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The Texas Criminal and Civil Justice System


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Title: The Texas Criminal and Civil Justice System

The Texas Criminal and Civil Justice System
This section focuses specifically on the criminal
justice system in the state of Texas and the
United States as a whole. This takes us through
several steps in the governing process. The
entire criminal justice system involves all three
branches of government.
What is Criminal Justice? Wikipedia Criminal
Justice Sourcebook of CJ Statistics National CJ
Reference Service What is Criminal Justice?
Criminal justice is the application or study of
laws regarding criminal behavior.
For various stories on the topic click here Crime
Criminal law falls under the reserved powers
mentioned in the 10th amendment the police
powers of the state. The national government has
used the commerce clause to justify expanding
into criminal law. Crime over state borders does
have an impact on interstate commerce.
Recall that the U.S. Constitution contains no
delegated power to deal with crimes.
Useful sites related to federal criminal law
LII USC Title 18 Crimes and Criminal
Procedure DOJ Federal Criminal Law Wikipedia
Federal Crime in the United States Syllabus Law
735 Federal Criminal Law
Discussion Are there too many federal laws? -
As Criminal Laws Proliferate, More Are Ensnared -
You're (Probably) a Federal Criminal
The national government has a criminal justice
system, but the bulk of our attention will be on
that of Texas.
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Activities within the scope of criminal justice
Law creation Law Enforcement Prosecution Trials
Appeals Punishment Parole
There are two general categories of criminal
law Misdemeanors Felonies
A misdemeanor is a crime punishable by less than
12 months in jail.  Community service, probation,
fines, and imprisonment for less than a year are
commonly issued punishments for misdemeanors.
More grievous crimes, felonies, carry stiffer
penalties, including jail time of more than 12
MISDEMEANORS Class A up to 1 year in a county
jail and/or a fine up to 4,000 Class B up to
180 days in a county jail and/or a fine up to
2,000 Class C fine not to exceed 500
A felony is a serious crime punishable by more
than a year in prison or by death. At English
common law, a felony was any crime punishable by
forfeiture of land or goods to the Crown.
FELONIES Capital death by lethal injection or
life imprisonment First Degree 5-99 year or life
in prison may also be fined up to
10,000 Second Degree 2-20 years in prison may
also be fined up to 10,000 Third Degree 2-10
years in prison may also be fined up to
10,000 State Jail (Fourth Degree) 180 days to 2
years in state jail, may also be fined up to
10,000 or court may impose Class A misdemeanor
While were at it, what is a crime exactly?
Crime is behavior, either by act or omission,
defined by statutory or common law as deserving
of punishment. ok . . . so what makes something
deserving of punishment?
Click here for a list of criminal classifications
in Texas. Here is a more comprehensive list.
Sources of law
Statutes passed by the state legislature Provisio
ns of the Texas Constitution Common Law
Every time the Texas Legislature meets it passes
a variety of new statutes which make new things
illegal to do. These come into effect
generally September 1st following the end of
the session.
Here are reports about the most recent laws
passed in the 82nd session Criminal Law
Blog Texas District and County
Attorneys Grits for Breakfast
Public opinion on certain things can change.
Marijuana use for example. But change in public
opinion does not necessarily lead to changes in
public policy.
From 2009, a list of 2,436 total felonies also
ranked according to severity. Grits for
Breakfast comments on the exploding number of
felonies in Texas. Discussion Do we make too
many things illegal? What pressures does this
place on the state? Are there other ways to
address public problems?
All Texas laws are contained in Vernons Texas
Statutes and Codes. Click here for (what seems
to be) a comprehensive set of links to Texas
Codes and laws.
More discussion What factors make some things
illegal and other things not? Do law enforcement
agencies promote expanded criminal law? Does this
allow additional means to control the general
One problematic issue It can take awhile for
people to realize that laws have changed for
certain activities. Laws must be promulgated in
order for them to be effective there has to be
some announcement that something has been made
Laws that are passed by cities are called
ordinances. Code of Ordinances - Houston
Cities can also pass ordinances which do the same
thing Recent local example Is giving food away
a crime in Houston? And is Houston going to
change its chicken laws?
So with very few exceptions, the decision about
what people can and cannot do comes own to
decisions made in the legislative branch, and
this is often as a consequence of efforts to
criminalize certain activities.
It is up to the executive branch to enforce the
laws. Investigation and prosecution.
The law enforcement system in the state is highly
decentralized. While state institutions exist
notably The Texas Department of Public Safety
these share power with 254 sheriffs department
in each of the counties in the state, and the
police departments in each of the over 1,200
incorporated municipalities.
This doesnt even take into consideration the
fact that Texas law enforcement exists within the
larger frame of law enforcement in the nation as
a whole.
The DPS consists of the director's staff and
three major divisions Criminal Law Enforcement,
Traffic Law Enforcement, and Administration.
Texas Tribune Topic Steve McGraw
The DPS is overseen by a five person board the
Public Safety Commission - appointed by the
governor and confirmed by the Texas Senate for
six year, staggered terms.
The Texas Rangers (Wikipedia, TSHA) are also a
division within the DPS. The division dates back
to 1823, so it considerably older than DPS and
Texas itself.
Texas laws are also enforced by sheriffs. The
Texas Constitution establishes that each county
is to have an elected sheriff who is to serve for
four years.
By statutes, the Sheriff is a Texas peace
officer, a conservator of the peace, enforces the
criminal laws of the State, and is responsible
for the county jail, bail bonds, civil process,
and security of the courts. In some small
counties the Sheriff is also the tax collector.
S.A.T. website.
Brazoria County Sheriffs Office Harris County
Sheriffs Office Sheriffs Association of Texas
County law enforcement is also augmented by
constables. Each county can have from one to
eight and they are elected to serve in a precinct
within the county. Brazoria County
Constables Harris County Constables
Constitutional authorization comes from Article 5
Section 15 of the Texas Constitution.
Cities also have their own law enforcement
mechanisms police forces. Its worth noting
that professional policing only began in the late
1820s. Police forces had a history of sources of
Alvin Police Department Houston Police Department
Remember that the activities of the police are
limited by the various elements that we know
collectively as the due process of the law.
Parts of the U.S. and Texas Bills of Rights are
intended to limit the discretionary activities of
the police. Actions are not to be motivated by
racial or ethic bias, but by probably cause.
Important parts of each Constitution U.S.
Constitution 4th Amendment, which is applied to
state and local forces through the 14th
Amendment Texas Constitution, Section 9.
Criminal investigations begin with police forces.
Once evidence of criminal activity is found,
further investigations and prosecution is handed
over to the lawyers. Their activities are also
contained by due process requirements in both the
U.S. and Texas Constitutions.
In Posse Comitatus the power of a law
enforcement officer to conscript able bodied
makles to assist in a duty.
In Posse Comitatus Act and 1878 federal law
stating local governments could not conscript
federal military forces to enforce the laws of
the land only the national government can do
Problem How reliable are police crime labs?
Are they biased in favor of the police or are
they independent? The Houston Crime Lab was
found to tailor tests to theories.
A similar problem exists with how eyewitness
testimony is treated. How reliable is eyewitness
How to Obtain a Warrant Prior to trial,
arresting officers sometimes have to face a
probable cause hearing where it can be determined
that an arrest, or the acquisition of evidence,
was legal. Click here for a thorough discussion
of probable cause hearings.
Some Light Reading Texas Search and Seizure A
bit less extensive The Criminal Process How it
Works Texas Criminal Procedures
And in case you need it Your Rights During a
Traffic Stop Know Your Rights When Dealing With
Police Officers Ticket Assassin Police Traffic
Stops and Vehicle Searches FAQs
While awaiting trial, the accused can either be
set free on bail, or held in a city or county
The top lawyer chief legal officer - in the
state is the Attorney General (Wikipedia, TSHA),
who is elected independently to four year terms.
Each county also elects it own District Attorney
and hires a number of assistant district
attorneys and prosecutors. Harris County
District Attorney TDCAA TAC
Harris County also has an attorney who represents
the county in legal matters the county is
involved in as a litigant. This person is not a
Cities also have their own legal departments
headed by a city attorney. Alvin Legal
Department Houston Legal Department
Click here for an overview of the legal process
after it is handed from the police to the
prosecutors as described by an assistant district
attorney in Travis County.
Before discussing this, heres a reminder that
there are several types of criminal trial courts
in the state, each with their own jurisdiction.
Click here for the basic court structure in
Prosecutors are assigned to each of the District
and County Courts. Click here for the Brazoria
County Courts and here for the Harris County
At the bottom are two types of local trial
courts (1) Justice of the Peace courts an (2)
Municipal Courts.
Justice of the Peace Courts are presided over by
judges who need no qualifications and are voted
into office in partisan elections and decide
cases involving civil actions of less than
10,000, criminal misdemeanors punishable by
fines, and can perform magistrate functions, such
as marriages and issuing warrants. The JP serves
in precincts drawn by the county court.
They serve as small claims courts, which provides
an informal, inexpensive way to resolve disputes
of 10,000 or less.
Click here for Brazoria County Justice of the
Peace Harris County Justice of the Peace
Municipal Courts are established and controlled
by cities in means established in city charters.
They have jurisdiction over criminal
misdemeanors, municipal ordinance criminal cases,
some civil cases and they have magistrate
functions as well. They are appointed or elected
as established in the city charter.
Click here for Alvin Municipal Courts Houston
Municipal Courts
The next level up includes County Court of
Limited Jurisdiction. There are three types
Constitutional County Courts exist in each county
in the state, and are elected to 4 year terms in
partisan county wide elections. They can serve as
court of original jurisdiction for misdemeanor
cases or an appellate court for justice of the
peace or municipal courts.
This court is presided over by the county judge,
but they must take approved courses so they are
qualified to do so.
Statutory County Courts at Law are created in
large counties where a singe constitutional court
is insufficient. They have the same jurisdiction
as constitutional county courts, as well as civil
matters up to 100,000.
Statutory Probate Courts also exist in the larger
counties in order to help the Constitutional
County Court with cases involving guardianship,
competency and wills.
The next step up from county level courts are
District Courts. These are state trial courts of
general and special jurisdiction. They handle
felonies, as well as civil matters, divorce, land
titled and contested elections. Most counties
have one court. Judges are elected in partisan
district wide election to 4 year terms. The
governor can fill unexpired terms with the advice
and consent of the Senate.
Harris County Courts Brazoria County Courts
Click here for additional information about
county courts from
Above these courts are the Courts of Appeal and
the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the Texas
Supreme Court. More on this process later. But
lets go back to the process in a felony trial,
which we now know happens in state district
For data about various aspects of the Texas
Judiciary click here for the 2011 Annual Report
When a felony charge is filed by the police, the
case file is sent to the district attorneys
office and an assistant district attorney is
assigned to the case who reviews it and prepares
it for presentation to a grand jury.
What is a Grand Jury? A grand jury consists of
twelve people whose job is to review criminal
complaints and decide if there is sufficient
evidence to issue an indictment.  The standard of
proof for an indictment is probable cause.
website Harris County District Courts.
The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution
states that no one can be sent to trial unless a
grand jury indicts them, but this has not been
incorporated to the states.
Grand juries (TSHA) serve to ensure that a check
exists on the ability of government to take
anyone to trial that they choose, but allegations
exist that grand juries fall short of that goal.
"a grand jury would 'indict a ham sandwich,' if
that's what you wanted. - Sol Wachtler
Prior to this or at any time afterwards the
prosecutor and the defense attorney can
settle. When they do, this is called a plea
bargain, and the vast majority of criminal cases
perhaps 95 - are plea bargained rather than
hear before a jury.
If a grand jury issues an indictment, then a
criminal defendant is arraigned, which means that
they stand before a judge and enter a plea of
guilty, not guilty or no contest. All 6th
Amendment constitutional protections are then in
place, including the right to an attorney.
Since I brought up the right to an attorney, a
word or two is necessary about them. The
judiciary is unique in that it restricts
participation to individuals it judges qualified
to argue before it. While it is true that anyone
can defend themselves if they choose, only a
licensed attorney who is a member of the State
Bar of Texas can argue cases for others before
the court.
Should You Represent Yourself in
Court? Probably not . . .
Also important is the American Bar Association,
which licenses law schools, and the Texas Board
of Law Examiners the members of which are
appointed by the Texas Supreme Court which
supervises the bar exam.
In Gideon v Wainwright, the right to counsel was
interpreted to mean a guarantee to counsel. This
can be difficult for poor defendants, since they
can seldom afford a competent attorney. The Legal
Services Corporation was created in order to
provide legal representation for those who cannot
afford it.
Local Public Defenders Offices Federal Public
Defender Harris County Public Defender
There are still controversies about what
guarantees should exist for people to receive
competent representation. Not all lawyers are
good lawyers.
If there is no plea bargain, then unless the
defendant is willing to have the case decided
before a judge a jury is summoned for trial.
As we know, the right to trials by jury go back
to Magna Carta and before. Of all governing
institutions the jury is the only one that most
citizens can be almost guaranteed to serve on.
But few people are happy about it.
The right to jury trials is established in two
separate places in the U.S. Constitution, as well
as the Texas Constitution. For additional info Jury System
For relevant local information Alvin Jury
Information Houston Jury Information Brazoria
County Jury Services Harris County Juror
Services US Courts Jury Service.
The most essential requirement is that a jury be
impartial. The job of the judge is to ensure that
is the case. From Wikipedia Jury, Juries in the
United States, and Jury Selection.
Texas Center for the Judiciary Texas Justice
Court Judges Association Texas Judicial
Since trials are conducted most days, jurors are
assembled on a regular basis by the County
District Clerk in order to be available to serve
if needed in any of the courts.
If you are a registered voter, have a Texas
driver's license or Texas personal identification
card, your name is entered in a computer system
designed to randomly select prospective jurors.
American Juror. Exceptions exist for who can
serve. See How Juries are Selected and The Trial
Process in Texas Jury Selection
Most days people with jury summons form that
days Jury Pool. These are prospective jurors.
They gather in a Jury Assemble room. They will
be divided into Jury Panels and assigned to
different court rooms. In Harris County, 60
people are selected for each jury panel.
These 60 then go through voir dire, where lawyers
on either side of the case ask questions of
panelists in order to determine if they wish to
strike anyone from the jury that believe may be
biased against their side.
After voi dire, the petite jury is selected and
they begin the process of hearing the case. These
generally consist of 12 people and they are given
the task of determining within applicable law
whether a defendant is guilty of a crime, or
liable for a civil violation.
Controversy Jury Nullification
Jury Nullification occurs when a jury does not
rule on whether a defendant is guilty of a crime,
but whether the law making the act a crime is
legitimate. Judges tend to not like jury
In criminal trials, the burden of proof is on the
prosecution there is a presumption of
innocence. A defendant must be proven guilty. If
not they are acquitted which doesnt mean that
they are innocent, just that the burden of proof
was not meant A unanimous decisions of guilt
beyond a reasonable doubt.
As we know already if there are procedural
irregularities in the trial, meaning some
violation of due process, or conviction of
violating a law that was judged unconstitutional
a guilty verdict can be appealed.
In Texas this process begins with the Court of
Appeals and can then go to the Texas Court of
Criminal Appeals or the Supreme Court. After
that, the case could end up in the U.S. Supreme
Of interest Texas Appellate Law Blog
If not, the defendant now termed an offender
is sentenced. Sentencing guidelines in the
state The Sentencing Process Sentencing Law and
Death Penalty Sentences create unique problems in
the state
Should the state take extra precautions to ensure
that those given the death penalty are actually
guilty? The Innocence Project has found evidence
that it is necessary to do so.
Is the Death Penalty cost effective?
Once sentenced, offenders are sent to
penitentiaries run by the Texas Department of
Criminal Justice (Wikipedia), which is overseen
by the Texas Board of Criminal Justice. The
board has nine members who are appointed by the
governor to staggered six year terms.
Texas as well as the United States as a whole
has a very large prison population. Texas Tough
Fast Facts Prisoners of the Census Texas Texas
Tribune Texas Prison Inmates Wikipedia List of
Texas Prisons
Debate What is the purpose of confinement?
Retribution? Deterrence? Rehabilitation?
Should educational opportunities be given to
offenders? Windham School District
Are prison sentences too long? What social
consequences are there when fathers are removed
from families for long periods of time. Does
this perpetuate crime? Is a prison sentence the
best way to deal with certain crimes? Drug crimes
Prison Violence How responsible is the state for
violence that occurs in prisons?
Privatization Should the state contract the
running of prisons to private businesses? If it
does, will this create an incentive to throw more
people in prison?
After a period of time, offenders are eligible
for parole. This is handled by the Texas Board of
Pardons and Paroles (Texas Tribune Topic)
The Board of Pardons and Paroles can also
recommend that the governor grant clemency. Here
is the process for death penalty clemency. The
governors powers are limited here.
Note As of 4/17/12 these are incomplete. These
slides will be finished soon.
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