In the aftermath of the beating of L’Daijonique Lee by Austin Sheffield in Deep Ellum in Dallas, which was captured on video and widely viewed, a number of controversies have arisen. One was the decision of the Dallas Police Department to recommend charges against Ms. Lee for damaging Mr. Shuffield’s truck. To the extent that it matters to anyone, the Dallas Police Chief who ultimately signed off on the decision, Reneé Hall, is a black woman.
The Dallas County District Attorney’s Office ultimately decided not to charge Ms. Lee, but some have been critical of DPD’s decision to recommend charges. As a criminal defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, I believe this criticism is misguided, because it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the roles of the police and the District Attorney’s Office. Let’s examine the facts, explain the roles of DPD and the DA’s Office, and explain why the decision by DPD was correct.
This is not to say that Ms. Lee should have been charged. It is only to say that the decision about whether to charge her was up to the District Attorney’s Office, and the DPD acted properly in presenting the case to the DA’s Office and leaving the charging decision up to them. This is how the system is supposed to work.
First, let’s discuss the roles of the police and the District Attorney’s Office. The police enforce the law. They investigate crimes and arrest people who have committed crimes. When they believe a crime has been committed, they report the facts to the District Attorney’s Office.
The District Attorney’s Office consists of lawyers. They analyze whether, under the law, the facts presented by the police constitute a crime, whether guilt can be proven in court beyond a reasonable doubt, and whether the case should be pursued in court in light of the office’s criminal justice objectives.
In other words, the police make an initial judgment about whether a crime has been committed and present the facts. The DA’s Office reviews the facts, the law, and the goals of the justice system, and decides whether to prosecute the case in court. In making that decision, the DA’s Office has wide discretion about whether or not to pursue a case in court.
Now, let’s discuss the facts of the Deep Ellum case based on the publicly available information we know. It appears that Mr. Shuffield and Ms. Lee got into a verbal altercation over Ms. Lee’s car blocking Mr. Shuffield’s truck from leaving a parking lot. Ms. Lee took out a phone and began to make a call, but Mr. Shuffield knocked it out of her hands. At some point, he had a gun in his hand. Ms. Lee lunged at Mr. Shuffield and apparently hit him in the face with her hand. Mr. Shuffield then punched Ms. Lee repeatedly and violently in the face, including a couple of punches while she was still on her feet and trying to cover her face with her hands and arms.
According to the Dallas Police Department, at some point after this, Ms. Lee got some type of tool from her car, like a jumper cable, and struck Mr. Shuffield’s truck with it, breaking the rear window and possibly also striking the body of the truck. Mr. Shuffield claims that this caused thousands of dollars worth of damage.
Was the striking of Mr. Shuffield’s truck by Ms. Lee a crime? The facts indicate that it was.
Under Texas law, it is a crime to do intentional damage to another person’s property, unless there is a valid legal excuse. Self-defense is a valid legal excuse, but it does not appear to apply to the alleged striking of the truck. The striking of the truck was apparently after Mr. Shuffield has stopped hitting Ms. Lee. It appears that Ms. Lee struck the truck out of anger and/or a desire for revenge, rather than as a means of defending herself against his physical attack. Therefore, self-defense does not seem to apply.
Texas law generally does not allow people to commit a crime against someone in retaliation for a crime. In other words, two wrongs generally don’t make a right.
So, based on the facts of which I am aware, I believe Ms. Lee likely committed a crime, and the Dallas Police Department was right to refer the matter to the DA’s Office.
At that point, it is up to the DA’s Office to decide whether to prosecute the case or not. Prosecutors have discretion to decide not to prosecute a case even if a crime has been committed. This is a judgment call that prosecutors often have to make. It is the same type of decision that the Chicago DA’s Office made in dismissing charges against Jussie Smollett. I may disagree with the judgment, but making the call is within the discretion of the DA’s Office.
Here, the DA’s Office might have believed one or more of the following:
-It would be difficult to impossible to get a conviction because Ms. Lee was a sympathetic defendant, and Mr. Shuffield was a very unsympathetic victim of the truck striking.
-Mr. Shuffield had it coming to him, based on what he did to Ms. Lee.
-The relatively low amount of damage, and the fact that she seems to have acted in the heat of the moment, rather than deliberately, after a cooling-off period, are not enough to justify a prosecution. It would probably be very different, for example, if she had waited a week and burned down his house.
-Prosecuting Ms. Lee might have angered the public.
These are the kinds of judgment calls that the DA’s Office—not the police—is supposed to make.
I am not criticizing the DA’s Office for deciding not to prosecute the case. In this circumstance, I believe the decision they made was justifiable. It is important to understand, though, that the judgment call about whether or not to prosecute this case was properly made by the DA’s Office, and the Dallas Police Department acted properly in referring the matter to them so that they could make the decision.
Attorney John Helms – Dallas Criminal Defense