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Vaas v. United States

June 03, 2004


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (M-10028-01) (Hon. Zinora Mitchell-Rankin, Trial Judge)

Before Schwelb, Ruiz, and Washington, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Washington, Associate Judge

Argued April 20, 2004

Opinion for the court by Associate Judge WASHINGTON. Concurring opinion by Associate Judge SCHWELB at p. 8.

Appellant Raynard Vaas ("Vaas") was convicted of criminal contempt for violating the stay-away condition of his pre-trial release. On appeal, Vaas contends *fn1 that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction. Specifically, Vaas argues that the order was ambiguous because it failed to clearly define the area from which he was ordered to stay away, and thus, he could not have willingly violated the order. We do not have to decide whether the terms of the stay-away order rendered it facially invalid, however, because we conclude that the stay-away order as orally modified in this case failed to meet the specificity requirement set forth in D.C. Code § 23-1322 (f) (2001). Consequently, we reverse Vaas' conviction.


On August 15, 2001, Vaas was charged with one count of attempted tampering with evidence. At an initial hearing in the case, the court allowed Vaas to be released on personal *fn2 recognizance before trial. As a condition of his release, the court ordered Vaas to stay away from a three-block radius of the residence at which he was arrested, 1127 Montello Avenue, Northeast, Washington, D.C. When Vaas informed the court that he lived three blocks away from 1127 Montello Avenue, the court modified the order to a one-block radius. The court orally warned Vaas that if "you're found within a one-block area of that location, you can get locked up for just being there" (emphasis added). The written order the court issued, however, stated that "You are to stay away from the following place(s) or area(s): 1127 Montello Avenue N.W. WDC; 1 block Radius" *fn3 (emphasis added). There was no map or other visual aid attached to the stay-away order.

On August 26, 2001, Metropolitan Police Officer James Ritter witnessed Vaas driving his vehicle southbound on Florida Avenue, Northeast, about 30 to 40 yards away from Florida Avenue's intersection with the 1100 block of Montello Avenue. At the time that Officer Ritter spotted Vaas, *fn4 he was conducting a traffic stop near the intersection on the 1200 block of Florida Avenue. According to a map admitted as evidence at trial, Officer Ritter indicated that 1127 Montello Avenue was located approximately in the middle of the 1100 block of Montello Avenue. A fair reading of the map also suggests that the location where Officer Ritter saw Vaas was around the corner and across the street from the southern end of the 1100 block of Montello Avenue. Officer Ritter, *fn5 *fn6 believing Vaas was in violation of his stay-away order, arrested Vaas, who was subsequently charged with criminal contempt. *fn7

At trial, the court found Vaas not guilty of attempted tampering with evidence. Regarding the contempt charge, Vaas argued that the stay-away order was ambiguous because "one block radius" failed to put him on adequate notice of the prohibited geographical area. The court, however, stated that "a radius has a very specific definition. I mean, it is one block to the North, South, East and West. I mean, because a radius covers the circumference of the area. And, so, I mean, that is the kind of plain meaning of that term."

The trial court thereafter found beyond a reasonable doubt that Vaas violated his stay away order because he came within a one-block radius of 1127 Montello Avenue on August 26. After convicting Vaas of contempt, the trial court sentenced him to incarceration for six months but suspended execution in favor of two years probation. Vaas appeals this conviction.


A. Standard of Review

In reviewing whether there was sufficient evidence to support a conviction, we view the evidence in the "light most favorable to the prosecution to determine whether a reasonable factfinder could find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." Lewis v. United States, 767 A.2d 219, 222 (D.C. 2001) (citing Kelly v. United States, 639 A.2d 86, 89-90 (D.C. 1994)). We defer to the factfinder to determine credibility, weigh the evidence, and draw reasonable inferences. See Abdulshakur v. District of Columbia, 589 A.2d 1258, 1263 (D.C. 1991). "Moreover, in reviewing bench trials, this court will not reverse unless an appellant has established that the trial court's findings are plainly wrong or without evidence to support [them]." Mihas v. United States, 618 A.2d 197, 200 (D.C. 1992) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Whether a defendant's acts constitute the crime of contempt, however, is a legal issue which we review independently. See Brooks v. United States, 686 A.2d 214, 219 (D.C. 1996).

"In order to convict an individual for criminal contempt it is necessary to find beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual committed a volitional act that constitutes contempt." In re Ryan, 823 A.2d 509, 511 (D.C. 2003) (quoting Smith v. United States, 677 A.2d 1022, 1030 (D.C. 1996)). The elements of criminal contempt are: 1) willful disobedience 2) of a court order 3) that causes an obstruction of the orderly ...

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