Judge Jay Karahan


Judge Jay Karahan is in his second term as judge of Harris County Criminal Court-at-Law No. 8, one of 15 county criminal courts with county-wide jurisdiction over misdemeanor cases like driving while intoxicated (DWI), certain family violence offenses, possession of drugs, theft, etc. with a one-year confinement maximum penalty.

Houston Woman: What sentences can you impose for those convicted in your court?

Judge Jay Karahan: Most sentences are plea bargained between the defendant and the state. Many first offenders receive probated sentences, also called community supervision. Some defendants elect not to accept probation offers and accept jail and/or fine sentences. A straight probation results in a final conviction; deferred adjudication probation, if successfully completed, results in the dismissal of the charge. Recently, the DA’s Office began offering pre-trial       diversion probations in certain cases (assault and weapons cases are excluded) involving first-time offenders without criminal histories. If they are successful, their cases are dismissed and can be expunged. Community supervision is a useful disposition track for those defendants who have the potential and desire to learn from their mistakes and find new ways of making better life choices.  They are required to work, support dependents, complete their education and undergo substance abuse, alcohol, consumer credit and anger counseling as the case requires. Many repeat offenders are typically given jail sentences and fines. The court can also suspend driver’s licenses after DWI, drug possession and highway racing convictions.

HW: Tell us about the family violence cases filed in your court. 

Judge Karahan: Several sessions ago, the Texas Legislature recognized that violence between family members was increasing and that our justice system could address family violence by charging the defendant with more than a standard assault. A person commits the offense of assault if he/she intentionally, knowingly or recklessly causes bodily injury to another.

“Bodily injury” is defined as physical pain, illness or any impairment of physical condition. This is a Class A misdemeanor with a one-year maximum jail sentence. If the case presents “serious bodily injury” - bodily injury that creates a substantial risk of death or that causes death, serious permanent disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ, felony aggravated assault can be charged and prosecuted in the district courts and, upon conviction, sentenced up to life imprisonment.

The Texas Legislature defines “family members” broadly and includes spouses, persons living together in a household, people in dating relationships, roommates and other family relationships like siblings, parents, children and collateral relatives. The DA can charge either a standard assault or family violence assault in any of these situations. However, if the DA files the family violence assault charge and the defendant is either convicted or placed on probation, there are collateral consequences.  

For example, if the defendant was previously convicted or received deferred adjudication for assault-family violence, the charge is a 3rd degree felony carrying 2-10 years in prison or probation of up to 10 years and a fine of up to $10,000.
Last year, in response to an increase in choking and attempted strangulation cases, the Texas Legislature amended the assault statutes to provide increased penalties for defendants convicted of “intentionally, knowingly or recklessly impeding the normal breathing or circulation of the blood of the person by applying pressure to the person’s throat or neck or by blocking the person’s nose or mouth.” This now is a 3rd degree felony carrying 2-10 years in prison or up to 10 years probation and a maximum fine of $10,000. If the current family member victim alleges strangling, and any previous family violence conviction exists, then the offense is a 2nd degree felony punishable by 2-20 years in prison or 10 years probation and a maximum $10,000 fine.

HW: Can the courts do anything to protect complainants while the case is pending?

Judge Karahan: Yes. On motion of the state and a factual basis, a county criminal court-at-law or district court judge can enter Emergency Protective Orders to bar the accused from making threats directly or through third parties, going near the residence or place of employment of protected individuals and/or their children and their schools, stalking the protected individual and possessing firearms - unless the accused is a peace officer whose employment requires use of a firearm. This is a temporary order lasting 61 days. A violation of that order is chargeable as a new Class A misdemeanor offense with up to a one-year jail sentence upon conviction.  

HW: What conditions can you set after placing a defendant on probation for a misdemeanor family assault?

Judge Karahan: In nearly every case, the probationer must complete a batterer’s intervention program that includes anger management counseling. If the defendant and complainant are still in relationship, the court may require family counseling and/or parenting classes. Other standard conditions are a $100 fee paid to Family Violence Services, community service, drug and alcohol counseling and rehabilitation and, if the parties are no longer in relationship, no-contact conditions. In some cases, up to 30 days confinement may be required.

HW: How have the courts evolved in addressing family violence since you’ve been practicing law?

Judge Karahan: In 1980, I was a law school intern in the DA’s Office where I worked at the citizen’s complaint desk. Some complainants would file charges at the complaint desk and later come back to request dismissal of charges. The courts often dismissed these charges on state’s motion after complainants signed non-prosecution affidavits. Many of these same complainants returned later to file new assault charges against the same offender, and in some cases, complainants were unable to return due to hospitalization or worse. Since then, victims’ advocates have lobbied lawmakers and raised community awareness. Those efforts resulted in formation of specialized prosecution divisions and additional community support through women’s/family shelters. Today, law enforcement is more prone to arrest and charge a person accused of family violence when it is apparent to the officer that an offense was likely committed — and the courts are seeing more of these cases through to final disposition.  Today, because of recent appellate opinions, a complainant’s decision to drop the case is not necessarily a bar to successful prosecution. In those cases, the court can receive into evidence certain statements made during 911 calls and initial police interventions without the complainant’s appearance in court. The courts’ goal is to provide a fair place to try these cases to verdict, impose jail sentences when warranted and to provide effective supervision and rehabilitation of defendants who were otherwise convicted and placed into community supervision.

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