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A.L. v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, Second District

July 10, 2019

A.L., Appellant,


          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Hillsborough County; Barbara Twine Thomas, Judge.

          Howard L. Dimmig, II, Public Defender, and Kevin Briggs, Assistant Public Defender, Bartow, for Appellant.

          Ashley Moody, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Linsey Sims-Bohnenstiehl, Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, for Appellee.


         A.L. appeals a disposition order adjudicating him delinquent on four counts of petit theft and one count of criminal mischief. He contends that the trial court erred in denying his motion for judgment of dismissal. We agree and reverse the disposition order.

         The State charged A.L. with five counts of burglary of an unoccupied conveyance, one count of grand theft in the third degree, three counts of petit theft, and one count of criminal mischief. At the adjudicatory hearing, several witnesses testified that on or about June 7, 2017, several items were stolen from their vehicles while the vehicles were parked overnight in the driveway of their homes in Brandon. Another resident of the Brandon neighborhood testified that his vehicle was entered into and that a security box that was underneath the driver's seat of the vehicle had been damaged. Two other residents testified that they each had surveillance footage taken on June 7, 2017, from cameras mounted directly above the driveway of their homes. The videos were introduced into evidence and played at the adjudicatory hearing.

         The first video showed a person wearing a hoodie attempting to open a vehicle's passenger door and then walking away. The second video was recorded from a home located at the end of a cul-de-sac. The video showed that around 2:00 a.m., two individuals walked around a street checking car doors and entering unlocked vehicles. The video also showed that around 4:00 a.m., the two individuals entered a white vehicle parked outside a home and drove away from the neighborhood. None of the witnesses at the adjudicatory hearing positively identified the individuals in the surveillance videos.

         A deputy testified that on June 8, 2017, he and the investigating detective responded to the home where the white vehicle had been parked to obtain information related to the vehicle burglaries. As part of that investigation, the officers came into contact with A.L.'s uncle, who lived in the home. The uncle testified that he gave consent to the officers to search a bedroom that A.L. shared with his brother. It is undisputed that the bedroom was a jointly occupied bedroom. The officers testified that they searched the bedroom and observed that several items in the bedroom were similar to the items that had been reported stolen. The victims, with the exception of one, verified that the items they had reported stolen were the same items the officers found in the jointly occupied bedroom.

         A.L. moved for judgment of dismissal as to all counts at the close of the State's case-in-chief, arguing that the State's case was based wholly on insufficient circumstantial evidence. Defense counsel contended that someone other than A.L. must have placed the recently stolen property in the bedroom A.L. shared with his brother. Defense counsel also specifically argued that the State was not entitled to use of the statutory inference provided by section 812.022(2), Florida Statutes (2017), because A.L. did not have the requisite exclusive possession of the stolen property. The trial court denied the motion. In so denying the motion, the trial court determined that the State was entitled to use of the statutory inference. It explained that A.L. had exclusive possession of the recently stolen property because the video surveillance footage established that two people were acting in concert. At the conclusion of the adjudicatory hearing, the trial court ruled that it could not find A.L. delinquent of the five counts of burglary of an unoccupied conveyance or the count of third-degree grand theft because there was "no objective proof tying the accused to the scene of those five places." The trial court reduced the count of third-degree grand theft to first-degree petit theft. It also adjudicated A.L. delinquent of one count of criminal mischief and the remaining three petit theft counts.

         We review the denial of a motion for judgment of dismissal de novo, and we consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the State. T.A.K. v. State, 258 So.3d 559, 561 (Fla. 2d DCA 2018). "A judgment of dismissal is proper if the State fails to present sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case." Id. (first citing Fla. R. Juv. P. 8.110(k); then citing E.A.B. v. State, 851 So.2d 308, 310 (Fla. 2d DCA 2003)). "Sufficient evidence to support an adjudication exists when a 'rational trier of fact could find that the elements of the crime have been established beyond a reasonable doubt.'" Id. (quoting K.W. v. State, 983 So.2d 713, 715 (Fla. 2d DCA 2008)). "In circumstantial evidence cases, the State must present evidence that is inconsistent with any reasonable hypothesis of innocence." M.F. v. State, 35 So.3d 998, 1000 (Fla. 2d DCA 2010). This special standard of review applies "no matter how strongly the evidence may suggest guilt." Bronson v. State, 926 So.2d 480, 482 (Fla. 2d DCA 2006) (quoting State v. Law, 559 So.2d 187, 188 (Fla. 1989)).

         Here, the State was required to prove the delinquent acts of petit theft and criminal mischief beyond a reasonable doubt. To prove petit theft, a second-degree misdemeanor, the State had to establish that (1) A.L. knowingly obtained or used, (2) the property of another, (3) with intent to either temporarily or permanently (a) deprive the other person of a right to or a benefit from the property, or (b) appropriate the property to his or her own use. See § 812.014(1), (3)(a). To prove criminal mischief, also a second-degree misdemeanor, the State had to establish that A.L. willfully and maliciously injured or damaged any real or personal property belonging to another person. See § 806.13(1)(a), (1)(b)(1), Fla. Stat. (2017). Moreover, given that this was a wholly circumstantial evidence case, a determination that the State does not dispute, the State was also required to present evidence inconsistent with any reasonable hypothesis of innocence. See M.F., 35 So.3d at 1000; Bronson, 926 So.2d at 482.

         To prove that A.L. committed petit theft, the State relied on the statutory inference set forth in section 812.022(2). Section 812.022(2) provides that "proof of possession of property recently stolen, unless satisfactorily explained, gives rise to an inference that the person in possession of the property knew or should have known that the property had been stolen." Indeed, "unexplained possession of stolen property is sufficient to support a burglary conviction when it occurs as an adjunct to a theft." Bronson, 926 So.2d at 483 (citing Francis v. State, 808 So.2d 110, 134 (Fla. 2001)).

         When the State's case is based entirely upon the statutory inference set forth in section 812.022(2), the trial court must direct a judgment of dismissal for the defendant where a reasonable explanation for possession of recently stolen property is totally unrefuted and there is no other evidence of guilt. See Smith v. State, 742 So.2d 352, 355 (Fla. 5th DCA 1999) (citing Coleman v. State, 466 So.2d 395, 397 (Fla. 2d DCA 1985)). The reasonableness of a defendant's explanation for possession of a stolen item is a question of fact for the judge in a ...

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