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Douglas v. United States

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

August 21, 2014

RONALD O. DOUGLAS, APPELLANT,
v.
UNITED STATES, APPELLEE

Argued October 2, 2013

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CF2-4890-09). (Hon. Florence Pan, Trial Judge).

R. Michael Labelle for appellant.

Sharon Sprague, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Ronald C. Machen, United States Attorney, and Elizabeth Trosman, Assistant United States Attorney, were on the brief, for appellee.

Before THOMPSON and BECKWITH, Associate Judges, and FARRELL, Senior Judge.

OPINION

Page 1046

Beckwith, Associate Judge :

A jury convicted appellant Ronald Douglas of possession with intent to distribute (PWID) marijuana.[1] Mr. Douglas now challenges that conviction, contending, among other things, that the trial court unduly coerced the jury by instructing it to reconsider the PWID charge after it twice stated it could not reach a unanimous verdict on that charge and went on, pursuant to the " reasonable efforts" instruction it was given, to find Mr. Douglas guilty of the lesser offense of possession of marijuana.

Page 1047

We hold that under our decision in Jackson v. United States, 683 A.2d 1379 (D.C. 1996), when a jury has stated or implied by its action that it cannot reach a verdict on a greater charge despite reasonable efforts to do so, and then gone on to reach a verdict on the lesser charge, a trial court may direct the jury to continue deliberating on the greater charge only if it is not persuaded that the jury exercised reasonable efforts in trying to reach a verdict. As the record here is devoid of any clear indication that the trial judge thought the jury had not worked hard enough to reach a verdict on the greater count before moving on--on the judge's explicit instructions--to consider the lesser offense, the court should have discharged the jury after taking its verdict on possession. We reverse Mr. Douglas's PWID conviction and remand with instructions to enter judgment against Mr. Douglas on the lesser included possession offense.

I.

According to the evidence at trial,[2] on February 28, 2009, three Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers patrolling in a police cruiser saw a Cadillac turn left off of 14th Street N.W. onto Upshur Street without using its turn signal. Officer Matthew Jones, the driver of the police cruiser, activated the police car's lights and siren, followed the Cadillac onto Upshur Street, and initiated a traffic stop. As Officer Jones approached the driver's side and Officer Brian Hallahan approached the passenger's side of the Cadillac, both could smell fresh unburnt marijuana coming from the car.

The car's driver, appellant Ronald Douglas, told Officer Jones that his license was suspended. The car had two other occupants: a woman in the passenger seat and a man in the back seat behind her. As Officer Jones was stepping Mr. Douglas out of the car and placing him in handcuffs, Officer Hallahan alerted Officer Jones that he saw some loose marijuana on the floorboard by the feet of the back seat passenger. Police then stepped the two passengers out of the car and all three sat on the curb while Officer Hallahan searched the car and found two bags of marijuana underneath the steering column above the brake and gas pedals. A chemist and an MPD narcotics expert testified that the substance recovered from the steering column was .95 pounds of marijuana and had a street value of $5,310.

The trial court instructed the jury on PWID and--at Mr. Douglas's request--the lesser included offense of possession of a controlled substance. On April 8, 2011, the jury found Mr. Douglas guilty of possession of marijuana, and the judge directed the jury to deliberate further on the greater charge of PWID, which it had been unable initially to agree on. On April 11, 2011, the jury found Mr. Douglas guilty of that charge as well.

II.

On appeal, Ronald Douglas argues, among other things, that the trial court erred by ordering the jury to continue deliberating on the greater charge of PWID, after an anti-deadlock instruction, when the jury had twice indicated it could not reach a verdict on that count and then had gone on to convict Mr. Douglas of the lesser offense of possession of marijuana. The government counters that this court's decision in Jackson makes clear that the trial court had discretion to order further

Page 1048

deliberations on the greater charge after a jury instructed on reasonable efforts reached a verdict on the lesser charge.

A. Instructions and Deliberations

In its final instructions to the jury on Thursday, April 7, the trial court, at Mr. Douglas's request, recited a " reasonable efforts" instruction, stating that the jury should " first consider" whether Mr. Douglas was guilty of PWID and whether the amount of marijuana was greater than half a pound, and then, " [i]f after making all reasonable efforts to reach a verdict on possession with intent to distribute and on whether the amount was greater than a half a pound you are not able to do so, then you are allowed to consider possession of a controlled substance." [3] The case went to the jury around lunchtime, and at 4:23 p.m. that day, the jury submitted a note that stated, " We are unable to reach unanimity on the first item, possession with intent to distribute." After a brief conference with counsel, the court, noting that " I don't even think they've made a reasonable effort yet, frankly, at two hours and 50 minutes," instructed the jury:

You have not been deliberating very long at all for a jury considering the trial that you just saw. And so, what I'm going to instruct you to do now is to break for the evening, go home, get a good night's sleep, come back at 9:30 in the morning and make your best efforts to resume your deliberations tomorrow and keep going. At this point it's just very early in the process, and I think we should just take a break and start fresh in the morning.

The jury returned to the jury room and sent the judge a note asking, " If we reach a decision tomorrow, will we be coming in on Monday?" The court responded, " If you reach a decision tomorrow you will not come back on Monday," and excused the jury for the day.

On the morning of Friday, April 8, at 10:52 a.m., the jury submitted another note that read, " We are unable to reach a unanimous decision on 'possession with intent.' Can we proceed to the second count of 'possession'?" After a discussion with counsel about the " reasonable efforts" instruction, the court instructed the jury, " If you have exercised reasonable efforts and are unable to reach a unanimous verdict on possession with intent, you may consider the charge of possession." Less than an hour later, the jury notified the court that it had reached a unanimous verdict on the lesser marijuana possession charge.

At this point, the trial court stated its inclination to order the jury to go back to the greater charge of PWID and keep trying to reach a verdict on that charge. Defense counsel strongly objected to this course, calling it " counterintuitive" and nonsensical to give the jury an anti-deadlock instruction on the PWID count after it had exhausted reasonable efforts to reach unanimity on that count and moved on to the lesser offense.

The trial court disagreed: " I see it beneficial to judicial economy to attempt to get a unanimous verdict[.]" In the trial court's view, " the case law is clear," and this court's decision in Jackson v. United States, 683 A.2d 1379, in particular, stands for the proposition " that the court has discretion to order additional deliberations after a reasonable efforts instruction has been given and a verdict has been reached on the lesser." While the court thought it " more prudent" to give Mr. Douglas's jury

Page 1049

the milder " Gallagher" anti-deadlock instruction,[4] it concluded firmly that the law allowed it to order the jury to keep trying to get a verdict on PWID.

After the court took the jury's verdict on the lesser possession charge--a guilty verdict--it then read the jury a Gallagher instruction and ordered it to go back to deliberating on the greater count.[5] The jurors deliberated that afternoon for roughly another two hours and fifteen minutes. The court dismissed the jurors for the weekend at 4:45 p.m. that day, and when they returned on Monday they deliberated until they found Mr. Douglas guilty of PWID at 2:30 p.m.

B. Standard of Review

We generally review for abuse of discretion a trial judge's rulings regarding whether to accept a verdict on a lesser offense and reinstruct the jury. Wilson v. United States, 922 A.2d 1192, 1195 (D.C. 2007). Whether the trial court applied the correct legal standard is a question of law that we consider de novo. See Davis v. United States, 564 A.2d 31, 35 (D.C. 1989) (en banc).

The government argues, at the outset, that we should not consider Mr. Douglas's claim of instructional error because near the end of the prolonged discussion among the court and the lawyers about whether the court could allow the jury to return to the greater offense of PWID, defense counsel appeared to concede--albeit on mistaken grounds--that this court's decision in Allen v. United States, 755 A.2d 402 (D.C. 2000), allowed the court to order further deliberations on PWID. We disagree that defense counsel's statement

Page 1050

that she was " satisfied" that Allen allowed reinstruction precludes appellate review of the legal claim. Defense counsel objected vehemently and persistently to the trial court's decision to force further deliberations on the greater count. Counsel lost the argument, though, and the trial court, stating that it was " confident that the law supports" the court's intended reinstruction and that " the case law is very clear," noted counsel's objection for the record and prepared to instruct the jury to deliberate again on the greater charge. When defense counsel pleaded for more time to research the issue, the trial court at first denied that request--indicating again that it viewed Jackson as clearly allowing this way of proceeding and that it did not want to keep the jury waiting--but ultimately agreed to break for lunch before reinstructing the jurors.

We do not think defense counsel foreclosed review of this claim when she returned from the lunch break and expressed a legally unfounded belief--echoing a similar statement the prosecutor made earlier--that Allen allowed the court to reinstruct the jury on PWID.[6] First, defense counsel appeared to back away from her already reluctant statement that Allen authorized the court to order further deliberations on PWID, stating that she had only " reviewed the case law briefly," that she still believed it was " strange to reinstruct," and that " the whole process is awkward" and " counterintuitive." Second, the trial judge herself--who noted that she was the prosecutor who had briefed and argued Allen on appeal--understood that contrary to both the prosecutor's and defense counsel's statements, Allen did not answer the question whether the court could reinstruct on the greater under the circumstances at issue here.[7] As the judge stated, " it's clear that if there is a mistrial on the greater, they certainly can re-try them" --the central holding of Allen, 755 A.2d at 410-12--but this case is " a little bit different from both Allen and Jackson [.]" Given that the judge grappled with counsel's many objections, that she was unmoved by defense counsel's eventual reliance upon Allen and instead ruled on entirely independent grounds, and that she had determined to rule well before counsel's about-face, we are unwilling to treat counsel's statement about Allen as precluding our review of this claim. See Abdus-Price v. United States, 873 A.2d 326, 332 n.7 (D.C. 2005) (stating that we may properly address a claim " even if [it] was not pressed below . . . so long as it was passed upon" ) (quoting District of Columbia v. Helen Dwight Reid Educ. Found., 766 A.2d 28, 33-34 n.3 (D.C. 2001)).

Page 1051

C. Analysis

Relying on our decision in Jackson v. United States, 683 A.2d 1379, the trial court in this case concluded as a matter of law that it had discretion to order the jury to resume deliberations on a greater count after it reached a verdict on the lesser. Such discretion undoubtedly exists in circumstances akin to those in Jackson. In that case, as here, Mr. Jackson was charged with PWID, and the trial court accommodated his requests to instruct the jury on the lesser included offense of possession and to direct the jurors to proceed to that lesser offense if, after making " all reasonable efforts," they were unable to agree on the PWID charge. Id. at 1381. After deliberating for less than four hours, the jury alerted the court that it was unable to agree on the greater offense but that it had reached a verdict on the lesser included charge. Id. at 1381.

Contrary to the jury's own view that it had exercised reasonable efforts in trying to resolve the greater charge, the trial court in Jackson stated that it was still " pretty early," that if " this had been 2 days down the road . . . I would [accept the lesser verdicts and discharge the jury]," and that it had " no way of knowing whether this jury has truly exhausted all reasonable efforts." Id. at 1384 n.11 (alteration in original). We affirmed the trial judge's decision to require further deliberations based on his plainly articulated doubt that the jury had truly exhausted all reasonable efforts before moving on to consider the lesser offense. Id. at 1383. We said that a judge is not bound to accept a verdict on a lesser offense " when the judge is not convinced that the jury has yet discharged their duty to make all reasonable efforts to reach a verdict on the greater offense." Id.

When a jury has exercised reasonable efforts, however, the risk of coercion is great, and the court's job is clear. " Under reasonable efforts the jury has 'done its job' when it has made all reasonable efforts to agree on the greater offense and has reached a verdict on the lesser offense." Id. At that point, " the trial court should . . . accept the verdict and discharge the jury." Id.

The record in the present case contains marked signals that the trial court viewed itself as having discretion that went beyond the facts of Jackson --discretion, that is, to order the jury to deliberate further on the greater offense whether it had made reasonable efforts or not during its initial round of deliberations on that charge. In the course of the colloquy with the prosecutor and defense counsel about whether to issue a Winters instruction if the jury returned with a verdict on the lesser offense, the court assumed reasonable efforts had been exhausted and framed the question as a legal one: may the court deliver an anti-deadlock instruction to a jury that has failed, after using all reasonable efforts, to arrive at a verdict on the greater offense, after approving the jury's decision to move on to the lesser offense and accepting a verdict from the jury on that count? Unswayed by defense counsel's repeated statements that allowing the jury to resume deliberations on the greater count " makes no sense," the trial court indicated that while the reasonable efforts instruction had served a significant purpose during the jury's initial deliberations, it did not restrict the court's authority to try to avert a mistrial.[8] In the trial

Page 1052

court's view, " the whole thing about reasonable efforts versus acquittal first is a discussion about jury dynamics and, you know, compromise and these things. And once you've already had the benefit of reasonable efforts in that, I don't see why you wouldn't then, before declaring a mistrial, Winterize[9] on the greater offense."

It appears from this language that the trial court construed too broadly its authority to seek to avoid a mistrial by ordering a jury that had already exhausted reasonable efforts to further deliberate on the greater count. But regardless of the judge's thinking, the record is clearly lacking the necessary signs that the trial court believed the jury had not exercised reasonable efforts when initially wrestling with the PWID charge. Jackson confirms that it is impermissibly coercive to send the jury back for further deliberations when the judge assumes or has decided that the jury has already exercised reasonable efforts.[10] Thus, before a judge may make a jury continue deliberating on a greater charge where that jury has said or implied by its action that it cannot reach a verdict on the greater charge despite reasonable efforts to do so, the judge must be unpersuaded--and the record must make clear that she is unpersuaded--that the jury has, in fact, applied reasonable efforts to the decision. Id. at 1383.

There are many hints in the record that the court likely assumed the jury had made reasonable efforts,[11] several indications that it viewed such a determination as unnecessary,[12] and no indications that

Page 1053

the court unmistakably viewed the jury as having not exercised reasonable efforts. Significantly, this was not a situation like that in Jackson, where the jury jumped straight to a verdict on the lesser offense without notifying the judge of any deadlock on the greater or seeking its guidance about whether it was appropriate to move on. Here, we glean from the record ample grounds for the court to have inferred that the jury used reasonable efforts, given that the jury twice sent notes indicating it was deadlocked during the more than four hours it initially deliberated on the PWID charge and given that Mr. Douglas's was a relatively uncomplicated trial featuring two arresting officers and some brief expert testimony regarding the weight, street value, and intended use of the marijuana found in the car. Even if the court did not conclude the jury had exercised reasonable efforts, it plainly did not conclude that the jury had not done so. Under Jackson, the court committed reversible error by sending the jury to resume deliberations on the greater charge without first determining that it had not exercised reasonable efforts the first time around.[13]

III.

For the foregoing reasons, we reverse Ronald Douglas's conviction of possession with intent to distribute marijuana and remand so that the trial court may enter a judgment of conviction on the lesser included charge of possession of marijuana.

So ordered.


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