Supreme Court of Texas, No. 19-0877 (December 18, 2020)
Justice Guzman (Opinion, linked here)
To be entitled to compensation under the Tim Cole Act, one must (i) have served at least part of his sentence in prison, (ii) be pardoned or obtain relief from that sentence via habeas corpus, (iii) secure an order of dismissal from the state district court in which he was convicted and sentenced, and (iv) obtain that dismissal based on a motion from the State’s attorney that concludes “no credible evidence exists that inculpates” the applicant and that the State’s attorney “believes that [the applicant] is actually innocent of the crime for which [he] was sentenced.” The wrongfully convicted person must then apply to the State Comptroller for relief under the Act, submitting “verified copies” of the various papers necessary to show his fulfillment of the statutory requirements. The Act directs the Comptroller to “consider only the verified copies of the documents” to determine whether those documents “clearly indicate on their face” that the statutory requirements have been met. The Act emphasizes that the “comptroller’s duty to determine the eligibility of a claimant … is purely ministerial.”
Brown, convicted in 2005 of the murder of a Houston police officer, had his conviction set aside in 2014 because the State had withheld exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland. In 2015, the State elected not to re-try Brown, moving to dismiss because of insufficient evidence, and the trial court granted that motion to dismiss. The Harris County District Attorney, however, appointed a special prosecutor to determine whether Brown should be re-indicted or should be declared actually innocent. After a lengthy investigation, the special prosecutor issued a detailed report concluding Brown “could not physically have been at the crime scene” and therefore was actually innocent. Based on that determination, the District Attorney filed an amended motion in March 2019, asking the trial court to enter an amended order dismissing the case against Brown because of his actual innocence. The Houston Police Officers Union opposed that motion, as amicus curiae, arguing the trial court lacked jurisdiction to enter such an order four years after the earlier dismissal. The district court conducted two hearings on the matter and ultimately issued an amended order of dismissal on the basis of Brown’s actual innocence, in accordance with the District Attorney’s request.
When Brown sought compensation under the Tim Cole Act based on this amended order of dismissal, however, the Comptroller denied that request. All parties acknowledged that all the requisite paperwork had been submitted in proper form as required under the Act. But the Comptroller concluded the amended judgment itself demonstrated that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to issue the amended dismissal order based on actual innocence, four years after the original dismissal order, and therefore that the amended order was void. At the very least, the Comptroller argued, the amended order gave rise to an ambiguity about jurisdiction, such that the documents could not be said to “clearly indicate on their face” that the statutory requirements had been met.
The Supreme Court, though, found the Comptroller had swerved out of his “purely ministerial” lane in undertaking that jurisdictional analysis. The Court concluded that the trial court necessarily determined it had jurisdiction to issue the amended order of dismissal, because “criminal courts are charged with determining their own jurisdiction to issue an actual-innocence order.” And “[w]hen the judge of a proper court signs such an order, the statute requires the Comptroller to accept the court’s legal and factual determinations.” Fundamentally, “[u]nder the statute as enacted, the Comptroller can determine only whether the required dismissal order has been issued, not whether it was correctly issued as a legal or factual matter.” The Court therefore directed the Comptroller to “compensate Brown for the time he was wrongfully imprisoned as required by the Tim Cole Act.”