Austin v. State

Decision Date06 November 1996
Docket NumberNo. 736-95,736-95
Citation934 S.W.2d 672
PartiesStephen Fuller AUSTIN, Appellant, v. The STATE of Texas.
CourtTexas Court of Criminal Appeals

Christine R. Brown, Orange, for appellant.

Troy Johnson, Assist. District Attorney, Orange, Matthew Paul, State's Atty., Austin, for State.

Before the court en banc.

OPINION ON THE STATE'S PETITION FOR DISCRETIONARY REVIEW

BAIRD, Judge.

Appellant was convicted by a jury of bail jumping. Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 38.10. Punishment was assessed at fifty years. The Court of Appeals reversed. Austin v. State, 899 S.W.2d 834 (Tex.App.--Beaumont 1995). We granted the State's petition for discretionary review to determine whether a communication from an attorney informing a client of a trial date is subject to the attorney-client privilege. We will reverse.

I. THE COURTS BELOW
A. TRIAL COURT

Appellant was initially charged with the felony offense of possession of a controlled substance. He was released on bond and retained counsel in the person of Dennis Powell. When appellant later failed to appear for trial he was charged in the instant case with bail jumping.

During its case-in-chief at the trial of the instant case, the State called Powell to prove appellant had knowledge of his former trial date. Powell testified about the contents of two letters he mailed appellant. 1 The letters were admitted into evidence without objection. Powell further testified he had no knowledge as to whether appellant actually received the letters. Appellant contended he never received the letters nor any notice of the trial setting. Appellant was convicted of bail jumping and the trial judge assessed punishment at fifty years.

B. COURT OF APPEALS

On direct appeal, appellant contended his attorney in the instant case was ineffective for failing to object to evidence subject to the attorney-client privilege. Austin, 899 S.W.2d at 837. The State contended the trial date was public information and, therefore, not protected by the privilege. Id., at 837. The Court of Appeals rejected the State's argument, noting the probative value of Powell's testimony was not the fact that the case was set for trial on a particular date, but that the attorney communicated that information to appellant. Id., at 838. Holding the subject matter of the communication was irrelevant to the determination whether a communication is privileged, the Court of Appeals held Tex.R.Crim. Evid. 503 defines confidentiality in terms of intent, not content. Ibid. While acknowledging the record contained no direct evidence of intent, the Court noted that correspondence by its very nature is private. Ibid. Accordingly, the Court held Powell's testimony and the letters were subject to the attorney-client privilege; and that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to Powell's testimony and the introduction of the letters written by Powell. Ibid.

II. ATTORNEY-CLIENT PRIVILEGE
A. THE ATTORNEY-CLIENT PRIVILEGE GENERALLY

The purpose of the attorney-client privilege is to promote communication between attorney and client unrestrained by fear that these confidences may later be revealed. Cruz v. State, 586 S.W.2d 861, 865 (Tex.Cr.App.1979); Maryland Am. Gen. Ins. Co. v. Blackmon, 639 S.W.2d 455, 458 (Tex.1982). Statements and advice of the attorney are just as protected as the communications of the client. In re Grand Jury Subpoenas, 803 F.2d 493, 496 (9th Cir.1986); Boring and Tunneling Co. v. Salazar, 782 S.W.2d 284, 290 (Tex.App.--Houston [1st Dist.] 1989, no writ); and, Dewitt and Rearick, Inc. v. Ferguson, 699 S.W.2d 692, 693 (Tex.App.--El Paso 1985, no writ). However, because the attorney-client privilege is an exclusionary rule of evidence, the privilege has been limited both by statutory exception and strict construction to situations which encourage full disclosure. Strong v. State, 773 S.W.2d 543, 547-48 (Tex.Cr.App.1989); Duval County Ranch Co. v. Alamo Lumber Co., 663 S.W.2d 627, 634 (Tex.App.--Amarillo 1983, writ ref'd n.r.e.) (holding privilege should be narrowly construed); see also, Matter of Grand Jury Proceeding, Cherney, 898 F.2d 565, 567 (7th Cir.1990) (holding because privilege has the effect of withholding relevant information from the fact finder, it applies only where necessary to achieve its purpose); State v. Ogle, 297 Or. 84, 682 P.2d 267, 270 (1984) ("privilege protects only those disclosures which might not have been made absent the privilege"); and, Hurley v. McMillan, 268 S.W.2d 229, 232 (Tex.Civ.App.--Galveston 1954, writ ref'd n.r.e.).

Therefore, attorneys may testify regarding information they possess about a client so long as no communication is revealed. See, e.g., Russell v. State, 598 S.W.2d 238, 252 (Tex.Cr.App.1980) (former attorney's testimony that he did not forge client's name on document did not violate attorney-client privilege); Brasfield v. State, 600 S.W.2d 288, 295 (Tex.Cr.App.1980) (former attorney's testimony regarding client's location on a particular afternoon did not violate attorney-client privilege); Church v. State, 552 S.W.2d 138, 142 (Tex.Cr.App.1977) (attorney's testimony that he was present during a police lineup did not violate attorney-client privilege); Cathey v. State, 467 S.W.2d 472, 474 (Tex.Cr.App.1971) (former attorney's testimony that he was not defendant's bondsman did not violate attorney-client privilege); Manning v. State, 766 S.W.2d 551, 556 (Tex.App.--Dallas, 1989) (attorney's testimony concerning observations he made did not violate the attorney-client privilege), aff'd per curiam, 773 S.W.2d 568 (Tex.Cr.App.1989) (adopting Court of Appeals' reasoning as "sound"); Lopez v. State, 651 S.W.2d 830, 838 (Tex.App.--San Antonio 1983, writ ref'd) (attorney's testimony based on observations of client which could have been made by anyone observing client did not violate attorney-client privilege); and, Jackson v. State, 624 S.W.2d 306, 309 (Tex.Civ.App.--Dallas 1981, no writ) (former attorney's testimony that he prepared affidavits of non-prosecution did not violate the attorney-client privilege). The privilege was not applied in these situations because the disclosure did not inhibit the normal communications necessary for the attorney to effectively represent the client.

A client has a privilege to refuse to disclose and to prevent any other person from disclosing confidential communications made for the purpose of facilitating the rendition of professional legal services. Tex.R.Crim. Evid. 503(b). Application of the attorney-client privilege depends, therefore, on whether the communication sought to be protected is "confidential." Tex.R.Crim. Evid. 503(b); Strong v. State, 773 S.W.2d 543, 551 (Tex.Cr.App.1989); Giffin v. Smith, 688 S.W.2d 112, 114 (Tex.1985); and, United States v. Pipkins, 528 F.2d 559, 563 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, 426 U.S. 952, 96 S.Ct. 3177, 49 L.Ed.2d 1191 (1976). "A communication is 'confidential' if not intended to be disclosed to third persons other than those to whom disclosure is made in furtherance of the rendition of professional legal services to the client or those reasonably necessary for the transmission of the communication." Tex.R.Crim. Evid. 503(a)(5). The client bears the burden of establishing the existence of the privilege. Strong, 773 S.W.2d at 552; Jordan v. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Supreme Judicial Dist., 701 S.W.2d 644, 648 (Tex.1985); and, Giffin, 688 S.W.2d at 114.

B. A CASE OF FIRST IMPRESSION

This case presents a question of first impression, namely whether a communication from an attorney informing a client of a trial date is subject to the attorney-client privilege. In the jurisdictions which have addressed this issue, a majority of the federal circuits and at least six states have held such a communication is not privileged. 2 For example in State v. Ogle, 297 Or. 84, 682 P.2d 267 (1984), the defendant failed to appear for arraignment and was subsequently charged with failure to appear. Id., 682 P.2d at 268. At trial, the defendant's former counsel testified, over objection, he had sent a letter to defendant informing him of the arraignment date. Ibid. The trial judge admitted the testimony, but not the letter because the letter contained confidential material. 3 Ibid. The Ogle Court reasoned that whether the privilege applies is determined both by intent and the purpose of the communication. The Court held the "communication of the trial date does not implicate confidential communications ... merely because it occurs between attorney and client." Id., at 269. The Court reasoned that "(w)hen an attorney notifies a client of a court date set for the client, it is not for the purpose of facilitating the rendition of professional legal services," but that the lawyer is merely acting as an agent for the court. Ibid. Accordingly, the Oregon Supreme Court held such communication falls outside the scope of the attorney-client privilege.

These cases are based upon the rationale that the attorney is a "mere conduit" for the trial judge passing on a routine message, i.e. the trial date, and such communication is not confidential because it does not involve the subject matter of the client's legal problems. Woodruff, 383 F.Supp. at 698 (noting the communication is based on information obtained from a source other than the client); Breazeale, 713 P.2d at 975 (holding such information is non-legal in nature). In this "conduit" capacity, the attorney has a duty to inform the client of the trial date. Hall, 346 F.2d at 882 (holding that defendant's attorney has a duty, in his capacity as officer of the court, to relay the information). In light of this duty, such communications are not subject to the attorney-client privilege. Bourassa, 411 F.2d at 74 (holding such a duty does not invoke the attorney-client privilege); and, Breazeale, 713 P.2d at 975 (attorney's duty to the court is not inconsistent with attorney's duty to the client).

We agree with this rationale. The communication of a...

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