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Shewarega v. Yegzaw

April 18, 2008


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia Family Court (CPO-1011-06) (Hon. Gregory Jackson, Trial Judge).

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

Submitted March 27, 2008

Before GLICKMAN and THOMPSON, Associate Judges, and TERRY, Senior Judge.

Sisay Shewarega appeals his conviction of criminal contempt for willfully disobeying a civil protection order (CPO) issued pursuant to the Intrafamily Offenses Act.*fn1 Appellant argues that his contempt conviction must be reversed because the CPO was void ab initio for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and alternatively for insufficient proof that he violated the CPO. We reject appellant's jurisdictional argument. We conclude, though it is a close question, that there is sufficient evidence in the record to support appellant's contempt adjudication. However, because the trial court's determination rests on factual findings that are clearly erroneous, we must remand for the court to reconsider its verdict after an accurate assessment of the trial record.


The statutory predicate for issuance of a CPO is a finding of good cause to believe that the respondent has committed or is threatening to commit an "intrafamily offense" within the meaning of D.C. Code § 16-1001(5).*fn2 At the time of the events at issue here, that statute defined an "intrafamily offense" as follows:

The term "intrafamily offense" means an act punishable as a criminal offense committed by an offender upon a person:

(A) to whom the offender is related by blood, legal custody, marriage, having a child in common, or with whom the offender shares or has shared a mutual residence; or

(B) with whom the offender maintains or maintained a romantic relationship not necessarily including a sexual relationship. A person seeking a protection order under this subparagraph shall reside in the District of Columbia or the underlying intrafamily offense shall have occurred in the District of Columbia.*fn3

In her petition for a CPO, appellee Kidist Yegzaw alleged that she and appellant shared the same residence -- a boarding house owned and occupied by appellant, in which she rented a room -- and that appellant had committed an intrafamily offense by assaulting and threatening her.

After holding a hearing, the trial court granted Ms. Yegzaw's petition. The CPO, issued on April 21, 2006, recites the court's findings of jurisdiction over the parties and subject matter, and of good cause to believe that appellant had committed an intrafamily offense. Appellant was ordered not to "assault, threaten, harass, or stalk Petitioner, or destroy Petitioner's property." Appellant was not barred from otherwise contacting or communicating with Ms. Yegzaw. The CPO, which appellant signed, warned that if he did not comply with its terms, he would be subject to prosecution for civil or criminal contempt.*fn4 Appellant did not appeal the entry of the CPO.

Less than three weeks later, Ms. Yegzaw moved the court to adjudicate appellant guilty of criminal contempt. She alleged that appellant had violated the CPO on May 8, 2006, by knocking forcefully on her bedroom door, yelling and screaming at her, and making threats to get her deported to her native country and to kill her.

Appellant moved to dismiss the contempt proceeding on the ground that the Superior Court lacked jurisdiction to issue the CPO. At the hearing on the motion, appellant testified, and Ms. Yegzaw agreed, that they never had a familial, romantic, or intimate personal relationship of any kind; their only relationship was one of landlord and tenant at the rooming house where they both resided. The CPO was void for want of jurisdiction, appellant argued, because the Intrafamily Offenses Act had not been and (as its title suggests) should not be construed to apply to such impersonal relationships. The trial court rejected this argument, and denied appellant's motion, in view of appellant's admission that the kitchen, living room, dining room, entrance, and hallways at the rooming house were common areas for all the residents, including Ms. Yegzaw and himself. The court found that appellant and Ms. Yegzaw therefore "shared a mutual residence" within the meaning of D.C. Code § 16-1001(5). That limited relationship was enough, the court ruled, to satisfy statutory prerequisites for an "intrafamily offense."

At trial, Ms. Yegzaw prosecuted her motion for contempt without the assistance of counsel. She did not testify; her only witness was her housemate, Shawaue Taffese. Ms. Taffese testified that on the night of May 8, 2006, appellant followed Ms. Yegzaw up to her room from the kitchen, where Ms. Yegzaw had brewed some tea. Appellant was shouting at Ms. Yegzaw, reviling her for her use of the kitchen. He then banged on her door and, Ms. Taffese recalled, he yelled "I'm going to make you deported. . . . I'm going to deport two of you, but especially her." Ms. Taffese did not testify to any other threats. On direct examination, she stated that appellant hit Ms. Yegzaw (which Ms. Yegzaw herself had not alleged). However, Ms. Taffese retracted that statement on cross-examination, saying "I didn't say that he hit her. He was going to hit her. He came to hit her. . ...

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