By: Mark Diaz
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What Are the Ramifications of the Texas Three Strike Law?
In every U.S. state and under the federal criminal justice system, a person arrested on criminal charges will generally face harsher punishment when he or she has served a prison term for a priors felony conviction on record. The theory behind the increased penalties is that the individual did not benefit from sentencing related to earlier convictions, making it more likely that he or she will re-offend.
Longer-term incarceration also extends benefits to the public by keeping a dangerous individual behind bars. These statutes are often referred to as “three strikes” laws, taking their name from America’s favorite pastime and the number of previous convictions that trigger harsher sanctions.
Knowing how the Lone Star State is tough on crime, you might correctly assume that the Texas three-strike law includes some of the severest implications compared to other jurisdictions. The Habitual Offender Statute can lead to decades in prison or even life behind bars, even when the third offense is seemingly minor or non-violent. Proponents justify this harsh treatment to reduce recidivism and protect the public, while opponents claim three-strikes laws impinge on constitutional rights.
Despite the controversy, the Texas habitual offender statute remains in full force and effect. It can have an extreme impact on your punishment, but there are tactics for avoiding the harsh consequences of a third conviction. While retaining experienced Clear Lake Shores criminal defense lawyers is essential for obtaining a favorable outcome, you may benefit from reviewing the ramifications of the Texas three-strike law.
Understanding Organization of the State Felony System
It is easier to grasp how the habitual offender law works when you know the basics about criminal classifications. Like other U.S. states, Texas categorizes crimes as misdemeanors or felonies based upon severity. A conviction for any of the three classes of misdemeanors may include fines, probation, and imprisonment, but the jail term is one year or less.
As the more serious offenses, felonies are categorized as follows:
- State Jail Felony: As the least severe crime in its class, a conviction for this type of felony could lead to 180 days to 2 years incarceration and a fine. Stealing a firearm, check forgery, and theft between $2,500 to $30,000 are examples. If there is no indication of the classification in the statutory language, an offense is treated as a State Jail Felony.
- Third Degree Felony: This class of felony is punishable by a mandatory minimum of 2 years up to maximum of 10 years incarceration, along with a fine of up to $10,000. Deadly conduct with a firearm, promoting prostitution, indecent exposure to a child, and stalking fall in this category.
- Second Degree Felony: This class of felony is punishable by a mandatory minimum of 2 years up to the maximum of 20 years incarceration along with a fine of up to $10,000. Examples of this category are robbery, manslaughter, and aggravated assault.
- First Degree Felony: This class of felony is punishable by a mandatory minimum of 5 years incarceration, up to 99 years or life in prison. Attempted murder and aggravated robbery are examples of First Degree Felonies.
- Capital Felony: Texas maintains the death penalty for convictions in this category, but the prosecutor may not seek it in some cases. If convicted, you would be subject to life in prison without parole.
Details on the Texas Three Strike Law
For an individual with prior “pen trips” (prison terms in the institutional division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice or TDCJ for short), the statute operates to extend the prison term for subsequent felony offenses. Your first strike would be the initial pen trip, regardless of the details of your sentence. For instance, it does not matter if you received the mandatory minimum instead of 10 years.
However, it is with the second and third strikes that Texas’ habitual offender law can really impact sentencing.
Strike #2: A subsequent second felony charge the punishment range will be increased as such:
- If the subsequent case is a First Degree Felony, the mandatory minimum sentence increases from 5 to 15 years incarceration. A court can still order life in prison or up to 99 years.
- If the subsequent case is a Second Degree Felony, the mandatory minimum goes from 2 to 5 years. A judge can also exceed the maximum range of 20 years imprisonment by ordering 99 years or life.
- If the subsequent case is a Third Degree Felony, could mean a minimum of 2 years remain, but the maximum is increased to 20 years of incarceration.
- When the second crime is a State Jail Felony, your sentence could range from 2 to 10 years in prison.
Strike #3: Even more drastic increases are at stake when you get a third strike. With the exception of prior State Jail Felonies, any felony charge significantly enhanced punishment range. When you have two prior “pen trips,” the third is punishable by at least 25 and up to 99 years or life in prison. If the two previous cases were for State Jail Felonies, your third strike is treated as a Second Degree Felony.
Three Strikes Law in Practice
The important takeaway is that the severity of the felony does NOT matter for purposes of your first, second, and third strikes (aside from a State Jail Felony). Even when the first two convictions were for higher-level felonies, a Third Degree Felony conviction could mean life in prison. In addition, the punishment for the Texas three strikes statute is not advisory.
The judge must comply with the requirements of the law, though he or she can use some discretion when it comes to the advisory range. To illustrate, when the mandatory minimum is bumped up for subsequent convictions, a judge cannot go lower than 25 years incarceration.
In addition to the examples above, a felony conviction for any of the following offenses could activate the habitual offender law.
- Criminal homicide, including capital murder, murder, and manslaughter;
- Burglary, robbery, and related theft crimes;
- Sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, and rape;
- Sexual offenses related to children, such as molestation and indecency;
- Kidnapping and aggravated kidnapping;
- Violent crimes that result in severe injuries or great bodily harm; and,
- Using a gun or other illegal weapon in the commission of a crime.
Note that certain convictions will automatically mean life in prison, particularly with aggravated versions of violent crimes.
Legal Help from an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney is Critical
When you know that your potential jail time for a felony conviction could double, triple, or lead to life in prison, you realize the importance of retaining an experienced lawyer. Avoiding the ramifications of Texas’ three strikes law means not being convicted a first or second time, so a powerful defense strategy is crucial.
The prosecution must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to obtain a conviction, and you might be able to prevent the government from meeting this high standard with solid tactics. There are also defenses available to every type of felony charge, and you may be able to leverage them to obtain a positive outcome.
However, once you have one or two felony convictions on your permanent criminal record, your strategy is two-fold:
- Defending the allegations in the current case to prevent a conviction; and,
- Working to minimize the implications of the three-strikes law.
With respect to #2, keep in mind that – while applying the habitual offender statute IS required – a judge has some leeway when issuing a sentence within the bumped-up range. Your objective is to ensure your incarceration term stays as close as possible to the mandatory minimum. There are strategies to embark upon during sentencing to convince the judge to lean on the low end, possibly by highlighting mitigating factors.
What to Look for in a Criminal Defense Attorney
Even once you realize you need a lawyer to advocate on your behalf, you may not know where to begin with finding the right fit. Some tips on choosing an attorney include:
- Only work with a lawyer who focuses on criminal defense, as those who deal in many different practice areas may not have the in-depth knowledge of Texas laws.
- Make sure your lawyer has extensive courtroom experience as primary defense counsel, as opposed to playing a supporting role. You should also look for someone who has worked on numerous felony cases.
- If possible, retain a criminal defense attorney who used to work as a prosecutor. Lawyers who used to prosecute cases bring valuable skills over when going into private practice, as they know how prosecutors think and approach a case.
Contact Our Clear Lake Shores Criminal Defense Lawyers Right Away
A summary of the Texas habitual offender statute may be helpful, but you will need skilled legal representation if you were arrested. For more information, please contact Mark Diaz & Associates. Our team fights for clients throughout Galveston County, so please call (409) 515-6170 to schedule a free consultation with a Clear Lake Shores criminal defense attorney. We can advise you on what to expect in a case that triggers Texas’s three-strikes law.
Mark Diaz & Associates is a Criminal Defense Law Firm in Galveston, Texas representing clients throughout Galveston, Chambers and Harris Counties including but not limited to Tiki Island, Jamaica Beach, Texas City, League City, Alvin, Algoa, Santa Fe, Hitchcock, La Marque, Bayou Vista, Bacliff, San Leon, Dickinson, Kemah, Bolivar Peninsula, Clear Lake Shores, and Friendswood.