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Texas Court of Criminal Appeals: Trial Court Abused Discretion by Refusing to Allow Withdrawal of Jury-Trial Waiver for Defendant Who Ultimately Rejected Plea Deal

by David M. Reutter

The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas held that a trial court abused its discretion in denying a defendant’s request to withdraw his jury-trial waiver after he rejected the State’s plea offer.

The Court’s opinion was issued in an appeal filed by Jose Cesar Sanchez. He was indicted in November 2016. Sanchez’s first attorney moved to withdraw because she did not speak Spanish, which was Sanchez’s first language.

That motion was granted on April 20, 2017, and Spanish speaking counsel was appointed. At the hearing on that motion, Sanchez’s first attorney informed the court that Sanchez was resisting the State’s plea bargain offers and was inclined to go to trial. The court announced it had arranged for an interpreter and set trial for July 10, 2017.

Sanchez appeared in court on June 29, 2017, with his new attorney for a hearing on a negotiated guilty plea. The hearing got off to a rocky start with Sanchez stating his attorney failed to explain “[t]hat I was giving up the right to jury trial.” After an exchange between the court and defense counsel, the court informed Sanchez that he was being offered a 10-year sentence in exchange for his guilty plea to a lesser included offense. Sanchez insisted he did not want to plead guilty and asked for time to considered his options.

The State said the plea offer expired at 5 p.m. that day. It then clarified with the court whether a bench or jury trial would ensue if Sanchez rejected the plea offer. The court said a bench trial would ensue due to the jury-trial waiver that was included in the plea offer Sanchez signed. After a delay caused by the State amending the indictment twice, a bench trial ensued on August 7, 2017. Before that trial started, Sanchez formally requested his right to a jury trial be reinstated. That motion was denied, and the trial court found Sanchez guilty of continuous sexual assault of a child. It sentenced him to life imprisonment and a $5,000 fine.

Sanchez appealed, raising two arguments concerning the trial court’s refusal to reinstate the right to a jury trial. The Eleventh Court of Appeals affirmed, and Sanchez petitioned for discretionary review. The Court of Criminal Appeals refused to review Sanchez’s claim that his jury waiver was not executed in strict compliance with Article 1.13(a) of the Code of Criminal Procedure based on the fact it was not executed “in open court” as that provision requires. It, however, granted review of Sanchez’s claim that the trial court abused its discretion by refusing to permit him to withdraw his jury-trial waiver.

In resolving that issue, the Court began by noting both the State and Court of Appeals recognized the jury-trial waiver did not conform with Article 1.13. Yet, because it did not grant review of that claim, the Court assumed, without deciding, that Sanchez entered a valid waiver of his right to a jury trial. It then turned to whether the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to reinstate that right, concluding it did.

The Court began its analysis by noting that the party who wants to alter the status quo (in this case, withdrawal of the jury-trial waiver) bears the burden, so Sanchez had the burden of proof. See Hobbs v. State, 298 S.W.3d 193 (Tex. Crim. App. 2009). The Hobbs Court instructed that as a precondition to withdrawing a valid waiver, the defendant must establish that granting the request will not: (1) interfere with the orderly administration of the business of the trial court; (2) result in unnecessary delay or inconvenience to witnesses; or (3) prejudice the State. If the record rebuts the defendant’s evidence that his withdrawal request satisfies the foregoing factors, then the trial court doesn’t abuse its discretion by denying the request. Id.

The State argued that Sanchez failed to make an express or formal request to reinstate that right at the June 29th plea hearing. The failure to make that request until the August 7th trial date would have resulted in an inconvenience for the State’s witnesses, which was a proper reason for the trial court to deny the request under Hobbes.

However, the Court disagreed that Sanchez didn’t make his request until August 7. It noted that the trial court indicated on the record that it understood Sanchez sought reinstatement of his right on June 29th, so the Hobbs analysis must be performed as of the date of Sanchez’s “initial de facto request, on June 29th,” the Court stated.

As to the first Hobbs factor, the Court rejected the trial court’s claim that allowing the withdrawal would disrupt the court’s docket. It explained that Sanchez “effectively” asked to withdraw his jury-trial waiver on June 29th, and if the trial court had granted that request immediately, it “would have caused no disruption to court business, delay in the proceedings, or inconvenience to any witnesses that would not have been attendant to his never having waived the right in the first place.”

With respect to the related second and third Hobbes factors, the Court explained: “any inconvenience to the complaining witness and consequent prejudice to the State was occasioned, not by [Sanchez’s] request to withdraw the jury-trial waiver itself, but by his broader decision not to accept the State’s plea bargain after all. The only consequence of allowing [Sanchez] to withdraw his jury-trial waiver once he had decided to reject the guilty plea would have been that the reluctant complaining witness would eventually have to testify in a jury trial rather than a bench trial.” The Court concluded that any inconvenience to the witness and prejudice to the State “to be, at best, de minimis….” 

Finally, the Court noted that there isn’t any case that’s “factually on all fours with this one,” but Wilson v. State, 697 S.W.2d 145 (Tex. Crim. App. 1985), is analogous. In Wilson, the defendant actually accepted a plea offer, and he was subsequently allowed to withdraw his guilty plea. The Wilson Court ruled that the trial court erred in denying the defendant’s request for a jury trial despite the fact he executed a jury-trial waiver in connection with his plea bargain.

Turning to the current case, the Court emphasized that Sanchez, unlike the defendant in Wilson, didn’t accept the State’s plea offer. The Court reasoned that Sanchez “should be no less entitled to have his wish respected than the defendant who goes through with the guilty plea and only later seeks to withdraw from both the plea itself and the attendant jury-trial waiver.”

Thus, the Court held that the trial court abused its discretion by forcing Sanchez to submit to a bench trial.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the Eleventh Court of Appeals’ judgment and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: Sanchez v. State, 630 S.W.3d. 88 (Tex. Crim. App. 2021). 

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Related legal cases

Sanchez v. State

Hobbs v. State

 

 

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