State v. Batiste, 2020 La. App. LEXIS 480 (LA Ct. App. 3rd 2020)
Court of Appeal of Louisiana, Third Circuit
March 18, 2020, Decided
The facts of the case are pretty straightforward. The Defendant and the Victim got into an argument at the Victim’s home, and in an effort to encourage the Defendant to leave the Victim armed himself with a hammer. In response, the Defendant produced a gun and shot the Victim, killing him.
The Defendant was charged with second-degree murder, and also possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, generally called a “felon in possession” charge. The Defendant raised the legal defense of self-defense.
The jury acquitted the Defendant of the second-degree murder charge but convicted him on the felon-in-possession charge.
The Defendant appeals his conviction on the felon in possession charge essentially on the grounds that if his self-defense claim was good enough to acquit him of the murder charge, it should also have been sufficient to acquit him of the felon-in-possession charge. That is, if the jury believed self-defense, and they obviously did believe it given his acquittal of murder, then self-defense ought to have been a perfect defense to the felon-in-possession charge, as well.
Whether self-defense can be a legal defense to a felon-in-possession charge is actually pretty well settled law: the answer is, yes, it can.
For example, if a felon were visiting my home, arriving completely unarmed, and in the course of his visit my home was subject to a home invasion, and the felon quickly grabbed one of my pistols off my desk to defend against the home invasion, he could credibly and effectively raise the legal defense of self-defense as a justification for being transiently in possession of the firearm for the purposes of self-defense.
Where self-defense is not an effective defense to a felon-in-possession charge, however, is when the possession of the firearm is not transient and not limited in context to an imminent need for self-defense.
If we take the scenario I just described, but rather than grab a gun transiently for the purposes of defending against an imminent threat the visiting felon instead was habitually carrying around a firearm even in the absence of a habitual threat, self-defense would not be a valid justification for the carrying of the gun when there was no imminent threat present.
That’s where this Defendant trips up. He did not opportunistically pick up a gun to defend himself against the Victim’s hammer attack—he was already carrying the gun on his person before the hammer attack became imminent. That non-imminent possession of the firearm is what self-defense cannot justify, and therefore the conviction on the felon in possession charge was appropriate.
The Defendant’s felon-in-possession conviction is affirmed.
This case does raise the opportunity to talk a little about the difference between common law and statutory law. Back in the day, a hundred, two hundred and more years ago, statutory law—law written into a statute enacted by a legislative body—was relatively rare. Most law was common law—that is, common practices of legal principles as captured in writing by court decisions.
Over time, states in the US began codifying their common law, and creating actual statutes to reflect those underlying common law legal principles. It general this is a good idea, and it ensures that everyone’s working off a single version of a criminal law, the statutory version.
Nevertheless, the old common law is not necessarily done away with. Where a statute has been enacted, the old common law for that specific legal principle is generally no longer in effect, the statute replaces the common law principle.
But what about where the statute replaces only a small segment of a common law principle? Then the remainder of the common law principle remains in effect.
This comes up sometimes in the context of the legal defense of self-defense. Most states now have a use-of-force justification statute or statutes focused on self-defense, defense of others, and defense of property. Where such statutes are in place, the old common law generally doesn’t apply.
But there are traditional applications for the justification defense that are broader than self-defense, defense of others, and defense of property. In this case, for example, the Defendant was attempting to use the justification defense as a defense against the criminal charge of being a felon-in-possession—and that’s an application of the justification defense permitted under the old common law, but not addressed by statute.
Where the use of a justification defense is permitted under common law, and not addressed by statute (either favorably or unfavorably), then it can be raised as a legal defense, as it was here. And with all the restrictions and conditions we saw applied here.
2020 La. App. LEXIS 480 | 19-632 (La.App. 3 Cir. 03/18/20);
STATE OF LOUISIANA VERSUS TERRELL JAVON BATISTE
Counsel: Chad M. Ikerd, Louisiana Appellate Project, Lafayette, LA, COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT-APPELLANT: Terrell Javon Batiste.
Hon. Keith A. Stutes, Lafayette Parish District Attorney – Fifteenth Judicial District Court, Cynthia K. Simon, Assistant District Attorney, Lafayette, LA, COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: State of Louisiana.
Judges: Court composed of Elizabeth A. Pickett, Phyllis M. Keaty, and John E. Conery, Judges.
Opinion by: ELIZABETH A. PICKETT
In the early morning hours of June 3, 2016, Drexel George and his fiancé Sholonda Francis went to their residence in Lafayette where they found the defendant, Terrell Javon Batiste, with a date, Kirsten Savoy. The defendant was a cousin of George’s and had permission to stay there if George and Francis were home, but not when they were away. The house was dark, as the electricity was not on. According to Savoy, George told the defendant to leave, and the latter moved to comply. However, the defendant bumped into an air conditioner that had been left on the floor, making a loud noise. Reportedly, George became irritated, armed himself with a hammer, and pinned the defendant against a wall. Francis and Savoy both went outside. Savoy continued to the defendant’s mother’s home, which was nearby. Francis stayed on the porch and heard a gunshot. The defendant ran out of the house, then George walked out, bleeding from a gunshot wound. Investigators later found a hammer on the porch. Medical testimony confirmed that George died as a result of a gunshot to the body.
On August 16, 2016, a Lafayette Parish grand jury indicted the defendant on charges of second degree murder, a violation of La.R.S. 14:30.1, and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, a violation of La.R.S. 14:95.1. The parties selected a jury on December 18, 2018. The jury began hearing evidence the next day. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on the murder charge and guilty on the possession of a firearm charge. On January 31, 2019, the trial court sentenced the defendant to twelve years at hard labor.
The defendant now appeals his conviction, assigning a single error. We affirm the judgment of the trial court.
In accordance with La.Code Crim.P. art. 920, all appeals are reviewed by this court for errors patent on the face of the record. After reviewing the record, we find no errors patent.
ASSIGNMENT OF ERROR
In his sole assignment of error, the defendant argues the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, in violation of La.R.S. 14:95.1. As at trial, he does not dispute possessing a gun long enough to shoot the victim. However, he repeats his trial argument that the shooting was justified.
The general test for sufficiency is settled:
When the issue of sufficiency of evidence is raised on appeal, the critical inquiry of the reviewing court is whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560, rehearing denied, 444 U.S. 890, 100 S.Ct. 195, 62 L.Ed.2d 126 (1979); State ex rel. Graffagnino v. King, 436 So.2d 559 (La.1983); State v. Duncan, 420 So.2d 1105 (La.1982); State v. Moody, 393 So.2d 1212 (La.1981). It is the role of the fact finder to weigh the respective credibility of the witnesses, and therefore, the appellate court should not second guess the credibility determinations of the triers of fact beyond the sufficiency evaluations under the Jackson standard of review. See State ex rel. Graffagnino, 436 So.2d 559 (citing State v. Richardson, 425 So.2d 1228 (La.1983)). In order for this Court to affirm a conviction, however, the record must reflect that the state has satisfied its burden of proving the elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
State v. Kennerson, 96-1518, p. 5 (La.App. 3 Cir. 5/7/97), 695 So.2d 1367, 1371.
The statute that defines possession of a firearm by a convicted felon is La.R.S. 14:95.1(A), which states in pertinent part: “It is unlawful for any person who has been convicted of . . . any violation of the Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Law which is a felony . . . to possess a firearm or carry a concealed weapon.” (footnote omitted). As the defendant acknowledges, he stipulated to a [Pg 3] cocaine conviction at trial. Also, he concedes that he possessed a firearm at the time of the shooting. His sole defense was and is justification. A felon charged under La.R.S. 14:95.1 may raise justification. The supreme court has explained:
We hold that when a felon is in imminent peril of great bodily harm, or reasonably believes himself or others to be in such danger, he may take possession of a weapon for a period no longer than is necessary or apparently necessary to use it in self-defense, or in defense of others. In such situation justification is a defense to the charge of felon in possession of a firearm.
State v. Blache, 480 So.2d 304, 308 (La.1985).
Justifiable homicide is governed by La.R.S. 14:20. As previously mentioned, the jury acquitted the defendant of that offense. Since he conceded shooting the victim and claimed justification, said defense was the sole legal basis upon which the jury could have acquitted him of the murder. In a homicide case, the state bears the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant did not act in self-defense. State v. Griffin, 06-543 (La.App. 3 Cir. 9/27/06), 940 So.2d 845, writ denied, 07-02 (La. 9/14/07), 963 So.2d 995. Under this legal standard, the jury could rationally have decided that the state failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense.
Again, justification is the defendant’s sole defense. There were no eyewitnesses to the actual shooting. As noted above, Savoy testified that she saw George holding a hammer while he pinned the defendant against a wall. She also said she heard the victim exclaim that he would kill the defendant. After the incident, the defendant stated to Savoy, in a telephone call from jail, that shooting George was the only way for him to get out of the house. Investigators found a hammer on the victim’s porch. The question remaining was whether the defendant was justified in arming himself with a gun. There is sufficient evidence in the record for the jury to conclude that at some point during the incident, George [Pg 4] armed himself with a hammer. There is sufficient evidence in the record to support a jury finding the defendant reasonably believed himself to be in imminent peril of great bodily harm and was, therefore, legally justified in possessing a gun the necessary amount of time required to use it in self-defense. Blache, 480 So.2d 304.
The question therefore becomes, in order for there to be sufficient evidence to convict him of the charge of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, in violation of 14:95.1, whether he was already in possession of the firearm before it was necessary to possess it for self-defense, or whether he maintained possession of the firearm after the danger had passed.
The record indicates the house was dark since it had no electricity. The state questions how the defendant would have retrieved a gun in someone else’s house and deployed it in the dark, and how he would have known it was loaded, if it was not already in his possession. The state also notes that a firearm was never found and infers that the defendant took it with him when he fled the scene. There is logic to the state’s first point, but it is purely speculative. There is no evidence regarding where the gun was before the defendant deployed it. There is no evidence as to who owned the gun. Neither of the witnesses saw the defendant with a gun. Savoy stated she did not bring a gun into the house. Though there is circumstantial evidence of the likelihood that the defendant probably had the gun on him, there is no direct evidence in the record to support a finding that the defendant possessed a firearm before the shooting. The circumstantial evidence is insufficient to support a conviction.
The remaining question is whether the defendant continued to possess the weapon after the threat of imminent harm had passed. Clearly, there was a weapon in the defendant’s hand at the time of the shooting. The defendant admitted to shooting the victim. Law enforcement found no weapon in the [Pg 5] residence afterward. The defendant fled immediately after shooting George. Savoy had already left the scene and Francis was outside. Further, there is no evidence that Francis removed the weapon or would want to do so. The evidence suggested that George walked out onto the porch carrying a hammer, and there is no indication he was carrying a firearm. No other people were present. Therefore, the circumstantial evidence sufficiently establishes the defendant took the gun with him when he ran from the house. The jury could have reasonably concluded, based on the evidence, that the defendant continued to possess the firearm after such possession was necessary and justified.
In reviewing the evidence under the Jackson standard, we find there is sufficient evidence to uphold the defendant’s conviction of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in violation of La.R.S. 14:95.1.
The defendant’s conviction is affirmed.