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Murphy v. Okeke

July 3, 2008


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (IF-2147-03) (Hon. Gerald I. Fisher, Trial Judge).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Blackburne-rigsby, Associate Judge

Submitted January 16, 2007

Before GLICKMAN and BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY, Associate Judges, and FERREN, Senior Judge.

At issue in this appeal is whether "cross (or mutual)" civil protection orders were properly entered against Karl M.E. Okeke and Cynthia D. Murphy when Mr. Okeke physically assaulted Ms. Murphy after asking her to leave his apartment. Ms. Murphy challenges the entry of a Civil Protection Order ("CPO") against her for failing to leave her ex-boyfriend, Mr. Okeke's, apartment after he invited her there. Specifically, she alleges that (1) the CPO against her was improper as a matter of law because unlawful entry is a crime against property, not against a person and, therefore, does not satisfy the statutory requirement for an intrafamily offense;*fn1 (2) under the facts of this case, the CPO against her was improper because Mr. Okeke was the aggressor and violently assaulted her;*fn2 and (3) the trial court abused its discretion by denying her request for counsel fees.

We conclude that unlawful entry is also an "offense upon a person" because such statutes are designed to protect public safety as well as property. Thus, a finding of unlawful entry can serve as the basis for the entry of a CPO. However, the finding of an intrafamily offense, particularly where, as here, the parties are seeking mutual CPO's, does not automatically mean the trial court should enter a CPO against an offender. Rather, the trial court, in the exercise of its discretion, should only enter a CPO against a party for reasons consistent with the underlying purpose of the Intrafamily Offense Act.*fn3 In this case, Mr. Okeke violently assaulted Ms. Murphy, and the CPO was entered against Ms. Murphy for an improper reason -- i.e., in the words of the trial judge, her "[own] behavior brought a lot of this on her." We are therefore constrained to reverse the trial court's entry of the CPO against Ms. Murphy and remand to the trial court with direction to vacate the CPO against her.

We also remand for the trial court to reconsider Ms. Murphy's request for counsel fees, in light of our reversal of the CPO against her, to determine whether counsel fees may be appropriate at this juncture.

I. Factual Background

In April 2003, Ms. Murphy and Mr. Okeke began a romantic relationship. They started to have trouble in their relationship a few weeks prior to July 4, 2003. On July 4, 2003, Mr. Okeke invited Ms. Murphy to attend a Fourth of July party at his apartment. Both Ms. Murphy and Mr. Okeke consumed alcohol at the party. At some point in the evening, Ms. Murphy and Katy Elizabeth Gaire, Mr. Okeke's roommate, went into the bathroom to talk privately. When Ms. Murphy told Ms. Gaire that she and Mr. Okeke were involved in a romantic relationship, Ms. Gaire said, "now that I know that, you need to know that within the past two weeks since I've moved in . . . I've slept with [Mr. Okeke] four or five times." After receiving this news, Ms. Murphy became very emotional and began to cry and yell. Mr. Okeke then burst through the bathroom door and began arguing with Ms. Murphy and told her three or four times to "Get the F[expletive] out of his house." Ms. Murphy was sitting on the edge of the bathtub when Mr. Okeke lunged at her, and she fell into the tub. During the argument, Ms. Murphy ran into Mr. Okeke's bedroom. Inside the bedroom, Mr. Okeke dragged Ms. Murphy by her legs and arms; repeatedly hit her in the face (including her eye); kicked her in her legs and on her buttocks; and pushed her up against the wall. While he was assaulting her, Mr. Okeke repeatedly asked her to leave.

The attack left Ms. Murphy with a black eye, a swollen face, bruises extending from her lip down to the base of her neck as well as on the side of her face and arms, and cuts to the inside of her mouth.*fn4 After Mr. Okeke left the bedroom, Ms. Murphy locked the door and called 911. Before the police arrived, Ms. Murphy climbed through the bedroom window to the outside ledge of Mr. Okeke's first-floor apartment because she feared that Mr. Okeke would continue to assault her. Mr. Okeke walked to a nearby balcony, and the argument continued outside. A crowd started to form, and a neighbor helped Ms. Murphy off the ledge of the apartment to the street level.

After observing the argument and the behavior of Mr. Okeke and Ms. Murphy and speaking with both, a police officer determined that Ms. Murphy appeared to be "suicidal" and transported her to a psychiatric emergency room. The same day as her release, Ms. Murphy went to the George Washington University Hospital for treatment for her injuries.

On July 7, 2003, Ms. Murphy filed for a CPO against Mr. Okeke. A Temporary Protection Order was entered against Mr. Okeke, and a hearing was scheduled for July 18, 2003. Mr. Okeke filed a cross-petition for a CPO against Ms. Murphy on July 15, 2003, after learning of Ms. Murphy's CPO petition against him. He claimed that on July 4, 2003, she had "physical[ly] and verbally assaulted me. Then she proceeded to destroy/smash my computer and other property . . . ."*fn5

After several continuances, the CPO hearing was scheduled to commence after Mr. Okeke's December 10, 2003, sentencing hearing for his related criminal simple assault matter. On December 10, 2003, following a misdemeanor bench trial, Mr. Okeke was sentenced to 180 days in jail for the July 4, 2003, assault against Ms. Murphy. The jail time was suspended, and Mr. Okeke was placed on one year of probation, with an order to stay away from Ms. Murphy, complete fifty hours of community service, participate in a domestic violence counseling program, and make a contribution to the Crime Victim's Compensation Fund.

The CPO hearing commenced on January 30, 2004. At the conclusion of the CPO hearing, the trial judge announced his findings and indicated that in reaching his decision to enter mutual CPO's against Ms. Murphy and Mr. Okeke he found, inter alia, that on July 4, 2003, Ms. Murphy's initial refusal to leave Mr. Okeke's apartment, after he asked her to, constituted an unlawful entry. Based on this finding, the trial court determined that Ms. Murphy committed an offense "upon a person" in violation of the Intrafamily Offense Act.

The trial judge also found Ms. Murphy to be in criminal contempt for violating the Temporary Protection Order that had previously been entered against her, when she, on the evening of October 25, 2003, and into the early morning hours of October 26th, made repeated and threatening phone calls to Mr. Okeke. Ms. Murphy was sentenced for the criminal contempt charge to a thirty-day suspended sentence, one year of supervised probation, and mandatory alcohol and anger-management counseling. Lastly, the trial judge declined to award Ms. Murphy the counsel fees she requested. ...

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