Keith S. Hampton

Keith Hampton is board certified in criminal law and criminal appellate law and was recently honored by the Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, the oldest criminal defense association in Texas. Keith is currently doing his part to suggest to the vanguard of “Operation Lone Star” that prosecuting exhausted refugees for class C misdemeanor criminal trespass violations may not be the best way to address climate change or the complexities of human migration along the Texas-Mexico border. He can be reached at .

The Professional Ethics Committee for the State Bar of Texas – Opinion No. 690

This article was first published in the State Bar of Texas Journal in October of 2020.
Submitted by: Keith Hampton

Question Presented

Does a lawyer who represents a defendant in a criminal matter violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct if, after receiving tangible evidence from the lawyer’s client, the lawyer does not reveal the existence of the evidence until trial and refuses to allow the prosecuting attorney to inspect the evidence until the court orders the lawyer to do so?

Statement of Facts

A lawyer represents a client who is in jail awaiting trial in a felony domestic violence case. While in jail, the defendant receives several letters from a victim in the case that contain relevant information. The defendant gives those letters to the lawyer, who takes the letters to his office for safekeeping. The lawyer does not reveal the existence of the letters until trial. The prosecuting attorney informally asks to inspect the letters, but the lawyer refuses. The lawyer continues to refuse to allow inspection of the letters until ordered to do so by the court after a hearing.

Discussion

“Unlawful” obstruction or concealment in general. Rule 3.04(a) of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits the unlawful obstruction, concealment, alteration or destruction of evidence. Rule 3.04(a) provides:

“A lawyer shall not… unlawfully obstruct another party’s access to evidence; in anticipation of a dispute unlawfully alter, destroy or conceal a document or other material that a competent lawyer would believe has potential or actual evidentiary value; or counsel or assist another person to do any such act.”

To constitute a violation of Rule  3.04(a),  the  obstruction or concealment must be done “unlawfully.” The term “unlawfully” is not defined in the Rules.

Nevertheless, as discussed below, the term “unlawfully” is generally understood to refer to conduct that violates a statute, court order, or other mandatory disclosure obligation.

Any obstruction or concealment that violates criminal law would clearly be “unlawful” and therefore would violate Rule 3.04(a). Criminal conduct related to obstruction or concealment could also likely violate subsections (2), (3), (4), or (12) of Rule 8.04(a):

“A lawyer shall not:”

(2) commit a serious crime or commit any other criminal act that reflects adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer in other respects;
(3) engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation;
(4) engage in conduct constituting obstruction of justice; . . . [or]

(12) violate any other laws of this state relating to the professional conduct of lawyers and to the practice of law.”

Whether particular conduct violates a criminal obstruction statute is a question of substantive law that is outside the Committee’s purview. The Committee is not aware of any authority holding that it is a crime for a lawyer to accept and retain ordinary tangible evidence from a client accused of a crime.

Obstruction or concealment of evidence is also “unlawful” if it violates a court order. For example, a lawyer in possession of tangible evidence may violate Rule 3.04(a) by knowingly failing to obey a court order requiring production of the evidence. Such conduct could also violate Rule 3.04(d), which provides:

“A lawyer shall not… knowingly disobey, or advise the client to disobey, an obligation under the standing rules of or a ruling by a tribunal except for an open refusal based either on an assertion that no valid obligation exists or on the client’s willingness to accept any sanctions arising from such disobedience.”

Finally, a lawyer acts “unlawfully” for purposes of Rule 3.04(a) if the lawyer knowingly fails to provide evidence when disclosure is mandated by the rules of the tribunal, a subpoena, a discovery obligation, a cooperation agreement, or the like (hereafter, a “Mandatory Disclosure Obligation”). It is not unlawful, however, for an attorney to withhold ordinary tangible evidence pending a ruling on a good faith, legally available objection, motion for protection, or other procedurally legitimate challenge to a Mandatory Disclosure Obligation.

Mandatory Disclosure Obligations of criminal defense counsel. There is no traditional discovery process in Texas that allows the State to obtain evidence from a criminal defendant. Absent a court order, therefore, a lawyer who receives ordinary tangible evidence from a client generally does not have an obligation to turn over the evidence to the prosecuting authority. In such a situation, the lawyer does not act unlawfully, and consequently does not violate Rule 3.04(a), merely by maintaining non‑destructive custody of such evidence.

Special Criminal Evidence. It is generally accepted that a lawyer has a self‑executing obligation to turn over some special types of tangible evidence. This opinion will refer to such evidence as “Special Criminal Evidence,” as opposed to “ordinary evidence.” The definition of Special Criminal Evidence varies by jurisdiction, but generally includes contraband, the instrumentalities of a crime, or the fruits of a crime. Common examples are illegal narcotics, a murder weapon, and stolen jewelry. Depending on the jurisdiction, the definition of Special Criminal Evidence may also include documents and records directly involved in the perpetration of a crime, such as book‑making receipts or falsified records, as well as other direct evidence of the client’s involvement in the crime (such as a bloody glove). The rationales offered to support the obligation to turn over Special Criminal Evidence are that (1) possession of such evidence—by anyone—is usually illegal, (2) preparing the client’s defense does not require counsel to possess the evidence, and any evanescent evidence (such as fingerprints) could degrade while in the lawyer’s possession.

Most United States courts that have considered the issue have held that a lawyer who comes into possession of Special Criminal Evidence—however defined in that jurisdiction—has a self‑executing obligation to turn over the evidence to police or other law enforcement authorities. See Rubin v. State, 602 A.2d 677,  686  (Md.  1992) (collecting cases); see also Hitch v. Pima County Superior Court, 708 P.2d 72, 75 (Ariz. 1985); In re Ryder, 381 F.2d 713, 714 (4th Cir. 1967) (“It is an abuse of a lawyer’s professional responsibility knowingly to take possession of and secrete the fruits and instrumentalities of a crime”); see generally Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers § 119 (2000) (lawyer must notify prosecuting authorities or turn over the evidence after reasonable time for non‑destructive testing); Gregory C. Sisk, The Legal Ethics of Real Evidence: Of Child Porn on the Choirmaster’s Computer and Bloody Knives under the Stairs; 89 Wash. L. Rev. 819 (2014); Stephen Gillers, Guns, Fruits, Drugs, and Documents: A Criminal Defense Lawyer’s Responsibility for Real Evidence, 63 Stan. L. Rev. 813 (2011).

It appears to be the general rule that, before turning over Special Criminal Evidence to law enforcement authorities, a lawyer may be allowed to examine the evidence and subject it to tests that do not alter or destroy material characteristics of the evidence. Restatement (Third) of the Law Governing Lawyers § 119 (2000). It also appears to be the general rule that if a lawyer turns over Special Criminal Evidence acquired from a client, the trial court should not allow the jury to learn the source of the evidence. See Rubin v. State, 602 A.2d at 688 (collecting cases); see also Henderson v. State, 962 S.W.2d 544, 556 (Tex. Crim. App. 1997) (holding that trial court properly compelled lawyer to turn over maps received from client when kidnapping victim was possibly still alive, but noting that neither the client’s communications to the attorney nor the attorney’s communications to law enforcement could be admitted at trial); Sanford v. State, 21 S.W.3d 337, 344 (Tex. App.—El Paso 2000, no pet.), abrogated on other grounds by Motilla v. State, 78 S.W.3d 352 (Tex. Crim. App. 2002) (“[b]y allowing the State to recover the evidence, the public interest is served, and by refusing the State an opportunity to disclose the source of the evidence, the attorney‑ client privilege is preserved”). At least one jurisdiction has endorsed a procedure designed to avoid disclosing the source of the evidence to the prosecution. See District of Columbia Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 3.4, Comment 5 (D.C. Office of Bar Counsel may accept evidence and turn it over to proper authorities without revealing its source, thereby preserving the defense lawyer’s obligation of confidentiality).

At present, the scope of a lawyer’s self‑executing obligation to turn over Special Criminal Evidence has not been well‑defined in reported Texas law. E.g., Sanford v. State, 21 S.W.3d at 344, n. 6 (declining to decide question of whether attorney had an obligation to reveal to law enforcement the location of an instrumentality of the crime, which the lawyer had learned from client); Henderson v. State, 962 S.W.2d at 556 (referring to “cases in other states that require an attorney to release physical evidence in his possession to the authorities but prevent the government from disclosing to a trier of fact that the evidence came from the defendant’s attorney”). For purposes of this opinion it is sufficient to note that a Texas court might recognize a self‑executing obligation to produce Special Criminal Evidence. If so, a violation of that obligation would be “unlawful” for purposes of Rule 3.04.

Application to assumed facts. The Committee now turns to the specific statement of facts presented at the start of this opinion. The assumed facts involve an incarcerated client who, during a jailhouse visit, gives tangible evidence (letters) to his lawyer. At the time of receipt, the lawyer is not subject to any order or agreement that mandates producing the evidence to the State. The lawyer declines to produce the letters in response to an informal request from the prosecuting attorney but produces the letters when ordered to do so by the trial court.

The lawyer is not subject to a self‑executing obligation of production by virtue of the special character of the evidence. A letter from a victim does not qualify as Special Criminal Evidence, even if the letter might be incriminating or exculpatory. Specifically, such a letter is “ordinary evidence”— it is not contraband, a fruit or instrumentality of the alleged crime, a document directly involved in the perpetration of a crime, or other direct evidence of the client’s involvement in the crime (such as a bloody glove). A Texas criminal defense attorney has no obligation to turn over ordinary tangible evidence to the prosecuting attorney. That the lawyer receives the ordinary tangible evidence from an incarcerated client does not change the result, assuming the lawyer does not violate the law in the process.

No obligation to accept custody of evidence tendered by client accused of a crime. The Committee also notes that a lawyer is under no obligation to accept or act as custodian of tangible evidence tendered by a client accused of a crime. Assuming the lawyer does not believe the client will destroy the evidence if the lawyer refuses to accept it, and assuming the lawyer counsels the client as to the applicable laws regarding evidence preservation, the most prudent course is often to decline a client’s request to accept custody of evidence related to an alleged crime. See generally “What Do I Do with the Porn on My Computer”: How a Lawyer Should Counsel Clients About Physical Evidence, 54 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 751 (2017) (comprehensive discussion of advice that lawyers should give clients if lawyer declines to take possession of tangible evidence).

Unaddressed issues. This opinion does not address (a) the destruction or alteration of evidence, (b) a lawyer’s obligation with respect to mere information received from a client related to tangible evidence (e.g., the location of a corpse or murder weapon), (c) a lawyer’s obligation with respect to tangible evidence independently discovered by the lawyer or the lawyer’s agents, (d) evidence that is not provided directly to the lawyer by the client, or (e) evidence that might exonerate a co‑defendant or third‑party. The Committee also cautions that it offers no opinion regarding the application of criminal obstruction statutes and that prosecuting authorities may take a broad view on what conduct constitutes criminal obstruction or concealment.

Conclusion

A lawyer who elects to take possession of tangible evidence from a client in a criminal matter may not conceal that evidence from a prosecuting attorney or obstruct access to that evidence if doing so would be “unlawful.” A lawyer’s conduct with regard to potentially relevant evidence is unlawful if it is prohibited by statute, court order, or Mandatory Disclosure Obligation, as defined above. In general, however, a Texas lawyer is not required to disclose ordinary tangible evidence in a criminal matter in the absence of a court order or agreement. The common law may impose a self‑executing obligation of disclosure if a lawyer takes possession of Special Criminal Evidence , such as contraband, instrumentalities of a crime, or fruits of a crime. The precise scope of such an obligation is a question of substantive Texas law to be addressed by the courts. The failure to comply with a judicially recognized obligation of disclosure would be considered “unlawful” and would violate Rule 3.04(a).

Under the facts stated in this opinion, a lawyer who obtains ordinary tangible evidence from an incarcerated client does not violate the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct by refusing to produce the evidence to the prosecuting attorney until ordered to do so.

A lawyer is under no obligation to accept tangible evidence from a client charged with a crime. Assuming the lawyer does not believe the client will destroy the evidence if the lawyer refuses to accept it, and counsels the client regarding evidence preservation, the most prudent course may be to decline a client’s request to accept custody of evidence related to an alleged crime.

Ethics and the Law: New Rule for Clients with Diminished Capacity

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Beginning July 1, 2021, a new Rule of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct went into effect, Rule 1.16. It is intended to address the ethical problems of representing persons with “diminished capacity” a term that includes persons with mental impairment and intellectual disability. The central problem for lawyers has been the underlying assumption of the ethical rules that the client is mentally sound, an assumption often refuted by the reality of criminal defense lawyers often called upon to counsel and represent clients suffering from a mental disability.

Both the Code and the ethical rules are relatively clear about how to represent a person who is incompetent to stand trial. But the Rules have offered no guidance to lawyers about how to represent a client who is barely competent, but whose judgment is impaired due to illness. In Indiana v. Edwards, 554 U.S. 164, 173 (2008), the Supreme Court called such a client the “gray-area defendant,” legally competent to stand trial but who “lacks the mental capacity to conduct his trial defense unless represented.” Ethically, it has been an ethical no-man’s land.

The problem arises in those areas that award the client autonomy in criminal cases. Rule 1.02 specifically commands that the defense lawyer “shall abide by a client’s decisions” regarding the “plea to be entered,” the waiver of the right to trial by jury, and the decision whether to testify. Moreover, the lawyer cannot, even if it is sound strategy, concede guilt to a jury over the client’s objection. McCoy v. Louisiana, 138 S. Ct. 1500 (2018).

Without guidance, some attorneys decided to treat client decisions like any other, ignoring the impact of an illness on judgment, and dutifully obeying the ethical command even as the client was committing legal suicide. Others went the other direction, with an attitude of benevolent condescension, manipulating the events and the client as a countermeasure against his client’s illness, even against his will.

Rule 1.16 now provides guidance and expressly empowers the lawyer if certain preconditions are met. First, the defense lawyer must first reasonably believe that the client does in fact have diminished capacity due to mental illness. Secondly, this incapacity must render the client unable to “adequately act” in his own interest. Finally, the client’s diminished capacity has put him “at risk of substantial physical, financial, or other harm unless action is taken.”

If these preconditions are met, then the attorney is permitted to take “reasonably necessary protective action.” “Protective action” is intentionally broad to include the various courses of action that might arise. The Rule helpfully specifies that the lawyer may consult with “individuals or entities that have the ability to take action to protect the client.” The lawyer that has been hesitant to speak to others can be reassured that reaching out to those who care about the client is permitted under the Rules. When enlisting other people, the lawyer is directed by the Commentary to “look to the client, not the family members or other persons, to make decisions on the client’s behalf.”

The Rule also expressly addresses the attorney-client privilege issue: “the lawyer may disclose the client’s confidential information to the extent the lawyer reasonably believes is necessary to protect the client’s interests.” The Commentary directs the lawyer to consider the client’s consent before disclosing confidential information under these circumstances. “Only in compelling cases should the lawyer disclose confidential client information if the client has expressly refused to consent. The authority of a lawyer to disclose confidential client information to protect the interests of the client is limited and extends no further than is reasonably necessary to facilitate protective action.”

This Rule was debated and the concerns of some members of the bar should be noted. The Legal Director of Disability Rights worried about the Rule’s impact on clients who expected their lawyer to “be their advocate, not their protector.” Another objection was that the Rule invites lawyers “to make untrained judgments about a client’s mental state with no real guidance.” Time will reveal the wisdom of this Rule, but in the meantime, the criminal defense lawyer does address a frequent dilemma in our profession with some guidance, however minimal.

Coercive Interrogation and the Vulnerable Population

[A] system of criminal law enforcement which comes to depend on the “confession” will, in the long run, be less reliable and more subject to abuses than a system which depends on extrinsic evidence independently secured through skillful investigation.” Escobedo v. Illinois, 378 U.S. 478, 488-89 (1964).

“[F]alse confessions are [a] leading cause of wrongful convictions[.]” State v. Lawrence, 920 A.2d 236, 266–67 (2007)(Katz, J., dissenting)(citing R. Leo, S. Drizin & P. Neufeld et al., Bringing Reliability Back In: False Confessions and Legal Safeguards in the Twenty-First Century, 2006 Wis.L.Rev. 512 (2006). “False confessions are most common among the most vulnerable groups of defendants—juveniles and people with mental disabilities. Id. “Individuals who are deaf are especially susceptible to offering false confessions. When they fail to understand what is asked of them, they often accede to what they do not understand, especially when confronted by a person in authority.” “Individuals with Disabilities and the Issue of False Confessions,” 26 Champion 34, 38 (July 2012).

Coercive Interrogation

“Just Want to Get Your Side of the Story”

“[C]ontemporary interrogation strategies . . . are based on the manipulation and betrayal of trust.” Richard A. Leo, Miranda’s Revenge: Police Interrogation as a Confidence Game, 30 L. & Soc’y Rev. 259, 259–60 (1996)(studying five hundred hours of police interrogations). “The purpose of interrogation is therefore not to discern the truth, determine if the suspect committed the crime, or evaluate his or her denials . . . [T]he single-minded purpose of interrogation is to elicit incriminating statements, admissions, and perhaps a full confession in an effort to secure the conviction of offenders.” Fred E. Inbau et. al., Criminal Interrogation and Confessions 8 (4th ed. 2001). This reality is at least recognized, if not enforced, by the Supreme Court of the United States. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 449–55 (1966)(police “persuade, trick, or cajole him out of exercising his constitutional rights”). Welcome to the accepted Texas method of interrogation commonly referred to as the “Reid Technique.”

If you are the police, it is easy to exercise. First isolate the person, then assert with certainty his guilt (“we already know, we’ve got witnesses, we’ve got the crime scene evidence, we’ve got the DNA”). Next, make a sympathetic offer of blame-shifting (“I believe you. I really do. So, he was doing most of it?”) or minimization (“You hardly had anything to do with the offense. She did it to you. I feel for you”). When the person still protests his innocence, reject them with confidence and finality (“Hey, we’re past that. You’ve already admitted. We both agree we’ve got the evidence. You’re guilty. Sorry, but under the law, you just are—wish I could change it. It’s no longer open for debate”). After psychological domination is complete, have the person endorse the narrative with his own signature or affirmation. The technique is so effective that ordinary people, even those who know the technique is being employed against them, will endorse false confessions. But some people are more vulnerable than others.

Supreme Court Recognition

This reality is no revelation at this late date, as the Supreme Court long ago reviewed:

The officers are told by the manuals that the “principal psychological factor contributing successful interrogation is privacy—being alone with the person under interrogation.” The efficacy of this tactic has been explained as follows:

 “If at all practicable, the interrogation should take place in the investigator’s office or at least in a room of his own choice. The subject should be deprived of every psychological advantage. In his own home he may be confident, indignant, or recalcitrant. He is more keenly aware of his rights and more reluctant to tell of his indiscretions or criminal behavior within the walls of his home. Moreover, his family and other friends are nearby, their presence lending moral support. In his own office, the investigator possesses all the advantages. The atmosphere suggests the invincibility of the forces of the law.”

        To highlight the isolation and unfamiliar surroundings, the manuals instruct the police to display an air of confidence in the suspect’s guilt and from outward appearance to maintain only an interest in confirming certain details. The guilt of the subject is to be posited as a fact. The interrogator should direct his comments toward the reasons why the subject committed the act, rather than court failure by asking the subject whether he did it. Like other men, perhaps the subject has had a bad family life, had an unhappy childhood, had too much to drink, had an unrequited desire for women. The officers are instructed to minimize the moral seriousness of the offense, to cast blame on the victim or on society. These tactics are designed to put the subject in a psychological state where his story is but an elaboration of what the police purport to know already—that he is guilty. Explanations to the contrary are dismissed and discouraged.

The texts thus stress that the major qualities an interrogator should possess are patience and perseverance. One writer describes the efficacy of these characteristics in this manner:

In the preceding paragraphs emphasis has been placed on kindness and stratagems. The investigator will, however, encounter many situations where the sheer weight of his personality will be the deciding factor. Where emotional appeals and tricks are employed to no avail, he must rely on an oppressive atmosphere of dogged persistence. He must interrogate steadily and without relent, leaving the subject no prospect of surcease. He must dominate his subject and overwhelm him with his inexorable will to obtain the truth. He should interrogate for a spell of several hours pausing only for the subject’s necessities in acknowledgment of the need to avoid a charge of duress that can be technically substantiated. In a serious case, the interrogation may continue for days, with the required intervals for food and sleep, but with no respite from the atmosphere of domination. It is possible in this way to induce the subject to talk without resorting to duress or coercion. The method should be used only when the guilt of the subject appears highly probable.

The manuals suggest that the suspect be offered legal excuses for his actions in order to obtain an initial admission of guilt. Where there is a suspected revenge-killing, for example, the interrogator may say:

“Joe, you probably didn’t go out looking for this fellow with the purpose of shooting him. My guess is, however, that you expected something from him and that’s why you carried a gun—for your own protection. You knew him for what he was, no good. Then when you met him he probably started using foul, abusive language and he gave some indication that he was about to pull a gun on you, and that’s when you had to act to save your own life. That’s about it, isn’t it, Joe?”

Before the Mutt-Jeff routine, the Supreme Court noted the effectiveness of developing “inconsistencies” which “serve to deprive” the defendant of a defense. As any practitioner knows, this technique is employed in most roadside investigations, whatever the pretense of enforcement of Transportation Code infractions. Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 449–63 (1966).

Involuntary Confessions

A confession is deemed voluntary if it is “the product of an essentially free and unconstrained choice,” but “if his will has been overborne and his capacity for self-determination critically impaired, the use of his confession offends due process.” Schneckloth v. Bustamonte, 412 U.S. 218, 225–26 (1973). See also Culombe v. Connecticut, 367 U.S. 568, 602 (1961)(confession must be “product of an essentially free and unconstrained choice” to be voluntary); Rogers v. Richmond, 365 U.S. 534, 544 (1961)(decision to confess must be “freely self-determined”); Blackburn v. Alabama, 361 U.S. 199, 208 (1960)(“product of a rational intellect and a free will”). “[C]oercion can be mental as well as physical, and . . . the blood of the accused is not the only hallmark of an unconstitutional inquisition.” Blackburn v. Alabama, supra at 206. See also Reck v. Pate, 367 U.S. 433, 440–441 (1961); Watts v. Indiana, 338 U.S. 49, 52 (1949).

When the issue is raised, the State bears the burden of proving a statement deemed incriminating was voluntarily given. See Alabama v. Beecher, 389 U.S. 35 (1967); Clewis v. Texas, 386 U.S. 707 (1967); Blackburn v. Alabama, supra. “The aim of the requirement of due process is not to exclude presumptively false evidence, but to prevent fundamental unfairness in the use of evidence, whether true or false.” Lisenba v. California, 314 U.S. 219, 236 (1941).

Vulnerable Populations

The Need for Defense Counsel Alertness and Protection

People are more vulnerable than ever before, due to the weakening of constitutional protections against coerced confessions. In 2010, the Supreme Court of the United States held that it is not enough for a person to remain silent after having been informed of his Miranda right to do so. He must affirmatively invoke his right to silence. Otherwise the police are free to interrogate. Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. 370 (2010). The same year, the Court created a 14-day period for police to have another go at a defendant who has previously invoked his right to silence to do so again. Maryland v. Shatzer, 559 U.S. 98 (2010).

People with disabilities are even more vulnerable than the general population, as studies have shown.

In the group of sixty-six false confessions, twenty-three were juveniles, and at least twenty-two had an intellectual disability or were mentally ill . . . This tracks the pattern among the first forty such false confessions, in which fourteen had an intellectual disability, three were mentally ill, and thirteen were juveniles . . . Still others among these exonerees, while not diagnosed with such a disability at the time of trial, may have been quite suggestible or may have not been diagnosed because the defense did not retain experts.

Brandon L. Garrett, Contaminated Confessions Revisited, 101 Va. L. Rev. 395, 399–400 and n.18 (2015). In another study of 125 confessions later proven false, almost 30% came from a person with at least one mental disability. Steven A. Drizin & Richard A. Leo, The Problem of False Confessions in the Post-DNA World, 82 N.C. L. Rev. 891, 970–73 (2004). In another, 43% of people exonerated by DNA and who gave false confessions had some form of disabilities. Brandon L. Garrett, The Substance of False Confessions, 62 Stan. L. Rev. 1051, 1095 (2010).

Deaf Persons

The consensus of those who serve the deaf community appears to be that the mean reading level of deaf persons in the United States is approximately fourth grade[.] Having a high-school diploma may or may not indicate an adequate ability to read and understand written documents, nor may possession of a driver’s license so indicate, as the licensing test may have been interpreted for the deaf person.

Linton v. State, 275 S.W.3d 493, 510 n.2
(Tex.Crim.App. 2009)(Johnson, J., concurring).

If the accused is a deaf person, the accused’s statement under Section 2 or Section 3(a) of this article is not admissible against the accused unless the warning in Section 2 of this article is interpreted to the deaf person by an interpreter who is qualified and sworn as provided in Article 38.31 of this code.

Tex. Code Crim. Pro. art. 38.22, Sec. 3(d).

Constitutional Right to an Interpreter

The right to an interpreter is based in part on the Sixth Amendment’s Confrontation Clause. Garcia v. State, 149 S.W.3d 135, 142 (Tex.Crim.App. 2004)(reversing conviction of defendant who did not understand English and had no translator on basis of Sixth Amendment). But the right is also based on the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause as well. “Considerations of fairness, the integrity of the fact-finding process, and the potency of our adversary system of justice forbid that the state should prosecute a defendant who is not present at his own trial[.]” United States ex rel. Negron v. New York, 434 F.2d 386, 389 (2nd Cir. 1970). Prince v. Beto, 426 F.2d 875, 875 (5th Cir. 1970)(appointment of husband of deaf wife as interpreter violated the Due Process Clause).

Interpreter Qualifications: Licenses and Certifications

Section 57.002 of the Government Code and article 38.30 of the Code of Criminal Procedure govern the appointment of interpreters. Article 38.31 specifically governs deaf interpreters.

The interpreter must be licensed by the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services. A deaf interpreter must be certified by the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services. An interpreter for the deaf is qualified if she holds a current legal certificate issued by the National Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf or a current court-interpreter certificate issued by the Board for Evaluation of Interpreters at the Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services.

The court in small counties (less than 50,000) or counties that border Mexico may appoint an unlicensed or uncertified spoken-language court interpreter if the language is other than Spanish and there is no licensed court interpreter within 75 miles. Under these circumstances, the interpreter must be at least 18 years old, not a party, and must be qualified by the court as an expert under the Texas Rules of Evidence.

The Health and Human Services Commission creates the rules for the qualifications, training/education, certification, and compensation of certified court interpreters. A violation of the Commission’s rules is a Class A misdemeanor.

No proceeding involving a deaf person may commence “until the appointed interpreter is in a position not exceeding ten feet from and in full view of the deaf person.” Tex. Code Crim. Pro. art. 38.31(d).

“The interpreter may not disclose a communication between the defendant and defense counsel or a fact that came to the attention of the interpreter while interpreting those communications if defense counsel may not disclose that communication or fact.” Tex. Code Crim. Pro. art. 38.31(d).

Competency of Interpreters

The competency of an individual to act as an interpreter is a question for the trial court, and the trial court’s determination of the individual’s competency is reviewed on appeal under an abuse of discretion standard. Martins v. State, 52 S.W.3d 459, 470 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 2001, no pet.); Kan v. State, 4 S.W.3d 38, 41 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 1999, pet. ref’d). The accuracy of an interpreter’s translation is a question of fact for the factfinder and not reviewable by an appellate court. Kan, 4 S.W.3d at 43. An unqualified interpreter can result in reversible error. Watson v. State, 596 S.W.2d 867 (Tex.Crim.App. 1980).

Trial Court and Defense Duties Regarding Interpreters

A judge who knows a witness cannot understand English must appoint an interpreter unless the defendant affirmatively waives the appointment. Garcia v. State, 429 S.W.3d 604, 606–07 (Tex.Crim.App. 2014). Similarly, if a motion for appointment of an interpreter is filed by the State or defendant or requested by a witness, the trial court must appoint an interpreter. Consequently, the defendant does not need to do anything else to preserve the issue for appeal. Id.  “Courts have found the absence of an interpreter violated due process where the defendant’s inability to understand the proceeding or an element of the proceeding resulted in the denial of a fundamental right.” State v. Calderon, 13 P.3d 871, 876 (Kan. 2000).

The defense must make an objection regarding a complaint regarding the competency of an interpreter appointed by the trial court or the issue is waived. Montoya v. State, 811 S.W.2d 671, 673 (Tex.App—Corpus Christi 1991, no pet.).

Questions for Interpreters

  • Are you licensed or certified?
  • What agency licensed or certified you?
  • When was the last time you were certified?
  • How many times have you been certified?
  • Has your license ever been suspended?

Juveniles

Juveniles are recognized as a group that requires specific safeguards against the perils of custodial interrogation. Tex.Family Code Ann. § 151.003 and § 262.104; Juvenile Justice Code, § 54.03 and § 51.09. In one study, over 30% of 103 juveniles proven innocent through DNA had falsely confessed, and over half of the eleven- to fourteen-year-old group had confessed falsely. Joshua A. Tepfer, Laura H. Nirider & Lynda M. Tricarico, Arresting Development: Convictions of Innocent Youth, 62 Rutgers L. Rev. 887, 904–05 (2010).

The Court of Criminal Appeals has said:

In deciding whether a particular interrogation was custodial, courts must consider numerous factors[.] . . . The subjective intent of the police officer is one such factor, but courts will disregard an officer’s testimony that a defendant was not a suspect and not in custody if the testimony is belied by the facts of the case. . . . “The courts cannot be expected to decide cases solely on the basis of self-serving statements by the defendant or the interrogating officer.” .Ê.Ê. Among the other factors which may be considered, one which “has consistently impressed our court [is] whether or not the focus of the investigation has finally centered on the defendant.” . . . Another factor which may be considered is whether there was probable cause to arrest.

Ruth v. State, 645 S.W.2d 432, 435 (Tex.Crim.App. 1979)(internal citations omitted). The Court of Criminal Appeals outlined at least four general situations which constitute custody:

(1) when the suspect is significantly deprived of his freedom of action in any significant way; (2) when a law enforcement officer tells a suspect that he cannot leave; (3) when law enforcement officers create a situation that would lead a reasonable person to believe that his freedom of movement has been significantly restricted; and (4) when there is probable cause to arrest and law enforcement officers do not tell the suspect that he is free to go.

Dowthitt v. State, 931 S.W.2d 244, 254 (Tex.Crim.App. 1996).

Some courts have found it appropriate to “apply a wider definition of custody for Miranda purposes” where juveniles are concerned. See, e.g., In re Joshua David C., 116 Md. App. 580, 698 A.2d 1155 (Md.App. 1997). The voluntariness of juvenile confessions is gauged according to the totality of circumstances. Fare v. Michael C., 442 U.S. 707, 725 (1979). Accordingly, a defendant’s age should be included in any legal analysis of whether she was in custody for purposes of her entitlement to constitutional and statutory protections against coerced statements.

[W]hen . . . a mere child—an easy victim of the law—is before us, special care in scrutinizing the record must be used.

***

        He cannot be judged by the more exacting standards of maturity. That which would leave a man cold and unimpressed can overawe and overwhelm a [child] in his early teens. This is the period of instability which the crisis of adolescence produces. A 15-year-old . . . is a ready victim of the inquisition. Mature men might possibly withstand the ordeal. . . . But we cannot believe that a [child] of tender years is a match for police in such a contest.

Haley v. Ohio, 332 U.S. 596, 599–600 (1948)(reviewing confession of a 15-year-old interrogated for 15 hours by police relay teams). Due process accordingly requires that “the greatest care must be taken to assure that the admission was voluntary, on the sense not only that it was not coerced or suggested, but also that it was not the product of ignorance of right or of adolescent fantasy.” Matter of Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967). See also Gallegos v. Colorado, 370 U.S. 49, 53–55 (1962)(five days of isolating 14-year-old from mother or other adult, deemed coercive).

Intellectually Disabled

“[W]e cannot ignore the fact that in recent years a disturbing number of inmates on death row have been exonerated. As two recent high-profile cases demonstrate, these exonerations include mentally retarded persons who unwittingly confessed to crimes that they did not commit.” Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U.S. 304, 320 n.25 (2002)(citations omitted).

Previously identified with the stigmatizing term “mentally retarded,” the preferred term used today is “intellectually disabled” or “intellectual developmental disorder.” The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), defines the terms as a disorder with onset during person’s developmental period that features “intellectual functioning deficits” (i.e., difficulties in school and learning from experience, reasoning and problem solving, abstract thinking, and judgment) and “adaptive functioning deficits” (i.e., “failure to meet developmental and sociocultural standards for personal independence and social responsibility”).

There are four levels of intellectual disability severity: profound, severe, moderate and mild. Three of these categories—profound, severe, and moderate—are so bad, the people in them are the least likely to ever have contact with the criminal justice system. If these people are ever arrested and accused, there are issues of incompetency to stand trial, among others, that result in a treatment not easily traceable. They are the minority of people who are so disabled.

People with a profound intellectual disability (1–2%) fall below an IQ of 20–25. It hardly takes an expert to perceive this level of disability, as they can hardly express themselves verbally, among other very extreme deficits. People at the “severe” level (3–4%) have a slightly higher IQ range (between 20 and 40) than the “profound.” Like their even more disabled counterparts, they don’t understand numbers, can’t tell time or count money. They have limited language and must be helped with bathing, eating, and dressing themselves. A greater number (10%) fall within the “moderate” range with IQs at 35–55. Those in the moderate range can actually become independent on basic household chores and with personal care. With great support from family coworkers and other helpers, they can even work and manage money.

But the vast majority—about 85%—fall within the “mild” range (50–70). These are exactly the people who will be crushed by the criminal justice system because they don’t look like the character “Lennie’ from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. It is easy to believe the person is “just playing dumb.” Police and prosecutors who believe it have little difficulty convincing juries. As the “Making a Murderer” shows, it convinces judges as well.

“Making a Murderer”—Interrogation of Brendan Dassey

The Netflix documentary showed the repeated interrogation of a 16-year-old special education student, Brendan Dassey, with an IQ between 74 and 81 and described as “highly suggestible, docile, withdrawn, with extreme social anxiety and social avoidant characteristics, and more suggestible than 95% of the population.” Dassey v. Dittmann, 860 F.3d 933, 938–39 (7th Cir.), reversed, 877 F.3d 297 (7th Cir. 2017)(en banc). It is better observed on the videotape.

[Police Interrogators]: What else did he do to her? We know something else was done. Tell us, and what else did you do? Come on. Something with the head. Brendan?
Brendan: Huh? . . .
[Police Interrogators]: What else did you guys do, come on. . . .
[Police Interrogators]: We have the evidence, Brendan, we just need you ta, ta be honest with us.
Brendan: That he cut off her hair.
[Police Interrogators]: He cut off her hair? In the house?
Brendan: mm-huh. . . .
[Police Interrogators]: OK, what else?
[Police Interrogators]: What else was done to her head?
Brendan: That he punched her.
[Police Interrogators]: What else? [pause] What else? . . .
[Police Interrogators]: What did he make you do, Brendan? It’s okay. What did he make you do?
Brendan: Cut her.
[Police Interrogators]: Cut her where?
Brendan: On her throat. . . .
[Police Interrogators]:: What else happens to her in her head? . . .
[Police Interrogators]: Come on, Brendan, what else?
[pause] [Police Interrogators]: We know, we just need you to tell us.
Brendan: That’s all I can remember.
[Police Interrogators]: All right, I’m just gonna come out and ask you. Who shot her in the head?
Brendan: He did.
[Police Interrogators]: Then why didn’t you tell us that?
Brendan: Cuz I couldn’t think of it.
[Police Interrogators]:: Now you remember it? [Brendan nods “yes”]. Tell us about that then.

Interrogated with Intellectual Disabilities: The Risks of False Confession, 70 Stan. L. Rev. 643, 669–680 (2018).