The Wrong Place, at the Wrong Time–Not Always a Crime

moving truck.jpgNotice the rhyming title? When words rhyme, somehow the rhyme creates an air of truth surrounding the statement. Jesse Jackson is a prime user of such techniques–he rhymes, and people believe what he is saying. Or how about the OJ Team Theme–if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit. It’s tougher than you think to come up with cool pithy defense themes like that. As a criminal defense attorney in Orlando for almost 20 years now, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told “I was just at the wrong place, at the wrong time.” Now, this is true, and it’s not a crime (typically) to be present when others are committing a crime. Mere presence is not enough, as we shall soon see.

So, today’s real life scenario is a classic wrong place/wrong time story. In Singleton v. State, Mr. Singleton was convicted of burglary of a dwelling and grand theft. Here’s what happen: a house was broken into after the homeowner left around 6:30 p.m. He returned at 8:30 p.m., and discovered that a computer and big screen tv were stolen. Noises were heard, so the homeowner rushed outside, only to notice Singleton chilling in the yard next door, apparently walking his dog. The fact that Singleton was standing around next door was odd, because the home appeared to be otherwise vacant with a foreclosure sticker on the front door. At this same property, a rental truck was parked outside, with Singleton being the only person in site. Again, this kind of makes sense, right? Foreclosure sticker, family moving out with a moving truck–what’s the problem here? Why all the fuss?

The police officer approaches the somehow suspicious rental moving truck, noting that the rear of the truck was shut but not locked. Additionally, some leaves sticking out of the truck matched the leaves found in the burglarized yard–but not the foreclosed home’s yard. Hum. Really? A plant in Florida that is somehow only exclusive to the burglarized yard? Hum. Anyway, the officer opened up the cargo door, revealing the stolen goods from next door.

First of all, how illegal was this search? Answer: Mega-illegal. Call Ripley’s Believe it or Not, because this “plant exclusive to the burglarized home” excuse for the warrantless entry into this rental van is way out there. And yet, it is not at all surprising that the judge bought the cop’s story. So, Singleton is the only one in the area, and thus he’s arrested for burglary of a dwelling and grand theft. The investigation revealed that Singleton did not rent the truck (nor have possession of it’s keys), and that a cigar inside the truck contained Singleton’s DNA. Wow. DNA on a cigar inside a truck. Your taxpayer dollars hard at work. Sorry kids, we can’t afford new textbooks again this year–but don’t worry, the kids in foreign countries with much lower incarceration rates will gladly take your cubical spot in the global marketplace. Oh well. At least we have the highest incarceration rate on planet Earth.

Singleton was convicted of burglary and grand theft, but the appeals court granted his appeal, throwing out both of his convictions. Why, you may ask? Because neither the judge nor jury followed the law in this case. Basically, the appeals court stated that this case should have been thrown out before a jury ever reached its decision. There was simply not enough evidence to give this case to a jury. Singleton never possessed the stolen property. Not actually. Not constructively. At most, the government presented evidence that Singleton was smoking a cigar in a truck that contained stolen goods. But even then, Singleton wasn’t even found in the truck, only near it. And, even if Singleton was shown to have “possessed” these recently stolen goods, that’s not enough to convict.

And, just in case the prosecutor and judge in this case thought they were doing their job, the appellate court made it clear that this was a waste of time: “We conclude that the State’s proof was woefully lacking.” Wow. If the appellate court simply stated that the State’s case was “lacking”–that would be understandable, letting the judge and State save a little face. But “woefully lacking”? In non-legal terms, that’s a knockout in the first ten seconds of the first round. That’s the Florida Gators vs. Some Homecoming Team. That’s the appeals court asking two basic questions: 1) what was this judge thinking, letting this case go to the jury? And, 2) what the prosecutor thinking, wasting the taxpayer’s time and money taking this case to trial? I can’t answer that, but we can always tell the kids that their school money is being well spent in the criminal justice system.