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Chanel B. Mitchell v. United States

April 11, 2013


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CF2-10550-10) (Hon. Robert E. Morin, Trial Judge)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schwelb, Senior Judge:

Argued March 21, 2013

Before WASHINGTON, Chief Judge, THOMPSON, Associate Judge, and SCHWELB, Senior Judge.

A jury convicted Chanel Bianca Mitchell of three counts of unlawful possession of ammunition (UA), one count of unlawful possession of marijuana, one count of possession of drug paraphernalia (PDP), and one count of second-degree cruelty to children.*fn1 On appeal, Ms. Mitchell contends that the evidence was insufficient as a matter of law to support any of her convictions. We disagree and affirm.


At trial, the prosecution introduced evidence which, if credited, showed that on June 11, 2010, a confidential informant reported to the police that a man in his thirties was in possession of an AK-47, two shotguns, and two handguns in his apartment at 4516 Quarles Street N.E. in Washington, D.C. The police obtained a search warrant, and they executed it at the stated location a few hours after receiving the informant's report. Upon entering the unit, the officers found Ms. Mitchell seated at the kitchen table with her three young children, apparently eating dinner. On the kitchen table the officers found what proved to be 0.39 grams of marijuana and a digital scale. A larger amount of marijuana, a second scale, and multiple empty small ziplock bags were recovered from a kitchen drawer and from the living room. Ammunition was found in a kitchen cabinet above the stove and in the top drawer next to the kitchen sink, as well as in the living room. Finally, the officers recovered two loaded revolvers and two loaded shotguns from under a cushion on the living room sofa, approximately five feet from the television.*fn2

The officer who received the tip testified that he subsequently spoke with the informant and related to him that the man mentioned by the informant had not been present when the police searched the apartment, but that "we got the girl." The informant told the officer that "she was there the whole time anyway" and that she "knew all about it."*fn3 The police recovered from the kitchen a prescription bottle with Ms. Mitchell's name on it, as well as an identification card with her photograph and correspondence addressed to her in a bedroom on the second floor. Ms. Mitchell does not claim that she was not a resident of the apartment; indeed, her counsel states in her brief to this court that "officers executed a search warrant where Ms. Mitchell was residing with her three children."

At the trial, which was held from March 8 to 11, 2011, the jury acquitted Ms. Mitchell of the counts associated with the weapons and ammunition recovered from the living room sofa, but found her guilty of the marijuana and PDP charges, of the remaining UA counts, and of second-degree cruelty to children. Ms. Mitchell's counsel then filed a motion for a judgment of acquittal on the cruelty charge, claiming that the government failed to prove conduct on Ms. Mitchell's part that caused "a grave risk of bodily injury to a child." D.C. Code § 22-1101 (b)(1) (2001). The trial judge denied the motion, holding in pertinent part that there was sufficient evidence to support the cruelty conviction because Ms. Mitchell was at the apartment with three young children, nobody else was there, marijuana, digital scales, empty ziplock bags, and ammunition were "scattered" around the kitchen and then underneath the sofa cushion was a handgun and I understand that . . . the defendant was acquitted of the guns, possession of the guns, but it does seem to me that the evidence was also relevant to [the] second-degree cruelty charge as well.


With respect to Ms. Mitchell's claims on appeal, we address in any detail only her contention that the evidence was insufficient to support her conviction of second-degree cruelty to children.*fn4 We conclude that although Ms. Mitchell's position is not altogether unreasonable, it cannot be reconciled with our precedents, and we therefore affirm her conviction of this count as well.

The title of the offense with which Ms. Mitchell has been charged is second-degree cruelty to children. Although comparable statutes in some other jurisdictions do not use the term "cruelty,"*fn5 the offense has been so characterized in the District of Columbia for more than a century. See 31 Stat. 1322, ch. 854, § 814 (1901). In construing our current statute, this court has looked to the dictionary definition of "cruel," which means "disposed to inflict pain" and "causing or conducive to injury, grief, or pain." Alfaro v. United States, 859 A.2d 149, 157 (D.C. 2004) (quoting WEBSTER'S SEVENTH COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY 200 (1966)).

Although counsel for Ms. Mitchell has declined so to argue, it is surely somewhat counter-intuitive to suggest that the weapons, ammunition, drugs, and drug paraphernalia recovered by the police were placed or kept where they were for the purpose of inflicting pain or causing injury to Ms. Mitchell's children.

The significance of the title of the statute should not be exaggerated. The Supreme Court has stated that the title is of use in interpreting a statute only if it "shed[s] light on some ambiguous word or phrase in the statute itself." Carter v. United States, 530 U.S. 255, 267 (2000). It "cannot limit the plain meaning of the text," Pennsylvania Dep't of Corrections v. Yeskey, 524 U.S. 206, 212 (1998), although it may be a "useful aid in resolving an ambiguity" in the statutory language. 359 U.S. 385, 388-89 (1959). We agree with the Supreme Court of Arizona that in determining the extent and reach of an act of the legislature, the court should consider not only the statutory language, but also the title, Maricopa County v. Douglas, 208 P.2d 646, 648 (1949), and we shall do so here.

We turn now to the operative language of the statute. Section 22-1101 (b) of the District of Columbia Code provides in pertinent part that a person commits second-degree child cruelty if he ...

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