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Brooks v. United States

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

January 28, 2016


         Submitted September 30, 2015.

Page 953

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (CMD-955-14). (Hon. Truman A. Morrison III, Trial Judge).

         Jamison Koehler was on the brief for appellant.

         Ronald C. Machen Jr., United States Attorney at the time the brief was filed, and Elizabeth Trosman and David P. Saybolt, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on the brief for appellee.

         Before BLACKBURNE-RIGSBY and MCLEESE, Associate Judges, and FARRELL, Senior Judge.


Page 954

          Roy W. McLeese, Associate Judge:

          Appellant DeAndre Brooks seeks reversal of his convictions for assault on a police officer and possession of drug paraphernalia. Mr. Brooks challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support his conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia. He also argues that the trial court abused its discretion by refusing to continue the trial to permit further plea negotiations. We hold that the evidence was insufficient to support Mr. Brooks's conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia. We also hold that the trial court acted within its discretion in denying a continuance.


         The United States's evidence at trial was as follows. United States Park Police investigators encountered Mr. Brooks and three other men while searching for robbery suspects. One of the men was arrested after he fled and discarded a backpack containing a handgun. When the police asked Mr. Brooks and the other two men to stop, Mr. Brooks turned and walked away. An officer touched Mr. Brooks's shoulder, and Mr. Brooks " swatted" away the officer's hand and struck the officer's forearm. The officer attempted to place Mr. Brooks under arrest, but Mr. Brooks flailed about, kicking and trying to break free. The police arrested Mr. Brooks for assaulting a police officer.

         In a search incident to the arrest, one of the officers, a twelve-year veteran assigned to investigate narcotics and vice offenses, found in Mr. Brooks's pants pocket " a metal grinder with a picture of Bob Marley on the front that is commonly used for grinding up marijuana." Another officer, who was assigned to the Narcotics Unit and had been involved in over 500 drug operations, testified that he had recovered grinders numerous times. That officer further explained that grinders are used to grind up marijuana by people who smoke marijuana, and that when officers arrest people with grinders, there typically is green plant material in the grinders. Police also seized a black ski mask and four cell phones from Mr. Brooks.

         The defense put on no witnesses. After closing arguments, the trial court found Mr. Brooks guilty, explaining:

I find that although there is not a rich amount of detail about Bob Marley grinders, the last witness has told us that he has seized them on many occasions, that they are commonly used to grind marijuana and I think that is enough to infer an intent to use in the absence of any other explanation emerging from the evidence that would cast a doubt on that . . . .


         Mr. Brooks challenges his conviction for possession of drug paraphernalia, arguing that there was insufficient evidence that he intended to use the grinder for drug-related purposes. See D.C. Code § 48-1103 (a)(1) (2015 Supp.) (prohibiting possession of drug paraphernalia with intent to use to, e.g., " process," " prepare," " contain," " or otherwise introduce into the human body a controlled substance" ). We

Page 955


          In considering a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, " we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, giving full play to the right of the [fact-finder] to determine credibility, weigh the evidence, and draw justifiable inferences of fact, and making no distinction between direct and circumstantial evidence." Medley v. United States, 104 A.3d 115, 127 n.16 (D.C. 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). " [T]he evidence is sufficient if, after viewing it in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt . . . ." ( Tamara) Smith v. United States, 55 A.3d 884, 887 (D.C. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted). This court will not reverse a trial court's factual findings after a bench trial unless those findings are " plainly wrong or without evidence to support [them]." D.C. Code § 17-305 (a) (2012 Repl.). On the other hand, " although a [fact-finder] is entitled to draw a vast range of reasonable inferences from evidence, [the fact-finder] may not base a verdict on mere speculation." Schools v. United States, 84 A.3d 503, 508 (D.C. 2013) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). " [A]ppellate review of sufficiency of the evidence is [not] toothless," and " [w]e have an obligation to take seriously the requirement that the evidence in a criminal prosecution must be strong enough that a [fact-finder] behaving rationally really could find it persuasive beyond a reasonable doubt." Rivas v. United States, 783 A.2d 125, 134 (D.C. 2001) (en banc).

          As with other forms of intent, a defendant's intent to use drug paraphernalia unlawfully may be proved not only through direct evidence but also circumstantially or inferentially. See, e.g., (Sandra) Williams v. United States, 604 A.2d 420, 421 (D.C. 1992) (jury could reasonably infer that defendant used or intended to use scale in connection with drug operation); see generally, e.g.,Abdulshakur v. District of Columbia, 589 A.2d 1258, 1263 (D.C. 1991) (" Intent is a state of mind, and must ordinarily be proved circumstantially." ); cf.Fatumabahirtu v. United States, 26 A.3d 322, 335-36 (D.C. 2011) (intent element of different subsection of drug-paraphernalia provision may be proven " by credible and compelling direct, indirect, or circumstantial evidence" ). In this case, there was no evidence that anyone saw Mr. Brooks use the grinder in any way. Nor was there evidence that Mr. Brooks made any statements suggesting an intent to use the grinder for drug-related purposes. Nor, finally, was there any evidence that Mr. Brooks possessed or used drugs, either at the time of the offense or at any previous time. Rather, the United States argues that Mr. Brooks's intent to use the grinder for drug-related purposes can be inferred from ...

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