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Howard v. United States

March 5, 2009


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CMD28367-07) (Hon. Bruce D. Beaudin, Trial Judge).

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

Argued February 18, 2009

Before FISHER and THOMPSON, Associate Judges, and PRYOR, Senior Judge.

Appellant asks us to reverse her conviction for assaulting, resisting, or interfering with a police officer ("APO"), in violation of D.C. Code § 22-405 (b) (2001). Because we conclude that the trial court based its finding of guilt on an erroneous interpretation of the statute, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

I. Statement of Facts

Appellant, Ava Howard, was arrested on December 9, 2007, in the Minnesota Avenue Metro Station, by Metro Transit Police Officer Rashad Watson. Appellant had been arguing loudly with another woman, and had grabbed the woman by her shirt. Officer Watson approached and asked appellant to let the other woman go. Appellant refused, and Officer Watson had to forcibly separate the women. Officer Watson asked the women to "sit down in the bus bay." While Officer Watson spoke to the other woman, appellant continued to stand, with her hands in her pockets. Officer Watson asked her several times to sit down and to remove her hands from her pockets, but appellant refused to do so.

Officer Watson approached appellant to place her under arrest for disorderly conduct. While Officer Watson was attempting to handcuff her, appellant continued to curse and yell. She also "was swinging her arms and her elbows, like as for [] resisting." She struck the officer in the chest. Another officer came to assist Officer Watson with the arrest, and appellant "kept swinging her elbows, striking him, too." Eventually, the two officers were able to subdue the appellant.

Appellant testified in her own defense. She claimed that when the officer initially told her to take her hands out of her pockets, she "pulled [her] pockets out just to show him there was nothing in there," but then put her hands back into her pockets because it was cold. She stated that the officer was using excessive force against her, and had pushed her face into a window as he was arresting her, which is why she had flailed her arms. She denied striking the officer.

The trial court, sitting without a jury, convicted appellant based solely on the uncontested testimony that she refused to take her hands out of her pockets when the officer asked her to do so. The court found that the violation occurred "when [appellant] didn't respond to [the officer's] orders to get her hands out so that he could see that nothing could happen to him." The trial court did not make any factual findings as to whether appellant resisted Officer Watson's attempts to arrest her, or whether she struck either of the officers.

II. Legal Analysis

"The standard of review for challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence is well established. In reviewing such claims, the court views the evidence in the light most favorable to the government and a conviction will be overturned only where there has been no evidence produced from which guilt can reasonably be inferred." Joiner-Die v. United States, 899 A.2d 762, 764 (D.C. 2006). "[I]n reviewing bench trials, this court will not reverse unless an appellant has established that the trial court's factual findings are 'plainly wrong,' or 'without evidence to support [them].'" Mihas v. United States, 618 A.2d 197, 200 (D.C. 1992) (quoting D.C. Code § 17-305 (a) (2001)).

Appellant was convicted under the statute criminalizing interference with a law enforcement officer while he is performing his official duties, which states:

Whoever without justifiable and excusable cause, assaults, resists, opposes, impedes, intimidates, or interferes with a law enforcement officer on account of, or while that law enforcement officer is engaged in the performance of his or her official duties shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, shall be imprisoned not more than 180 days or fined not more than $1,000, or both.

D.C. Code ยง 22-405 (b) (2008 Supp.). Appellant principally relies upon our decision in In re C.L.D., 739 A.2d 353 (D.C. 1999). There, a police officer stopped and questioned three young men, believing them to be truant from a nearby high school. Id. at 354. The officer ordered all three to remain on the scene and to produce identification. Id. C.L.D. refused to identify himself and, disregarding the officer's order to remain, began walking away from the officer while shouting profanities. Id. C.L.D. was arrested and charged with APO.We held that to constitute an offense under [the APO statute], a person's conduct must go beyond speech and mere ...

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