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Prichard v. State

Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas

June 28, 2017

ROBERT MONTE PRICHARD, Appellant
v.
THE STATE OF TEXAS

         ON APPELLANT'S PETITION FOR DISCRETIONARY REVIEW FROM THE FIFTH COURT OF APPEALS DALLAS COUNTY

          Alcala, J., delivered the opinion of the Court in which Keasler, Richardson, Newell, and Walker, JJ., joined. Keller, P.J., filed a concurring opinion. Yeary, J., filed a dissenting opinion in which Hervey, J., joined. Keel, J., dissented.

          OPINION

          ALCALA, J.

         This case addresses whether a deadly weapon finding is permissible for the use or exhibition of a deadly weapon against a nonhuman. In his petition for discretionary review, Robert Monte Prichard, appellant, argues that a deadly weapon finding is improper when the only thing injured or killed as a result of a defendant's criminal conduct is an animal rather than a human being. Rejecting that argument, the court of appeals upheld a deadly weapon finding in this case in which appellant was convicted of animal cruelty and the deadly force was directed only against a dog. See Prichard v. State, No. 05-14-01214-CR, 2016 WL 1615641, at *1 (Tex. App.-Dallas April 20, 2016) (mem. op., not designated for publication). We conclude that the language of the deadly weapon statute is ambiguous with respect to whether a deadly weapon finding may be made for weapons used or exhibited against nonhumans, and thus, we must consider extra-textual factors to discern the Legislature's intent as to this matter. We determine that an analysis of those factors supports our determination that a deadly weapon finding may be made for human victims only. We, therefore, we reverse the judgment of the court of appeals.

         I. Background

         While purportedly disciplining his pet dog, appellant killed her by repeatedly hitting her head with a shovel and then drowning her in a swimming pool. He was indicted for the state-jail felony of cruelty to a non-livestock animal. See Tex. Penal Code § 42.092(b)(1), (c). In a separate paragraph, the indictment also alleged that the shovel and pool water, singly or in combination, constituted the use of a deadly weapon in the commission of the offense.[1] A jury convicted appellant of the offense as charged in the indictment and, in a special issue in the verdict form, made a finding that appellant had used a deadly weapon. This finding made the state-jail felony offense punishable within the punishment range for a third-degree felony. See id. § 12.35(c). The jury sentenced appellant to six and one-half years' imprisonment. The trial court's judgment reflected that appellant had been convicted of a third-degree felony and the judgment showed an affirmative finding of a deadly weapon.

         On appeal, appellant argued that the evidence was insufficient to support the jury's deadly weapon finding because that finding should be limited only to human victims and no evidence showed that a human had been harmed or placed at risk of harm as a result of appellant's conduct. Appellant challenged the deadly weapon finding primarily based on three theories.

         First, appellant asserted that, although the statutory definition of a "deadly weapon" does not specifically address "'the death or serious bodily injury' of a person, " a common-sense reading of the statute implies that it applies only to people. He argued that interpreting "death or serious bodily injury" as including nonhumans would lead to absurd consequences not intended by the Legislature, such as deadly weapon findings for a reckless driver who runs over someone's pet snake or pet rat or hits a tree knocking off branches or leaves. The court of appeals did not perform any statutory analysis to decide if the plain language permitted a deadly weapon finding in this case, nor did it respond to appellant's absurd-results argument. The court of appeals generally rejected this argument by explaining that, because appellant did not dispute that his use of the shovel and pool water caused the dog's death as he intended, the deadly weapon special issue had been properly submitted and the evidence was sufficient to support the deadly weapon finding. Prichard, 2016 WL 1615641, at *2-3. The court concluded that the "pertinent inquiry with respect to whether a deadly weapon was used, the issue here, is whether the weapon achieved or facilitated the intended result." Id. at *2 (emphasis original).

         Second, appellant argued that permitting a deadly weapon finding for death to a nonhuman would result in transforming what the Legislature had designated as a state-jail-felony offense of cruelty to animals into a third-degree felony. The court of appeals rejected this argument by explaining that the punishment range for the offense would remain a state-jail felony if the death or serious bodily injury of an animal was committed by omission. Id.

         Third, appellant suggested that this Court's precedent already limits a deadly weapon finding to situations involving injury or death to humans only. The court of appeals reviewed this Court's precedent and determined that it was silent as to the inclusion or exclusion of nonhumans for deadly weapon findings. Id.

         After rejecting appellant's arguments, the court of appeals reformed the trial court's judgment to reflect that appellant had actually been convicted of a state-jail felony, as opposed to a third-degree felony, and that he had pleaded not true to the deadly weapon allegation. Id. at *3. After modifying appellant's judgment, the court of appeals affirmed his conviction. Id.

         In his petition for discretionary review, appellant reasserts his three arguments that he made to the court of appeals that contend that a deadly weapon finding may be made only when the use or exhibition of the deadly weapon is against a human victim. First, he argues that it "defies a common-sense reading of the statute to assume that 'deadly weapon' findings can apply to all living things." He suggests that to permit a deadly weapon finding in this case would result in absurd consequences, such as permitting a deadly weapon finding in a felony DWI case when a defendant runs over someone's pet snake or pet rat, or in a felony criminal mischief case for causing the death of a tree. Furthermore, conceding that many people consider dogs as family members, appellant notes that dogs are nonetheless considered property in Texas and should not be equated with human victims.

         Second, appellant also repeats his prior arguments that permitting a deadly weapon enhancement functionally makes animal cruelty a third-degree felony rather than, as the Legislature intended, a state-jail felony. He also contends that permitting a deadly weapon finding renders superfluous a section of the animal cruelty statute that enhances punishment for repeat offenses. See Tex. Penal Code § 42.092(c).

         Third, although he acknowledges that this Court has never expressly addressed whether a deadly weapon finding must be limited to offenses involving humans, appellant suggests that this Court's precedent implies that limitation. In response, the State argues that the plain text of the definition of "deadly weapon" is broad enough that it permits a deadly weapon finding for serious bodily injury or death to animals. The State also maintains that the court of appeals properly rejected appellant's arguments on their merits.

         II. Analysis

         Appellant's sufficiency challenge turns on the legal meaning of the deadly weapon statute. Factually, appellant does not contest that, if the law permits a deadly weapon finding under these circumstances, the evidence is sufficient to show that he used a deadly weapon against an animal. To resolve whether a deadly weapon finding may be made for a weapon used or exhibited against a nonhuman, we begin by construing the statutory language according to the rules of statutory construction. Applying those rules, we determine that the statutory language is ambiguous with respect to whether it applies to nonhuman victims. It is, therefore, necessary to examine extra-textual considerations to ascertain the Legislature's intent. That examination leads us to our conclusion that the Legislature did not intend to permit a deadly weapon finding for injury or death to a non-human.

         A. Applicable Law for Sufficiency of Evidence to Support Deadly Weapon Finding

         To conduct a sufficiency review, we examine the statutory requirements necessary to uphold the conviction or finding. Liverman v. State, 470 S.W.3d 831, 836 (Tex. Crim. App. 2015). We determine the meaning of statutes de novo. Id. When we interpret enactments of the Legislature, "we seek to effectuate the collective intent or purpose of the legislators who enacted the legislation." Boykin v. State, 818 S.W.2d 782, 785 (Tex. Crim. App. 1991) (internal citations omitted). We focus our analysis on the literal text of the statute and "attempt to discern the fair, objective meaning of that text at the time of its enactment." Id. "[I]f the meaning of the statutory text, when read using the established canons of construction relating to such text, should have been plain to the legislators who voted on it, we ordinarily give effect to that plain meaning." Id. Thus, we apply the plain meaning of a term if the statute is clear and unambiguous. Id. In determining the plain meaning of a statute, courts read words and phrases in context and construe them according to the rules of grammar and common usage. Yazdchi v. State, 428 S.W.3d 831, 837 (Tex. Crim. App. 2014). Courts may consult standard dictionaries in determining the fair, objective meaning of undefined statutory terms. Clinton v. State, 354 S.W.3d 795, 800 (Tex. Crim. App. 2011).

         In contrast to our limitation to the text of a statute with plain language, we consider extra-textual factors to determine the meaning of language that is not plain. When a statute is ambiguous or its plain language would lead to absurd results not possibly intended by the Legislature, we may consult extra-textual factors, including legislative history. See Boykin, 818 S.W.2d at 785-86; see also Tex. Gov't Code § 311.023. Under those circumstances, we consider extra-textual factors to discern the Legislature's intent in enacting the statute. Bays v. State, 396 S.W.3d 580, 585 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013). Ambiguity exists when a statute may be understood by reasonably well-informed persons to have two or more different meanings. Id.; see also Baird v. State, 398 S.W.3d 220, 229 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013) (statute is ambiguous when the language it employs is "reasonably susceptible to more than one understanding").

         Here, appellant's challenge is limited to the sufficiency of the evidence to establish the deadly weapon finding, and thus we limit our review to that issue. Furthermore, because a legal-sufficiency challenge need not be preserved by objection in a trial court, appellant was permitted to present that complaint in the first instance to the court of appeals. Moore v. State, 371 S.W.3d 221, 225, 227 (Tex. Crim. App. 2012). We, therefore, turn to an analysis of the meaning of the deadly weapon statute.

         B. The Deadly Weapon Statute is Ambiguous

         After examining the statutory language, we determine that the statute is ambiguous because a reasonable person could read its terms as applying either to only humans or to all organisms that are capable of cessation of life.

         1. The Statute's Language

         The deadly weapon statute at issue here is set forth in Article 42.12, § 3g(a)(2), which provides for a stricter penalty for an offender who has "used or exhibited [a deadly weapon] during the commission of a felony offense or during immediate flight therefrom." Tex. Code Crim. Proc. art. 42.12, § 3g(a)(2) (West 2013). A "deadly weapon" includes "anything that in the manner of its use or intended use is capable of causing death or serious bodily injury." Tex. Penal Code § 1.07(a)(17)(B). The term "serious bodily injury" is defined as "bodily injury that creates a substantial risk of death or that causes death, serious permanent disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ." Id. § 1.07(a)(46). "Bodily injury" means "physical pain, illness, or impairment of physical condition." Id. § 1.07(a)(8). The statutory language is exceedingly broad in that a "deadly weapon" may be "anything, " and there is no limitation as to what type of thing may be considered a deadly weapon. See id § 1.07(a)(17)(B); Plummer v. State, 410 S.W.3d 855, 858 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013) (noting that "[deadly weapon] includes any instrument that threatens or causes serious bodily injury, even when the instrument is not inherently or intentionally deadly"). A deadly weapon finding can be made even in the absence of actual harm or threat. Plummer, 410 S.W.3d at 859 (citing Patterson v. State, 769 S.W.2d 938, 941 (Tex. Crim. App. 1989) (allowing a deadly weapon finding where the exhibition of the weapon reasonably could have "protected and facilitated appellant's care, custody, and management of the contraband")).[2]

         Although our review in this case examines the deadly weapon statute, the question before us is exceedingly narrow. The issue is whether the intended target of the exhibition or use of a deadly weapon may be a nonhuman. Nothing in this opinion modifies this Court's existing precedent about what type of item may constitute a deadly weapon or the circumstances in which an object may be considered to be a deadly weapon. Regardless of the type of weapon and the circumstances of the use or exhibition, the question is whether a deadly weapon finding is permissible when the weapon was used or exhibited against a nonhuman. Although we may consider these other matters in evaluating the intended meaning of the statutory language, our holding in this case is limited to the exceedingly narrow determination that a deadly weapon finding is disallowed when the recipient or victim is nonhuman.

         2. The Deadly Weapon Statute's ...


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