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Ruffin v. United States

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

November 21, 2019

Levi Ruffin, Appellant,
United States, Appellee.

          Argued January 16, 2018

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CF1-13804-14) (Hon. Rhonda Reid-Winston, Trial Judge)

          Debra Soltis, with whom Paul Y. Kiyonaga and Marcus Massey were on the brief, for appellant.

          Kristina Ament, with whom Channing D. Phillips, United States Attorney at the time the brief was filed, and Elizabeth Trosman, John P. Mannarino, Kenechukwu O. Okocha, Akhi Johnson, and Eric S. Nguyen, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on the brief, for appellee.

          Before Glickman and Fisher, Associate Judges, and Ferren, Senior Judge.


         Appellant, Levi Ruffin, was convicted after a jury trial of the following offenses: first-degree burglary while armed; kidnapping while armed; third-degree sexual abuse while armed; attempted robbery while armed; assault with a dangerous weapon; and assault with significant bodily injury. In this appeal, he contends the evidence was insufficient to sustain his convictions for first-degree burglary and kidnapping, and that the trial court erred in denying his motions to exclude DNA test results and a knife found in his possession at the time of his arrest. Concluding that these contentions lack merit, we affirm appellant's convictions.

         I. The Evidence at Trial

         The complaining witness at appellant's trial, whom we shall refer to as J.C., testified that a man wielding a silver folding knife attacked her when she arrived home on the evening of September 14, 2013. J.C. lived at the time in one of three apartments in a row house in Northwest Washington, D.C. Her assailant, who was later identified as appellant, came up behind her as she was unlocking the front door to the building. Putting his hand over her mouth and holding the knife to her face, appellant told her not to move and to drop what she was holding. He then pushed J.C. through the entrance into the common hallway of the row house, followed her in, and closed the door behind them. Alone with her in the hallway, and continuing to hold the knife to her face, appellant demanded her money. J.C. started to hand him her debit and credit cards, but appellant slapped them away. He then lifted her dress and rubbed his fingers against her genital area through her underwear.

         At that point, J.C. grabbed the hand in which appellant was holding the knife and pushed him away. A fight ensued, during which appellant bit J.C. on her left cheek and her back. She yelled at him to stop. He pushed her to the floor and fled out the front door of the row house. After he was gone, J.C. went into her apartment and called the police.

         A neighbor in an apartment down the hallway heard and saw part of the attack through the peephole of her door and called the police. The recording of that call was played at trial. It captured over 90 seconds of the assault.

         J.C. was taken to the hospital by ambulance. She was treated for the bite wounds on her cheek and back, and for a lacerated finger (which required six stitches) and other knife cuts on her hands. A nurse swabbed J.C.'s bite wounds for biological evidence that could help identify her attacker.

         After several months, the police acquired information linking appellant to the assault.[1] In August 2014, officers went to his apartment to arrest him. In a pair of jeans that appellant asked to put on, the officers found a folding knife with a silver blade and a black handle. Over appellant's objection to its relevance, this knife was admitted in evidence against him at trial, along with the parties' stipulation that it had been in appellant's possession "as early as November 2, 2013" (i.e., about seven weeks after the assault on J.C.).[2]

         DNA testing identified appellant as J.C.'s assailant. Two forensic scientists from the District of Columbia Department of Forensic Sciences (DFS) testified that they received and tested the swabs taken from J.C.'s cheek and back wounds and a swab taken from appellant's cheek following his arrest in this case. These scientists performed the extraction, quantification, and amplification of DNA from each of those sources and generated DNA profiles from them for subsequent interpretation and comparison. They did not testify to that interpretation and comparison, however, because flaws had been detected in DFS's statistical computation procedures. These flaws reportedly "resulted in DFS's overstating the rarity of certain mixture profiles, "[3] i.e., profiles obtained from samples containing DNA from more than one person. A panel of experts convened by the United States Attorney's Office identified "systematic concerns with DFS's interpretations of forensic DNA mixtures, "[4] and an ANSI-ASQ National Accreditation Board (ANAB)[5] audit of DFS likewise found serious problems with its "mixture interpretation procedures." The ANAB required DFS to suspend DNA testing until it corrected the problems.

         The government arranged for an accredited private laboratory, Bode Cellmark Forensics (Bode), to interpret and compare the profiles generated by DFS in this case. Over appellant's objection, the court allowed Karin Crenshaw, a forensic biologist at Bode, to testify that appellant's DNA profile matched the foreign DNA profiles recovered from the swabs of J.C.'s back and cheek wounds.[6] According to Ms. Crenshaw, the probability of randomly selecting an unrelated African American with the same profile as that of the foreign DNA from J.C.'s back was 1 in 450 quadrillion; and the equivalent random match probability for the DNA from J.C.'s cheek was 1 in 4.1 sextillion.[7]

         II. Sufficiency of the Evidence

         Appellant claims the evidence was insufficient to convict him of the first-degree burglary and kidnapping charges. Each claim turns on a question of statutory interpretation.

         A. First-Degree Burglary While Armed

         The crime of burglary in the first degree is defined in D.C. Code § 22-801(a) (2019 Supp.) in pertinent part as follows (emphasis added): "Whoever shall . . . enter . . . any dwelling, or room used as a sleeping apartment in any building, with intent . . . to commit any criminal offense, shall, if any person is in any part of such dwelling or sleeping apartment at the time of such . . . entering, . . . be guilty of burglary in the first degree."[8] Appellant contends there was insufficient proof that he entered a "dwelling" to support his conviction of this crime because the evidence at trial established that J.C.'s assailant entered only the common hallway of her multi-apartment row house (and not also her or any other tenant's individual apartment). Appellant asserts that the common hallway of a residential apartment building is not part of a "dwelling" as that term is used in the burglary statute.

         The burglary statute does not define the term "dwelling," and this is the first time this court has been called upon to construe it. Its meaning in the statute, and whether it encompasses a common hallway in a multi-unit residential building, are questions of statutory interpretation that we decide de novo.[9] Where, as here, statutory terms are undefined, we presumptively construe them according to their ordinary sense and plain meaning, taking into account the context in which they are employed, the policy and purpose of the legislation, and the potential consequences of adopting a given interpretation.[10] "We may also look to the legislative history to ensure that our interpretation is consistent with legislative intent."[11] These principles have guided our interpretation of other language in the first-degree burglary statute.[12] They favor giving the term "dwelling" a broad interpretation that would render § 22-801(a) applicable here.

         To begin with, the term "dwelling" is not limited to single-family occupancies. Apartment houses and other multi-unit residential structures also are included within standard dictionary definitions of "dwelling," particularly when that word is used in burglary and similar statutes. Black's Law Dictionary, for example, states that "dwelling" is the short form of "dwelling-house," a term meaning, in criminal law, virtually any "building . . ., part of a building . . ., or []other enclosed space that is used or intended for use as a human habitation."[13]We think it informative and noteworthy that a number of federal courts, tasked under the Sentencing Guidelines with determining the "generic" meaning of "burglary of a dwelling," have accepted this definition.[14]

         In construing the District's first-degree burglary statute, we have no reason to reject the broad ordinary meaning of "dwelling" as any enclosed space used for human habitation, nor any reason to narrow the definition of "dwelling" to exclude some types of habitation. Section 22-801(a) states that it applies to entries into "any dwelling" without qualification or exception. "[T]here is no indication in the legislative history to the contrary."[15] Congress enacted the first-degree burglary statute in 1967.[16] As explained in the report on the bill by the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, up until then, "the crime of breaking and entering in the District of Columbia [was] called housebreaking" and did "not distinguish between dwellings and other premises."[17] The authorized penalty for housebreaking, imprisonment for up to 15 years, was the same regardless of the character of the premises.[18] The 1967 enactment amended the housebreaking statute to create two degrees of burglary and specify different minimum sentences for each.[19] The graver offense, first-degree burglary of an occupied dwelling or sleeping apartment, carried an enhanced penalty of no less than 5 nor more than 30 years of imprisonment. Burglaries of other premises were covered by the second-degree statute, which tracked the previous housebreaking statute and continued to carry a maximum penalty of 15 years' imprisonment.[20]

         Accepting the broad, ordinary definition of "dwelling" best serves the evident legislative purpose behind the enactment of the first-degree burglary statute. Burglaries of occupied residences are singled out for heightened punishment because they "pose an increased risk of physical and psychological injury."[21] In such burglaries "there is a much greater possibility of confronting the resident and a substantial risk that force will be used and that someone will be injured, than if one burglarized a building that was not intended for use as habitation, such as an office building after office hours or a warehouse."[22] This elevated risk exists whether the human habitation in question is a single-family home or apartment, a row house with a few units, or a multi-unit apartment building. "[T]he unique wounds caused by residential burglary are independent of the size or construction of the dwelling. They are the same for the mansion house and the boarding house, the tract home and the mobile home."[23]

         So J.C.'s row house was a "dwelling" within the meaning of our first-degree burglary statute. The evidence clearly sufficed to prove that her assailant entered this dwelling with the intent to commit a crime inside it, and that someone else was present there when he did so. This latter statutory requirement, which is not in dispute, was satisfied in two ways. First, it suffices that J.C.'s neighbor was in the row house even though she was in her own apartment; a residential burglary violates § 22-801(a) "if any person is in any part of [the] dwelling" at the time of entry. Second, as in Edelen, this requirement also was met (even if no one else had been in the building at the time) because J.C.'s assailant pushed her into the row house ahead of him and she therefore was in the dwelling herself when he followed her in.[24]

         It is immaterial that the entry and the subsequent assault went no further than the interior common hallway of the row house. This hallway was behind a locked door; in no way was it a space so open to the public at large as to be considered outside and not part of the private dwelling area. And as far as § 22-801(a) is concerned, an entry is an entry; it does not matter where in a dwelling the invasion occurs, for all such intrusions pose the heightened risk of violent confrontation and other harms that the first-degree statute is meant to deter and punish. We thus readily agree with the holdings of several other courts that, under burglary statutes comparable to ours, "an apartment dweller's 'dwelling house' does include secured common hallways."[25]

         Appellant argues that this conclusion is foreclosed by our decision in Edelen, in which this court held that the defendant committed first-degree burglary when he entered the complainant's apartment, even though he began his attack on her in the common hallway outside her apartment.[26] This argument is not correct. In Edelen, this court had no occasion to consider, and therefore did not consider, whether the defendant committed a first-degree burglary when he entered the apartment building. The issue before the court was only whether his entry into the apartment constituted a first-degree burglary. The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. Section 22-801(a) recognizes both possibilities by specifying that a first-degree burglary can be committed by entering either "any dwelling" or any "room used as a sleeping apartment in any building."

         We reject appellant's restrictive interpretation of D.C. Code § 22-801(a) and hold that the evidence was sufficient to sustain his conviction for first-degree burglary.

         B. Kidnapping While Armed

         To convict appellant of kidnapping J.C. in violation of D.C. Code § 22-2001 (2019 Supp.), the government had to prove that he "intentionally seized, confined, or carried [her] away, and that [he] held or detained [her] against her will."[27]There was ample evidence that appellant did all of those things by forcing J.C. into the hallway of her row house, closing the door behind him, detaining her there at knifepoint, and violently resisting her attempt to escape. Appellant contends, however, that there was insufficient evidence to sustain his kidnapping conviction because J.C.'s detention lasted only about a minute-and-a-half and was "incidental" to and "wholly coextensive with" the assault and attempted robbery. Appellant argues that offenses like robbery and sexual assault almost always include some detention of the victim (though detention is not an element of them), and the legislature could not have intended the kidnapping statute to apply to such detentions that are "not distinct from another offense" of which the defendant is guilty.[28]

         This argument is not a new one. It has been made to us before, and we have rejected it. As this court stated in Richardson, the argument is "foreclosed" by "binding precedent."[29] We have held that "[t]he plain language" of D.C. Code § 22-2001

contains no exception for cases in which the conduct underlying the kidnapping is momentary or incidental to another offense. . . . "[T]here is no requirement that the victim be moved any particular distance or be held for any particular length of time to constitute a kidnapping; all that is required is a 'seizing, confining' or the like and a 'holding or detaining for ransom or reward 'or otherwise'"[30]

         Accordingly, we hold that the evidence in this case was sufficient to sustain appellant's conviction for kidnapping while armed.

         III. ...

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