Griswold v. State

Decision Date24 February 2022
Docket Number05-19-01561-CR
CourtTexas Court of Appeals

Before the Court sitting En Banc.



Confronting a res nova question for our Court, the panel has declared an important criminal statute to be unconstitutional. In so doing, the Court deepens an existing division among the appellate courts of this State and places our court in the distinct minority view. The State has sought reconsideration en banc, which we now deny despite the new precedent we set for this Court and the effect of our holding. I disagree with the panel's analysis and conclusions and, regardless of my view of the merits, further disagree with the Court's decision declining to consider this case en banc. I therefore dissent.

We Need Not Address the Constitutional Challenge Raised Here

Section 42.072(a) of the penal code proscribes a person's knowingly engaging in conduct that either constitutes an offense under section 42.07 of the penal code or that the actor knows or reasonably should know another person will regard as threatening an offense against the person, a member of her household, her romantic partner, or her property. See Tex. Penal Code § 42.072(a). The indictment here alleged appellant committed the offense of stalking by "engag[ing] in conduct that constituted an offen[s]e under section 42.07 and/or conduct that [appellant] knew or reasonably should have known [the complainant] would regard as threatening bodily injury for [the complainant]." (emphasis added).

The panel opinion addresses appellant's constitutional challenge to section 42.07 and concludes that subsection 42.072(a) is unconstitutional to the extent it incorporates section 42.07. See Griswold v. State, No 05-19-01561-CR, 2021 WL 6049853, at *4 (Tex. App.-Dallas Dec 21, 2021, no pet. h.). However, in this case, no one attacked the second half of the stalking statute as set forth in the indictment: the portion that alleges appellant knew or reasonably should have known the complainant would regard appellant's conduct as threatening bodily injury to the complainant. See In re Ginsberg, 630 S.W.3d 1, 10 (Tex. 2018) (defining constitutional avoidance as canon of statutory construction requiring courts decide constitutional questions only when issue cannot be resolved on non-constitutional grounds). If only a portion of a statute is challenged as facially unconstitutional, the court of criminal appeals has directed that we are to leave the remainder of the statute intact, so long as doing so would be feasible. See Salinas v. State, 523 S.W.3d 103, 110 (Tex. Crim. App. 2017). As the State notes in its Petition for Reconsideration, the unchallenged portion of the stalking statute presents a fully viable alternate ground for conviction.

Because I would have avoided the constitutional question, I dissent from the panel opinion's analysis.

Section 42.072(a) Is Not Unconstitutionally Overbroad and Vague as Challenged Here

Section 42.07, which is incorporated in section 42.072(a), provides that a person commits harassment if with intent to harass annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, or embarrass another, the person sends repeated electronic communications[1] in a manner reasonably likely to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment embarrass, or offend another. See Penal § 42.07(a)(7).

The panel opinion concludes that because the offense described by section 42.07 is "open to various 'uncertainties of meaning, '" its incorporation into section 42.072[2] renders section 42.072 unconstitutionally vague on its face. See Griswold, 2021 WL 6049853, at *4. The panel opinion further concludes the stalking statute is unconstitutionally overbroad because the statute includes "electronic communications," which the panel concludes "goes 'beyond a lawful proscription of intolerably invasive conduct and instead reaches a substantial amount of speech protected by the First Amendment.'" See id. at *3. More specifically, the panel opinion concludes the inclusion of the terms "harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, embarrass, or offend" leaves the section prohibiting sending "repeated electronic communications in a manner reasonably likely to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, embarrass, or offend another" open to various "uncertainties of meaning." See id. at *4.

That is all well enough. But the constitutional vagueness standard we apply here does not require the legislature to craft language free from the prospect of debate, even reasonable debate, over the meaning of its text. See State v. Doyal, 589 S.W.3d 136, 146 (Tex. Crim. App. 2019) (reciting standard for constitutional vagueness as "sufficiently clear (1) to give a person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited and (2) to establish determinate guidelines for law enforcement"); Scott v. State, 322 S.W.3d 662, 669 (Tex. Crim. App. 2010) (holding plain text of section 42.07 "is directed only at persons who [have] the specific intent to inflict emotional distress.").[3]

The controlling question, as I understand it, is whether the statute impermissibly quells protected speech and is so unclear in its application that a person of ordinary intelligence would be left to guess at its application. See Garcia v. State, 583 S.W.3d 170, 174-75 (Tex. App.-Dallas 2018, pet. ref'd) (First Amendment held to not bar prosecution for threatening to murder police officers on social media). Discerning when an electronic communication is "reasonably likely to" harass or offend another is, to be sure, a challenge, just as determining whether an oral statement is "a true threat" and thus subject to prosecution and conviction despite the obvious free speech implications. See id. Any forward-looking attempt to craft language precisely and comprehensively capturing the distinction would surely fail, just as would one attempting to define when a physical "touching" becomes "offensive" to the point of constituting an "assault." That this conduct takes place in the ether is of no moment. Here, as elsewhere, we accept that the final analysis of any lingering questions as to the fit between the facts of a given case and the reasonable reading of the law is best left to jurors, as matters of fact, so long as the prohibition is reasonably described in the statute and the conduct, including speech as conduct, is beyond constitutional protection. Id.

No one here doubts that stalking is a bad thing, see, e.g., Singh v. State, No. 05-16-00610-CR, No. 05-16-00611-CR, 2018 WL 703329, at *1-2 (Tex. App.- Dallas Feb. 5, 2018, pet. ref'd) (mem. op.), and the legislature has the general power to criminalize such conduct. Vandyke v. State, 538 S.W.3d 561, 573 (Tex. Crim. App. 2017) ("[T]he Legislature possesses the sole authority to establish criminal offenses . . . ."). I would conclude a person of ordinary intelligence could understand what is proscribed by the harassment statute.

The panel opinion agrees with the analysis of some of our sister courts of appeals that because section 42.07 expands the definition of harassing conduct to include sending "electronic communications," the scope of the statute prohibits or chills a substantial amount of protected speech, rendering it unconstitutionally broad. See Griswold, 2021 WL 6049853, at *4 (citing State v. Chen, 615 S.W.3d 376, 384‒ 85 (Tex. App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2020, pet. filed) (holding section 42.07(a)(7) unconstitutionally overbroad); Ex parte Barton, 586 S.W.3d 573, 583‒85 (Tex. App.-Fort Worth 2019, pet. granted) (op. on reh'g) (holding section 42.07(a)(7) facially unconstitutional as overbroad and vague)). My understanding of the panel's concern is that by including many forms of communication, the harassment statute prohibits conduct such as posts on social media that could be considered public, rather than private, speech and thus potentially protected by the First Amendment. See Barton, 586 S.W.3d at 584 ("This provision . . . applies, for example, to facebook posts, message-board posts, blog posts, blog comments, and newspaper article comments.") (quoting Ex parte Reece, 517 S.W. 108, 111 (Tex. Crim. App. 2017) (Keller, P.J., dissenting)). My answer is simple: "so what?" A finding that the statute is unconstitutionally overbroad would require a conclusion that the statute prohibits a substantial amount of protected expression. See State v. Johnson, 475 S.W.3d 860, 865 (Tex. Crim. App. 2015). I do not understand the First Amendment to confer a special right to harass or stalk online any more than it would confer a right to make "true threats" to murder police officers over the internet. Garcia, supra.

While the phrase "electronic communication" surely expands the reach of the statute to include many forms of communication, culpability under the harassment statute always depends on whether the person actually intends to "harass, annoy, alarm, abuse torment, embarrass, or offend another"-any or all of which fit comfortably in the speech as unlawful conduct rubric of Schenck and its progeny. See Penal § 42.07(a)(7) (emphasis added); see also Test Masters Educ. Servs., Inc. v. Singh, 428 F.3d 559, 580 (5th Cir. 2005) ("Courts have made a distinction between communication and harassment."). Thus, subsection 42.07(a)(7) does not seek to criminalize communications protected by the First Amendment. See, e.g., Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 572 (1942) (defining constitutionally unprotected class of words-"fighting words"-as those which by their very utterance inflict injury...

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