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Cotey Wynn, Rodney Bennett, and Joshua Ross v. United States

July 19, 2012


Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (FEL-4217-05, CF1-26693-06, and CF1-26708-06) (Hon. Geoffrey M. Alprin, Trial Judge )

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

Argued March 28, 2012

Before FISHER and OBERLY, Associate Judges, and WAGNER, Senior Judge.

Although they were acquitted of murdering Damon Clark,*fn1 appellants Rodney Bennett, Joshua Ross, and Cotey Wynn were convicted of obstructing justice, in violation of D.C. Code § 22-722 (a)(6) (2001).*fn2 Because appellants' conduct did not amount to obstructing "the due administration of justice in any official proceeding," we reverse their convictions for obstruction of justice. However, we affirm Mr. Wynn's separate conviction for carrying a pistol without a license ("CPWL").*fn3

I. Facts

Just before midnight on April 19, 2004, Metropolitan Police Department ("MPD") Officers Eric Hairston and Charles Marshall were patrolling in the Trinidad neighborhood when they heard the sound of gunshots.Within fifteen seconds, they responded to Penn Street and Montello Avenue, an area where other officers found Damon Clark lying in the street, mortally wounded.

Officer Marshall immediately spotted a man, later identified by witnesses as appellant Joshua Ross, crouching next to a burgundy Buick. When Officer Marshall ordered Ross to "[c]ome out, show your hands," Ross instead fled toward the apartment of Fayetta Goodwine on Penn Street. While Officer Marshall chased Ross, Officer Hairston approached the burgundy Buick and found a black 9-mm Glock pistol on top of the front passenger's side tire, next to where Ross had been crouching.*fn4

Ms. Goodwine was returning home when she saw Ross crouching next to the Buick and then running from the police. Goodwine entered her apartment, and within minutes Ross, Bennett, and Wynn, all of whom she knew, came in through the front and back doors. One of the police officers yelled for someone to "open the door," but when Goodwine attempted to comply, Bennett pushed back on the door. "He just shut the door and the police had to wrestle him with the door." After Bennett closed the door, the police did not attempt to enter the apartment.

Ms. Goodwine turned to appellants and asked if they had "anything in my house," meaning "anything that would, you know, . . . get me in [] trouble." None of them responded, and Wynn and Ross left the room. However, once Bennett and Goodwine were alone, Bennett admitted "that they did have something in there."

Goodwine went into her bedroom, where she found Wynn and Ross. Wynn was putting a gun into an opaque bag;Ross, meanwhile, was reaching for the bag. Goodwine told appellants, "if y'all got anything in here, let me know, let's get it out here because I didn't want to go to jail or lose my apartment behind it." Ross then asked Goodwine if he could go upstairs with her to the apartment of Goodwine's nieces. Goodwine told Ross no, and took the bag with the gun. She went upstairs alone and hid the bag in her nieces' bathroom. Police never recovered the weapon.*fn5

The police made no arrests that night. Inside a Toyota Camry parked near where Damon Clark had been killed, police recovered a .45-caliber Hi-Point handgun with a bullet stuck in its barrel.An officer was able to fire the weapon after he pushed out the projectile and pulled back the slide, ejecting the casing. During his opening statement and closing argument, Wynn's counsel admitted that the gun belonged to Wynn, but contended that it was inoperable.

At trial, the government argued that the obstruction of justice charges were for "the hiding of the guns. Defendant Ross hides a gun under the car under the Buick tire. Defendant Bennett gives the heads up to [Goodwine] about a gun that needs to be hidden in the house and Defendant [Wynn] gives that gun to [Goodwine] to hide upstairs." The prosecutor added that "they obstructed justice, because Defendant Bennett was holding the door closed so that the police couldn't get in."

II. Obstruction of Justice

A. The Statute

Under D.C. Code § 22-722 (a)(6), "[a] person commits the offense of obstruction of justice if that person: . . . [c]orruptly, or by threats of force, any way obstructs or impedes or endeavors to obstruct or impede the due administration of justice in any official proceeding." This provision appears at the end of a series of subsections enumerating various means of committing obstruction of justice, several of which also refer to an "official proceeding." See D.C. Code § 22-722 (a)(1)-(6) (2001).*fn6 The term "official proceeding" is defined in § 22-721 (4) as "any trial, hearing, investigation, or other proceeding in a court of the District of Columbia or conducted by the Council of the District of Columbia or an agency or department of the District of Columbia government, or a grand jury proceeding."

During appellant's trial, the jury was instructed without objection that "[t]he term official proceeding means any trial, hearing, investigation or other proceeding, that is[,] the investigation of the fatal shooting of Damon Clark conducted by the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia." Appellants claim, however, that their convictions for obstruction of justice "cannot stand because the MPD's investigation into Clark's shooting did not constitute an 'official proceeding' in which the 'due administration of justice' was administered." This issue thus turns on whether "the due administration of justice in any official proceeding" can fairly be said to include the actions of police officers first responding to the scene of a violent crime. We answer "no."

B. Timberlake and Crutchfield

The government contends that appellants' "claim is foreclosed" by our decisions in Timberlake v. United States, 758 A.2d 978 (D.C. 2000),and Crutchfield v. United States, 779 A.2d 307 (D.C. 2001).However, although these opinions addressed similar issues, we have not definitively answered "the difficult question[] of what constitutes an 'official proceeding.'" Timberlake, 758 A.2d at 983 n.6. Moreover, neither Timberlake nor Crutchfield interpreted what constitutes ...

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