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.


Police are Getting Theft Warrants for Shoplifting During the COVID Pandemic

October 6, 2020

By Criminal Defense Attorney Jeremy Rosenthal

jeremy@texasdefensefirm.com

(972) 369-0577

There are currently a glut of warrants for theft in Collin County from shoplifting cases.

Why?  Because during the beginning of the pandemic, police did not want to take folks to jail for shoplifting.  Police were under marching orders to keep the jail clear and police were like anyone else who didn’t want to ride with a stranger in a car for 20 minutes if they didn’t have to.

You can check Collin County Warrants here.  The warrant page says all warrants may not be visible to the public.  If a warrant is not visible it’s typically because of some organized crime ring where they round up the entire group at once.  Shoplifting theft cases don’t fit this profile.

Why Are They Getting Warrants Months and Months Later?

People are required to go to jail in most criminal cases – even if it’s just to book in then out.  The reason is simple — if criminal court were voluntary, no one would come.  The law doesn’t allow people to be prosecuted in absentia so that means the courts have to have some way to compel you to come.  They make you come to court by holding the threat of jail over your head.

Because they didn’t take someone to jail in the first place in March, April, or May – they now have to do it in September or October.

 

How are They Doing This?

Police are asking judges to sign arrest warrants based on probable cause affidavits.  All a probable cause affidavit lays out is the “probable cause” for the charge.  The judge then signs the warrant which allows police to arrest a person.  Criminal charges come later in this scenario.

Another way arrest warrants are triggered is where the District Attorney’s office files the actual criminal charges.

Are They Going to Come and Get Me if I Have a Shoplifting Warrant?

Legally they can but they might not.  They may not have the resources to resolve this glut of cases and they may just be satisfied for folks to either turn themselves in or for the warrant to sit dormant until someone gets pulled over at some point in the future.

A person with an active arrest warrant should always do their best to promptly resolve the warrant by turning themselves in, however.  Not only is it required by law but as I tell clients by turning yourself in with a plan to bond – you are in control and can minimize how long you’re in jail.  I tell clients an arrest will happen at the worst and most inconvenient time if they don’t resolve it promptly (like when you’re on a big date or on your way to your kids soccer game).

Most warrants like this already have a bond amount set in advance so you might not even have to wait for a judge.  Also, most shoplifting cases don’t particularly carry bond amounts which are extraordinarily high.  There is a good chance you are in and out of jail regardless of your financial condition.

Does This Make My Case Worse?

No.  The prosecutor will ultimately file charges and the vast majority of shoplifting cases are misdemeanors.  They carry a range of options which allow for expunctions or ways to get your record cleared.  I’ve handled so many theft cases I can’t count them all.  I can safely say how the person was apprehended never makes a difference in the case – unless, of course there was a fight or something like that.

There is an excellent chance of getting theft off your record depending on your personal history and the facts of the case through an expunction or non-disclosure.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is board certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.  He is recognized as a Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters.  Jeremy is a senior partner at Rosenthal, Kalabus & Therrian, PLLC.  www.texasdefensefirm.com.