Isassi v. State

Decision Date06 October 2010
Docket NumberNo. PD–1347–09.,PD–1347–09.
Citation330 S.W.3d 633
PartiesAlfred ISASSI, Appellant,v.The STATE of Texas.
CourtTexas Court of Criminal Appeals

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Patricia A. Shackelford, Corpus Christi, Atty. Pro Tempore, for State of Texas.Paul Dodson, Corpus Christi, Lisa C. McMinn, State's Atty., Austin, for Appellee.

OPINION

COCHRAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court in which WOMACK, JOHNSON, KEASLER and HERVEY, JJ., joined.

On evidence that appellant—the then Kleberg County Attorney—made some phone calls in an unsuccessful attempt to cut short a criminal prosecution of his aunt, the jury convicted him of two counts of the rarely charged misdemeanor offense of “improper influence.” 1 The Corpus Christi Court of Appeals held that the evidence was legally insufficient to show he made the calls “with an intent to influence the outcome of the proceeding on the basis of considerations other than those authorized by law,” as required by the statute.2 We granted review 3 and will reverse.

I.
A. The Facts.

On August 5, 2005, appellant's aunt, Anna Linda Gonzalez, ran a red light in Kingsville. Constable Rafael Campos followed her with his lights flashing. Instead of pulling over, Ms. Gonzalez drove home, went inside her house, and failed to answer the constable's knock. Instead, she called appellant; he was her nephew and also the elected county attorney. Appellant told her to cooperate, so she did. Constable Campos arrested Ms. Gonzalez for evading arrest with a vehicle and took her to jail. Ms. Gonzalez was released on a personal bond with documents requiring her to report to pretrial services within twenty-four hours and to report to the 105th District Court on September 8, 2005.

Ms. Gonzalez did not report to pretrial services, but three days after her arrest, appellant called Maria Elana Hernandez, the pre-trial-bond coordinator for the 105th Judicial District.4 Ms. Hernandez knew appellant, both as county attorney and as a former assistant district attorney. Ms. Hernandez testified that appellant told her that Anna Linda Gonzalez had been arrested for evading arrest with a vehicle, a felony charge, and that she did not need to report to the office for pretrial services. Appellant stated that the arrest “was done by Constable Ralph Campos and it was an investigation on him at the time due to another incident, another arrest on ... another individual and that the case was going to get rejected.” Appellant said that he already had spoken to the DA's office and that the case was going to be rejected.” Ms. Hernandez made the following note on her copy of the order to appear in court: “Will not be prosecuted by DAs or county attorney's office as per Alfred. She was not pretrialed in jail.” Because of this call, pretrial services excused Ms. Gonzalez' noncompliance with standard felony-reporting requirements for about six weeks. Appellant never told Ms. Hernandez that Ms. Gonzalez was his aunt.

On August 24, 2005, the district attorney's office received the evading-arrest case from Constable Campos. A week later, appellant called Assistant District Attorney Aida Trevino who was a friend of appellant's. She had known him since before she went to law school, when she worked as a secretary at the district attorney's office and appellant was an assistant district attorney. Ms. Trevino testified to their conversation:

He said, “Do you have a—do you happen to have a case on Anna Linda—or Anna Gonzalez?” And I was like, “Well, let me look it up.” And ... I said, “Yes, it's a pending case.” And so he said, “Well,”he says, Ralph Campos is the one that arrested her.” I said, “Yeah, that's what I'm showing. It's still pending.” He says, “Well, did you know that [First Assistant District Attorney] Mark Skurka has a pending investigation—an open pending investigation on Ralph Campos?” And I said, “No, I didn't know that.” He says, “Yeah.” He goes, “And they're not going to prosecute the case.” I was like, “Okay.” I said, “Well, let me go ahead and check with him.” I said, “If that's the case, then I'll go ahead and—and dump the case,” because—and I remember telling him, I was like, “One less case I have to deal with.” I was like, “You know how much work there is up here.” So I was like, We'll go ahead and dump it as soon as I—I get that.”

Ms. Trevino testified that appellant never told her that Anna Linda Gonzalez was his aunt, but that if he had, “I think I would have—I would have hesitated as far as following—following up on—on the comments that were made.” Ms. Trevino soon learned that Ms. Gonzalez was a member of the local grand jury and that she was being investigated for failing to disclose a prior theft conviction during impaneling.

On September 13th, pretrial services sent Ms. Gonzalez a letter stating that her evading arrest with a vehicle case was pending and that she had to comply with the notice requiring her to report to pretrial services. On September 15th, Ms. Gonzalez was removed from the grand jury. The next day, appellant called Aida Trevino again, but by then she had discovered that Ms. Gonzalez was his aunt. It was a short conversation.

... [I]t was the day after the judge issued the order removing her from the grand jury and he called me once again on the phone.... And what he said to me was, “Hey, Aida, I have Anna Linda Gonzalez here in my office here right now.” He's like, “Can she come talk to you?” And I said, “Alfred”—I was like, Wewe're probably going to indict her. You know, she's been removed from the grand jury.” I was like, “I have nothing to say to her,” and he said, “So you don't want to talk to her?” And I said, “I have nothing to say to her.” I said, We're probably going to indict her. And you should know better than that.” And that was—that was that.

Appellant called pretrial services the next day and spoke to Officer Jimenez, yet another acquaintance. He referred to the letter that Ms. Gonzalez had received and asked if she still needed to report as there was a possibility that the district attorney was not going to pursue the case because the arresting officer was under investigation. Appellant said that he had talked to Ms. Trevino, the assistant district attorney. Officer Jimenez said that Ms. Gonzalez still needed to report because it was standard procedure, but once documentation of the dismissal was in hand they would close the case. Ms. Gonzalez reported to pretrial services that same day and was given the conditions of her bail pending trial.

In February of 2006, Ms. Gonzalez was indicted for the felony offense of evading arrest with a motor vehicle. In late July, that case was dismissed as part of a plea agreement reached in the aggravated perjury case related to her grand-jury impaneling.

Two years later, a jury convicted appellant of two counts of improper influence—a class A misdemeanor—on evidence of his interference in his aunt's case. He was sentenced to one year in jail, probated for six months.

B. The Court of Appeals Opinion.

On direct appeal appellant argued— inter alia—that the evidence adduced at trial was legally insufficient to prove—as the offense of improper influence requires—“an intent to influence the outcome of the proceeding on the basis of considerations other than those authorized by law.” The court agreed and stated,

The evidence adduced at trial established that Isassi contacted both Trevino and Hernandez in order to advise them that Constable Campos was under investigation, and that the First Assistant District Attorney did not intend to prosecute Gonzalez for this reason. There was no evidence that Isassi offered to do anything, either in his private capacity or in his capacity as County Attorney, in exchange for a favorable result in his aunt's case. Nor was there any evidence that Isassi gave any information to Trevino and Hernandez that those individuals could not lawfully utilize in determining how to exercise their official discretion.5

Rather, the “intent of the District Attorney to drop the case against Gonzalez was indeed a factor that Trevino and Hernandez were clearly authorized by law to consider in making official decisions regarding Gonzalez's case.” 6 And while “Isassi's position as Kleberg County Attorney and his failure to disclose his relationship with Gonzalez may have given his communications with Trevino and Hernandez an aura of impropriety, ... the fact remains that Isassi did nothing that a private citizen could not do—he merely advised Trevino and Hernandez that the case against his aunt was weak and would not be prosecuted.” 7

II.
A. Standard of Review.

In assessing the legal sufficiency of the evidence under Jackson v. Virginia,8 we consider all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict and determine whether, based on that evidence and reasonable inferences therefrom, a rational juror could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.” 9 But “our role is not to become a thirteenth juror. This Court may not re-evaluate the weight and credibility of the record evidence and thereby substitute our judgment for that of the fact-finder.” 10 Rather, we defer to ‘the responsibility of the trier of fact to fairly resolve conflicts in testimony, to weigh the evidence, and to draw reasonable inferences from basic facts to ultimate facts.’ 11 This same standard applies equally to circumstantial and direct evidence.12 “Our role on appeal is restricted to guarding against the rare occurrence when a factfinder does not act rationally.” 13

B. The Improper Influence Statute.

A person commits the offense of improper influence “if he privately addresses a representation, entreaty, argument, or other communication to any public servant who exercises or will exercise official discretion in an adjudicatory proceeding with an intent to influence the outcome of the proceeding on the basis of considerations other than those authorized by law.” 14 Only the intent...

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