Criminal Law Update

The December Amicus contains a Court of Appeals and two Court of Special Appeals decisions which may be of interest to practitioners.

Jones v. State, No. 14, September Term 2014, filed November 19, 2014 (opinion by Watts, J.). Jones was charged with second degree assault of the intent to frighten kind among other counts. His alleged victim was a woman named Johnson. At his trial, the State called to the stand an individual who had been a fellow passenger in Jones’s car that night. He testified that Jones had told him that he had gotten into an altercation with two boys at a particular address. Their car stopped at the address and, while Jones’s friend stayed in the car, Jones walked up to the apartment’s front door and knocked on it. A woman named Tindley answered the door and Jones asked for the boys. From the car, the witness heard “yelling”, saw Tindley shut the door, and heard three gunshots. Jones came back to the car and said he wanted to kill the boys.

Zest_QuarterPageAdTindley testified that she, the victim Johnson, and others were in the apartment when Jones knocked. When Tindley opened the door, Jones asked for the boys and reached toward his pants. Tindley shut the door as Johnson approached it. Tindley told Johnson: “Don’t go to the door. They got a gun.” Tindley heard three shots.

The jury convicted Jones of second degree assault of the intent to frighten kind with Johnson as the victim. Jones appealed to the Court of Special Appeals which affirmed the conviction.

The Court of Appeals also affirmed. It held that a defendant can be guilty of second degree assault of the intent to frighten type against a victim of whom the defendant was not aware. The crime consists of committing an act with the intent to place another in fear of immediate physical harm. When an individual commits an act which creates a zone of danger and knows multiple people are in that zone, he or she intends to put everyone in the zone in fear of immediate physical harm – even if he or she does not know a particular person is in that zone.

The Court opined that there was sufficient evidence for a reasonable inference that Jones know multiple people were in the apartment. Tindley answered the door; Jones asked for the boys; and Tindley spoke to Johnson before the shots were fired. Farther away in the car Jones’s friend heard “yelling”.

The Court also concluded that sufficient evidence indicated Jones intended to create a zone of danger. Johnson was in the apartment; Jones shot three times, and two bullets entered the apartment.

Steward v. State, No. 1976, September Term 2012, filed August 27, 2014 (opinion by Thieme, J.). Steward was stopped for a minor traffic infraction and the officer discovered her license was suspended. She claimed she was unaware of it, but the officer gave her a citation for driving suspended. At trial, a jury found her guilty.

Steward appealed to the Court of Special Appeals. She contended that the evidence was insufficient to show she either had actual knowledge of the suspension or was wilfully blind to it. She also contended that the jury instruction on driving suspended was erroneous because it lowered the state’s burden as to the knowledge element of the offense. Her final contention was that she suffered from ineffective assistance of counsel because her lawyer failed to preserve the erroneous jury instruction argument.

COSA affirmed. The sufficiency argument had not been properly preserved because defense counsel failed to make any particularized argument for the Motion for Judgment of Acquittal at the close of all evidence. As to the merits of the sufficiency argument, based on Steward’s multiple previous MVA contacts and failure to timely inform the MVA about her address change, the evidence presented was sufficient for an inference that her not knowing about the suspension was a result of her own wilful inaction and ignorance. The trial court did not err in denying her Motion for Judgment of Acquittal.

COSA refused to undertake a plain error review of whether the trial court erred in instructing the jurors that they could find guilt if they concluded Steward knew or should have known of the suspension. Case law holds that a person cannot be guilty of driving suspended unless there is sufficient evidence that the person had either actual knowledge or was deliberately ignorant of the suspension. Proof that a peson “should have known” a fact is not sufficient to prove deliberate ignorance. On first impression, the jury instruction was legally incorrect. In light of the nature of the case, the limited guidance available to the trial court for crafting its jury instruction, and the lack of objection which might have corrected the error, the trial court’s misstatement of the knowledge element did not compel COSA to undertake plain error review.

COSA declined to decide the ineffective assistance of counsel claim.

Wagner v. State, No. 2299, September Term 2013, filed October 30, 2014 (opinion by Wright, J.). Wagner was found guilty of theft and embezzlement for taking money from a joint bank account. Her father originally opened the account and added her as a joint owner in case he was unable to access the funds. On appeal, she contended that, as a joint owner of the account, she could not be guilty of theft from it. She cited the Financial Institutions Article which allows funds from a multi-party account to be withdrawn by any party on the account.

The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the conviction. A joint owner of a bank account may be guilty of theft for taking money from it. When a person is added to an account, there is a presumption that he or she is being given an ownership interest. This presumption can be rebutted by evidence of a contrary intent of the original owner. Wagner was added to her father’s bank account, but her father did not intend for her to become a joint owner. Despite being titled as a “joint owner,” she was not an actual owner. Her interest was subject to the authority and control of her father and, thus, she was not an “owner” within the meaning of the theft statute.