Interesting Mandamus Case

Via Liberty and Justice for Y’all, In Re Escamilla (PDF), in which the Travis County Attorney (Escamilla, who is the elected official responsible for prosecuting misdemeanor cases in that county) filed a mandamus against a judge for allowing a defendant to plead open (that is, without an agreed recommendation) to the judge without the state’s consent.

The Austin Court of Appeals granted mandamus (conditionally) because the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure doesn’t allow a defendant to waive a jury trial without the state’s consent. That’s black-letter law, and not the interesting thing about the case.

The judge sentenced the defendant to thirty days in jail on each case (four counts of possession of marihuana, one count of possession of a controlled substance, and one count of bail jumping). There’s no intimation in the opinion that these were illegal sentences.

If the parties had tried the case to a jury, the judge could have set punishment. In fact, judge-assessed punishment is the default condition; when a jury is to decide guilt the defendant can elect before trial for the jury to decide punishment instead of the judge. There is an abstruse argument that when the defendant pleads guilty to the jury the jury must set punishment, but this argument only becomes interesting when the judge will give deferred-adjudication probation but the prosecutor objects.

The interesting thing about the case is that the judge could have set the same punishment if he had followed the correct procedure: pick a jury, have the state put on evidence, let the jury find the defendant guilty, then set punishment at thirty days in jail on each case, concurrent. If the state still won’t waive a jury, that’s one of the possible outcomes on remand. The same result, but the state can’t appeal it.

Or the judge could decide, after hearing the evidence, that the state hadn’t proven its case and direct a verdict of acquittal. The state can’t appeal that either.

So what did the state gain by filing this mandamus (to which the defendant’s lawyer didn’t even bother replying)?

Why would they insist on taking the time first of the court of appeals and then wasting a jury’s time to get to the same legal result? Would not doing so have set some sort of precedent that might have led to illegal results?

Help me out.

four counts of possession of marihuana, one count of possession of a controlled substance, and one count of bail jumping 

3 responses to “Interesting Mandamus Case”

  1. You know the answer. There are two reasons.

    First, the defendant suffers. Not with additional formal punishment perhaps, but with inconvenience and maybe lost income for taking time off work to go to trial and maybe attorney fees if counsel’s retained. And of course if the evidence demonstrates evil, the judge can crank up the sentence.

    Second, the state gets to demonstrate that it can do anything it damn well pleases because it’s in charge, not the poor schmuck with the marijuana who didn’t show up for a court appearance (or whatever exactly his bail jumping was).

  2. I thought the same thing when I read the charges to which he pleaded guilty. What more is the State hoping to gain in sentencing here? There has to be more to this story. Perhaps this particular judge has been out of the box laterly and this was the State’s way of sending a message? I don’t know.

  3. It’s a messed up rule that the state has to consent to a defendant’s waiver of a jury trial, and this shows why. It gives the government the idea that they have “rights” instead of power and authority. The system is supposed to defend the former and check the latter.

    When the government is given a “right”, by statute, it simply becomes an unchecked superpower, which is amply demonstrated here. How often are criminal defendants’s “rights” vindicated on Mandamus?

    Government actors often instinctively guard their powers jealously against the slightest, most meaningless incursions. Sometimes it seems to be precisely because the incursion is of little or no consequence, since the senseless exercise of power is power simpliciter needing no further justification.

    That’s what I think is going on, anyway. It’s prally not as evil as I make it sound. Not consciously, anyway.

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