JONES v. UNITED STATES

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District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

Richard C. JONES, Appellant, v. UNITED STATES, Appellee.

No. 13–CM–651.

Decided: September 17, 2015

Before FISHER and BECKWITH, Associate Judges, and FARRELL, Senior Judge. Nicholas Q. Elton was on the briefs for the appellant. Ronald C. Machen Jr., United States Attorney at the time the brief was filed, and Elizabeth Trosman, Elizabeth H. Danello, and Ann K.H. Simon, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on the brief for appellee.

Appellant Richard Jones was convicted, after a bench trial, of attempted threats1 for a statement he made toward his daughter's guardian ad litem following a contentious family court hearing. Mr. Jones claims four errors: that the trial court erred by denying his motion for a new trial, that attempted threats is not a valid offense under D.C. law, that the record contains insufficient evidence to support his conviction, and that he was denied his right to a jury trial when the government amended the information from charging misdemeanor threats to attempted threats just moments before trial. We affirm.

I.

Dennis Eshman, the complainant in this case, represented Mr. Jones's daughter as her guardian ad litem in a family court matter for nearly four years. At a hearing in June 2012, Mr. Eshman recommended that Mr. Jones's visits with his daughter be supervised. Mr. Eshman testified that when he left the courtroom, Mr. Jones stopped him in the hallway and said, “I'm going to smack the shit out of you.” The statement was made “in pretty close to a normal tone of voice, maybe just a little bit elevated.” Mr. Jones then expressed his displeasure with Mr. Eshman's recommendation of supervised visitation, and “his voice escalated so that he got to the point where he was yelling at” Mr. Eshman. Mr. Eshman was initially “taken aback” and eventually came to believe that his physical safety was “in jeopardy.”

The defense countered with testimony from Khadijah Ali, an attorney who witnessed the incident while passing through the hallway of the courthouse. Ms. Ali testified that she saw Mr. Jones “very angry and he was quite loud and he was arguing with” Mr. Eshman. But she also testified that she could “hear clearly what was being said” and she did not hear any threats. Specifically, she testified that she did not hear Mr. Jones say, “I'm going to smack the shit out of you.”

The trial judge found that both witnesses were credible and that their testimony was not actually inconsistent. The judge found that while Ms. Ali did not hear any threat, her attention was not drawn to the scene until Mr. Jones became angry and loud, which occurred after he had already uttered the threat in a normal tone of voice. The court convicted Mr. Jones of attempted threats. Mr. Jones filed a motion for a new trial,2 which was denied, and this appeal followed.

II.

Mr. Jones first argues that the trial court erred by denying his motion for a new trial. Mr. Jones's motion contended, among other things, that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to investigate and present evidence of Mr. Eshman's bias against Mr. Jones in order to impeach Mr. Eshman's testimony. Having raised these claims in a motion under Rule 33 of the Superior Court Rules of Criminal Procedure, Mr. Jones argued—and the trial court agreed—that he need not demonstrate a violation of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel pursuant to Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984), to be awarded a new trial, but needed only to show that a new trial was necessary in “the interests of justice.” Super. Ct.Crim. R. 33. The trial court concluded that a new trial was unnecessary because it had already heard testimony regarding the events that allegedly gave rise to Mr. Eshman's bias—a specific prior incident between the two men and the fact that Mr. Jones had filed bar complaints against Mr. Eshman. More broadly, the court stated that it was “aware of the hostility, frankly, generally, that Mr. [E]shman testified to and acknowledged between Mr. Jones and Mr. [E]shman.” The trial court determined that additional evidence of their prior relationship and Mr. Eshman's alleged bias would not have affected its determination that Mr. Eshman's testimony was credible.

We review the denial of a Rule 33 motion for abuse of discretion. Austin v. United States, 64 A.3d 413, 427 (D.C.2013). Mr. Jones argues that the trial court abused its discretion because the additional evidence proffered was “fundamental to creating a full impression for [the] trier of fact.” The trial court stated that it examined the motion in detail, including the “extensive” attachments, and compared that evidence to the testimony that had been elicited at trial. We have no reason to second-guess the trial court's conclusion that it was already well enough informed of Mr. Eshman's potential bias against Mr. Jones from the trial testimony and that additional testimony regarding the relationship between the two men would not affect the court's decision. The trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying Mr. Jones's Rule 33 motion.

III.

Mr. Jones next argues that his conviction must be reversed because attempted threats is not a valid statutory offense. This claim was not raised in the trial court, so we review for plain error. Howerton v. United States, 964 A.2d 1282, 1286 (D.C.2009). Mr. Jones must demonstrate that charging him with attempted threats “was (1) error, (2) that is plain, (3) that affects substantial rights, and (4) that seriously affects the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” Id. (quoting Coleman v. United States, 948 A.2d 534, 544 (D.C.2008)). He cannot meet this rigorous standard. See Evans v. United States, 779 A.2d 891, 895 (D.C.2001) (“To sum up, we hold that attempted threats is a valid statutory offense under the laws of the District of Columbia.”).

Mr. Jones argues that because misdemeanor threats is a general intent crime,3 see Carrell v. United States, 80 A.3d 163, 170–71 (D.C.2013), vacated, reh'g en banc granted; Holt v. United States, 565 A.2d 970, 971–72 (D.C.1989) (en banc), and because an attempt conviction requires the government to prove “specific intent to commit the crime one is attempting,” Braxton v. United States, 500 U.S. 344, 351 n. * (1991) (citing Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 263, 72 S.Ct. 240, 96 L.Ed. 288 (1952)),4 one cannot attempt a general intent crime and “there cannot be an ‘attempted threat.’ “ But Mr. Jones is incorrect in his assertion that one cannot be convicted for attempting to commit a general intent crime,5 and thus he can show no error. Mr. Jones similarly argues that one cannot be convicted of an attempt for “[c]rimes that do not involve intent to do a criminal act,” Cox v. State, 311 Md. 326, 534 A.2d 1333, 1335 (Md.1988), stating that “[i]t makes no sense to speak of attempted involuntary manslaughter or attempted negligence.” This maxim is irrelevant here because the misdemeanor offense of threats does require intent to act-intent to utter statements that constitute a threat. Joiner–Die v. United States, 899 A.2d 762, 764 (D.C.2006).6

For these reasons, attempted threats is a valid offense in the District, and the trial court did not err in convicting Mr. Jones.

IV.

Mr. Jones argues that the record contains insufficient evidence that he was guilty of attempted threats. Assuming that the government was required to prove that Mr. Jones possessed specific intent to threaten,7 the record contains sufficient evidence that Mr. Jones intended to threaten Mr. Eshman with bodily harm by telling him, “I'm going to smack the shit out of you.” Mr. Jones's insistence that his statement was “rendered benign by [its] context,” In re S.W., 45 A.3d 151, 156 (D.C.2012), is unavailing. Even if the statement was made in a “normal tone of voice,” a reasonable factfinder could conclude that Mr. Jones possessed specific intent to threaten Mr. Eshman with serious bodily harm given the tumultuous and emotionally charged nature of their relationship and the fact that Mr. Jones later started yelling and gesticulating at Mr. Eshman in the hallway. It also is not a defense that Mr. Eshman was only startled by the threat because “[a] person can be guilty of threats without causing the target of the threats to fear serious bodily harm or injury.” Gray v. United States, 100 A.3d 129, 136 (D.C.2014) (citation omitted). Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, we conclude that the evidence is sufficient to sustain Mr. Jones's conviction.

V.

Mr. Jones argues that the trial court erred by allowing the government to amend the information on the day of trial in order to deny his right to trial by jury.8 Mr. Jones was first charged with misdemeanor threats in violation of D.C.Code § 22–407 (2012 Repl.), which carries a maximum penalty of six months incarceration and triggers a defendant's statutory right to a jury trial in the District.9 See D.C.Code § 16–705(b) (2012 Repl.); Turner v. Bayly, 673 A.2d 596, 602 (D.C.1996). Moments before the trial began, the government amended the information to attempted threats under D.C.Code §§ 22–407 and –1803. This charge carries a maximum penalty of 180 days' incarceration, which is not sufficient to trigger one's statutory right to a jury. D.C.Code § 16–705(b). Ruling on Mr. Jones's claim of error in his motion for a new trial, the trial court rejected Mr. Jones's argument “based on [its] understanding of the law at this time [that] the Government does have the right to amend even if that results in a denial of the jury trial on the charge.”

Rule 7 of the Superior Court Rules of Criminal Procedure specifies that an information may be amended “at any time before verdict or finding if no additional or different offense is charged and if substantial rights of the defendant are not prejudiced.” Super. Ct.Crim. R. 7(e); see Dyson v. United States, 485 A.2d 194, 197 (D.C.1984). The question for us, then, is whether Mr. Jones suffered any prejudice—and in this case, prejudice substantial enough to reverse under the plain error standard—from the government's decision to amend the information moments before trial.10

This record reveals no such prejudice. While Mr. Jones argued that a jury trial was necessary because “the complaining witness is an attorney ․ who has appeared in front of almost every Judge in Superior Court,” his statutory right to a jury trial was contingent upon demanding a jury trial in the first place, see D .C.Code § 16–705(b)(2), which he never did.11 And because Mr. Jones did not object to the amendment, there is no indication in the record that the amendment in any way altered the defense Mr. Jones was prepared to present.12

VI.

Because we reject each of Mr. Jones's claims of error, his conviction is affirmed.

So ordered.

In arguing that attempted threats is not a valid crime in the District, Mr. Jones relies on the Supreme Court's decision in Braxton v. United States, 500 U.S. 344, 111 S.Ct. 1854, 114 L.Ed.2d 385 (1991), which stated that the elements “for an ‘attempt’ at common law ․ include a specific intent to commit the unlawful act.” Id. at 351 n. * (citing Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 263, 72 S.Ct. 240, 96 L.Ed. 288 (1952)). I write separately to make note of an inconsistency in our case law regarding the extent to which this common law proposition applies in the District of Columbia.

In Sellers v. United States, 131 A.3d 300 (D.C.1957), the Municipal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia defined the elements of attempt as follows: “any overt act done with intent to commit the crime and which, except for the interference of some cause preventing the carrying out of the intent, would have resulted in the commission of the crime.” Id. at 301 (quoting 14 Am. Jur ., Criminal Law, § 65, p. 813). Thirty years later, in Wormsley v. United States, 526 A.2d 1373 (D.C.1987), this court upheld the appellant's conviction for attempted taking property without right after concluding that the record contained sufficient evidence that she intended to steal a dress because of her “apparent dissemblance in folding the blue dress and concealing it inside her sweater, as well as her change of story about what she had done with the dress.” Id. at 1375. Appellant's specific intent to commit a crime was central to the court's holding, even though the underlying crime required only general intent to commit the act constituting the crime. See Fogle v. United States, 336 A.2d 833, 835 (D.C.1975).1

Then in Ray v. United States, 575 A.2d 1196 (D.C.1990), we stated that “[e]very completed criminal offense necessarily includes an attempt to commit that offense.” Id. at 1199 (holding that appellant was guilty of the “attempted-battery” type of assault even though the evidence showed a completed battery).2 In reaching this conclusion, Ray did not grapple with Wormsley 's premise that an attempt requires specific intent. We later applied Ray to an attempted threats charge under D.C.Code §§ 22–407 and –1803 in Evans v. United States, 779 A.2d 891 (D.C.2001), holding that the government could charge attempted threats “even though it could prove the completed offense.” Id. at 894. In other words, the government needed only to prove general intent to sustain a conviction for attempted threats. See also Jenkins v. United States, 902 A.2d 79, 87 (D.C.2006) (noting that Evans analyzed threats as a general intent crime). While the court in Evans acknowledged Wormsley 's holding on attempt, Wormsley did not control its analysis. Relying principally on Ray, the court explained that “[o]ur decisions have repeatedly held that ‘a person charged with an attempt to commit a crime may be convicted even though the evidence shows a completed offense, not merely an attempt.’ “ Evans, 779 A.2d at 894 (quoting Ray, 575 A.2d at 1199).

In Smith v. United States, 813 A.2d 216 (D.C.2002), this court recognized the difficulty of the attempt issue, stating that “[t]o speak of ‘specific intent’ in the context of a prosecution for attempted anything is, in our view, somewhat misleading.” Id . at 219. The court reiterated Wormsley 's premise that “[t]he only intent required to commit the crime of attempt is an intent to commit the offense allegedly attempted.” Id. (citing Wormsley, 526 A.2d at 1375). But the court also stated that “[o]ur decision in Evans necessarily means that when an attempt is proven by evidence that the defendant committed the crime alleged to have been attempted, the intent required to commit the crime of attempt can be no greater than the intent required to commit the completed crime.” Id. (citing Evans, 779 A.2d at 894). The court then held that there was sufficient evidence of attempted second-degree cruelty to children when the appellant “intended to commit the acts which resulted in ․ the grave risk of injury” to the child, even though he did not intend to injure the child. Id. at 219–20.

Yet while Evans continues to feature prominently in our case law,3 other recent cases have required specific intent for an attempt conviction. For example, in Brawner v. United States, 979 A.2d 1191 (D.C.2009), the court held that for an attempted escape conviction, the government must prove “the mental state of intending to commit the underlying offense,” that is, “intent to escape,” even though a charge for a completed escape did not involve such intent. Id. at 1194. And in Dauphine v. United States, 73 A.3d 1029 (D.C.2013), this court held that animal cruelty is a general intent crime but nonetheless stated that “where the government charges an individual with attempt, as it did here, the government must demonstrate that the defendant possessed the intent to commit the offense allegedly attempted.” Id. at 1033 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). We held that the record contained sufficient evidence that the “appellant acted with intent to commit the crime of cruelty to animals,” and we affirmed her conviction. Id.

The Wormsley-Brawner-Dauphine line of cases requiring the government to prove specific intent to commit the crime intended appears to be in direct tension with the Evans-Smith line of cases that does not require such proof.4 Because Mr. Jones's case arises on plain error review, however, we need not resolve this tension in our jurisprudence, and we need not decide whether Mr. Jones is correct that the common law intent element for attempt as articulated by the Supreme Court in Braxton is the law of this jurisdiction.

BECKWITH, Associate Judge:

Concurring opinion by Associate Judge BECKWITH at page 12.