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Criminal Law No. 1263-01, 4/23/2003. Click here for the full text of this decision FACTS: A police officer said he saw David Middleton run a stop sign, but Middleton claimed that he stopped. The officer pulled Middleton over and found drugs. The jury was instructed to disregard this evidence if the officer lacked probable cause. HOLDING: Affirmed. The failure to define “probable cause” was not error because this jury did not need the definition. Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Article 38.23(a) provides that no evidence obtained in violation of the law should be admitted at trial. It also provides that if the evidence “raises an issue hereunder, the jury shall be instructed that if it believes, or has a reasonable doubt, that the evidence was obtained in violation of the provisions of this Article, then and in such event, the jury shall disregard any such evidence so obtained.” As a general rule, terms need not be defined in the charge if they are not statutorily defined. But terms which have a technical legal meaning may need to be defined. This is particularly true when there is a risk that the jurors may arbitrarily apply their own personal definitions of the term or where a definition of the term is required to assure a fair understanding of the evidence. “Probable cause” is not statutorily defined, and Middleton argues that it must be defined because it has a technical legal meaning. But even if “probable cause” has acquired a technical legal meaning, that does not necessarily mean that it had to be defined. In this case, there was no risk that the jurors would arbitrarily apply their own personal definition, nor was a definition of the term required to assure a fair understanding of the evidence. This case involved a single, and simple, factual dispute – whether Middleton stopped at the stop sign. Its resolution determined whether the seized evidence could be considered. There were no other facts which could have established probable cause. As the state explained in its brief to the court of appeals: “If this case had been a case wherein an officer had to rely upon a multitude of factors to come to his conclusion regarding probable cause, a definition for the jury might have been helpful. However, the only issue involved in the determination of probable cause in this case is whether [Middleton] failed to come to a complete stop.” Indeed, defense counsel’s argument to the jury highlighted this fact and explained to the jury that, in this case, “probable cause” meant a failure to stop at the stop sign. Because there was no ambiguity as to the meaning of “probable cause,” the court concludes that the trial judge did not err in failing to define it. OPINION: Keasler, J.; Keller, P.J., Womack and Hervey, JJ., join. Holcomb and Cochran, JJ., concur in the result. CONCURRENCE: Womack, J. “I join the Court’s opinion with the understanding that, because of an unusual feature of this case, it does not resolve the general question of the need to define “probable cause” in the court’s charge under Article 38.23. The Court prudently decides no more than the case requires.” DISSENT: Price, J.; Meyers and Johnson, JJ., join. “That this case involves a swearing match between the officer and the appellant is not the focus of the question we are called on to decide today. The fact that the focus of our inquiry is whether the term is a technical legal term that the trial court should have defined when it gave the charge to the jury.The appellant’s arguments after the charge was given to the jury without the requested language are a concern in determining whether the appellant was harmed. It does not tell us whether the trial court erred when it omitted the definition from the charge. “I would hold that the trial court erred. It is futile to try to measure distance with a ruler that lacks lines of demarcation. Telling a juror to look at facts to determine whether probable cause existed is equally futile unless the juror understands and can apply the term.”

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