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Reynolds v. State

Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas

March 28, 2018




          Richardson, J.

         In 2012 Appellant, Natalie Ausbie Reynolds, worked as an investigative supervisor for the Greenville office of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (hereinafter referred to as "the Department" or "CPS"). In 2015, she was convicted of the offense of official oppression.[1] The charge was based on an allegedly unlawful search and/or seizure of a cell phone belonging to a fifteen-year-old girl who was in lawful emergency custody of the Department. Reynolds's conviction was affirmed by the Sixth Court of Appeals.[2] We granted Reynolds's petition for discretionary review to determine whether the court of appeals correctly held that the evidence was sufficient to support Reynolds's conviction.

         Based upon our review of the record, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, we hold that the evidence was insufficient to support the trial court's finding that Reynolds knew her conduct was unlawful, which is an essential element of the offense of official oppression. We reverse the judgment of the court of appeals and render a judgment of acquittal.[3]


         On June 13, 2012, the Department received a referral regarding a fifteen-year-old girl, A.K., who had run away from her guardian, Brenda Robertson. Robertson had called the Department seeking assistance. Robertson told them that A.K. had run away from Robertson; that A.K. was using and dealing methamphetamines and marijuana (Robertson had found scales, baggies, and drug paraphernalia); that A.K. had lost a significant amount of weight; that A.K. had been gone for two weeks; and that Robertson did not know her whereabouts. Attempts to contact A.K.'s mother, Hollie King, were unsuccessful. Moreover, A.K.'s father was incarcerated for various offenses. Prior to living with Robertson, A.K. lived with Rene Cain, who also informed Reynolds that she could not control A.K. and could not continue to care for A.K. due to A.K.'s attitude.

         A.K. was found by a Deputy with the Hunt County Sheriff's Department at the home of Michael Watts, an unrelated 23-year-old male. A.K. was transported to the Hunt County Juvenile Detention Center, where her personal belongings-a ring, a bracelet, and her cell phone-were confiscated. The next day, June 14, 2012, A.K. was released into the custody of the Department because A.K. did not have an appropriate or willing caregiver, and because it was determined that if she were released from the Detention Center she would run away again. The case was assigned to Rebekah Thonginh Ross, who was an investigator with the Department and supervised by Reynolds.

         When A.K. arrived at the Department with Ross and Reynolds, A.K. made it very clear that she refused to go to a placement home in Dallas or any other "shelter." While in the Department's custody, A.K.'s ring and bracelet were returned to her, but she was not given her cell phone. A.K. demanded the return of her cell phone, and an argument ensued between A.K., Reynolds, and Ross. A.K. was upset and refused to cooperate because they would not return her cell phone to her. The cell phone was eventually locked in a cabinet for the night, and two Department employees drove A.K. to a placement facility. That facility did not allow the children to have cell phones.

         The following day, June 15, 2012, the Department filed a petition for temporary custody of A.K. Attached to and in support of the petition was an affidavit executed by Reynolds which included the following statements, among others:

• A.K.'s mother, Hollie King, is currently living in a hotel. A.K.'s father is currently in prison.
• Robertson (A.K.'s guardian) gave A.K. a urinalysis before she ran away and A.K. tested positive for methamphetamines, amphetamines, marijuana, and Tricyclic. Robertson found scales, baggies, and drug paraphernalia among A.K.'s things.
• A.K. had previously run away from Robertson's house.
• Robertson wants A.K. to get help and receive treatment for methamphetamine addiction. Robertson stated she did not think A.K. would stay at her home and that A.K. needed a secure facility or she would likely run away again.
• Robertson stated that she had found out that A.K. was dating a 30-year-old man, Steven Lamb, and was associating with 23-year-old Michael Watts.
• A.K.'s mother, Hollie King, left A.K. with Robertson in 2011 because she no longer wanted to care for A.K. King has a criminal background and a history of drug abuse.
• Robertson stated that she did not know of any relatives who were willing to care for A.K.
• While at the juvenile detention center A.K. tested positive for methamphetamines, amphetamines, and marijuana.
• When A.K. arrived at the Department office, she was upset and confrontational with the staff.
• A.K. denied selling drugs and stated she only used the scales found by Robertson to weigh her own purchases. She refused to provide information as to who provided her with drugs or how she obtained them.
• King confirmed that she could not care for A.K.

         By court order dated that same day, June 15, 2012, the Department was awarded temporary custody of A.K. The Order contains the following relevant findings:

• All reasonable efforts, consistent with time and circumstances, have been made by CPS to prevent or eliminate the need for removal of A.K. the subject of this suit, from the home and to make it possible for A.K. to return home, but continuation in the home would be contrary to A.K.'s welfare.
• There is a continuing danger to the physical health or safety of A.K. if A.K. is returned to the parent, managing conservator, possessory conservator, guardian, caretaker, or custodian who is presently entitled to possession of A.K.
• Continuation of A.K. in the home would be contrary to A.K.'s welfare.
• Reasonable efforts consistent with the circumstances and providing for the safety of A.K. were made to prevent or eliminate the need for removal of A.K.

         More than a full year later, Reynolds was charged with the criminal offense of official oppression based on her allegedly seizing and searching A.K.'s cell phone. The indictment alleged that, on or about June 14, 2012, Reynolds, acting individually or as a party with Rebekah Thonginh Ross, [4] intentionally subjected the complainant, A.K., to a search and/or a seizure that Reynolds knew was unlawful, and Reynolds was acting under color of her employment as ...

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