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Chrishana S. Derosiers v. District of Columbia

May 19, 2011

CHRISHANA S. DEROSIERS, APPELLANT,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CTF 13093-08) (Hon. John H. Bayly, Jr., Trial Judge)

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

Submitted February 17, 2011

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

Appellant Chrishana S. Derosiers appeals her conviction for possession of an open container of alcohol in a vehicle ("POCA-V") in violation of D.C. Code § 25-1001 (a)(2) (2001). Appellant contends that her conviction rests on insufficient evidence because the government failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the contents of the unmarked glass jar found in her possession met the statutory requirement for an "alcoholic beverage" under District law.*fn1

This case presents an opportunity for us to address the following question, in a published opinion, for the first time: whether, in the absence of a chemical test of the liquid in the glass jar that allegedly contained alcohol, the evidence was sufficient for conviction of POCA-V when based on (1) a police officer's observation and smell of the liquid; (2) the officer's testimony that the smell of alcohol emanated from appellant, as well as from the car in which the jar was located; and (3) further testimony from the officer that appellant appeared to be intoxicated at the time the jar was found next to her in the car. We hold that the evidence in this case was sufficient to support the trial court's finding of POCA-V, and we affirm appellant's conviction.

I.

In December 2008, the government presented the following evidence at trial before Magistrate Judge Marisa J. Demeo.*fn2 On May 27, 2008, at approximately 2:30 a.m., Officers John Matula and Gregory Knee of the United States Park Police ("Park Police") were dispatched to investigate a red Honda automobile parked in the employee parking lot of the Tourmobile tour-bus company, which is located at 1000 Ohio Drive in southwest Washington. Upon arriving at the scene, the officers found two women who appeared to be asleep in the front seats of the vehicle. A glass jar containing a clear liquid was visible in the center console cup holder immediately next to appellant, who was seated in the driver's seat.

Waking appellant, Officer Matula observed that she was "groggy" and "very disoriented." Appellant's responses were "slurred" and somewhat "incoherent," her eyes were "bloodshot," and her breath smelled of alcohol. Furthermore, the smell of alcohol emanated from appellant's car. When Officer Matula asked appellant if she had been drinking, she admitted that she had "something to drink" at her cousin's house earlier in the day. After administering a series of field sobriety tests,*fn3 Officers Matula and Knee removed the glass jar from appellant's car. The officers smelled the liquid inside the jar and identified it as an alcoholic beverage, which Officer Matula knew to be vodka*fn4 by its distinct smell. Following what Officer Matula testified was standard procedure, the officers poured the liquid out of the jar and did not save any of it for testing. Officer Matula stated that, unlike standard procedure in narcotics investigations, he "[did not] know of anybody taking alcohol to have it tested." There was no further evidence of the jar's contents presented at trial.

On December 17,2008, Judge Demeo announced her findings. Judge Demeo credited the testimony of both officers, including the conclusion that the liquid inside the glass jar contained alcohol. She noted that "the smell of alcohol is something that a general lay person would be able to identify" and that police officers are specifically "trained to look for [] the smell of alcohol."*fn5 Subsequently, Judge Demeo found appellant guilty of one count of POCA-V.*fn6 On December 16, 2009, Superior Court Associate Judge John H. Bayly, Jr. affirmed appellant's conviction in a written order.

II.

We review claims of insufficient evidence "in a light most favorable to the government, giving it the benefit of all reasonable inferences." In re M.I.W., 667 A.2d 573, 575 (D.C. 1995) (quoting Patterson v. United States, 479 A.2d 335, 337-38 (D.C. 1984)). We defer to "the right of the trier of fact to assess credibility and to draw reasonable inferences from the evidence." Cannon v. United States, 838 A.2d 293, 296 (D.C. 2003). Therefore, we will not reverse a bench trial conviction for insufficient evidence unless "appellant establishes that the trial court's factual findings were 'plainly wrong' or 'without evidence to support [them].'" Id. at 296-97 (quoting D.C. Code § 17-305 (a) (2001)). In order to establish a claim of insufficient evidence, appellant must show that the government failed to provide "evidence from which a reasonable mind might fairly infer guilt beyond a reasonable doubt . . . ." M.I.W., supra, 667 A.2d at 575 (quoting Frendak v. United States, 408 A.2d 364, 371 (D.C. 1979)). Moreover, we "do not draw any distinction between direct and circumstantial evidence." Cannon, supra, 838 A.2d at 297.

D.C. Code § 25-1001 (a) provides that "no person in the District shall drink an alcoholic beverage or possess in an open container an alcoholic beverage in . . . [a] vehicle in or upon any street, alley, park, or parking area . . . ." An alcoholic beverage is defined as one "containing alcohol capable of being consumed by a human being . . . [not] less than one-half of 1% of alcohol by volume." D.C. Code § 25-101 (5) (2007 Supp.). Therefore, in order to prove a POCA-V violation, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the beverage in question contains the statutorily proscribed concentration of alcohol. See Reid v. District of Columbia, 980 A.2d 1131, 1133-34 (D.C. 2009).

Appellant contends that the government's evidence was insufficient to establish the alcohol content of the liquid in the jar without a scientific test or analysis of the liquid. However, we have previously ruled in other contexts, such as cases involving drug-related offenses, that "the identity of a controlled substance may be proved by circumstantial evidence" taken from the testimony of someone experienced in identifying the substance. Thompson v. United States, 678 A.2d 24, 28 n.7 (D.C. 1996); see also Duvall v. United States, 975 A.2d 839, 844 (D.C. 2009) ("We recognize that in a prosecution for possession of a controlled substance, the government may establish that the substance is an illegal drug by means of circumstantial evidence."); Bernard v. United States, 575 A.2d 1191, 1195 n.5 (D.C. 1990) (stating that the court has "no quarrel" with relying on circumstantial evidence based upon expertise acquired through education or experience in identifying illegal substances). While we have accepted the use of circumstantial evidence in certain drug cases, we have also emphasized that we do not "countenance any attempt to prove guilt by speculative means. A lay person's impression, for example, is ...


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