrounding areas.

Varghese Summersett

After someone is convicted in federal court – either by pleading guilty or by a trial – the federal sentencing process begins. Unlike state court, a judge is the only entity that can hand down a sentence in federal court. To arrive at a fair and just punishment, the federal judge relies heavily on something called a “Presentence Report,” or PSR. In this article, we are going to explain the PSR, and how you can prepare for the federal presentence interview, which is a critical part of the sentencing process.

What is a federal presentence report (PSR)?

A Presentence Report, or PSR, is an extremely important document in the federal sentencing process. It is a voluminous report that is generated by the United States Federal Probation Office, which contains a wealth of information about you – including the severity of your crime, criminal history, family background, employment history, mental and physical health, community ties, etc.

One of the primary purposes of the PSR is to provide the judge with recommended sentencing range. While the recommended guideline is not mandatory for the judge to follow, it’s a good starting point. Because federal judges rely heavily on a PSR in coming to a sentencing decision, it’s extremely important to put your best foot forward during your federal presentence interview with the probation officer.

It’s also important to make sure all the information contained in the PSR is accurate. The report is also used by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to help classify where a defendant should be housed and it will follow you through your time in federal custody if you are given prison time.

Who prepares a federal presentence report?

The PSR is prepared by a Federal Probation Officer (FPO), who will gather a plethora of information from a variety of sources, including:

  • the defendant,
  • the victim(s),
  • family members,
  • law enforcement,
  • prosecutors,
  • court documents and records, and
  • other interviews.

It’s important to note that the federal probation officer will obtain much of his or her information through an in-person or Zoom interview with you, as well as other relevant parties.

What is a federal presentence investigation interview?

Federal Presentence InterviewA presentence investigation interview is a formal question and answer session between a federal defendant and a federal probation officer. The purpose of the interview is to gather information for the court to consider as it relates to sentencing.

The interview usually takes place in jail or at the U.S. Probation Office. In recent times, due to the pandemic, interviews have also occurred through Zoom. The interview generally takes 90 minutes to a few hours. Afterward, the probation officer may spend several weeks preparing the report for the United State District Court Judge, who will use it to help him or her decide the appropriate sentence. It is impossible to overemphasize how important it is to take the interview seriously and to prepare appropriately.

How can you prepare for a federal presentence interview?

The federal presentence interview is a crucial part of the sentencing process, and it’s extremely important to be prepared. This is not the time to wing it. Your life and liberty are, quite literally, on the line.

The most important thing you can do is work with an experienced federal criminal defense attorney who has guided dozens of clients through pre-sentence investigation interviews. He or she will make sure you are adequately prepared and help you navigate the process.

The last thing you want is for an inexperienced attorney to show up at the presentence investigation interview without having prepped you – or even worse, not showing up for the interview at all and letting the probation officer handle the interview on their own without any oversight from a skilled defense attorney.

The federal attorneys at Varghese Summersett will spend the time necessary to make sure you’re prepared for your presentence investigation interview so you will not be caught off guard and can answer the questions in a way that is most favorable to you. We also help you identify ways to get your story out and use it to your advantage.

For example, hardships you endured as a child, such as neglect, abuse, or early exposure to drugs are all examples of things that we could use to help convince the judge that a low-end sentence is more appropriate than the higher sentence the government is pushing for or that probation recommends. That’s the kind of information that needs to make it into your PSR.

Any information contained in a PSR is considered by the judge to be credible and reliable. That’s why it’s important to work with your attorney and have an overarching mitigation strategy as you go into the federal presentence interview.

When you and your attorney are preparing for your federal presentence interview, it’s important to be brutally honest about all aspects of your life and crime. You want to be an open book about your past and especially things that may have adversely affected you or put you at a disadvantage.

We have had clients confide in us about things that they’ve never revealed to anyone else. While it’s not easy, this is the type of information that could make a very big impact on your potential sentence.

Where does the PSR interview take place?

If you are not in custody, the interview will take place at the United States Probation Office. You should arrive on time and dress as though you were going to church or a job interview. If you are not in custody, the interview will be conducted inside the jail. You will likely be in jail scrubs but should be clean and have a tidy appearance.

Regardless of the location, you should be polite and open to answering questions honestly and without reservation. Your attorney should have prepared you for the questions, boundaries, and any possible pitfalls.

What can you do before a federal presentence interview to better your position?

If you are fortunate enough to be out of custody, your actions need to show that you understand what you did was wrong (especially if this was a plea, as opposed to a trial). The federal probation officer will be looking for signs that you have taken responsibility for your actions and are working to improve yourself. Some things you can do before your federal presentence interview include:

  • Get a job or go back to school;
  • Volunteer in the community;
  • Attend support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or anger management classes.

If you are in custody, you should participate in as many programs as possible while incarcerated to show that you are trying to better yourself and learn from your actions or mistakes. These could include:

  • GED classes
  • Anger management
  • Substance abuse treatment
  • Parenting classes
  • Vocational training
  • Any other type of self-improvement program offered by the Bureau of Prisons.

If anyone was victimized by your actions, it’s important to try and make amends if possible. Express how your life is going to be different going forward. For example, if you have a drug problem, express that you plan on qualifying for the Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), which can shave time off your sentence.

It’s important to understand that one mistake – or even a series of mistakes – does not define you. You do, however, need to change the narrative through your actions. Your actions say a lot about your character and can be far more powerful than anything you speak verbally.

What areas are covered during the federal presentence interview?

The probation officer will ask questions that fall into a number of broad categories. The officer will probably start off by asking your basic biographical information, such as your name, age, where you grew up, and who raised you. The officer will ask also questions about your educational and social background, including marital history and military experience.

We prepare our clients for this line of questioning by encouraging them to talk about hardships they have endured. We want clients to think outside the box. For example, we had a client who had their sentence reduced by 48 months – by the toughest federal judge in the Northern District of Texas – after making sure they told the officer about being wrongfully deported from the country.

Likewise, we want our clients to talk about the good things they have going for them, as well. For example, if you have professional training, specialized skills, or a history of giving back, be sure to discuss with your attorney the best way to bring up all of your positive attributes during the interview.

Before the officer even starts the interview, he or she will already have a summary of the offense and any relevant conduct. It’s important to understand that the officer’s information may have been provided by the prosecutor or lead agent, or statements by other individuals – even co-conspirators – who have an incentive to make you out to be the bad guy. There are parts of the pre-sentence report that will hurt you, which is why it’s crucial to take every opportunity to bring up things that can help you.

The probation officer will also ask about any past drug use – in detail. It is important to fully disclose the extent of your drug history and express an interest in treatment and rehabilitation – if that is something you want.

Before the conclusion of the federal presentence interview, we encourage our clients to seize the opportunity to express genuine remorse – especially if there were victims, either directly or indirectly. For example, someone who uses drugs – even if the drugs were never shared or distributed – might feel bad that their actions took them away from their family and, in that sense, their family is victim to their decisions and addiction.

Can I see the questions before the interview?

You will have an opportunity to view the federal presentence interview form prior to the interview. One strategy we often employ is to ask our clients to complete the interview forms before the actual interview and submit it to the probation officer. This makes it more likely that the probation officer will cut and paste your prepared answers into their form. This gives you a great chance to shape the narrative – particularly as to your background.

Does everything in the PSR come from my interview with the federal probation officer?

No, it’s important to point out that there will be quite a bit of information contained in the PSR that doesn’t come from the interview. For example, the officer won’t ask you anything about your criminal history – but their investigation into your criminal history will be included in the report. Each past offense will be summarized, with any applicable criminal history points assigned, and a total criminal history level will be calculated.

The same goes for the offense conduct. We generally advise our clients to “stand on the factual resume” which means they agree that the factual resume that was the basis for the plea is still true but they are not commenting further. Again, this is why it is important to have an experienced federal criminal attorney prepare you.

Likewise, there will also be medical, financial, and education information included that comes from official records. Before the end of your interview, the probation officer will ask you to sign release forms so he or she can obtain this information. The federal presentence interview is a huge part of the PSR, but it doesn’t account for everything in the report.

How do the probation officers come up with recommended guidelines?

The presentence report will summarize the offense conduct to come up with a base offense level. The base offense level may have further enhancements – which are based on specific facts – that could increase the offense level.

For example, if guns were present in a drug case, that would be a two-level increase in the offense level. There are also things that could reduce the base offense level. For example, accepting responsibility could result in a three-level reduction in the base level offense.

The effective offense level will be the offense level remaining after all the enhancements or reductions are considered. (Lying to a probation officer could result in an obstruction of justice enhancement; yet another reason to be truthful during the interview.)

Facing federal sentencing?

A federal presentence interview can be daunting but an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer can help you through the process and make sure you are as prepared as possible. After all, this is probably the most important interview of your life.

Our team of experienced federal defense attorneys have guided dozens of people through this process and we can help you, too. If you are under investigation or have been charged with a federal crime, call us today at 817-203-2220 for a free consultation. We have offices in Dallas and Fort Worth and serve the Northern and Eastern Districts of Texas.

Still have questions about federal sentencing?

Please watch this video by Board Certified Criminal defense Attorney Benson Varghese:

Varghese Summersett

If you have been arrested for a federal crime, you will be asked to enter an initial plea of “guilty” or “not guilty” very early in the process. This can be confusing and overwhelming, especially if this is your first time in the federal justice system. In this article, we are going to explain when you enter a federal plea and what happens during that proceeding, which is referred to as an arraignment or re-arraignment.

Please also take a moment to watch the informative videos by Board Certified Criminal Defense Attorney Benson Varghese, who provides valuable information about the criminal process in the federal system.

When do you enter a federal plea?

Shortly after you are arrested for a federal offense, you will have an initial appearance before a magistrate who will inform you of your charges and advise you or your rights – including your right to an attorney, right to a preliminary and detention hearing; and right to remain silent.

If you already have an attorney at the initial appearance, it’s possible that you could also be arraigned at that time and asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If you do not have an attorney, the arraignment will be scheduled later but still very quickly after your arrest.

During the arraignment, the judge will read the criminal complaint or indictment and ask you to enter a plea of “guilty” or “not guilty.” During a federal plea proceeding, the judge is required to make sure you:

1) understand your rights;

2) understands the rights you are giving up;

3) are competent to proceed; and

4) are entering a plea voluntarily.

During the initial arraignment, most defendants enter a plea of “not guilty.” A “not guilty” plea is standard at this stage in the process, as the defendant needs time to receive and review the governments evidence and consult with their attorney at length before making a final decision on how to proceed or plead.

Why are federal pleas sometimes called re-arraignments?

After federal defendants review evidence, consult with attorneys, and negotiate with the government, they often decide to change their “not guilty” plea to “guilty” as part of a plea bargain to take advantage of any benefits offered by the government. To change their plea, another hearing will be held, which is often referred to as a “re-arraignment.”

At re-arraignments, the judge will often take guilty pleas from numerous defendants at the same time. This is because most of the plea colloquy is the same and, if the judge were to handle each defendant’s re-arraignment separately, it would tie up hours of the courts valuable time.

In the federal system, it’s important to understand that most cases do not end up in a jury trial where citizens listen to evidence and decide if someone is guilty or innocent. Most federal defendants plead guilty as part of a plea bargain with the government and then proceed to sentencing before a federal judge. This is a big difference between the federal system and the state system.

The federal plea colloquy:

A federal plea colloquy refers to the conversation between the presiding judge and a defendant during a federal plea proceeding in which the defendant enters a guilty plea. In order for the plea to be valid, the court must cover very specific areas to ensure that the plea is made intelligently, knowingly and voluntarily.

During a federal plea hearing, also commonly referred as as a re-arraignment, the judge will announce the parties – that is, the attorneys for the government and for the defense. The judge will also announce which defendants’ cases are being called for the plea. The judge will then go through the following federal plea colloquy with each defendant present:

  • Identity in a Federal Plea

The federal plea will begin with the judge verifying the identity of the defendant who intends to enter a plea.  The judge will ask their name on the record. The judge may ask the person to spell their name. At this time, the judge can correct names on the record if it is incorrect. The judge will then ask each defendant their age and how far they went in school.

  • Ability to Comprehend

After identity is established, the judge will ask if the defendant if he or she can understand English. If not, a translator on standby in the courtroom will be provided.  The judge will ask the defendant if he or she is under the influence of any narcotics or alcohol. If the person is on prescription drugs, the judge will ask if the medication affects their ability to understand what is going on. Similarly, the judge will ask the defendant if they are undergoing any substance abuse treatment or medical treatment that might affect their ability to understand the proceedings.

  • Disclosing a Magistrate’s Role

If a magistrate judge is taking the plea for a district judge, the magistrate will explain that the district judge will have to approve the report of the magistrate judge for the plea to be finalized. This is standard procedure and is nothing to be concerned about. It is very common in the federal system for magistrate judges to preside over federal plea proceedings.

  • Entering a Federal Plea Blind

As mentioned, most federal defendants end up pleading guilty as part of a plea agreement with the U.S. government. Unlike the state system, the defendant and prosecution do not reach an agreement on a specific sentence in exchange for a guilty plea. This is a very important caveat. In exchange for pleading guilty, the U.S. government might agree to dismiss some of the charges or will agree to recommend to the judge a sentencing range on the lower end, but there is no guarantees in the federal system.

This is because the judge – and only the judge – has the power to sentence a person in the federal system. Juries do not decide punishment in federal criminal trials. So, even if you were to go to trial, the jury would only decide guilt or innocence, they would not assess punishment. The sentence is entirely up to the judge.

So it’s important to understand that, even in cases where there is a plea agreement with the government, the judge has the final authority to accept or reject it.

  • Federal Criminal Plea Paperwork

When the preliminary questions are out of the way, the judge will move on to the actual plea paperwork. The judge will review the plea documents, which includes the plea agreement between the defendant and the government, as well as something called the “factual resume.” This document contains the facts that the defendant is agreeing to as a basis for the plea agreement. The judge will then ask if the defendant has gone over the paperwork with his or her attorney and if the documents contain both of their true and correct signatures.

  • Constitutional Rights

During a federal plea proceeding, the judge must advise the defendant of their constitutional rights. For example, if the defendant wants to enter a guilty plea and has not yet been indicted, the judge will advise the defendant that they have the right to force the government to secure an indictment through a grand jury. If the defendant is giving up that right (because they have already negotiated with the government) the judge will ask if the defendant if he or she understands that right but wishes to give it up.

The judge will also advise the defendant that they don’t have to enter a plea of guilty, and instead, could force the government to a jury trial. At trial, the government would have to prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant would have the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, to use the subpoena power of the court, and to choose to testify at trial. The judge then asks the defendant if he or she understands those rights and if voluntarily giving them up to enter the plea.

It’s important to note that defendants entering into a federal plea agreement also give up their right appeal – unless the sentence imposed is outside the statutory range or if there was some mistake in the mathematical calculations used to arrive at the sentence. The judge will also advise the defendant of that right.

  • Sentencing Warnings during a Federal Plea

As mentioned, there are no sentencing guarantees or promises in the federal system and the judge will make sure that the defendant understands that during the federal plea proceeding. The judge will confirm that, although the defendant should have talked to his or her attorney about the possible sentence a court might impose, no one – including the judge, prosecutor, defense, probation, or pre-trial services – could make any assurances as to what the actual sentence would be.

Once again, it is critically important to understand that federal defendants enter into a plea blindly as to what the actual sentence will be. In the federal system, the range of punishment can be extremely broad. For example one end of the spectrum could be five years, while the other end is effectively a life sentence.

After the judge ensures the defendant understands how the process works, the judge will inform the defendant that if they plead guilty, they will be found guilty but there will be an opportunity at (and before) sentencing for the defense to ask for leniency.

The judge will then ask questions to ensure the plea is voluntary – free from any threats or specific promises that induced the plea. The judge will also advise the defendant that there is no parole in the federal system.

  • The Federal Plea Itself

After the sentencing warnings, the judge will ask if the defendant if he or she wants the indictment read. Generally, this is waived. The judge will then call on the prosecutor to read the essential elements of the offense and the punishment range into the record.

After all of that plea colloquy – ensuring that the defendant understand the process,  the charge, the punishment range, the factual basis for the plea, how sentencing works, and the rights the defendant is giving up  – the judge will ask how the accused pleads.

  • After the Federal Plea

After a plea of guilty, the judge will order the defendant’s defense attorney to make contact with the U.S. Probation Office to set up a time for the defendant’s pre-sentence report interview. The judge will issue a scheduling order that will tell the parties when the pre-sentence report is due, as well as written objections and sentencing materials. The judge will also set a date for sentencing

Federal pleas can be – but rarely are – changed after a person pleads guilty. The person changing the plea should expect to lose any credit they would have gotten for acceptance of responsibility.

Can I watch a federal plea hearing?

Yes, federal courtrooms are public courtrooms. If you want to watch a federal plea hearing, it’s important to remember to leave all electronic devices in your car. Unless you are an attorney, you cannot take a phone, laptop or any other electronic device into most federal courthouses. You will have go through a metal detector, so dress accordingly. Loud talking, smoking or cursing will not be tolerated. You must also stand when a judge enters a courtroom, so it might be a good idea to brush up on courtroom etiquette. 

Facing a federal charge? Contact us

If you or a loved one is facing a federal charge in the Northern or Eastern Districts  of Texas, it’s imperative to be represented by a skilled and experienced federal defense attorney.  As you can see, the federal process is much different than the state process. Our team has vast experience handling various federal cases and will do everything in our power to achieve the most favorable result possible. Call 817-203-2220 for a free consultation with a federal criminal defense attorney to discuss your rights and strategies for a trial or a plea

Varghese Summersett

What happens at a federal plea or rearrangement hearing?

Most federal cases end up as pleas before the court. However a plea in federal court is very different than a plea in state court for a number of reasons. This is particularly true when compared with pleas in Texas.

At a plea in federal court, a judge will make sure the person entering the plea understands 1) their rights 2) the rights they are giving up 3) that they are competent to proceed and 4) that they are entering the plea voluntarily.

Why are federal pleas sometimes called rearraignments?

You will often hear a federal plea being referred to as a rearrangement. This is because the first plea at arraignment is generally a plea of not guilty so the Government has time to turn over all their evidence and the Defense has an opportunity to review all the evidence.

At rearrangement, or at a federal plea, the judge will often take a number of pleas at the same time. This is because most of the plea colloquy is the same.

Prepare to watch a federal plea hearing

As you prepare to go into federal court, if you are there to watch a plea, remember to leave everything in your car. Unless you are an attorney, you cannot take a phone or other electronic device into most federal courthouses. You will go through a metal detector. Try not to wear anything that’s metal. Even if you have shoes or a belt that would typically make it through a metal detector – expect to remove even those to get into a federal courthouse.

The federal plea colloquy

The judge will announce the parties – the attorneys for the government, and for the defense. The judge will also announce which cases (defendants) are being called for the plea.

Identity in a Federal Plea

The plea will begin with the judge making sure the person before them is the person who intends on entering the plea. The judge will ask their name on the record. The judge may ask the person the spell their name. If you were indicted or otherwise charged, the judge can correct your name or “true name” you on the record. The judge will then ask each defendant their age and how far they went in school.

Ability to Comprehend

The judge will ask if they can understand English and if not there will be a translator who is already sworn in that the judge will acknowledge on the record. The judge will ask if the person entering the plea is under the influence of any narcotics or alcohol. If the person is on prescription drugs, the judge will ask if the medication is affecting the ability to understand what is going on. Similarly, the judge will ask about any substance abuse treatment and medical treatment a person is going through to the extent that it might affect their ability to understand what is going on.

Disclosing a Magistrate’s Role

If a magistrate judge is taking the plea for a district judge, the magistrate will explain that the district judge will have to approve the report of the magistrate judge for the plea to be finalized.

Entering the Plea Blind

It is very important to understand that for almost all federal pleas, there is no agreement as to what the sentence will actually be. That is very different than state cases. There are a number of reasons for this. First, all sentencing in federal cases is done by the judge. There is no jury punishment in federal criminal cases. Second, even in rare cases where there is an 11(C)1(c) agreement, the judge has the final authority to accept or reject an agreement with the Government as to sentencing. Instead in the federal system, a person only knows the range of punishment they are pleading to – such as 10 years to life, or 5 years to 40 years.

Federal Criminal Plea Paperwork

With those preliminaries out of the way, the judge will move on to the actual plea. Plea paperwork will already have been submitted to the court prior to the plea. This includes the plea agreement as well as the factual resume (the facts the defendant is agreeing to as the basis for the plea.) The judge will ask if the defendant has gone over the paperwork with their attorney and if it is their signature on both documents.

Constitutional Rights

If the defendant has not been indicted yet, the judge will make sure the accused knows they have a right to force the Government to secure an indictment through a grand jury. If the defendant is giving up that right (because they have negotiated a better outcome) then the judge will ask if the person understanding that right, wishes to give it up.

The judge will ask of the person understands they don’t have to enter a plea of guilty and instead they could force the Government to a jury trial. At a trial the Government would have to prove each of the elements they set out with proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant would have the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, to use the subpoena power of the court, and to choose to testify at trial. The judge would make sure that the defendant, understanding those rights, was giving them up to enter the plea.

Typically in a plea agreement, the person is also giving up their right to appeal unless the sentence imposed is outside the statutory range or if there was some mistake in the mathematical calculations used to arrive at the sentence.

Sentencing Warnings during a Federal Plea

The judge will confirm that although the defendant should have talked to their attorney about the possible sentence a court might impose, that nobody – not the judge, probation, pre-trial services, the prosecutor, or the defense attorney – could make any assurances as to what the actual sentence would be. Once again, it is critically important to understand that to some extent a person is entering a plea blind as to what the actual sentence will be. This is particularly true because most statutory ranges (like 5-40 years) are massive. At one end of the spectrum is a somewhat reasonable amount of time, at the other is what is effectively a life sentence for most people.

The judge will inform the defendant that if they plead guilty, they will be found guilty but there will be an opportunity at (and before) sentencing for the defense to ask for leniency.

The judge will ask questions to ensure the plea is voluntary – free from any threats or specific promises that induced the plea.

The judge will also remind the defendant that parole has been abolished and so a person sentenced in the federal system will not be able to parole out.

The plea itself

The judge will ask if the defendant wants the indictment read. Generally, this is waived. The judge will call on the prosecutor to read the essential elements of the offense and the punishment range into the record.

After ensuring all these things – that the defendant understands what is happening, the charge, the punishment range, the factual basis for the plea, how sentencing works generally, and the rights the defendant is giving up by pleading, the judge will ask how the accused pleads.

Process After Federal Plea

The judge will inform the defendant that after a plea, the defendant will meet with U.S. Probation with their attorney present for a presentence report interview. This interview and other materials gathered by U.S. Probation will become the basis for a preliminary applicable sentence guideline range. The range is a recommendation and not mandatory for the court to follow. The court will also accept any submissions by the defense for departure from those guidelines or any other departures under 18 USC Section 3553(a).

After a plea of guilty, the judge will order the defense attorney to make contact with the probation department to set up a time to have a presentence report interview. The judge will issue a scheduling order that will tell the parties when the report is due, objections are due, sentencing materials are due, and when the case is scheduled for sentencing.

Federal pleas can be – but rarely are – changed after a person pleads guilty. The person changing the plea should expect to lose any credit they would have gotten for acceptance of responsibility.

If you have been charged with a federal criminal case, give a call to discuss your rights and strategies for trial or a plea.

Varghese Summersett

If you have been arrested for a federal crime, you will be asked to enter an initial plea of “guilty” or “not guilty” very early in the process. This can be confusing and overwhelming, especially if this is your first time in the federal justice system. In this article, we are going to explain what happens during your initial plea hearing and at a subsequent re-arraignment hearing.

What happens at an initial federal plea hearing?

Shortly after you are arrested for a federal offense, you will have an initial hearing before a magistrate who will inform you of your charge, as well as explain your rights – including your right to an attorney, right to a preliminary and detention hearing; and right to remain silent.

If you already have an attorney at the initial appearance, it’s possible that you could also be arraigned at that time and asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If you do not have an attorney, the arraignment will be scheduled later but still very quickly after your arrest.

During the arraignment, the judge will read the criminal complaint or indictment and ask you to enter a plea of “guilty” or “not guilty” to the indictment or criminal complaint. During a federal plea hearing, the judge is required to make sure you:

1) understand your rights;

2) understands the rights you are giving up;

3) are competent to proceed; and

4) is entering a plea voluntarily.

During the initial arraignment, most defendants enter a plea of “not guilty.” A “not guilty” plea is standard at this stage in the process, as the defendant needs time to receive and review the governments evidence and consult with their attorney at length before making a final decision on how to proceed or plead.

Why are federal pleas sometimes called re-arraignments?

After federal defendants review evidence, consult with attorneys, and negotiate with the government, they often decide to change their “not guilty” plea to “guilty” to take advantage of any benefits offered by the government. To change their plea, another hearing will be held, which is often referred to as a “re-arraignment.”

At re-arraignments, or the federal plea, the judge will often take guilty pleas from numerous defendants at the same time. This is because most of the plea colloquy is the same and, if the judge handled each defendant separately, it would tie up hours of the courts valuable time.

In the federal system, it’s important to understand that most cases do not end up in a jury trial where citizens listen to evidence and decide if someone is guilty or innocent. Most federal defendants plead guilty and then proceed to sentencing before a federal judge. This is a big difference between the federal system and the state system.

The federal plea colloquy

During a re-arraignment, the judge will announce the parties – the attorneys for the government and for the defense. The judge will also announce which defendant’s cases are being called for the plea. The jduge will then go through the following information with each defendant.

Identity in a Federal Plea

The plea will begin with the judge making sure the person before them is the person who intends on entering the plea. The judge will ask their name on the record. The judge may ask the person the spell their name. If you were indicted or otherwise charged, the judge can correct your name or “true name” you on the record. The judge will then ask each defendant their age and how far they went in school.

Ability to Comprehend

The judge will ask if they can understand English and if not there will be a translator who is already sworn in that the judge will acknowledge on the record. The judge will ask if the person entering the plea is under the influence of any narcotics or alcohol. If the person is on prescription drugs, the judge will ask if the medication is affecting the ability to understand what is going on. Similarly, the judge will ask about any substance abuse treatment and medical treatment a person is going through to the extent that it might affect their ability to understand what is going on.

Disclosing a Magistrate’s Role

If a magistrate judge is taking the plea for a district judge, the magistrate will explain that the district judge will have to approve the report of the magistrate judge for the plea to be finalized.

Entering the Plea Blind

It is very important to understand that for almost all federal pleas, there is no agreement as to what the sentence will actually be. That is very different than state cases. There are a number of reasons for this. First, all sentencing in federal cases is done by the judge. There is no jury punishment in federal criminal cases. Second, even in rare cases where there is an 11(C)1(c) agreement, the judge has the final authority to accept or reject an agreement with the Government as to sentencing. Instead in the federal system, a person only knows the range of punishment they are pleading to – such as 10 years to life, or 5 years to 40 years.

Federal Criminal Plea Paperwork

With those preliminaries out of the way, the judge will move on to the actual plea. Plea paperwork will already have been submitted to the court prior to the plea. This includes the plea agreement as well as the factual resume (the facts the defendant is agreeing to as the basis for the plea.) The judge will ask if the defendant has gone over the paperwork with their attorney and if it is their signature on both documents.

Constitutional Rights

If the defendant has not been indicted yet, the judge will make sure the accused knows they have a right to force the Government to secure an indictment through a grand jury. If the defendant is giving up that right (because they have negotiated a better outcome) then the judge will ask if the person understanding that right, wishes to give it up.

The judge will ask of the person understands they don’t have to enter a plea of guilty and instead they could force the Government to a jury trial. At a trial the Government would have to prove each of the elements they set out with proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant would have the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses, to use the subpoena power of the court, and to choose to testify at trial. The judge would make sure that the defendant, understanding those rights, was giving them up to enter the plea.

Typically in a plea agreement, the person is also giving up their right to appeal unless the sentence imposed is outside the statutory range or if there was some mistake in the mathematical calculations used to arrive at the sentence.

Sentencing Warnings during a Federal Plea

The judge will confirm that although the defendant should have talked to their attorney about the possible sentence a court might impose, that nobody – not the judge, probation, pre-trial services, the prosecutor, or the defense attorney – could make any assurances as to what the actual sentence would be. Once again, it is critically important to understand that to some extent a person is entering a plea blind as to what the actual sentence will be. This is particularly true because most statutory ranges (like 5-40 years) are massive. At one end of the spectrum is a somewhat reasonable amount of time, at the other is what is effectively a life sentence for most people.

The judge will inform the defendant that if they plead guilty, they will be found guilty but there will be an opportunity at (and before) sentencing for the defense to ask for leniency.

The judge will ask questions to ensure the plea is voluntary – free from any threats or specific promises that induced the plea.

The judge will also remind the defendant that parole has been abolished and so a person sentenced in the federal system will not be able to parole out.

The plea itself

The judge will ask if the defendant wants the indictment read. Generally, this is waived. The judge will call on the prosecutor to read the essential elements of the offense and the punishment range into the record.

After ensuring all these things – that the defendant understands what is happening, the charge, the punishment range, the factual basis for the plea, how sentencing works generally, and the rights the defendant is giving up by pleading, the judge will ask how the accused pleads.

Process After Federal Plea

The judge will inform the defendant that after a plea, the defendant will meet with U.S. Probation with their attorney present for a presentence report interview. This interview and other materials gathered by U.S. Probation will become the basis for a preliminary applicable sentence guideline range. The range is a recommendation and not mandatory for the court to follow. The court will also accept any submissions by the defense for departure from those guidelines or any other departures under 18 USC Section 3553(a).

After a plea of guilty, the judge will order the defense attorney to make contact with the probation department to set up a time to have a presentence report interview. The judge will issue a scheduling order that will tell the parties when the report is due, objections are due, sentencing materials are due, and when the case is scheduled for sentencing.

Federal pleas can be – but rarely are – changed after a person pleads guilty. The person changing the plea should expect to lose any credit they would have gotten for acceptance of responsibility.

Prepare to watch a federal plea hearing

As you prepare to go into federal court, if you are there to watch a plea, remember to leave everything in your car. Unless you are an attorney, you cannot take a phone or other electronic device into most federal courthouses. You will go through a metal detector. Try not to wear anything that’s metal. Even if you have shoes or a belt that would typically make it through a metal detector – expect to remove even those to get into a federal courthouse.

If you have been charged with a federal criminal case, give a call to discuss your rights and strategies for trial or a plea.

Varghese Summersett

If you ask someone to define murder in Texas, they will usually say it’s intentionally taking someone’s life – often with a weapon such as a gun, knife or ligature. And while that is certainly accurate, there is also another, less common way to commit murder. It’s called “felony murder” and it covers situations in which a person kills without intent.

In this article, we are going to explain the felony murder rule and offer some real examples of how it has been used to prosecute people in North Texas, including in a growing number of drunk driving fatalities.

The Definition of Murder in Texas

Murder is defined in Chapter 19.02 of the Texas Penal Code, which specifies three ways in which it can be committed. It’s the third definition – which is commonly referred to as the “felony murder rule” – that we will be exploring in this article today. But first, here’s a look at the complete definition.

A person commits the offense of murder if he or she:

  1. intentionally or knowingly causes the death of an individual; or
  2. intends to cause serious bodily injury and commits an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual; or
  3. commits or attempts to commit a felony, other than manslaughter, and in the course of and in furtherance of the commission or attempt, or in immediate flight from the commission or attempt, he or she commits or attempts to commit an act clearly dangerous to human life and causes the death of an individual.

What’s the difference between murder and felony murder?

As you can see from the lengthy definition of murder, there are a number of scenarios under which murder can be committed in Texas. The most common way is to intentionally or knowingly cause the death of an individual.

This could be done by a different means, including using a weapon, poisoning someone or striking them with a car. It can also be committed by intending to cause serious bodily injury and causing a death, such as fatally hitting someone in the head with a baseball bat during a fight.

But what if you didn’t mean to kill anyone? What if you were just trying to commit a felony, like robbing a bank or a store, and someone died as a result? In this case, you could be charged with felony murder.

Felony murder occurs when someone commits or attempts to commit a felony and, in the process, also performs an act “clearly dangerous to human life” that causes the death of another person. A classic example would be a getaway driver in a robbery who, while fleeing the scene, runs over and kills a pedestrian. Even though the driver didn’t intend to kill anyone, they can still be prosecuted for felony murder under Texas law.

Under that example, the getaway driver was committing a felony (robbery) and in the process also performed an act “clearly dangerous to human life” (fleeing the scene) and killed a person (fatally struck a pedestrian.)

What’s the punishment for felony murder in Texas?

From a legal perspective, felony murder is not treated any differently than a so-called “standard murder.” It’s a first-degree felony punishable by 5 years to up to life in prison and a maximum $10,000 fine.

First Degree Felony

How common is felony murder in Texas?

While it’s not as common as standard murder, felony murder is prosecuted often in Texas, and especially, in Tarrant County. Tarrant County has increasingly used this charge in the prosecution of fatal drunk driving wrecks involving repeat offenders. In fact, in October 2004, Tarrant County became one of the first counties in Texas to use felony murder in the prosecution of a habitual drunk driver who caused the death of someone.

How do prosecutors use felony murder in the prosecution of habitual drunk drivers who kill someone?

Under the law in Texas, a driver can be charged with felony DWI if he or she has two or more prior DWI convictions or drives intoxicated with a child in the vehicle. Over the past two decades, prosecutors have used felony DWI as the underlying element that is required to charge someone with felony murder.

Let’s look at the first felony murder case Tarrant County used to prosecute a chronic drunk driver involved in a fatality. In 2003, Jake Aaron Strickland had been drinking at a downtown Fort Worth nightclub when he drove the wrong way onto the freeway and slammed into a vehicle occupied by Julie and Brent Jones. Brent Jones was killed instantly.

Prosecutors decided to pursue the murder charge against Strickland after discovering he had two previous misdemeanor convictions for driving while intoxicated. The collision that killed Jones was Strickland’s third DWI-related charge; because it was the third, the charge became a felony.

Again, under the Texas Penal Code, a defendant can be charged with murder if, while committing a felony, he performs an act “clearly dangerous to human life.” In this case, prosecutors accused Strickland of committing felony DWI and then committing a dangerous act by driving the wrong way down the freeway.

To learn more about felony DWI, please take a moment to watch this video by Benson Varghese, a Board Certified Criminal Lawyer.

Why would prosecutors pursue a felony murder charge rather than an intoxication manslaughter charge?

Felony murder carries a punishment of five years to life in prison, while intoxication manslaughter is punishable by 2 to 20 years in prison. If the facts fit, they pursue the murder charge in an effort to get harsher punishment.

What are some other examples of felony murder prosecutions in North Texas?

  • A TCU student was indicted on a charge of felony murder after being accused of injecting heroin into the arm of his friend, causing his death. The indictment alleged that the defendant was committing a felony – delivery of a controlled substance – when he injected his friend with heroin – an act clearly dangerous to human life.
  • An Arlington mother was charged with felony murder after officials said she was driving while intoxicated with child in her vehicle (a felony) when she drove the wrong way on the freeway (an act clearly dangerous to human life) and caused another vehicle to collide into a pickup. When the drivers got out to assess the damage, another vehicle struck a man on the roadway, killing him.
  •  A Denton County grand jury returned a murder indictment against a chronic drunk driver on charges that he drove drunk again on Easter (a felony) and caused a wreck (act dangerous to human life), killing two members of an Argyle family and seriously injuring three others.  It was the first time that a felony murder charge had been filed in Denton County for a death allegedly caused by a repeat DWI offender.
  • A Burleson man with two prior DWI convictions (a felony) was charged with felony murder after he allegedly drove drunk and hit a concrete barrier (act clearly dangerous to human life), killing his passenger.

Accused of Felony Murder in North Texas? 

If you or a loved one is facing a charge of felony murder in Fort Worth or North Texas, it’s vital that you contact an experienced defense attorney immediately. Our team has decades of experience handling murder cases, both as defense attorneys and former prosecutors.  We will work tirelessly to build a defense that will give you the best chance of a favorable outcome. Call 817-203-2220 now for a free consultation with a seasoned criminal attorney.

Varghese Summersett

Although it is rare, judges sometimes choose to sequester, or isolate, a jury in high-profile criminal trials. Basically, the jurors are kept away from other people and outside influences for the duration of the trial. In this article, we will explain jury sequestration and answer common questions about the process, including the advantages and disadvantages of sequestering a jury.

What is jury sequestration?

Jury sequestration is the process of keeping all members of the jury away from the public and press during a trial. Sequestered jurors are typically put up in a hotel and are not allowed to watch television, read newspapers, or use social media. They may have limited use of their phones, but only under the watchful eyes of bailiffs or court personnel. They are also not allowed to discuss the case with anyone except for their fellow jurors – and only then when it is time to deliberate.

Why do judges sequester jurors?

The purpose of sequestration is to protect the jury from outside influences and ensure that they base their verdict solely on the evidence presented in court. Watching the news, speaking to family or friends, or even overhearing conversations outside the courthouse could impact their ability to make a fair and impartial decision. For example, if a jury were to inadvertently see or hear something about the case outside of court, it could affect their deliberations.

What are the disadvantages of sequestering a jury?

Sequestration can be stressful to jury members who are away from their family, jobs, and normal daily routines. It is not uncommon for jurors to feel isolated, bored, and anxious while they are sequestered. This is why judges typically try to avoid sequestration whenever possible. In addition, jury sequestration can be quite costly – the hotel expenses and meals can add up quickly. Not to mention, jurors are typically not compensated for their time beyond the standard jury fee.

Because of these reasons, sequestering a jury can sometimes be counterproductive. Sequestered jurors may be more likely to rush their deliberations in order to return to their normal lives. They also may be angry and annoyed, making jury deliberations more contentious, rather than amicable.

What are the benefits of jury sequestration?

Despite the challenges, jury sequestration does have its benefits. It allows jurors to focus solely on the trial without having to worry about outside influences. This can be especially important in high-profile or complex cases where there is a lot of public interest and media coverage. Jury sequestration can also help prevent jury tampering and ensure that jury members do not feel pressure to conform to the majority opinion.

How common is jury sequestration?

While jury sequestration is not common, it does happen occasionally in high-profile criminal cases. For example, the jury in the O.J. Simpson murder trial was sequestered for nine months. Here’s a look at some other trials in which the jury was sequestered or partially sequestered:

Do you think jury sequestration is a good or bad idea? Let us know your thoughts.

We hope you found this information helpful. If you have any questions or comments about jury sequestration or any other area of criminal law, please don’t hesitate leave us a comment below. Also, please take a moment to check out this video on jury duty.

Collectively, the lawyers at Varghese Summersett have more than 120 years of experience and have tried more than 750 cases before state and federal juries. We have a proven record of exceptional results and more 5-star reviews than any other criminal defense firm in North Texas. If you or a loved one is facing a criminal charge in Fort Worth or surrounding areas, call 817-203-2220 today for a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense lawyer.
Varghese Summersett

Each year, thousands of mentally ill people are arrested in Texas. A small number of them will plead “not guilty by reason of insanity.”

But what does that mean? And what happens to them if they are found not guilty by reason of insanity?

Not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) is a seldom-used defense that is raised for defendants who did not know their conduct was wrong due to a severe mental illness or defect. For example, insane defendants might hear voices that instruct them to commit a murder or carry out a violent act or experience delusions that make them believe they are being followed, poisoned or persecuted.

In this article, we are going to discuss Texas’ insanity defense, explain what happens when someone is found NGRI, and offer real examples of when this defense worked – and when it did not.

What is Texas’ insanity defense?

In Texas, the “insanity defense” is codified in Section 8.01 of the Penal Code. It is an affirmative defense that excuses or justifies a person’s actions on the ground that he or she was suffering from a severe mental illness at the time of the offense and, as a result, did not know that their criminal conduct was wrong.

To be successful, the defendant must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, two things:

  • They were suffering from a severe mental disease or defect and;
  • as a result of that mental illness, they did not know that their conduct at the time of the crime was wrong.

What happens when someone is found not guilty by reason of insanity in Texas?

When a defendant is found NGRI in Texas, they are technically acquitted of all charges, but they will not be released to the streets. What happens next depends on whether the defendant is deemed dangerous or not.

After receiving a NGRI verdict, a judge will hold a hearing within 30 days to determine if the defendant is mentally ill and whether he or she committed a violent offense.

If the court finds the defendant did not commit a violent offense or is no longer mentally ill, he or she can be discharged, placed with a responsible person or transferred to probate court. There, civil commitment proceedings determine whether the defendant should be committed to a Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation facility.

If the crime was violent, the court has two options: transfer the defendant to probate court or retain jurisdiction. If the court chooses to retain jurisdiction, which is common, it can order the defendant to be committed for up to 90 days to a maximum-security state hospital.

If a board decides that the patient is not “manifestly dangerous,” he or she must be transferred to a less-restrictive state hospital within 60 days.

After 90 days, the judge must decide whether to recommit the defendant for up to a year. At the expiration of each commitment, the judge can recommit the defendant for up to a year.

How long can a NGRI defendant be committed to a state hospital?

A defendant who is found not guilty by reason of insanity in Texas cannot be committed to a mental hospital for longer than the maximum sentence of the crime. For example, if the maximum sentence for the crime was 10 years, that is the maximum amount of time they could be committed. After that, the court loses jurisdiction and the defendant can only be civilly committed.

How common is the insanity defense in Texas?

The insanity defense is rare in Texas. In fact, it is only raised in about one percent of all criminal cases. Of the cases where the defense is raised, even fewer are successful, especially in jury trials.

Why is the insanity defense rarely successful?

Jurors have a hard time finding someone “not guilty” when they know that the defendant committed a crime. They also often wrongly believe that, if they acquit an insane defendant or find them “not guilty,” they are released to the streets – even though they are mentally ill and potentially dangerous.

Juries are not allowed to be told that defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity typically go to a state mental hospital until a treatment team finds they are stable enough to be released and that a judge must approve their release.

Most defendants are not found NGRI by a jury. But rather, a judge will render the verdict after both sides enter into a plea agreement. These agreements are usually only reached after mental health experts agree that the defendant was legally insane at the time of the offense.

What are some examples of when an insanity defense was raised in Texas?

The insanity defense has been raised in a number of high-profile cases over the decades in Texas. Below are examples and the outcome of the case:

  • In 2020, Krystle Concepcion Villanueva was sentenced to life in prison without parole for stabbing and beheading her 5-year-old daughter. She claimed that her daughter and father-in-law had “been replaced by clones and had to be killed to bring back her real family.” Jurors rejected her insanity defense and found her guilty of capital murder.
  • Eddie Ray Routh was sentenced to life in prison in 2015 for gunning down American Sniper author Chris Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield at a sport shooting range southwest of Glen Rose. Routh’s defense team contended that he was schizophrenic and that Kyle and Littlefield were pig hybrids and that he had to kill them before they killed him. Jurors rejected that argument after 2 1/2 hours of deliberation and found him guilty of capital murder.
  • In 2004, Dena Schlosser amputated both arms of her 10-month-old daughter with a butcher knife because she believed God commanded her to do so. She was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a state mental hospital. She has since been released.
  • Deanna Laney was found not guilty by reason of insanity for bludgeoning two of her sons to death with rocks and severely injuring the third on Mother’s Day in 2003. Laney said she was following God’s orders. She was released from a mental hospital in 2012.
  • In 2001, Andrea Yates, a Houston mother suffering from postpartum psychosis, drowned all five of her children in her bathtub. Jurors rejected her insanity defense and sentenced her to life in prison. That verdict was later overturned due to the erroneous testimony of a prosecution medical expert and Yates was granted a new trial. During her second trial, jurors found her not guilty by reason of insanity and she was committed to a state mental hospital.

What do you think about Texas’ insanity defense? Let us know your thoughts.

We hope you found this information useful. If you have any questions or comments about not guilty by reason of insanity or any other area of criminal law, please leave us a comment below.

Collectively, the attorneys at Varghese Summersett have more than 120 years of experience and have tried more than 750 cases before state and federal juries. We have a record of exceptional results and more 5-star reviews than any other criminal defense firm in North Texas.

If you or a loved one is facing a criminal charge in Fort Worth or the surrounding areas, call 817-203-2220 today for a free consultation with a seasoned criminal defense attorney.

Varghese Summersett

Each year, thousands of mentally ill people are arrested in Texas. A small number of them will plead “not guilty by reason of insanity.”

But what does that mean? And what happens to them if they are found not guilty by reason of insanity?

Not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) is a seldom-used defense that is raised for defendants who did not know their conduct was wrong due to a severe mental illness or defect. For example, insane defendants might hear voices that instruct them to commit a murder or carry out a violent act or experience delusions that make them believe they are being followed, poisoned or persecuted.

In this article, we are going to discuss Texas’ insanity defense, explain what happens when someone is found NGRI, and offer real examples of when this defense worked – and when it did not.

What is Texas’ insanity defense?

In Texas, the “insanity defense” is codified in Section 8.01 of the Penal Code. It is an affirmative defense that excuses or justifies a person’s actions on the ground that he or she was suffering from a severe mental illness at the time of the offense and, as a result, did not know that their criminal conduct was wrong.

To be successful, the defendant must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, two things:

  • They were suffering from a severe mental disease or defect and;
  • as a result of that mental illness, they did not know that their conduct at the time of the crime was wrong.

What happens when someone is found not guilty by reason of insanity in Texas?

When a defendant is found NGRI in Texas, they are technically acquitted of all charges, but they will not be released to the streets. What happens next depends on whether the defendant is deemed dangerous or not.

After receiving a NGRI verdict, a judge will hold a hearing within 30 days to determine if the defendant is mentally ill and whether he or she committed a violent offense.

If the court finds the defendant did not commit a violent offense or is no longer mentally ill, he or she can be discharged, placed with a responsible person or transferred to probate court. There, civil commitment proceedings determine whether the defendant should be committed to a Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation facility.

If the crime was violent, the court has two options: transfer the defendant to probate court or retain jurisdiction. If the court chooses to retain jurisdiction, which is common, it can order the defendant to be committed for up to 90 days to a maximum-security state hospital.

If a board decides that the patient is not “manifestly dangerous,” he or she must be transferred to a less-restrictive state hospital within 60 days.

After 90 days, the judge must decide whether to recommit the defendant for up to a year. At the expiration of each commitment, the judge can recommit the defendant for up to a year.

How long can a NGRI defendant be committed to a state hospital?

A defendant who is found not guilty by reason of insanity in Texas cannot be committed to a mental hospital for longer than the maximum sentence of the crime. For example, if the maximum sentence for the crime was 10 years, that is the maximum amount of time they could be committed. After that, the court loses jurisdiction and the defendant can only be civilly committed.

How common is the insanity defense in Texas?

The insanity defense is rare in Texas. In fact, it is only raised in about one percent of all criminal cases. Of the cases where the defense is raised, even fewer are successful, especially in jury trials.

Why is the insanity defense rarely successful?

Jurors have a hard time finding someone “not guilty” when they know that the defendant committed a crime. They also often wrongly believe that, if they acquit an insane defendant or find them “not guilty,” they are released to the streets – even though they are mentally ill and potentially dangerous.

Juries are not allowed to be told that defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity typically go to a state mental hospital until a treatment team finds they are stable enough to be released and that a judge must approve their release.

Most defendants are not found NGRI by a jury. But rather, a judge will render the verdict after both sides enter into a plea agreement. These agreements are usually only reached after mental health experts agree that the defendant was legally insane at the time of the offense.

What are some examples of when an insanity defense was raised in Texas?

The insanity defense has been raised in a number of high-profile cases over the decades in Texas. Below are examples and the outcome of the case:

  • In 2020, Krystle Concepcion Villanueva was sentenced to life in prison without parole for stabbing and beheading her 5-year-old daughter. She claimed that her daughter and father-in-law had “been replaced by clones and had to be killed to bring back her real family.” Jurors rejected her insanity defense and found her guilty of capital murder.
  • Eddie Ray Routh was sentenced to life in prison in 2015 for gunning down American Sniper author Chris Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield at a sport shooting range southwest of Glen Rose. Routh’s defense team contended that he was schizophrenic and that Kyle and Littlefield were pig hybrids and that he had to kill them before they killed him. Jurors rejected that argument after 2 1/2 hours of deliberation and found him guilty of capital murder.
  • In 2004, Dena Schlosser amputated both arms of her 10-month-old daughter with a butcher knife because she believed God commanded her to do so. She was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a state mental hospital. She has since been released.
  • Deanna Laney was found not guilty by reason of insanity for bludgeoning two of her sons to death with rocks and severely injuring the third on Mother’s Day in 2003. Laney said she was following God’s orders. She was released from a mental hospital in 2012.
  • In 2001, Andrea Yates, a Houston mother suffering from postpartum psychosis, drowned all five of her children in her bathtub. Jurors rejected her insanity defense and sentenced her to life in prison. That verdict was later overturned due to the erroneous testimony of a prosecution medical expert and Yates was granted a new trial. During her second trial, jurors found her not guilty by reason of insanity and she was committed to a state mental hospital.

What do you think about Texas’ insanity defense? Let us know your thoughts.

We hope you found this information useful. If you have any questions or comments about not guilty by reason of insanity or any other area of criminal law, please leave us a comment below.

Collectively, the attorneys at Varghese Summersett have more than 120 years of experience and have tried more than 750 cases before state and federal juries. We have a record of exceptional results and more 5-star reviews than any other criminal defense firm in North Texas.

If you or a loved one is facing a criminal charge in Fort Worth or the surrounding areas, call 817-203-2220 today for a free consultation with a seasoned criminal defense attorney.

Varghese Summersett

Over the past several years, catalytic converter thefts in Texas have been on the rise. To combat the problem, lawmakers passed legislation in 2021 making it a felony to steal, buy or sell stolen catalytic converters in Texas. In this article, we are going to explain the crime and consequences of catalytic converter theft in Texas and answer some frequently asked questions about this unusual trend.

What is a catalytic converter?

A catalytic converter is a muffler-shaped device on the underside of a vehicle that helps reduce harmful emissions from a vehicle’s engine. Catalytic converters are required by law on all new vehicles sold in the United States.

catalytic converter

Why are catalytic converters being stolen?

Catalytic converters contain precious metals like platinum, palladium, and rhodium, which makes them attractive to people looking to make quick money. After stealing the catalytic converter, they turn around and sell the car part to junkyards, metal recyclers, or on the black market.

Why has there been an increase in catalytic converter thefts in Texas?

The price of the precious metals contained in catalytic converters has increased in recent years in Texas and across the county, which has led to an increase in thefts. Platinum, palladium, and rhodium all sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars per ounce.

How is catalytic converter theft committed?

Most catalytic converter thefts are committed by someone who slides under a vehicle and cuts off the catalytic converter with a small, battery-operated saw with a metal cutting blade. The process takes minutes. Catalytic converters are often stolen from driveways and apartment parking lots.

What are the consequences of catalytic converter theft in Texas?

Catalytic converter theft in Texas is now a felony offense. In June 2021, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 4110, which made it a state jail felony to steal, buy or sell stolen catalytic converters.

A state felony is punishable by six months to two years in a state jail facility and a maximum $10,00 fine. If the defendant has been previously convicted of catalytic converter theft in Texas, they face a third-degree felony, punishable by 2 to 10 years in prison.

What does the new catalytic converter theft law require?

Among other things, the new law requires people selling catalytic converters to provide the year, make, model, and vehicle identification number from the vehicle in which the part was removed. It also requires metal recycling facilities to take a thumbprint of the person selling them the catalytic converter and mark each catalytic converter with a unique number. Failure to abide by these regulations could result in a criminal offense.

Charged with catalytic converter theft in Fort Worth or surrounding areas? Contact Us.

If you have been charged with catalytic converter theft, it is important to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. We can help. Our team has successfully defended thousands of felony cases in Fort Worth and will work diligently to obtain the most favorable outcome possible. Call Varghese Summersett today at 817-203-2220 for a free consultation with a catalytic converter theft lawyer in Fort Worth.