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In re Commitment of Decker

Court of Appeals of Texas, Eleventh District

June 30, 2017

IN RE COMMITMENT OF RONNIE LEE DECKER

         On Appeal from the 32nd District Court Nolan County, Texas Trial Court Cause No. 19683

          Panel consists of: Wright, C.J., Willson, J., and Bailey, J.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JOHN M. BAILEY JUSTICE.

         In this appeal from a civil commitment under Chapter 841 of the Texas Health and Safety Code, a jury unanimously found that Ronnie Lee Decker is a "sexually violent predator" as defined in the Texas Health and Safety Code. See Tex. Health & Safety Code Ann. § 841.003 (West 2017). Based upon the jury's affirmative finding, the trial court entered a final judgment and order of commitment requiring Decker to be civilly committed in accordance with Sections 841.081-.082 of the Health and Safety Code for treatment and supervision upon his release from a secure correctional facility. See id. §§ 841.081-.082. In a single issue on appeal, Decker contends that the trial court erred by granting the State's motion for directed verdict and finding that he is a "repeat sexually violent offender, " an element of a determination that a person is a "sexually violent predator." Id. § 841.003 (emphasis added). We affirm.

         Background Facts

         The State filed an original petition alleging that Decker is a sexually violent predator. The State requested that Decker "be committed for treatment and supervision." The State alleged in the petition that Decker was a repeat sexually violent offender based upon two convictions: (1) a 1972 conviction for "fondling" in Erath County for which Decker was incarcerated and (2) a 1998 conviction for sexual assault in Nolan County for which Decker was incarcerated.

         The case proceeded to a jury trial. During trial, the trial court admitted several judgments of conviction and corresponding indictments, including a conviction for sexual assault and two convictions for indecency with a child. Decker received a sentence of confinement for twenty years on the sexual assault conviction, and he received sentences of confinement for four years and between two and ten years on the convictions for indecency with a child.

         The State called Decker as a witness at trial. At the time of trial, he was near the end of serving the twenty-year sentence for the sexual assault conviction. He testified that the discharge date for the twenty-year sentence would be March 30, 2018. Decker testified that he received probation for the 1972 "fondling" conviction that he subsequently violated, resulting in his incarceration. Decker admitted to various other convictions during his testimony, including the two convictions for indecency with a child.

         After the State rested its case, it moved for a directed verdict "on the issue of whether or not Mr. Decker is a repeat sexually violent offender as defined under Health and Safety Code Section 841.003(b)." The State asserted that it was entitled to a directed verdict because "reasonable minds can only draw one conclusion" from the evidence presented at trial. Decker responded to the motion by arguing that Chapter 841 precludes a directed verdict in civil commitment proceedings brought under the chapter. The trial court rejected Decker's argument and granted the directed verdict requested by the State.

         Analysis

         Under Chapter 841 of the Texas Health and Safety Code, a trial court must commit a person for treatment and supervision if a factfinder determines the person is a sexually violent predator. See Health & Safety § 841.081. Section 841.003(a) provides that a person is a sexually violent predator if he (1) is a repeat sexually violent offender and (2) suffers from a behavioral abnormality that makes him likely to engage in a predatory act of sexual violence. Id. § 841.003(a). Section 841.003(b) provides that "[a] person is a repeat sexually violent offender for the purposes of this chapter if the person is convicted of more than one sexually violent offense and a sentence is imposed for at least one of the offenses." Id. § 841.003(b).

         In his sole issue on appeal, Appellant contends that Sections 841.061-.062 of the Health and Safety Code preclude a directed verdict in a civil commitment proceeding brought under Chapter 841. See Health & Safety §§ 841.061-.062. Among other things, Section 841.061 provides that either the State or a respondent to a civil commitment proceeding may request a jury trial. Id. § 841.061(b). Section 841.062 provides that the determination that a person is a sexually violent predator must be established beyond a reasonable doubt and that a jury determination to this effect must be by unanimous verdict. Id. § 841.062. Appellant contends that these procedural safeguards are "over and above those in a normal civil case" and that they preclude a directed verdict on any issue in a civil commitment proceeding.

         Decker was represented at trial and on appeal by the State Counsel for Offenders. See id. § 841.005. The State was represented at trial and on appeal by the Special Prosecution Unit. See id. § 841.042; see also Tex. Gov't Code Ann. §§ 41.301-.310 (West Supp. 2016). Both of these offices have done a commendable job of apprising this court about the history of the civil commitment proceedings for sexually violent predators and the applicable case law on the issue presented in this appeal.

         Until a recent legislative amendment, Chapter 841 civil commitment proceedings were initiated in Montgomery County. See In re Commitment of Bohannan, 388 S.W.3d 296, 299 (Tex. 2012) (noting that, under prior law, all Chapter 841 civil commitment proceedings were initiated in Montgomery County). Thus, the vast majority of appeals in Chapter 841 civil commitment proceedings were either decided by the Beaumont Court of Appeals or were decided in accordance with the Beaumont Court of Appeals's precedent as transfer cases. See In re Commitment of Stuteville, 463 S.W.3d 543, 556-57 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2015, pet. denied) (noting that in Chapter 841 appeals, the court was bound by the legal precedent of the Beaumont Court of Appeals); see also In re Commitment of Wirtz, 451 S.W.3d 462, 463-64 n.1 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2014, no pet.) (in transferred appeal, transferee court must decide case in accordance with transferor court precedent). After the recent legislative change, Chapter 841 proceedings are now initiated in the county where the alleged ...


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