CITY OF BEAUMONT POLICE DEPARTMENT v. KLEIN INVESTIGATIONS & CONSULTING

No. 09-11-00614-CV.

THE CITY OF BEAUMONT POLICE DEPARTMENT, Appellant, v. KLEIN INVESTIGATIONS & CONSULTING, Appellee.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Ninth District, Beaumont.

Opinion Delivered February 9, 2012.


MEMORANDUM OPINION

CHARLES KREGER, Justice.

Appellant, the City of Beaumont ("City") appeals the trial court's order denying its plea to the jurisdiction. We have appellate jurisdiction to consider an interlocutory order denying a governmental unit's plea to the jurisdiction. Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 51.014(a)(8) (West 2008). We reverse the trial court's judgment and remand the cause to the trial court with instructions to dismiss for want of jurisdiction.

Background

Appellee Klein Investigations & Consulting ("Klein") is a business that, among other things, offers a civil processing service. Klein employs, appellee, Stephen Louis Hartman, as a certified civil process server. On February 15, 2011, City police officers ("BPD") responded to a complaint from Kingsgate Apartment complex that Hartman was breaching the peace in his attempt to affect service of process on a resident of Kingsgate. While Hartman was attempting service, he got into a dispute with another resident of the apartment complex, and was asked to leave the property, but refused. BPD officers responded and assisted Hartman in peacefully affecting service of process on the intended party, but thereafter also issued Hartman a criminal trespass warning at the request of Kingsgate's property manager.

Klein filed suit seeking declaratory judgment that: (1) the business of civil process serving is legal; (2) BPD does not have a right to impose criminal trespass warnings and charges against civil process servers engaged in the lawful business of process serving; (3) the business of civil process serving does not constitute stalking; (4) Klein's business of civil process serving should be free from harassment by BPD; and (5) the City's actions violate the Texas Constitution's guarantee of freedom of speech, freedom of association, equal protection, and due process.1 On appeal, Klein abandoned his claims under the Texas Constitution.

The City filed a plea to the jurisdiction, which the trial court denied. The City filed this interlocutory appeal to challenge the trial court's denial of its plea to the jurisdiction.

Standard of Review

A plea to the jurisdiction is a dilatory plea, which seeks to dismiss a cause of action without regard to whether the claims asserted have merit. Bland Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 554 (Tex. 2000). A plea to the jurisdiction requests dismissal of the case because the trial court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, an essential element to a court's power to decide a case. Id. at 553-54. We review the trial court's ruling on a plea to the jurisdiction de novo. Tex. Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda, 133 S.W.3d 217, 228 (Tex. 2004). If a plea to the jurisdiction challenges the pleadings, then we must determine if the pleader alleged facts that demonstrate the court's jurisdiction to hear the case. Id. at 226.

Discussion

In the underlying lawsuit, Klein essentially challenges the ability of the City to issue criminal trespass warnings to Klein's employees for alleged criminal trespass while they are attempting to effect service of process for the courts. The City argues that civil courts have no jurisdiction to enjoin the enforcement of a criminal statute and thus the trial court has no jurisdiction to hear this case.

A district court's civil jurisdiction to address criminal statutes is very limited. If questions of validity and constitutionality of a penal ordinance can be resolved in a criminal proceeding, and vested property rights are not in jeopardy, then a court of equity should not intervene. State v. Morales, 869 S.W.2d 941, 945 (Tex. 1994). "[A]s a rule, a party cannot seek to construe or enjoin enforcement of a criminal statute in a civil proceeding without a showing of irreparable injury to the party's vested property rights[.]" Tex. Educ. Agency v. Leeper, 893 S.W.2d 432, 441 (Tex. 1994); see also Passel v. Fort Worth Indep. Sch. Dist., 440 S.W.2d 61, 63 (Tex. 1969) ("It is well settled that courts of equity will not interfere with the ordinary enforcement of a criminal statute unless the statute is unconstitutional and its enforcement will result in irreparable injury to vested property rights.").

"The considerations that lead courts of equity to deny injunctive relief against enforcement of the criminal laws apply with equal force to an action for a declaratory judgment construing a penal statute." Tex. Liquor Control Bd. v. Canyon Creek Land Corp., 456 S.W.2d 891, 896 (Tex. 1970); see also Morales, 869 S.W.2d at 947. The Texas Supreme Court has held that a civil court has no jurisdiction to issue "naked declarations of `rights, status or other legal relationships arising under a penal statute.'" Morales, 869 S.W.2d at 947 (quoting Malone v. City of Houston, 278 S.W.2d 204, 206 (Tex. Civ. App.-Galveston 1955, writ ref'd n.r.e.)).

In Morales, the Supreme Court explained that these limitations are in place, in part, due to the "separate and distinct jurisdiction allocated by the Texas Constitution to our civil and criminal courts, including two courts of last resort: [the supreme court] in civil cases and the court of criminal appeals in criminal cases." Id. The Court explained that the possibility of both civil and criminal courts construing criminal statutes is dangerous because it could create confusion and potentially result in conflicting opinions between the two courts. Id. at 947-48. The Court recognized that differing opinions between the civil courts and the Court of Criminal Appeals would encroach upon the exclusive, and constitutionally derived jurisdiction, of the Court of Criminal Appeals. Id. at 948. The Court emphasized the importance of strict adherence to these principles:

The very balance of state governmental power imposed by the framers of the Texas Constitution depends on each branch, and particularly the judiciary, operating within its jurisdictional bounds. The power of government emanates from the people's delegation of power to government. The checks and balances inherent in our form of government depend upon the judiciary's equanimity and particularly upon our self-restraint. When a court lacks jurisdiction, its only legitimate choice is to dismiss.

Id. at 949.

Today we exercise such restraint. Klein's requested declarations concerning the City's issuance of criminal trespass warnings to Klein's employees seek the very kind of "naked declarations" disallowed by the Texas Supreme Court. Klein has not alleged that the City's enforcement of the penal statute would result in irreparable injury to a vested property right, nor has Klein challenged the constitutionality of a statute. Rather, Klein argues that these holdings have no application in the lawsuit on file because Klein does not seek to enjoin the enforcement of a criminal statute. Klein's argument fails because the limits on a district court's civil jurisdiction to address a criminal statute apply regardless of whether the requested relief is framed as an injunction or as a declaratory judgment. See Morales, 869 S.W.2d at 947; Tex. Liquor Control Bd., 456 S.W.2d at 896.

Klein argues that section 37.004 of the Texas Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act provides the trial court with jurisdiction over this suit. However, Klein's reliance on this Act is misplaced, as the Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act is only a procedural device and "cannot confer jurisdiction on the court, nor can it change the basic character of a suit." Morales, 869 S.W.2d at 947; see also Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. §§ 37.001-.011 (West 2008).

In the lawsuit and appeal, Klein complains that Hartman was engaged in the lawful act of serving a civil complaint, which is excused from prosecution or threat of prosecution by the City under the criminal trespass statute. Section 30.05 of the Penal Code provides in relevant part:

It is a defense to prosecution under this section that the actor at the time of the offense was . . . a person who was: (A) employed by or acting as agent for an entity that had, or that the person reasonably believed had, effective consent or authorization provided by law to enter the property; and (B) performing a duty within the scope of that employment or agency.

Tex. Penal Code Ann. § 30.05(e)(3) (West Supp. 2011). This section clearly provides a defense to prosecution under this statute for those authorized by law to enter property. See id. Therefore, a process server is afforded an adequate remedy through the criminal courts.

We need not address the City's remaining issues, as doing so would provide the City with no greater relief. See Tex. R. App. P. 47.1. Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's order and remand the cause to the trial court with instructions to dismiss for want of jurisdiction.

REVERSED AND REMANDED.

FootNotes


1. Klein also sought damages for the City's alleged malicious prosecution and tortious interference with its business relations, but Klein abandoned these claims on appeal.

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