Lawyers, and perhaps appellate attorneys, now face a new problem if their briefs or pleadings stretch facts or are flat wrong about them. That problem is indictment and jail. This week, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeal decided round two of Vasilas v. State ( PD-1473-06) (May 7, 2008). The Court reversed the trial court’s ruling that quashed the indictment against an attorney who allegedly made a false statement in a civil pleading.
Vasilas was an attorney for a criminal defendant who beat the criminal charges; Vasilas then filed an expunction suit. The petition he prepared contained factual error. Unamused, the DA indicted Vasilas under Texas Penal Code § 37.10(a), which prohibits making false entries in a “government record.” This is a felony if there is an intent to defraud. The trial judge quashed the indictment. Still unamused, the DA appealed.
In the first round, the Court held that a petition in a civil case was a “government record” for the purpose of Section 37.10. Vasilas v. State, 187 S.W.3d 486 (Tex. Crim. App. 2006). It remanded to the Dallas Court of Appeals, which determined that the civil rule about frivolous pleadings, TRCP 13, did not supplant the Penal Code and remanded for trial. Vasilas returned to Court of Criminal Appeals, joined by amici TTLA and TADC.
In Vasilas II, the Court decided that the doctrine of in pari materia did not apply. Because TRCP 13 was a court rule, not a statute, it doesn’t trump the Penal Code for false statements in civil case pleadings. The Legislature did not write TRCP 13, so there was no reason to use it construe or control Section 37.10.
The upshot is that, no matter what the judge in a civil case does, the DA can still indict and prosecute for arguably false statements in a brief or pleading. It’s a bit scary to think that you can defeat a motion for sanctions over a statement in your brief, but your opponent can still get you indicted.
Think about going to jail for something in your factual statement the next time you write a a brief. Your ultimate audience may be the DA and a criminal jury.