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Texas Appeals Court Throws Out Drug Conviction, 68-Year Sentence, Due to Improper Jury Instruction

During a traffic stop, a police officer may ask for permission to search your vehicle. You should always refuse permission. If the officer has reason to believe you are hiding evidence of criminal activity, such as violations of Texas drug laws, they can also apply to a judge for a warrant. But once you give permission, anything recovered from your vehicle can be used as evidence against you in court.

Eyewitness Disputed Officers’ Claim That Defendant “Consented” to Search of His Vehicle

A recent decision from the Texas 11th District Court of Appeals in Eastland, Gonzales v. State, illustrates the critical importance of this issue. In this case, a jury convicted the defendant of cocaine possession with “intent to deliver.” He received a 68-year prison sentence for this offense. The 11th District, however, reversed the conviction and sentence and ordered a new trial.

So what happened? According to the evidence presented at trial, two police officers initiated a traffic stop of the defendant’s vehicle. The defendant admitted he was driving with a suspended license. The officers proceeded to conduct a check of the defendant’s criminal record for outstanding warrants. While waiting for the results, one of the officers asked the defendant for permission to search his vehicle. The officers proceeded to search the vehicle and recovered cocaine and other drug paraphernalia.

The officers testified the defendant consented to the search. The prosecution also introduced a video of the traffic stop. The video did show the officer asking for permission to search, but it did not “clearly record” the defendant’s answer, according to the 11th District. The defendant himself did not testify, but an eyewitness, a passenger in the car at the time, testified the defendant did not give consent.

The defendant asked the trial judge to instruct the jurors that they should disregard any evidence obtained in the search if they believed–or had reasonable doubt–that the defendant did not give his consent. The judge declined to give the instruction. The 11th District said that it was a legal error justifying a new trial.

As the appeals court explained, a defendant is entitled to this type of instruction when there is a “genuine dispute about a material fact,” in this case whether or not he consented to the search. It is not enough for the defendant to simply dispute the prosecution’s facts. Instead, there must be some “affirmative evidence that contradicts the existence of that fact.” Here, that affirmative evidence came from the passenger’s testimony, which directly contradicted what the officers told the jury.

So the trial judge should have instructed the jury as requested by the defendant. The failure to give the instruction caused “some harm” to the defendant, as it violated his due process rights under Texas law. Accordingly, the 11th District said his conviction could not stand.

Speak with a Houston Drug Crimes Defense Attorney Today

Many people fear they will get into even more trouble if they refuse a police officer’s request to search their vehicle. But always remember, the right to refuse is protected by the Constitution. You never have to give consent or speak to the police when you are suspected of committing a crime. You also have the right to representation from an experienced Houston drug crimes defense lawyer who will fight to ensure the courts respect your rights and follow the rules. If you have been charged with a drug crime and need legal advice, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Houston, Galveston or League City today. Call (281) 280-0100