Warm Southern Breeze

"… there is no such thing as nothing."

Texas Prosecutes Black Woman Who Made An Honest Mistake

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Thursday, April 1, 2021

One of the tenets of law is intentionality, which is the foreknowledge of, and intent to willfully disobey, or violate, law, and often includes recklessness as an element of intent. Intent is part and parcel of motive, and in context, often accompanies an evil, or malicious motive. In law, typically, a person cannot be convicted of a crime if there is no intent. Motive, however, is different from intention, and is irrelevant in determining liability.

Sometimes it’s said that “ignorance is no excuse for the law,” but that’s a mere colloquialism which itself has no basis in law. It’s nothing but a hollow saying, for it has no support in any way. There is such as thing as “willful ignorance,” which is an intentional, and therefore deliberate, act. And, the classic Steve Martin comedy sketch in which he presents his defense to a “foul crime” as “I forgot” is funny precisely because there are crimes which are so inherently gross in their violation – rape, murder, armed robbery, arson, etc. – that no reasonable, or sane person could ever assert that they forgot it was illegal.

Negligence is similar, insofar as there is a risk which is assumed by the offending party, which has the potential to harm another person, or property. Negligence occurs when it is likely that harm will occur from the offending party’s conduct, and knowingly engages in the risk. Again, a deliberate action.

Recklessness requires determining that the offending party should have known they were taking a risk, but the difference between recklessness and negligence is not always clear. An example of recklessness would be DUI – the offending party clearly knows they were taking a risk, and continued with the conduct. Once again, a deliberateness is evident.

However, there are crimes that are not inherently, or morally wrong, and it is impossible for any one person to know all laws. Furthermore, many laws are intricately complex, which further adds to the confusing calculus. Because of that, it puts even the most circumspect and conscientious people at risk of violating laws for which many – including legislators, legal experts, jurists, attorneys, and others – are unaware of their requirements. And in that sense, the traditional protection afforded by determining culpability before conviction is dismissed.

Most folks would agree, I’m certain, that it’s probably not too uncommon for anyone to violate a law unknowingly. And, when such a thing occurs, and someone is arrested for the same – for unknowingly violating a law – when the time for prosecution comes around (if it does), because often, such cases are rapidly dismissed by the state (government) because intentionality is missing.

The state has a responsibility to its citizens to make them aware of the law, so that they can abide by it.

But, in Texas, there is presently a case which will undoubtedly be heard by that state’s Supreme Court (though it must first be heard by the TX Court of Criminal Appeals) which raises that very question:
Can a citizen be held to account for unintentionally violating a law, when the state had a responsibility – which they admittedly failed to do – to notify the citizen of their circumstances before the law, and liability to it?

Crystal Mason

A Fort Worth, TX woman – Crystal Mason – who happens to be Black, was on supervised release for a Federal felony conviction related to tax fraud, when she cast a provisional ballot in 2016. She had been released from prison the previous year. She and her former husband had owned a tax preparation business, and was accused of inflating tax deductions on some returns which they prepared for clients, and eventually plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the government, and was sentenced to 5yrs in prison, and 3yrs supervised release. She was placed on probation for 2 of 3 other felonies, and received deferred adjudication for the 3rd.

Neither state, nor Federal authorities notified her that she was, by Texas state law, ineligible to vote until the entire term of her punishment was fully completed.

Officials who were overseeing her supervised release testified at her trial that they never informed her that she was ineligible to vote under Texas state law.

She was urged by her mother to vote, and when she arrived at the polling location, because voting authorities there could not find her name on a list of registered voters, she was allowed by law to cast a provisional ballot, and did so. Poll workers told her that her ballot would be counted if she was determined to be eligible.

Her ballot was never counted, because it was determined that, upon examination, that she was ineligible to vote – according to state law – because she was on supervised release, and had not fully completed the term of her sentence. Unlike some other states, Texas does not allow people to exercise their right to vote once they’re out of prison – they must complete the full term of sentence. There is no consistency state-to-state on the matter of felony voting disenfranchisement, and restoration of voting rights. H.R.1 would remedy that problem by providing uniformity under a Federal umbrella.

In 2017, Texas state authorities arrested her for violating state law by voting (illegal voting), even though neither state authorities, nor Federal authorities ever notified her in any way of her ineligibility to vote, and even though her ballot was never counted.

Because state authorities arrested her, the Federal judge in her case ordered her returned to prison in 2018, where she stayed for several months.

Her attorneys argued that because her ballot was not counted, she did not vote, even though she was by law allowed to, and did, cast a provisional ballot.

Federal law entitles citizens to cast provisional ballots when there is a question about their eligibility, which is exactly what Ms. Mason did.

Since 2014, in Tarrant County, TX, at least 12,668 people have cast provisional ballots, and 88% of them have been rejected because it was determined the voter was ineligible to vote. She is the ONLY ONE who was ever arrested and prosecuted.

An appeals court in Fort Worth upheld her conviction stating that “the fact that she did not know she was legally ineligible to vote was irrelevant to her prosecution.”

The libertarian think-tank Cato Institute filed an amicus brief (friend of the court) which stated in part that, “this case provides a regrettable example of expanding a statute with criminal penalties to punish behavior that was simply an honest mistake.”

The state’s highest criminal appellate court – the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals – will be hearing her case.

See: https://news.yahoo.com/texas-court-hear-appeal-woman-144140539.html

See also: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/crystal-mason-prison-sentence_n_5d3b04e8e4b0c31569e9fb94

See also: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/felon-disenfranchisement-voting-rights_n_5bb3cd60e4b028e1fe38a253

See also: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/mar/20/crystal-mason-texas-upholds-sentence-voter-suppression

See also: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/mar/31/texas-court-appeal-crystal-mason-prison-voting-ineligible

 

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