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DIXON, THOMAS

PD-0048-19 06/05/2019

1. “Did the court of appeals err in finding Appellant’s Sixth Amendment right to a public trial was violated on three separate occasions despite evidence showing that: (1) Appellant did not preserve error for two of the three partial closures; (2) members of the public were in fact watching the proceedings during each of the three partial closures; and (3) the trial court made adequate findings to support the partial closures?”

2. “Did the court of appeals err in its harm analysis by overemphasizing the impact of the admission of the CSLI evidence as important to impeach Appellant’s credibility when Appellant’s credibility was damaged from the outset, and the admission of the CSLI evidence was limited and merely cumulative of other evidence showing Appellant’ relationship with and proximity to the co-defendant?”

Dixon was convicted of capital murder for hiring a hit-man to kill his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend. The disposition of Dixon’s appeal turned on two points of error: (1) the exclusion of the public from the courtroom, and (2) the admission of cell site location information (CSLI) obtained without a warrant.

Dixon’s trial garnered a lot of attention and, on separate occasions, members of the public were excluded from the courtroom when it reached maximum capacity. On the first occasion, a bailiff excluded a sketch artist during voir dire. When it was brought to the trial court’s attention the next day, the artist was seated in the jury box. The trial court denied Dixon’s request for a mistrial. The trial court initiated the second exclusion after tensions arose between the attorneys. About fifty people left the courtroom, but some remained. The third exclusion occurred during closing arguments. Considering public safety, a sheriff’s deputy and the trial court determined that it would be “sitting room only.” Dixon’s attorneys filed a motion for new trial complaining about the third closure and asserting that it became known after trial. The trial court denied the motion.

As to the evidentiary issue, over Dixon’s objection, the trial court admitted Dixon’s CSLI from AT&T that police had obtained without a warrant. The CSLI showed Dixon’s whereabouts at times that were critical to the case. Dixon’s CSLI was compared to the hit-man’s to match their whereabouts.

The court of appeals, deeming the trial court’s justifications for the closures insufficient, held that they constituted structural error. In doing so, the court also rejected the State’s claims that Dixon failed to timely object to the first and third closures. Next, based on the recent decision in Carpenter v. U.S., 138 S. Ct. 2206 (2018), the court held that CSLI was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The court then concluded that the error was harmful. It observed that the case hinged on Dixon’s credibility and the CSLI, which established that he lied about not being in the same city as the hit-man, undermined his defense.

The State now reiterates its error preservation arguments on the first and third closures. It contends that the next-day objection about the exclusion of the sketch artist was too late. On the third, the State argues that court failed to defer to the trial court’s implicit motion for new trial ruling that the post-trial objection was untimely and that the closure was only partial. On the merits, the State argues that the exclusion of some persons does not mean Dixon was denied the right to a public trial. A partial closure, unlike a total closure, should be judged differently. Thus, the court of appeals should have applied a common-sense approach and deferred to the trial court’s findings that the closures were de minimis or justified.

The State also challenges the court of appeals’ conclusion that harm resulted from the wrongful CSLI admission. The court, the State claims, overemphasized its impeachment value and did not take into account that it was limited and cumulative of other evidence. Though 166 days of CSLI was admitted, the State only focused on two days during the trial, and numerous text messages established Dixon’s arrangement with the hit-man.

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