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Harris v. United States

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

October 29, 2015

Lawrence N. Harris, Appellant,
v.
United States, Appellee.

Argued June 18, 2015

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (DVM-892-14) Hon. Marisa J. Demeo, Trial Judge

Jeffery L. Light for appellant.

Ryan Malone, Assistant United States Attorney, for appellee. Ronald C. Machen Jr., United States Attorney at the time the brief was filed, and Elizabeth Trosman, Margaret Barr and Ann K. H. Simon, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on the brief for appellee.

Before Glickman and Easterly Associate Judges, and Ruiz, Senior Judge.

OPINION

RUIZ, SENIOR JUDGE

Following a bench trial, the trial court found appellant, Lawrence Harris, guilty of misdemeanor malicious destruction of property arising out of an incident in which appellant damaged the front door of the home he shared with his mother and sister. On appeal, he argues that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction, contending that because he used only the force that was reasonably necessary in an attempt to gain re-entry into his lawful residence he could not be found to have acted "maliciously, " a statutory element of the offense for which he was charged and convicted. We conclude that because the evidence does not support that appellant was aware of a plain and strong likelihood that his efforts to gain entry to his home would cause property damage, it is insufficient to find that he had the requisite malice. We reverse the conviction.

I.

At the time of the incident that led to the charge of malicious destruction of property, appellant resided with his mother, Trenice Harris, his sister, and her child, all of whom were named on the lease. On April 15, 2014, at 3:00 a.m., Ms. Harris called the police because appellant was "acting out . . . tripping off of some PCP . . . had tor[n] the blinds down in the kitchen . . . [and] kicked the back door, " leaving it open. When the police responded to the call, appellant was not arrested; instead the officers informed Ms. Harris that they could not force appellant to leave the house because his name was on the lease. Later, Ms. Harris called the police a second time, because appellant was "still acting out" and under the influence of PCP. The police returned to the house and again informed Ms. Harris that they could not make appellant leave, but requested that she go to her room, which was located on the upper level of the house, and that appellant remain in his bedroom, located in the basement.

After the police left, appellant went upstairs into Ms. Harris's bedroom where an argument began over her "pocketbook." Ms. Harris and appellant tussled "back and forth with [the] pocketbook" until she threatened to hit appellant with an iron. She called the police a third time; when the police officers arrived they did not arrest appellant; instead they escorted appellant out of the house. Sometime later, Ms. Harris went to the basement to ensure that the doors were locked and saw her son hiding behind his bed. She asked him to leave and he complied. Ms. Harris called to inform the police.

Appellant again returned to the house, but found that the front door was locked. As he did not have a key, appellant began kicking the door. According to Ms. Harris's testimony, she looked out of the peephole in the door and saw appellant acting "erratical[ly]." He kept "kicking and kicking and kicking" the door, "trying to tear that door in." Unable to get the door open, appellant eventually left. Ms. Harris called the police and they took pictures of the damage. A few days later, appellant was arrested and charged with malicious destruction of property based on the damage to the door.

The trial court heard testimony from Ms. Harris, Officer Imbrenda, and appellant, and reviewed transcripts of Ms. Harris's calls to the police and photographs of the damage. Officer Nicholas Imbrenda, one of the officers who responded to Ms. Harris's calls, testified that the door was "visibly damaged": the door hinges were bent and there was damage to the "bottom left quarter panel" of the door. Ms. Harris testified that appellant's kicking "cracked the whole framing around the door and . . . the paneling of the door." She said that "the door was coming apart from the inside" and that pieces of wood had splintered from the door. She also identified pictures of the damage taken by the police, which were taken from inside of the house. According to Ms. Harris, "[f]rom the outside of the door you couldn't tell nothing." Appellant testified that he had knocked, not kicked, and was not aware of the damage to the door because he could not see the damage from the outside and he had not returned to the house before he was arrested.

The trial court credited Ms. Harris's testimony, finding that she was truthful in her answers and "had a sufficient ability to observe [the events] on the night in question." The court discredited appellant's testimony that he had merely knocked, commenting on his demeanor in court and inconsistencies in his testimony regarding whether he remembered kicking the door or if he was even present at the residence on the night of the incident. Based on the evidence of the damage to the door, the trial court found that appellant had used an "excessive" amount of force-not knocking, but kicking-and had "kicked the door multiple times with great force causing damage, " consistent with "someone . . . either trying to get in or . . . trying to damage the door." The court concluded that appellant was guilty of malicious ...


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