Thursday, December 24, 2015

Missouri v. Coleman

Opinion handed down June 16, 2015
“I need you to do me a favor. . . .  Put the money in this bag;” these and other words and actions led Gary Leland Coleman to a conviction for second-degree robbery.[1]  On appeal to the Supreme Court of Missouri, Mr. Coleman argued that the evidence was insufficient to support a finding that he forcibly stole money with the use, or threat of use, of force.[2]  The court, on the facts of the case, and because there is an implicit threat of force when money is demanded without right in a bank, affirmed Mr. Coleman's conviction for second-degree robbery.[3]

I.  Facts and Holding        
Defendant Gary Leland Coleman, in October 2012, entered a bank, gave a bank teller a plastic bag, and told her, “I need you to do me a favor . . .  Put the money in this bag.”[4]  When an assistant manager of the bank walked toward Mr. Coleman, he told the assistant manager, “Ma'am, stop where you are and don't move any farther.”[5]  After receiving $1472, Mr. Coleman ran from the bank and was eventually arrested in Texas before being extradited to Missouri.[6]  Mr. Coleman told the police he was the person who bank security system photographs indicated had taken the money.[7]  Mr. Coleman was charged with second-degree robbery as a persistent offender and waived jury trial; the Circuit Court of Callaway County found him guilty, and he received a ten-year prison sentence.[8] 
Mr. Coleman appealed to the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District.[9]  He argued that the evidence was not sufficient for a finding of a use or threat of immediate force to any of the bank personnel.[10]  In a presently unpublished 2-1 opinion, the Western District stated that a finding of implied threat of the immediate use of physical force must be decided on the actions of a defendant, not on the reactions of a purported victim.[11]  That court found Mr. Coleman's words and acts – including a lack of threatening physical gesture – to be insufficient to support his conviction for second-degree robbery and, instead, convicted Mr. Coleman of the lesser included offense of stealing.[12]  The Western District required some affirmative conduct, including words, to communicate the intent of immediately using physical force if the purported victim resists or fails to comply.[13] 
Following this, the case was transferred to the Supreme Court of Missouri.[14]  The majority opinion of the court was issued by Judge Teitelman, while two judges dissented in a single, separate dissenting opinion.[15]  The court reversed the Western District’s holding and affirmed the second-degree robbery conviction of the trial court, holding that in the context of a bank, a demand for money without lawful right to that money is an implicit threat of use of force, and on the facts of this case this implicit threat was sufficient evidence to support the trial court's conviction.[16] 
II.  Legal Background
In Missouri, when the issue on appeal is the sufficiency of the evidence to support a criminal conviction, deference is given to the trier of fact, and review is limited to ascertaining whether there was enough evidence that a reasonable juror could have found the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.[17]  While engaging in this analysis, the court will accept all conviction-favorable evidence as true, along with favorable inferences from the evidence, and the court will not consider inferences and evidences against the conviction.[18]  The rationale of these standards is to help prevent the court from acting as a “super juror” thst can veto the trial court jury, ensuring the reviewing court does not determine disputed facts and assures that the jury did not engage in “sheer speculation” in finding the facts.[19]
The elements of second-degree robbery in Missouri are established by statute: it occurs when a person “forcibly steals property.”[20]  Forcible stealing happens “when the defendant threatens the immediate use of physical force upon another” to overcome resistance to or compel compliance with the property theft.[21]  In State v. Brooks, the conviction of the defendant for second-degree robbery was based on sufficient evidence when the defendant entered the bank wearing a wig, cap, and sunglasses, and handed the bank teller a note asking for “50 & 100's, No Bait Bills, Bottom Drawer.”[22]  Upon the teller leaving to get the money, the defendant in Brooks slammed down his hand and told the teller to “get back here,” all of which supported the reasonable inference that the defendant made a threat of use of immediate physical force for non-compliance with the robbery.[23]  In Missouri, a threat's existence is determined through an objective test by looking at whether a reasonable person would believe the defendant's conduct was a threat of the immediate use of physical force.[24]  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit’s case, United States v. Gilmore, teaches that demanding money in a bank would tend to lead a reasonable bank teller to infer a threat of use of force.[25]  By this rule, Gilmore claims to mimic the approach of the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeal, at least on a finding of intimidation.[26]
In Missouri, the main rule in interpreting statutes is to effectuate the legislative intent found in the statute's plain language.[27]  Statutory construction should be non-hyper-technical and give “reasonable and logical . . . meaning to the statutes.”[28]  Each phrase or word in a statute must be given meaning when possible.[29]  However, where the statute's wording is ambiguous or if an illogical result follows from the plain meaning of the statute, a Missouri court will look beyond a statute's plain meaning.[30]
III.  Instant Decision
The Supreme Court of Missouri began its analysis by stating the statutory requirements for a defendant to be convicted of second-degree robbery: the evidence must support beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant's threat or use of immediate physical force on someone in order to succeed in a theft.[31]  The applicable standard of review in this case disfavored a reversal of the conviction: the court would accept all favorable inferences and evidence as true and ignore contrary evidence and inferences.[32]  Ultimately, the court disagreed with Mr. Coleman's argument that the evidence was insufficient to support a finding that he forcibly stole from the bank, because he only entered the bank, asked for the money, and left the bank without any real threat of force on a bank employee.[33] 
The court cited State v. Brooks as an analogous case that favored a finding that second-degree robbery can be based on an implied threat of force by merely demanding money in the setting of a bank.[34]  Whether a threat exists is determined by an objective test: would a reasonable person believe the defendant's actions were a threat of immediate use of physical force?[35]  The court found the context of the bank relevant, as well as the contextual facts that Mr. Coleman: (1) went toward the bank employee with one hand hidden; (2) did not have a right to the money he demanded; and (3) told the bank manager to halt when she began walking toward him.[36]  The holding of the majority might be phrased in this way: where Mr. Coleman demanded money without right to that money in a bank, and where additional context supports the conclusion that Mr. Coleman's actions would be reasonably perceived as threatening immediate use of force to perform theft, the evidence was sufficient to defeat Mr. Coleman's challenge to his conviction for second-degree robbery.[37]
Judge Breckenridge, joined by Judge Stith, dissented in a separate opinion.[38]  The dissent agreed with the majority that victims of Mr. Coleman's robbery might reasonably fear they were in danger of physical force but considered this insufficient to meet the statutory language that the threat of force be immediate or physical.[39]  The dissent cited Webster's Dictionary to arrive at the meaning of these words in the statute and considered Mr. Coleman's acts – keeping a hand below the bank teller's counter, demanding money without a right to that money, and telling the bank manager to not move further – to be insufficient to support a finding of a threat of the immediate use of physical force.[40] In light of this, the dissent would instead have convicted Mr. Coleman of the lesser-included offense of stealing.[41]
IV.  Comment                 
At first glance, this seems like a straightforward case in which a bank robber gets convicted for his bank robbery. After reflection, however, the correct result is less than clear: the majority and dissent agree that the defendant should be convicted of something, but should it be second-degree robbery or only stealing?  The dissent's argument in favor of Mr. Coleman being convicted of a class B felony for stealing would result in the same range of prison term length for Mr. Coleman.[42]  At the same time, from the stealing statute alone, it is unclear whether the defendant would be subject to a class B or a class C felony if convicted only of stealing.[43]  Of course, how long a defendant may be sentenced to prison should not determine what crime the defendant is convicted of, but rather the reverse.
A further issue, common to some “reasonable person” based tests, is also lurking in at least the majority opinion.  The majority stated that to determine the existence of a threat, the test is whether a reasonable person would think the conduct constitutes a threat.[44]  The majority then went on to reference how bank employees have a great sense of threats to security.[45]  While not determinative of the result in this opinion, to the extent that the reasonable person analysis was based instead on the position of the “reasonable bank employee,” the question arises: how contextualized can areasonable person test become before it fails to keep objectivity?  The argument could be made that any contextualization short of a person's actual thoughts and will, concurrent with the event being analyzed, retains the objectivity of a “reasonable person” test.
– Rich Byrd

[1] State v. Coleman, 463 S.W.3d 353, 354 (Mo. 2015) (en banc).
[2] Id. at 353-54.
[3] Id. at 354-55.
[4] Id. at 354.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] State v. Coleman, No. WD 76520, 2014 WL 4815414, at *1 (Mo. Ct. App. Sept. 30, 2014).
[10] Id. at *2.
[11] Id. at *3.
[12] Id. at *4-*5.
[13] Id.
[14] Id. at *1.
[15] State v. Coleman, 463 S.W.3d 353, 353, 355 (Mo. 2015) (en banc).
[16] Id. at 355.
[17] State v. Stover, 388 S.W.3d 138, 146 (Mo. 2012) (en banc).
[18] Id.
[19] State v. Grim, 854 S.W.2d 403, 414 (Mo. 1993) (en banc).
[20] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 569.030 (Supp. 2014) (also classifying second-degree robbery as a class B felony).
[21] State v. Lybarger, 165 S.W.3d 180, 186 (Mo. Ct. App. 2005) (citing Mo. Rev. Stat. § 569.010(1) (Supp. 2014)).
[22] State v. Brooks, 446 S.W.3d 673, 676 (Mo. 2014) (en banc).
[23] See id. at 677.
[24] Id. at 676.
[25] See United States v. Gilmore, 282 F.3d 398, 402-03 (6th Cir. 2002).
[26] Id. at 403.
[27] Winfrey v. State, 242 S.W.3d 723, 725 (Mo. 2008) (en banc).
[28] Lewis v. Gibbons, 80 S.W.3d 461, 465 (Mo. 2002) (en banc).
[29] Winfrey v. State, 242 S.W.3d 723, 725 (Mo. 2008) (en banc).
[30] Lonergan v. May, 53 S.W.3d 122, 126 (Mo. Ct. App. 2001).
[31] State v. Coleman, 463 S.W.3d 353, 354 (Mo. 2015) (en banc).
[32] Id.
[33] Id.
[34] Id. at 354-55.
[35] Id. at 355.
[36] Id.
[37] See. id.
[38] Id. at 355-56 (Breckenridge, J., dissenting).
[39] Id. at 356.
[40] Id. at 356-57.
[41] Id. at 357.
[42] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 558.011.1(2) (Supp. 2014).
[43] Mo. Rev. Stat. § 570.030.3(1) (Supp. 2014) (identifying a class C felony when value of the property is less than $25,000, although other circumstances may alter this).
[44] State v. Coleman, 463 S.W.3d 353, 355 (Mo. 2015) (en banc).
[45] Id.