You’ll Never Know Unless You Ask: Getting off Regular Probation Early


Let’s say you have found yourself on probation in Texas for the next several months or years, depending on the offense.  The good news is that in many cases a Texas judge has the authority to let you off probation early, which is properly known as early termination of probation.  This blog post will be discussing getting off of regular probation (also known as “formal” or “straight” probation) early, while a future blog post will discuss getting off of deferred adjudication probation early as the rules for deferred adjudication are slightly different.

Starting with the basics, a Texas judge can terminate a regular probation after the probationer has served one-third of their sentence or two years, whichever is less.  Also, to qualify for early termination of probation a defendant must not be delinquent in the payment of fines, court costs, fees, and restitution (more on this in a bit), must have successfully completed any required classes, evaluations or programs, and must be in compliance with the full slate of probation conditions.

Those are the statutory minimums.  But to go beyond the minimum, here are some tips.  Although you can ask to get off of probation as long as you are only “not delinquent” on your fines, fees and costs, it helps if you have paid your entire balance off and you owe the court nothing but the standard monthly probation fee of $60.00 (which you only pay for the months you are actually on probation, so you can’t be expected to “pay them early”).  Furthermore, it helps if you have your community service hours fully knocked out as well.  Lastly, ask yourself honestly if you have been a good probationer: have I given the probation department trouble, do I make my appointments and payments on time, do I test clean for drugs or alcohol when they test me?  When you ask to get off of probation early, for good or for bad, the probation department will have its say about you to the judge: make sure they say something good!

Texas judges have very wide latitude on whether or not to grant an early termination of probation.  Judges will typically weigh factors such as the seriousness of the original offense, the criminal history of the defendant, the opinions of the prosecutor and probation department, and any other considerations that particular judge deems important.

Article 42A.701(g) highlights the type of offenses which are not eligible to be terminated early.  These include probations resulting from convictions for DWI or other intoxication-related offenses, felonies involving a deadly weapon finding, offenses requiring Chapter 62 registration as a Sex Offender, and others.  Please note that certain judges may have their own “pet” offenses for which they personally feel that early termination is never warranted, such as Cruelty to Animals for example.

But if you are on probation for an offense that is not on the “forbidden list” and you have been following the rules and paying what you owe, you may want to consider asking to get off early.  Like the title of the article says, “You’ll never know unless you ask”!

Triple Zero May Not be the Winning Number

As a recent arrest of celebrity golfer Tiger Woods highlights, even blowing .000 on a breathalyzer machine will not fully protect you from a charge of DUI or, in Texas, DWI.  The breathalyzer machine only tests for the presence of alcohol in the subject’s breath (and thus, their blood).  The machine will not detect the presence of many other substances that can lead to intoxication.

As a reminder, intoxication Texas is defined  as “not having the normal use of mental or physical faculties by reason of the introduction of alcohol, a controlled substance, a drug, a dangerous drug, a combination of two or more of those substances, or any other substance into the body” or by having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more.  It is only for that last method of proving intoxication – the blood alcohol concentration – that the breathalyzer machine can speak to.

Beyond just alcohol which can be detected by the breathalyzer machine, intoxication can stem from the ingestion of controlled substances such as illegal narcotics, or even legally prescribed medications.  Even over the counter medication, if it renders the user “not normal” can lead to intoxication under Texas law.

Another aspect of intoxication that will not register on a breath test machine is the synergistic effect  that may occur when two or more substance are taken together or with alcohol.  Chemicals can often enhance and multiply the effects of each other when taken at the same time.  Legal, illegal, prescribed or over the counter, drugs that do not show up on a simple breath test may still be quite intoxicating to the user.

As always, be careful what you ingest, know your limits, and drive safely.

The High Court Gets It Right: Buck v. Stephens


As I discussed in a previous blog the United States Supreme Court was reviewing the case of Duane Buck, an inmate on Texas death row.  The issue was whether Buck should receive a new sentencing hearing because the jurors heard testimony from a (defense!) expert witness that the defendant was more likely to commit violent crimes and pose a future danger because he is black.  I mentioned in the earlier post that in my humble opinion, this was an unconscionable piece of testimony from the defense expert.  Someone’s race should never be part of the equation when a jury determines if a defendant should live or die.

Well, my humble opinion or not, the Supreme Court agreed.  They recently ruled 6-2 in Duane Buck’s favor and tossed out the death penalty sentence previously rendered.  Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion and in it, likened the race-based testimony of the expert to a “toxin”, which can still be “deadly in small doses”.  It is heartening to know that at least in this case, justice was done.

Buck’s conviction still stands, but he will have the chance to have another punishment hearing in front of a new jury.  As I stated before, if he deserves death, so be it, but the let jury who makes that choice be one who judges him for what he did, and not just for who he was born as.

Felony Ranges of Punishment in Texas

In an earlier blog we discussed misdemeanor ranges of punishment in Texas, which are the minimum and maximum punishments one can receive upon a conviction for a misdemeanor.  Today, we are focusing on felony ranges of punishments.

Where a misdemeanor worst case scenario involves confinement in the local county jail, for a Texas felony, the worst punishment is confinement in either at what is called a State Jail Facility or prison, which in Texas we refer to as TDC or TDCJ (for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice).  These State Jail or TDC facilities can be far from where a defendant lives which may be a hardship when it comes to receiving visits from family members.

As with misdemeanors, felonies in Texas are subdivided by penalty range from least serious to most serious as follows: State Jail felonies, third degree felonies, second degree felonies, first degree felonies and finally, capital felonies.  Let’s look at each.

A State Jail felony is the lowest set of felony offense in Texas.  If a defendant is found guilty, they can be sentenced to serve anywhere from 180 days to 2 years in a State Jail Facility or serve up to five years of probation and/or pay a fine of up to $10,000.00.  Now what is a State Jail Facility as opposed to plain ol’ prison?  A State Jail facility looks and acts pretty much like a county jail, there are no big towers with rifle-toting guards watching the grounds, it’s just a big building.  Also, where people sent to prison may be eligible for parole and get out earlier than their sentenced time, a sentence to State Jail is served day-for-day with no parole.  So a 2 year State Jail sentence for example means 2 actual day-for-day years.

State Jail felonies were created to encompass non-violent offenses so that non-violent offenders wouldn’t be mixing with violent offenders, at least in theory.  Typical examples of a State Jail felony offense include Forgery, Possession of a Penalty Group 1 Controlled Substance less than 1 gram, and Theft of a Firearm.

Next up the punishment ladder are third degree felonies.  In Texas, a third degree felony is punishable by confinement in prison anywhere from 2 to 10 years or up to 10 years of probation and/or a fine of up to $10,000.00.  Some examples are DWI – 3rd Offense, Tampering with Evidence, or Possession of a Penalty Group 1 Controlled Substance from 1 to 4 grams.

Next we have second degree felonies.  Here in Texas, a second degree felony carries a range of punishment from 2 to 20 years in prison or up to 10 years of probation and/or a fine of up to $10,000.00.  Some examples of second degree felonies include Aggravated Assault Causing Serious Bodily Injury and Intoxication Manslaughter.

Coming close to the top of the punishment range in Texas are first degree felonies.  These felonies carry a range of punishment from 5 to 99 years in prison or life in prison or up to 10 years of probation and/or a fine of up to $10,000.00.  In Texas, Murder, or Aggravated Assault against of Public Servant are examples of first degree felonies.

Above even first degree felonies are capital felonies.  Here, we are talking about offenses such as Capital Murder, which carry the potential for the death penalty, which Texas does indeed still recognize and enforce.  Should a defendant be found guilty of a capital felony in Texas and they do not receive the death penalty, they can still be facing life in prison without the possibility of parole.

It is important to remember that in addition to crimes spelled out in the Texas Penal Code, there are other crimes found tucked away in many places in the larger body of Texas law, from the Health and Safety Code to the Government Code to the Water Code and others.  Some of these crimes fall in to the felony vs. misdemeanor categories we’ve discussed above, but some just defy such easy definition.

Also, in a forthcoming post I’ll discuss the vitally important aspect of sentencing enhancements, which can effectively upgrade a felony into the next higher punishment range in certain situations.

Misdemeanor Ranges of Punishment in Texas

when arrested in round rock
A basic, yet vitally important aspect of a criminal case is what is the level of the offense charged.  The level of offense determines the maximum and minimum punishments should a defendant be found guilty.  In Texas, as in most states, most criminal offenses can be broken into two broad categories, misdemeanors and felonies.  Today we are going to are going to focus on misdemeanors.

For a misdemeanor, the worst punishment is confinement in the local county jail.  So we are not talking about prison, simply confinement in the jail probably located in or near the county seat.  For felonies, however, the worst punishment is confinement in prison, which in Texas we refer to as TDC or TDCJ (for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice).  But again, today, we are just talking about misdemeanors.

Now misdemeanors in Texas are further subdivided into three different penalty ranges.  For misdemeanors, Texas ranks them from least serious to most as follows:  Class C misdemeanors at the bottom, then Class B, then Class A misdemeanors.  Let’s look at each.

A Class C misdemeanor is what we would normally consider “just a ticket”; where a police officer stops the defendant, writes a ticket and lets them go with a promise to appear in court later.   Here we are talking about relatively minor offenses such as Disorderly Conduct or Public Intoxication.  You can be arrested on a Class C Misdemeanor, but that’s rare.  A Class C misdemeanor in Texas can result in a fine of up to $500.00 plus court costs and that’s it, no jail time, no probation, just a maximum fine of $500.00 only.

Next on the level of seriousness in Texas are Class B misdemeanors.  Unlike with Class C misdemeanors where you’ll likely just get a ticket and not go to jail, Class B misdemeanors typically result in arrest.  Typical examples are first offense DWI’s, Possession of Marijuana less than 2 grams, and Theft from $50.00 to $500.00.  A Class B misdemeanor carries a range of punishment of 0 to 180 days in the county jail, or up to 2 years of probation, and/or a fine from 0 dollars to $2,000.00.

Last on the Texas misdemeanor punishment ladder are Class A misdemeanors, representing the most serious misdemeanors according to the legislature.  Here we are talking about crimes such as Assault Causing Bodily Injury, Resisting Arrest, second offense DWI’s, and others.  Class A misdemeanors in Texas carry a range of punishment from 0 to 365 days in the county jail, or up to 2 years of probation, and/or a fine from 0 dollars to $4,000.00.

Above the Class A misdemeanor range we get into the realm of felonies, which I’ll discuss in a forthcoming post.


Pre-Trial Release Officers


Who acts like a probation officer, and talks like a probation officer but isn’t a probation officer?  Well, they go by many names; some counties may call them a pre-trial release officer, or a bond compliance officer or a pre-trial services officer.  But whatever the name, the job is the same: to monitor a defendant’s compliance with their bond conditions.  Now we have discussed bond conditions in an earlier post, and they are a list of things that a court has ordered a defendant who is out on bond to do, or not do, or risk having their bond taken away or raised.  Well, who checks to see if a defendant is following those rules?  You guessed it: the pre-trial release officer (or whatever name that county has for that job).

If a defendant is assigned to a pre-trial release officer, the experience is much like being assigned to a probation officer.  You will meet with them and let them know some information about you like where you live, where you work, and various ways to get a hold of you.  This person has a job to do: to monitor you.  They are not paid to be your friend or to be your enemy, they are simply there to report compliance or non-compliance. If you follow the rules, they can be useful in the court proceedings (more on that later).  But if you don’t follow the rules, they are supposed to report that failing to the judge and the prosecutor’s office.  It’s not personal, it’s their job.  What the court and/or the prosecutor’s office does with that information is up to them.  As for the pre-trial officer, they have no independent power and are simply there to gather information and monitor you.  They can’t lock you back up, but they can certainly report you to the people who can.

Defendants assigned to a pre-trial officer will generally be given a set schedule for when to meet in person.  These meeting dates and times are important: this isn’t Supercuts; bond compliance officers don’t like drop-in customers.  Additionally, if a defendant was court-ordered to do something like install an ignition interlock in their car, or report to drug counseling, or provide proof of employment, expect that all that paperwork showing proof of compliance (receipts, certificates, paystubs, etc.) will need to be turned over to the officer.  A safe bet would be to keep a copy for your own records of anything that is turned over, in case something gets lost or misfiled, you will then be able to have your own proof if needed.

As frustrating and intrusive as having to report to a pre-trial officer is, there is one potential upside.  A defendant who is following the rules now has a neutral court officer who can report to the judge or prosecutor that the defendant is in fact doing what they have been told.  This is what I call “building a record of success”.  Meaning, that compliance officer is now documenting that every hoop the defendant was asked to jump through, they did.  This can help a defense attorney in negotiations with the state sometimes when perhaps the prosecutor was not inclined to offer probation or deferred adjudication.  A neutral record of success may be just the ammunition needed to help sway that reluctant prosecutor.

Of course, the downside of a having a compliance officer monitoring you is that if you are breaking the rules, you are now creating a record of failure.  Such a record can certainly impact how the court, the prosecutor, and perhaps even a jury might see you.  The safest bet as always is to follow all court-ordered bond conditions to the letter.

Out on Bail but Not Out of Trouble: Bond Conditions


A person gets arrested, goes to jail, makes bail and gets released.  Other than showing up for court, he’s got nothing to else to worry about, right?  Unfortunately not, in many cases.  In Texas, Chapter 17 of the Code of Criminal Procedure authorizes judges to set what are called bond conditions on a criminal defendant.  Each of these conditions are things that the defendant must do, or must not do, or risk having their bond either revoked (taken away) or their bond amount raised, either of which can mean going back to jail.

These bond conditions fall into two categories, general and offense-specific.  Let’s talk about general bond conditions first.  General bond conditions are broadly-worded warnings from the judge to the defendant like “don’t break the law”, or “don’t use drugs without a prescription”, or “make all your scheduled court appearances”.  Let’s say you are out on bail for offense X and then six weeks later you are arrested again for offense Y, well, the judge on offense X can revoke or raise your bail for that original case.  That can mean another trip back to jail, and more money out of your pocket to get free.

General bond conditions don’t even have to be formally ordered by the judge to take effect.  It is simply assumed that defendants know that if they break the law, use illegal drugs while out on bond, or skip out on court, they are putting their bond at risk.  As the old saying goes, ignorance of the law is no defense.

While general bond conditions can apply to any type criminal charge, offense-specific bond conditions are, as the name says, linked to that particular offense.  For example, an alcohol-related offense can trigger a bond condition that the defendant must use an ignition interlock device on their vehicle or must wear a SCRAM alcohol ankle monitor.  White collar or financial crimes may trigger bond conditions to not hold other people’s money in trust or even handle money at a charity event.  Family violence allegations can trigger a whole host of bond conditions such as being forbidden to possess firearms, to have no contact with the alleged victim of the offense, or even being subject to GPS monitoring.

And the list goes on and on.  Computer crime?  There can be a court order to stay off the internet.  Crimes against a child?  There can be an order to have no contact with anyone under the age of 18.  The possibilities are almost endless.  The law in Texas gives judges the ability to order any “reasonable bond condition” on a criminal defendant who is awaiting their ultimate day in court.  Now, what some may see as reasonable, someone else may consider to be overly burdensome.  So even though a criminal defendant is considered innocent until proven guilty, the experience of being a criminal defendant out on bond can sometimes not feel that way.


DWI vs. DUI: What’s the (Texas) Difference?


DWI: Driving While Intoxicated. DUI: Driving Under the Influence.  Two possibly similar Texas crimes, with two very different potential consequences.  In many states besides Texas, any allegation of driving while under the influence of alcohol is considered DWI.  In contrast, in those other states a DUI is charged when there is suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs.  DWI for alcohol.  DUI for drugs.  Simple really.

Well, sometimes here in Texas we do things our own special way.  In Texas the difference between a DWI charge and a DUI charge can hinge on two factors, the level of intoxication, and the age of the driver.

Let’s talk about DUI first.  In Texas, if a driver under the age of 21 has any detectable amount of alcohol in their system – even if it is not impairing them behind the wheel – they can be charged with a DUI.  The thinking is that in Texas, since it is illegal to consume alcohol under 21 anyway, the State can criminalize the conduct of younger drivers who drank any amount of alcohol.

A DUI in Texas is considered a Class C misdemeanor, which can result in a fine of up to $500.00, but cannot result in any jail time.  A DUI will get your driver’s license suspended however, anywhere from 60 to 180 days depending on the amount of prior alcohol-related driving convictions you have on your record.

Now let’s look at a DWI.  In Texas, a person is considered driving while intoxicated if they are operating a motor vehicle while either not having the normal use of their mental or physical faculties due to alcohol, drugs, dangerous drugs (i.e. prescription medications), or a combination of those substances, or by having a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 or higher.  As we see here, neither the age of the driver, nor the type of substance consumed has any bearing on the charge.  Alcohol, drugs, it doesn’t matter: if something makes you mentally or physically impaired, meaning “not normal”, and you drive, you risk a DWI charge.

While a DUI is merely a Class C misdemeanor which cannot result in jail time, a DWI is at least a Class B misdemeanor which carries a potential penalty of up to six months in jail or two years of probation and up to a $2000.00 fine.  And that’s just for your first conviction.  The second conviction is a more serious Class A misdemeanor while a third conviction is considered a felony with the possibility of prison time.

And don’t think that if you are under 21 you will only be charged with that lower DUI offense.  If the police think that you are exhibiting signs of a true DWI, they are free to charge you with that higher offense.

As always, take care of yourself, be careful what you consume, and drive safe.

Talking Texas Law

Please join me at my new YouTube channel, Talking Texas Law as I discuss relevant legal topics with a Texas focus.  Although our overall American justice system shares many similarities from state to state, each state does in fact have its own way of doing things.  I love the law and I enjoy talking about the ins and outs of the Texas legal system!

Who Owns the Case?

I have heard a variation of that question many, many times.  And it is a perfectly reasonable question.  Many people think that with a phone call from the complaining witness / victim to the police, a judge, or the prosecutor’s office, a case can get dismissed.  It’s logical to assume that if a victim was the person who called the police in the first place to get the ball rolling on criminal charges being filed against a defendant, that same person can call or do something to make those same charges get dropped.  Logical, yes…but totally wrong.

Why is that?

The answer is that in Texas, the State owns the case from the minute the police arrive all the way until the final disposition of the case.  That means first the responding police officers, and later the local prosecuting attorneys, have complete discretion on whether or not a case gets filed, and whether or not a case goes forward to prosecution.  Although the victim in a case can ask to have charges dropped, they have zero control over the case.  Fair or not, the prosecutor’s office has the final call.

If a victim tries to call in or correspond with the prosecutor’s office in an effort to get a case dropped, it is not unusual for that office to refer the person to a Victim’s Advocate Coordinator (or VAC).  Via a phone call, email or face-to-face meeting, the VAC will typically talk to the victim and make sure they are not being pressured or threatened by anyone into asking to have charges dropped.  It is important to consider that these VAC don’t work for the victim or the defendant, they are employees of the prosecutor’s office, with all that entails.  It has been my experience that while some VACs are diligent about making sure the victim’s wishes are recorded in case file, others frankly are obstructionist and actively seek to dissuade the victim from requesting to have the case dropped.  In any event, the VAC will likely tell the the victim to fill out an official form requesting a case be dismissed, such as an Affidavit of Non-Prosecution, rather than requesting it over the phone or in an informal letter.  But again, fancy or formal, the victim’s request to have a case dismissed carries no official weight.

This is not to say that the victim’s request to drop charges is meaningless.
The accused’s defense attorney would love to know that a victim is feeling this way.  And an experienced prosecutor, too, should find this information useful as they are weighing and prioritizing court resources.

There is a hidden benefit to defendants when the State has total ownership over a case.  Just like a victim cannot force the State to drop charges, they cannot force the State to file charges in the first place, or force the State to work a case out in a particular way.  A victim cannot, for example, force the police to file charge X instead of charge Y or make the State’s attorney only offer prison time in a case and not offer probation.

For good or for bad, once a criminal case gets filed  in Texas, the State has complete ownership of the case unless and until the matter is finally put to trial before a judge or jury.

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