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Steele v. D.C. Tiger Market

July 15, 2004

THOMAS STEELE, APPELLANT,
v.
D.C. TIGER MARKET, ET AL., APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CA-7665-98). (Hon. Rhonda Reid-Winston, Trial Judge).

Before Farrell, Ruiz and Glickman, Associate Judges.

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

Argued May 19, 2003

Appellant Thomas Steele was shopping for groceries at D.C. Tiger Market when the store's security guard, off-duty Metropolitan Police Officer Timothy Harris, stopped him on suspicion of shoplifting. According to Harris, he noticed a bulge in the front of Steele's "puffy" jacket that had not been there when Steele entered the store. After Steele refused to open his jacket for Harris and attempted to walk away, Harris allegedly grabbed him, spun him around, and searched him. No incriminating evidence was found on Steele, who was released without being charged with shoplifting.

Steele sued Harris and D.C. Tiger Market for damages in Superior Court, claiming, inter alia, that as a result of the incident he suffered from debilitating post-traumatic stress and depression for which he had to seek psychiatric treatment. Steele stated claims against Harris for assault and battery and false arrest and against D.C. Tiger Market for negligent hiring, training, and supervision. The case was tried to a jury, which returned a verdict for the defendants. From the judgment entered on that verdict, Steele has appealed.

Steele contends that the trial judge committed reversible error in two respects. First, Steele charges that during jury selection, the judge discriminated against potential jurors who had received treatment for depression or other mental health problems. The record shows, however, that the judge excused the jurors in question for reasons other than their psychiatric histories. Second, Steele complains that the judge unduly restricted the testimony of his expert on police procedures. We find to the contrary. We hold that the judge ruled appropriately and did not abuse her discretion in precluding Steele's expert from explaining the law governing arrests and investigative stops to the jury and from expressing his legal conclusion that Harris lacked probable cause or reasonable articulable suspicion to detain Steele for shoplifting.

I.

During the voir dire, the trial judge posed a series of questions to potential jurors for the purpose of discovering bias, prejudice, or other grounds for disqualification. One of those questions asked if any venire members or their close relatives had ever been treated for a "mental injury" or been under the care of a psychiatrist or other mental health provider. Citing three jurors who responded affirmatively to this question and who were excused for cause after they were interviewed at the bench - Jurors 076, 094, and 155 - Steele contends that "persons with a history of psychiatric treatment were systematically struck for cause from the jury panel, even though they specifically stated their psychiatric treatment would not interfere with their ability to render an impartial verdict."

Although he objected when the judge excused Jurors 076 and 094, Steele did not raise his claim of systematic discrimination in the trial court. Assuming for the sake of argument that Steele has preserved the claim, we discern from the transcript of the voir dire that it is without merit. The jurors in question were not excused because of their psychiatric treatment history. Juror 076 was excused on the motion of defense counsel because she admitted she would "probably" identify or sympathize with Steele if he was suffering from depression as he claimed. Juror 094 was excused because he reported a past issue with anger management and his demeanor at the bench - "his affect" and the "cadence of his voice," as the judge noted on the record - struck both defense counsel and the judge as disturbing. Juror 155 was excused without objection from either side because she preferred not to endure jury deliberations that might upset her medical condition, for which she was taking psychotropic drugs.

Nothing in this fairly supports Steele's claim of systematic discrimination against persons with a history of psychiatric treatment. The judge's rulings reflect a legitimate and reasonable concern to select jurors who would be able to fulfill their responsibilities. "A trial judge . . . has broad discretion in deciding whether to excuse a juror for cause" to achieve that goal, among other reasons because the judge's assessment of a potential juror's demeanor plays "such an important part" in evaluating the juror's ability to serve. Rease v. United States, 403 A.2d 322, 325 (D.C. 1979) (quoting Ristaino v. Ross, 424 U.S. 589, 595 (1976)). As the record before us in this case shows no abuse of that discretion - and, we might add, no substantial prejudice to Steele either - he is not entitled to relief on appeal on account of the judge's rulings in voir dire. See Lewis v. Voss, 770 A.2d 996, 1005 (D.C. 2001).

II.

Because D.C. Tiger Market's security guard Timothy Harris was an off-duty Metropolitan police officer, Steele called Robert Klotz, a former senior official in the Metropolitan Police Department, to testify as an expert in the area of "police procedures." Following a voir dire examination into Klotz's qualifications, the defendants raised two objections to his anticipated testimony.

The defendants' first objection was that Klotz was not qualified to render opinions as to "private security matters" such as whether D.C. Tiger Market should have trained Harris itself instead of relying on his having been trained as a police officer. At his deposition, Klotz had testified that he did not "hold [him]self out as an expert when it comes to private security matters" and that he was not offering an opinion that "the corporate defendant should have trained this police officer." In response to the defendants' objection, Steele disavowed any intention to elicit such opinions from Klotz at trial. The judge thereupon ruled that Klotz would not be allowed to testify "about whether Tiger Market should have trained [Harris] or whether they trained him improperly."

The defendants' second objection was that Klotz should not be allowed to render opinions as to whether Steele had been arrested or whether there was probable cause for his arrest. In response, Steele acknowledged that he planned to ask his expert to explain the legal meaning of such terms as "arrest," "probable cause," and "reasonable articulable suspicion" and then to opine that Harris had arrested Steele at the D.C. Tiger Market without the requisite legal justification. As part of his planned inquiry, Steele intended to ask Klotz to explain "what actions a suspect must take to constitute the crime of shoplifting according to [D.C. Code ยง 22-3213 (2001)]," and to testify that Harris did not see Steele take such actions. The trial judge ruled, however, that the expert witness would not be permitted to define and "interpret the law," because that was "the function of the Court." Nor ...


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