February 5, 1998
IN RE Q.D.G., APPELLANT.
APPEAL FROM SUPERIOR COURT, JOHN H. SUDA, J.
Before Terry, Schwelb, and Farrell, Associate Judges.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schwelb, Associate Judge:
Following a fact-finding hearing before a judge sitting without a jury, Q.D.G., a juvenile, was found guilty of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle (UUV), in violation of D.C. Code § 22-3815(b) (1996). *fn1 On appeal, he contends that the trial judge erred by failing to impose sanctions against the District for an alleged discovery violation. *fn1 Because [706 A2d Page 37]
any exercise of the trial judge's discretion with respect to the imposition of sanctions rested on a misapprehension as to the applicable law, we remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings.
In the afternoon of February 13, 1996, police officers observed Q.D.G., who was then fourteen years old, operating a Honda automobile at a high rate of speed in the vicinity of McKinley High School. Q.D.G. was doing so just as the students were being released from school. The Honda had New Jersey license plates, and officers later learned that it was registered to a resident of New Jersey. The officers turned on their emergency equipment and initiated a pursuit of the Honda.
Q.D.G. continued to drive erratically in an effort to elude the officers. He soon rammed a parked car, "bailed out," and ran. The police gave chase and eventually apprehended Q.D.G. The boy then became involved in a physical altercation with one of the officers. This altercation led to Q.D.G.'s hospitalization and to the filing of the APO charge of which Q.D.G. was subsequently acquitted.
In the absence of any testimony from the owner of the Honda, a principal issue at the fact-finding hearing was whether the District had shown that Q.D.G.'s operation of the vehicle was unauthorized. In concluding that the District had proved its case, the trial judge noted, inter alia, that Q.D.G. was only fourteen years old, that he had no driver's license, that he could not produce the registration papers, and that he attempted to escape from the police, initially by driving recklessly and later by running away. The judge also credited the testimony of a police officer that the steering column of the Honda had been "punched out," and he concluded that Q.D.G. therefore "should have easily known that it was a stolen vehicle even if he didn't steal it himself."
Prior to the trial, Q.D.G.'s attorney requested counsel for the District to preserve and produce the Honda for inspection. Counsel for the District provided defense counsel with a "viewing letter" authorizing defense counsel to have access to the car, which was said to be at a Metropolitan Police Department lot. Q.D.G.'s attorney made several visits to the lot, however, and police officers advised him that the Honda could not be found. Q.D.G. then filed a pretrial motion for sanctions, and the trial judge heard the motion in advance of the fact-finding hearing.
At the motions hearing, Q.D.G.'s attorney contended that he was entitled to inspect the Honda, or at least to view detailed photographs of the vehicle, under the provisions of Super. Ct. Juv. R. 16(a)(1)(C). *fn2 Counsel argued that, in light of the police officer's testimony as to the condition of the ignition, the Honda, a "tangible object," was not only "in the possession, custody or control of the government," but also "material to the respondent's defense," all within the meaning of that Rule. The defense contended that the District's failure to preserve the Honda or photographs of the vehicle for inspection by Q.D.G.'s attorney was in violation of Rule 16, and that the District should be precluded from introducing any evidence as to the condition of the car.
Counsel for the District took the position that Rule 16 was inapplicable and that the police had no obligation to preserve the vehicle or to produce it for defense counsel's [706 A2d Page 38]
inspection. The judge agreed with the District:
I just really don't see [the car] as being evidence. Frankly, I can't conjure up a scenario where it would be evidence.
The judge therefore denied the motion for sanctions, noting that "[i]t might be an interesting point for appeal."
In this court, the District has abandoned its position that the Honda was not subject to discovery under Rule 16. The District argues, instead, that it did not act in bad faith or negligently in failing to make the Honda available for inspection by the defense, and that the denial of sanctions therefore constituted an appropriate exercise of the trial judge's discretion.
The determination as to what sanction, if any, should be imposed for a discovery violation is committed to the sound discretion of the trial judge. Cotton v. United States, 388 A.2d 865, 869-70 (D.C. 1978). That discretion must, however, be exercised in accordance with correct legal principles. In re Application of L.L., 653 A.2d 873, 880 (D.C. 1995) (citation omitted); Conrad v. Medina, 47 A.2d 562, 565 (D.C.Mun. 1946). "[A] trial court abuses its discretion when it rests its conclusions on incorrect legal standards." In re J.D.C., 594 A.2d 70, 75 (D.C. 1991) (citation omitted); see generally Johnson v. United States, 398 A.2d 354, 365 (D.C. 1979). In the present case, the trial judge's disposition of the issue of sanctions was significantly affected (and, arguably, entirely controlled) *fn3 by his acceptance of the District's contention that the Honda was not "evidence" and that the District therefore was not required under Rule 16 to make the car available for inspection by the defense.
Given the District's concession in this court (with which we agree) *fn4 that, on this record, Q.D.G.'s counsel was entitled under Rule 16 to view either the Honda or sufficiently informative photographs of the vehicle, *fn4 we conclude that any exercise of discretion by the trial judge as to sanctions was undermined by a misapprehension on his part as to a controlling legal principle. Accordingly, we remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion, including a determination as to what, if any, sanctions should have been imposed. See Cotton, supra, 388 A.2d at 869-70; Allen v. United States, 649 A.2d 548, 552-54 (D.C. 1994). If the court concludes that sanctions were called for, then it shall determine whether the trial judge's failure to impose sanctions resulted in substantial prejudice to Q.D.G. In the event that the court finds such prejudice, Q.D.G. is entitled to a new trial.