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In Re M.L.

June 30, 2011


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (DEL-716-08) (Hon. Judith N. Macaluso, Trial Judge)

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

Argued January 18, 2011

Before OBERLY, Associate Judge, REID, Associate Judge, Retired,*fn1 and BELSON, Senior Judge.

After a bench trial, the Superior Court adjudicated M.L. a delinquent, holding that he committed the offenses of carrying a dangerous weapon ("CDW"), in violation of D.C. Code § 22-4504 (a) (2001), and possession of a prohibited weapon ("PPW (b)"), in violation of D.C. Code § 22-4514 (b) (2001). The trial court also held that M.L. had not committed either assault on a police officer ("APO"), in violation of D.C. Code § 22-405 (b) (2007 Supp.) or assault with a deadly weapon ("ADW"), in violation of D.C. Code § 22-402 (2001). M.L. argues on appeal that the evidence was insufficient to prove either CDW or PPW (b). We disagree and affirm the adjudication of delinquency.

I. Background

On March 18, 2008, Metropolitan Police Department Officer Christopher Wade drove with his wife, Latreece Wade, to the home of her parents, Thelma and Lavern Johnson, on Hanna Place in the District of Columbia. Officer Wade, who did not think the weather was cold, was off-duty and wore blue jeans and a sweatshirt, and Ms. Wade wore a sweatshirt and a jacket. The Wades arrived at Hanna Place, a one-way street, after dark, around 8:30 p.m. Neither Officer Wade nor his wife saw any pedestrians on the street, although Officer Wade purposely looked for pedestrians while driving down the street because his in-laws had been robbed only days earlier, and looked in his driver's side and rearview mirrors after parking. He parked on the left side of the street in front of Mr. Johnson's car, which was parked in front of Mrs. Johnson's car, which was located directly in front of the Johnsons' house, also on the left side of the street. After exiting the car and walking toward the Johnsons' house, Officer Wade saw something move in the rear of his mother-in-law's car and first thought that it was an alarm light. When he saw the movement again, it looked like something moving at the rear of the car and he thought that it was the wagging tail of a dog.

Mrs. Johnson, who was inside her home when the Wades arrived, heard a car door shut outside and looked out a living room window facing the street. In addition to seeing the Wades exiting their car, she "noticed someone crouching beside the rear" of the passenger side of her car. Mrs. Johnson could see "a head bobbing up and down, as though the person were moving toward[] the front passenger side of [her] car." After Mrs. Johnson told her husband of her observation, Mr. Johnson looked out the window and "saw a person at the back rear of [his] wife's car kind of sliding, sliding behind her car . . . really very close to her car," with the head "[d]ucking down more or less, more or less trying, the way [Mr. Johnson] saw it, not to be seen, the way it was done." From the porch of her house, Mrs. Johnson yelled out to her daughter that there was somebody hiding behind her car.

After Mrs. Johnson yelled, Officer Wade drew his service weapon and walked between Mr. Johnson's and Mrs. Johnson's cars and out to the street. Once on the street, he saw M.L., who was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt with the hood up, a jacket, and red gloves, squatting down at the rear tire of Mrs. Johnson's car. Pointing at M.L., Officer Wade yelled "police, what are you doing?" M.L. stood up and, while still facing Officer Wade, backed away from him and then started running away, up a grassy area next to the Johnsons' house. Officer Wade ran after M.L., approximately twenty feet behind, yelling to M.L. to stop and to show his hands because, while running, M.L. was "tugging in [his] left [jacket] pocket." Officer Wade saw M.L. pull a silver, shiny object from his pocket and turn about halfway around to look back at Officer Wade. Thinking that the object was a gun, Officer Wade began shooting at M.L. M.L. jumped over the fence of the Johnsons' backyard but took only a few steps before laying down on the ground by the rear fence. Officer Wade approached the fence, yelled to M.L. to show Officer Wade his hands, and asked where the gun was. M.L. responded that it was a knife, which he had thrown on the other side of the fence, and added: "I'm only 17. I'm only 17."

When uniformed officers arrived, Officer Wade took a flashlight from one of them, went over the fence, and approached M.L., pulling off M.L.'s hood. Officer Wade later learned that two of his shots had hit M.L. The knife, found outside the Johnsons' backyard, was a folding knife in an open position, and one of the officers who arrived after the shooting testified that it was larger than a pocket knife. The "business part" of the blade measured two and fifteen-sixteenths inches long.

The trial court credited the testimony of all of the witnesses and made the following findings of fact: M.L. was present at Hanna Place after dark; he was hiding behind Mrs. Johnson's car, which was a "stealthy act"; M.L. was wearing dark clothes, including a hoodie that obscured his face, and wearing gloves on a night that was not cold; M.L. possessed a knife that was "open and ready for use"; M.L. fled from Officer Wade, whom he knew to be a police officer; and M.L. responded to Officer Wade's question about the whereabouts of the gun by responding with a "legal concept": "I'm only seventeen, I'm only seventeen." The trial court found that on the basis of these facts, M.L. intended to use the knife as a weapon for an unlawful purpose.

Convicting M.L. of CDW, the trial court found that M.L.'s purpose in carrying the knife was to use it as a dangerous weapon, the only element of CDW that M.L. argued lacked sufficient evidence. To support its contrary finding, the trial court discussed both the nature of the knife, which, significantly, needed no alteration to inflict death or great bodily injury, and the surrounding circumstances, specifically M.L.'s "hiding behind a car wearing dark clothing, having the knife open and running when confronted by the officer."

The trial court also convicted M.L. of PPW (b), concluding, on the basis of the aforementioned findings of fact, that the government had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that M.L. had the "intent[] to use the knife as a weapon for an unlawful purpose," and because, as discussed for the CDW charge, the knife was "dangerous."

II. Discussion

M.L. challenges the sufficiency of the evidence supporting his convictions for CDW and PPW (b). The standard of review for such challenges is firmly established. We view the evidence "in the light most favorable to the prosecution to determine whether a reasonable factfinder could find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." Lewis v. United States, 767 A.2d 219, 222 (D.C. 2001) (citing Kelly v. United States, 639 A.2d 86, 89-90 (D.C. 1994)). "Deference must be given to the factfinder's duty to determine credibility, weigh the evidence, and draw justifiable inferences of fact." Lewis, 767 A.2d at 222 (citing Abdulshakur v. District of Columbia, 589 A.2d 1258, 1263 (D.C. 1991)). In a bench trial, "the trial court's factual findings will not be ...

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