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Paxton v. Escamilla

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

November 6, 2019

Ken Paxton, Attorney General of the State of Texas, Appellant
v.
David A. Escamilla, Travis County Attorney, Appellee

          FROM THE 261ST DISTRICT COURT OF TRAVIS COUNTY NO. D-1-GN-17-004329, THE HONORABLE DUSTIN M. HOWELL, JUDGE PRESIDING.

          Before Justices Goodwin, Baker, and Smith.

          OPINION

          Thomas J. Baker, Justice.

         Ken Paxton, the Attorney General of the State of Texas, appeals the trial court's final summary judgment that David A. Escamilla, the Travis County Attorney, is not required to disclose deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) records due to exceptions to the Texas Public Information Act (PIA). We will affirm the trial court's judgment.

         BACKGROUND

         The County Attorney received a PIA request for each DPA that his office has executed in domestic-violence cases since April 1, 2015.

         A DPA is an extra-judicial agreement[1] between a person charged with a crime and the prosecutor to defer the prosecution of a criminal charge for an agreed term during which the criminal defendant must fulfill specified conditions. After the defendant and the prosecutor sign the DPA, the criminal case is conditionally dismissed. If the defendant fulfills all the DPA conditions, the County Attorney takes no further action as the criminal case was already dismissed. However, if the defendant fails to comply with any of the agreement conditions, the County Attorney has the authority to refile the charges and prosecute the case.[2]

         The County Attorney declined to release the DPAs and sought an opinion from the Attorney General's Open Records Division, asserting that the requested records were excepted from required public disclosure. See Tex. Gov't Code § 552.301 (outlining procedures for obtaining Attorney General decisions about whether requested information falls within exception). The Attorney General issued Open Records Letter Ruling OR2017-16049 in response, determining that the DPAs whose terms had concluded could be withheld pursuant to a provision of the law-enforcement exception, see id. § 552.108(a)(2), but the DPAs with terms that had not concluded were not excepted from disclosure and must be released. See Tex. Att'y Gen. OR2017-16049 (2017).

         The County Attorney timely filed suit seeking declaratory relief from the Attorney General's determination. See Tex. Gov't Code § 552.324 (permitting suits to challenge letter ruling of Attorney General on PIA requests). The parties each filed motions for summary judgment, and the trial court at a hearing on the cross-motions reviewed in camera a sample of the records at issue. See id. § 552.3221 (providing for court's in camera inspection of records at issue). After the hearing the trial court granted the County Attorney's summary-judgment motion and denied the Attorney General's cross-motion. The trial court's final judgment declared and ordered that all of the DPAs were excepted from disclosure, dividing them into three categories:

(1) The deferred prosecution agreements pertaining to dismissed criminal cases that have not been refiled [Category 1 DPAs] are excepted from public disclosure by section 552.108(a)(2) of the Texas Government Code;
(2) The deferred prosecution agreements pertaining to dismissed criminal cases that have been refiled and then dismissed again [Category 2 DPAs] are excepted from public disclosure by section 552.108(a)(2) of the Texas Government Code; [and]
(3) The deferred prosecution agreements pertaining to dismissed criminal cases that have been refiled and that are still pending [Category 3 DPAs] are excepted from public disclosure by sections 552.108(a)(1), 552.103, and 552.107 of the Texas Government Code.

         DISCUSSION

         Standard ...


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