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Jones v. United States

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

November 9, 2017

Elaine Jones, Appellant,
United States, Appellee.

          Submitted September 29, 2016

         Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CMD-9195-14) (Hon. Ann O'Regan Keary, Trial Judge)

          Rupa Ranga Puttagunta was on the brief for appellant.

          Channing D. Phillips, United States Attorney at the time the brief was filed, and Elizabeth Trosman, Michael J. Christin, and Lauren R. Bates, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on the brief for appellee.

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

          Glickman, Associate Judge.

         In September 2013, appellant Elaine Jones was homeless and slept at night in a cardboard box on the floor of a Metro train station. On one such evening, a man who had camped next to her objected to her presence and, after kicking her, extended his feet onto her box and refused to remove them. Hoping to induce him to withdraw, and having no other means at her disposal, Ms. Jones then took out her cigarette lighter and lit a corner of her cardboard box near where her tormentor had lodged his feet. When this gesture proved to be futile because the man ignored the small fire that she created, Ms. Jones put out the fire before it grew larger. The brief blaze harmed no one. However, for this conduct, Ms. Jones was found guilty after a bench trial of one count of simple assault[1] and one count of attempted possession of a prohibited weapon (i.e., the cigarette lighter).[2]

         The issue before us is whether there was sufficient evidence to support those convictions. We conclude not. Specifically, we hold that the government did not present sufficient evidence to overcome Ms. Jones's defense that she lit the fire for the lawful purpose of defending her property from trespass and did not employ more force than was reasonably necessary or permissible to repel the intrusion.


         Two witnesses at trial described the altercation that resulted in the charges against Ms. Jones: a bystander, called by the government, who had observed the incident, and Ms. Jones herself. There was no material conflict in their testimony, which established the following facts.

         At around 10:00 p.m. on September 3, 2013, Ms. Jones, who was then sixty-five years of age, arrived at the entryway to the McPherson Square Metro Station, which was where she slept most nights. After changing her clothes in the bathroom, she placed her cardboard box in her usual spot and lay down in it. Another homeless person, a man named Rodney Livingston, was lying beside her. Ms. Jones described him as being about six feet tall, "muscular, " and considerably bigger and stronger than she was. Mr. Livingston told her he "didn't want her there"; she refused to leave, telling him that this was where she normally stayed and that she had a right to stay there. Mr. Livingston then became physically aggressive. As Ms. Jones lay next to him in her box, he threw paper at her, kicked her a couple of times and, after repositioning himself, stretched his feet on top of her box and rested them right next to her face. Ms. Jones asked him several times to remove his feet but he would not do so.

         Ms. Jones, who acknowledged in her trial testimony that she was "very frustrated" by Mr. Livingston's abuse, then sat up, pulled out her cigarette lighter, and lit the corner of her cardboard box that was near Mr. Livingston's feet. She did this, she testified, "[h]oping it would scare him to move his feet, " since "[m]ost sane people would move away from fire." The cardboard proved not to be very combustible, however. Ms. Jones characterized it at trial as responding to her lighter "like a cigarette" and "never bust[ing] into flame, " while the government's witness described the ignition as being "very small, very small, " and "like the wick from a piece of paper that cast off smoke." It did not induce Mr. Livingston to move his feet, and the government's witness saw Ms. Jones "quickly" put the fire out with her own hand without "further ado." Ms. Jones testified that she put some water on the "little fire" and "pat[ted]" it out "before it bust [sic] into flame" so that Mr. Livingston would not "catch on fire" as a result of his refusal to move his feet.

         Mr. Livingston was not injured. The eyewitness to his encounter with Ms. Jones testified that no "material goods" were damaged (other than the corner of Ms. Jones's cardboard box). A fire investigator who responded to the Metro Station testified at trial that she saw two "burn marks" on Mr. Livingston's socks, which in her opinion were "consistent with a heat source, open flame."[3] A photograph introduced in evidence showed what the trial judge described on the record as a "singe mark" on the toe of each sock.[4]

         In convicting Ms. Jones of simple assault and attempted possession of a prohibited weapon, the judge found that, by setting fire to the "flammable" cardboard box next to Mr. Livingston's feet, she intentionally used her cigarette lighter as a dangerous weapon in order to threaten Mr. Livingston with serious bodily injury and frighten him into moving away. The judge reasoned that a cigarette lighter "clearly is likely to inflict serious bodily injury on someone if it's used to set a fire" and that Ms. Jones was guilty of intent-to-frighten assault even though she did not "strik[e] or set[] fire to Mr. Livingston himself" and she extinguished the fire before it could do him any harm. The judge rejected Ms. Jones's "defense-of-property" ...

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