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In re D.P.

June 3, 2010

IN RE D.P., APPELLANT.


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia Family Court (DEL2888-06) (Hon. Judith N. Macaluso, Trial Judge).

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

Argued April 28, 2010

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

Opinion for the court by Associate Judge OBERLY.

Dissenting opinion by Associate Judge GLICKMAN at page 8.

After a bench trial, the Superior Court adjudicated D.P. a delinquent, finding that D.P. committed the offenses of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle (UUV), D.C. Code § 22-3215 (2001), receiving stolen property (RSP), D.C. Code § 22-3232 (a) (2001), and theft, D.C. Code § 22-3211 (2001). We conclude that the evidence that D.P. possessed the requisite mens rea for any of the three charges was insufficient as a matter of law. Accordingly, we reverse the adjudication of delinquency.

At trial, the government presented evidence that on December 12, 2006, Janice Pugh reported her Ford Taurus stolen from the parking lot in front of her apartment building. Pugh did not know who took the car and testified that she had not given anyone, including D.P., permission to use it.

The Taurus was discovered on December 13, 2006, approximately two blocks from Pugh's apartment, with D.P. and several others inside. Officer Williams, one of the officers at the scene, testified that he was working undercover that night in an unmarked police car, but wearing a vest bearing the word "POLICE." Williams testified that when he approached the Taurus, D.P. and friends got out of the car and tried to run away. (According to a friend of D.P.'s, the police car in which Williams was riding hit the driver's door of the Taurus.) Williams caught D.P. approximately 30 feet away from the vehicle, and arrested him on the spot. Although there was conflicting testimony on this point, the trial court found that D.P. was a back seat passenger in the car; the government does not dispute this finding, and we shall not re-examine it.

Williams testified that he saw from the outside of the car that the car's ignition was "punched," but did not indicate where in relation to the car he was when he made this observation. ("'Punched' is a term used to describe an ignition that is completely removed from the car so that it can be driven without a key." Reyes v. United States, 933 A.2d 785, 789 n.3 (D.C. 2007).) The picture of the ignition entered into evidence was taken from the front seat passenger's vantage point, and no photographic evidence from the vantage point of a back seat passenger was presented. Aside from the punched ignition, there was no evidence that the car had any visible damage - the windows were intact and there was no evidence of damage to the car doors. And although Pugh testified that one of the car's doors was damaged when the car was returned to her, she stated that "[y]ou can't see the damage."

"Proof beyond a reasonable doubt," we have explained "is not merely a guideline for the trier of fact; it also furnishes a standard for judicial review of the sufficiency of the evidence." Rivas v. United States, 783 A.2d 125, 134 (D.C. 2001) (en banc). Thus, although in a sufficiency challenge "[j]udicial review is deferential," this "does not mean that appellate review of sufficiency of the evidence is toothless. We do not fulfill our duty through rote incantation of these principles followed by summary affirmance." Id. (quotation marks omitted). Rather, "[w]e have an obligation to take seriously the requirement that the evidence in a criminal prosecution must be strong enough that a jury behaving rationally really could find it persuasive beyond a reasonable doubt." Id.

The reasonable doubt requirement thus "means more than that there must be some relevant evidence in the record in support of each essential element of the charged offense.

The fact that evidence is relevant does not automatically make it sufficient to support a criminal conviction. Slight evidence is not sufficient evidence; a 'mere modicum' cannot 'rationally support a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.'" Rivas, 783 A.2d at 134 (quotation marks and citation omitted). And although a "jury is entitled to draw a vast range of reasonable inferences from evidence, it may not base a verdict on mere speculation." Id. (quotation marks and editing omitted). Thus, the evidence "is insufficient if, in order to convict, the jury is required to cross the bounds of permissible inference and enter the forbidden territory of conjecture and speculation. In short, if the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the government, is such that a reasonable juror must have a reasonable doubt as to the existence of any of the essential elements of the crime, then the evidence is insufficient and we must say so." Id. (quotation marks, citation, and editing omitted).

In this case, to prove that D.P. committed each of the offenses with which he was charged, the government was required to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that D.P. knew that the Taurus was stolen. See In re C.A.P., 633 A.2d 787, 792 (D.C. 1993) (to prove UUV, "the government must show . . . that the passenger was present in the vehicle with knowledge that the vehicle was being operated without the owner's consent"); In re P.A.S., 434 A.2d 461, 463 (D.C. 1981) (to prove RSP, government must demonstrate "that the individual receiving the property had guilty knowledge that it was stolen"); In re D.D., 775 A.2d 1096, 1098 (D.C. 2001) (per curiam) (to prove theft, government must prove that the defendant intended wrongfully to obtain or wrongfully to use the property of another). Relying on the fact that the ignition was punched and D.P.'s flight following police arrival on the scene, the government argues that it made this showing. We disagree.

As for the punched ignition, the trouble with the government's position is that, unlike the facts in the cases cited by the government, in this case there was no evidence that the ignition was visible to a person in D.P.'s position in the car.*fn1 Nor did the government introduce evidence that in addition to having a punched ignition, the Taurus was so badly damaged as to warrant an inference that D.P. knew that it was being used without the owner's consent.*fn2 On these facts, the trial court's conclusion that it was a matter of "common sense" ...


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