Mental Illness & Criminal Law: Understanding the Problem

October 15, 2020

By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

texasdefensefirm.com

(972) 369-0577

It’s hard to over-state the importance the role mental illness plays in criminal law.  There’s little question in my mind it’s far more prevalent people give it credit for.

A recent survey to Texas criminal defense lawyers asked, “What percentage of your clients suffer from some degree of mental illness in your view?” — and the most common answer was between 50% and 75%.

 

What is Mental Illness?

I find many folks – including my clients and their families – struggle with understanding the very concept of having emotional or behavioral problems.

My view is just about everyone wakes up in the morning wanting to be a law abiding citizen.  But many people are driven so far out of their normal range they get in trouble because of things like anxiety, depression, manic states, and on and on.  This is how I define mental illness.

The term “mentally ill” has a much harsher and deeper connotation than what it really means to me.  Many think it only applies to people who hear voices in their heads, talk to themselves, or who must be confined to a straight jacket in a padded room.  In reality, someone going through a really rough patch in their lives can be driven so far by everything going on in their mind – they can often do or say something which hurts another person or gets themselves in a situation they otherwise know is wrong.

Jail

I ask juries what they think of our national mental health system.  They get puzzled – because they can’t really think of what that is.  Then I point out to them the tragic truth — our mental health system is called “jail.”

Jail and mental illness are frequently on a collision course.  We often don’t know someone has cancer until they exhibit physical symptoms.  We often don’t know someone has the flu until they have a fever.  And we often don’t know how much someone is struggling inside until they get into trouble.  It could be assault, theft, drugs, trespassing — the scenarios are endless — but there are very few criminal cases where mental illness doesn’t play a role.

The Enemy of Treatment – the “Tough on Crime” Mindset

Texas is tough on crime.  Many here unfortunately feed into the cops vs. robbers, good guys vs. bad guys dialogue.  Many believe if crime rates are high – we just need to be meaner to people and things will be fine.  Fortunately these voices are fewer and fewer.

Police deal with tons of mental illness on the streets.  Their aim is generally short-term safety for everyone and not necessarily long term treatment.  They also often don’t have the choice but to take someone to jail who has either committed a crime or who poses a danger to others.

I find prosecutors have a tougher time understanding mental illness because they’re somewhat insulated from it.  They talk with the shop-owner who is having a hard time making ends meet but it’s the defense lawyer who deals to the shoplifter describe the sheer degree of anxiety which drove them to do something they knew was wrong as a simple example.

Getting People Help

The million-dollar question is how do we get help to those who need it. That’s an equally difficult problem.  Understanding the problem is the start.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.  He is a Texas Super Lawyer as designated by Thomson Reuters.


Retesting Blood From a DWI Arrest in Texas

October 13, 2020

By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

texasdefensefirm.com

(972) 369-0577

You can retest blood from a Driving While Intoxicated arrest in Texas.

In fact, you can even retest it without the prosecution not knowing the results of the retest.

I’ve been blogging lately on expert witnesses and their role in investigation and assistance on the criminal defense team.  Remember, the law encourages defense lawyers to investigate their case without fear they will uncover unfavorable evidence.

How Does a DWI Blood Retest Work?

The blood is typically kept with the police department who originally made the arrest after it is tested by the Department of Public Safety.  They’re not going to hand over the blood to you or your retesting lab as you might imagine.

A lawyer can file an Ex Parte Motion with the Court.  That means “one party.”  A Criminal Defendant is allowed by law to approach the judge without knowledge of the prosecutor when they need to utilize the power of the court for assistance.

Your lawyer does have to convince the court the evidence will be handled appropriately and returned without incident.

The Judge, then, orders the police department (or whomever has the blood) to send it directly to your lab.  After the retest is done, the lab is then ordered to send it back to the police department.

What to Expect From a DWI Blood Retest

Blood oxidizes over time.  This means most retests will show less alcohol in the system.  However, retesting is more than a parlor trick.  Studies have been done on how much oxidizing should take place and if a blood retest shows a significantly lower result then the original – it can suggest the original test was done improperly or the blood was mishandled at some unknown point.

Can You Retest to Make Sure it is the Same Person?

Some of my clients fear they mixed up their blood at the lab with someone else.  Anything is possible.  This would require a DNA test.  These can be done too but they are far more expensive.

The Prosecution Won’t Know?

The prosecution could likely discover the police were ordered to ship it to an independent lab. And they can probably guess why.  But they’re not entitled to know the result of the retest unless Defense chooses to disclose it.  Further, the Defense lawyer would not allow the prosecutor or anyone to reference the retest if the case went to a trial.  In most instances when we reveal the blood was retested – it actually comes as a surprise to most prosecutors.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.  He is recognized as a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.


Hiring Expert Witnesses for Your Case – What You Should Know

October 11, 2020

By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

texasdefensefirm.com

(972) 369-0577

Expert witnesses are an important part of trial advocacy.

What is an Expert Witness?

A person with specialized knowledge of a particular is allowed to testify provided they comport with other rules surrounding reliability in both Texas and Federal Courts.

Judges have a detailed legal framework they must follow to determine if a particular expert may testify in a particular case.

Experts can testify in applied scientists such as DNA or blood analysis, areas such as computer forensics, cell phone tower triangulation, and in soft sciences such as therapy or domestic violence, and even in areas such as accounting, plumbing, or as in the movie “My Cousin Vinny,” — independent rear suspension cars made in the 1960’s.

Do I Really Need an Expert Witness?

Follow your lawyer’s recommendations here.

The defense can establish their own trial theory either through their own witnesses and experts or through the prosecution’s witnesses and experts.  Prosecution witnesses and experts are predictably uncooperative with us and some of their experts will easily admit to shortcomings in the state’s case and others won’t.  There is no substitute for the clarity and power a good expert witness can provide on your side.

There are risks to proffering an expert witness in your defense.  A good expert witness should be loyal to their discipline – not necessarily to you winning your case.  This helps them be credible.  But this also means your expert may have to admit to facts which can hurt your case when the prosecutor asks… and sometimes those could be facts and analysis the prosecutor was never aware of in the first place.

Ultimately the complexity of certain issues often dictates.  Trial is teaching the jury a theory.  That can be hard with a state’s expert who sees it as their job to make sure you lose.  A good expert witness on your own side is often necessary.

Why is an Expert Witness Paid?

I don’t work for free and neither do you.  I haven’t met anyone who does.

The fact a defense expert witness is paid and how much are typically good fodder for prosecutors on cross examination.  If you think about the fact they’re paid – it’s actually a good thing.  That is because testifying is their livelihood and for that reason they wouldn’t jeopardize it by saying crazy or quack science when a court reporter allows everyone in the State to know how they testify.

The Court Can Pay For Your Expert

The Court can pay for someone’s expert witness in certain instances — even if the lawyer is retained privately.  The expert must be willing to accept the court’s payments which are typically lower than on the private market and the Court will underwrite and evaluate Defendant’s financial status.

Ask your lawyer about Court assistance for experts if money is tight.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is board certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.  He is designated as a Texas Super Lawyer by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.


What is the Difference Between a Flat Fee and a Retainer When Hiring a Lawyer?

October 10, 2020

By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

jeremy@texasdefenselawyer.com

(972) 369-0577

This is a common question.

Remember a lawyer is selling their time.  Both a flat fee and retainer are different ways the lawyer sells that time.  These are actually topics of much debate in the legal community and are a bit more complex than meets the eye.

Abraham Lincoln said the legal fee is important because “It lets the client know he’s got a lawyer and the lawyer know he’s got a client.”

Important Reasons Which Go Into a Fee Amount 

A lawyer’s time is not an unlimited resource and some lawyers are justified in charging more for their time than others based on complexity of the matter and that lawyer’s experience.

Also, when a lawyer accepts your case – the lawyer is also limiting themselves because the lawyer now can’t sell time to (1) a different paying client because there are only so many hours in a day or (2) other potential clients he or she cannot legally represent because they would be conflicted from representing by virtue of their representation of you.

Flat Fees

A flat fee sounds a bit more self-explanatory than a retainer but there are still restrictions and issues with lawyers charging flat fees.

The advantage of the flat fee is it is clear-cut and caps the client’s potential financial output.  The disadvantage is the client could over-pay if the case is more resolved more quickly than anticipated.

Flat fees must still be justifiable at the end of the day.  Common sense still applies.  Where a client pays a lawyer gobs of money on day one and the client terminates representation on day two – the lawyer simply cannot justify keeping anything other than the amount he’s actually earned, if any.

Retainers

A retainer is money paid to the lawyer which the lawyer sets aside in a trust account.  The money legally remains the client’s property unless or until the lawyer earns it.  Once they earn it, they can then draw it from the account.

If the lawyer does not earn all of the money you deposited in trust then the client is entitled to a refund of the unused retainer.

The upside of a retainer is obvious.  The downside of a retainer is once the retainer has been expended, it typically needs to be refilled.

I compare a retainer to a tank of gas.  Sometimes it takes a half a tank to get to the destination but sometimes it could take 3 tanks.

Is A Flat Fee Better or is a Retainer Better?

It depends on the case in my mind.  You don’t want your lawyer to be paid too much and believe it or not — you really don’t want them to be paid to little either.

In a criminal defense practice there are many cases we handle very routinely where our time is predictable and as the lawyer, we’re willing to take the risk on a flat fee because we know from experience the amount of time we’ll be spending on a certain case falls in within an acceptable range.  Those tend to be misdemeanors like DWI, domestic assault, or theft cases to name a few.

Retainers are a flexible way to handle cases where our time output will be a bit more difficult to predict.  Those would typically be cases like sexual assault, felony drug possession, or white collar charges such as embezzlement or money laundering.  A retainer also assists when we need to pay other client expenses such as investigators or expert witnesses which we’ll need to involve from time to time depending on the case.

The retainer, then, is a good way of making sure the fee is just right on more complex cases where a flat fee may just be far too high or far too low.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.  He is Designated as a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.


Your Right to a Speedy Trial – and The Effect of the COVID Pandemic

October 8, 2020

By Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

jeremy@texasdefensefirm.com

(972) 369-0577

This could probably be a full blown law review article but I’ll stick to good blogging etiquette – long enough to cover the basics and short enough to keep interest.

These days I sound like a broken record with my clients.  “We’re not able to have your jury trial yet.  We need to reset your case again.  Sorry.”

Many of my clients don’t want a speedy trial and many are happy to put off their prosecution indefinitely.  Everyone is different and their circumstances are different so I can see it both ways.  The Constitution guarantees a right to a speedy trial for no other reason that it takes away a possible prosecutorial ploy to ruin someone’s life by just maintaining a cloud of suspicion over a person without ever having to prove their case.

I find courts and prosecutors still struggle with their own understanding of what a speedy trial is or isn’t.  Unfortunately my experience is Courts and prosecutors generally don’t take speedy trial issues very seriously and only see it as an arbitrary escape hatch for a criminal to avoid responsibility.  Our challenge is to show the Court why the Constitution means what it says and says what it means about speedy trials in every case.

How Speedy Trial Works under the Law

The cornerstone case for speedy trial for both State and Federal purposes is called Barker v. Wingo.  That case weighs four separate factors in determining whether there has been a violation of someone’s rights to a speedy trial.

The Barker v. Wingo Factors (Quickly)

The Court Weighs:

  1.  The length of the delay;
  2.  The reason for the delay;
  3.  The time and manner in which Defendant asserted their right;
  4.  The degree of prejudice Defendant has suffered because of the delay.

Prejudice suffered can be anywhere from the natural stress and anxiety which comes from being criminally prosecuted to things which more directly impact the case such as witnesses being more difficult to find or memories about an event fading.

Another big factor is the reason for the delay.  Courts typically try and calculate who is at fault for how much of the delay.  In Barker v. Wingo, the accused was a co-defendant in a homicide.  The prosecution wanted to convict the other person first so they sought 13 or 14 continuances on Barker’s case for strategy reasons.

COVID Delays

We won’t know how the Courts will construe speedy trial delays under Barker for the purposes of the pandemic.  I don’t think they can blame the defense, obviously, for the delay – but the question is whether the Courts will attribute the delays to the government because of of public safety?  Could courts turn around and try to blame Defendant for asserting rights such as the right to confront witnesses in person – or not having a judge trial instead of a jury trial?  It’s hard to know.

Stay Tuned

In 2021 and almost certainly beyond – we are looking to have a major backlog of court cases which will need to be resolved.  Courts have often been dismissive of speedy trial issues but the issue may have a resurgence.

What Lawyers Should be Doing Now

There is really no reason a lawyer shouldn’t file a speedy trial demand in each of their cases set for trial during the pandemic.  Those speedy trial demands can always be waived, but it helps establish the third prong – that the defense is trying to assert their right early in the process.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.  He is recognized as a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.