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Dobbins v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, Second District

July 24, 2019



          Appeal from the Circuit Court for Pinellas County; Chris Helinger, Judge.

          Howard L. Dimmig, II, Public Defender, and Brett S. Chase, Special Assistant Public Defender, Bartow, for Appellant.

          Ashley Moody, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Katie Salemi Ashby, Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, for Appellee.

          VILLANTI, JUDGE.

         Timothy Dobbins appeals his conviction for burglary of a structure causing damage greater than $1000. Because the evidence in this case was entirely circumstantial and because the State failed to rebut, by competent substantial evidence, Dobbins' reasonable hypothesis of innocence, we must reverse.

         The evidence presented at trial showed that the structure at issue was a school that had been vacant for two years. The school's property manager testified he was notified on November 25, 2014, that the school's gate was open. Because it was raining, he waited until the following morning to inspect the school. He then discovered that the school had been ransacked and had suffered extensive damage, including the theft of thousands of dollars' worth of computer equipment and large amounts of copper wiring. The property manager testified that he had not seen any damage when he visited the school five days prior. During the ensuing investigation, the police collected a number of cigarette butts that were found in the school's kitchen.

         A few weeks later, on December 20, 2014, an officer pulled over a white Ford F-150 truck occupied by Dobbins and one Clinton Ingram because its tags were expired. The detective who searched the truck found bolt cutters, audio/video cables, and a compass from the school in the bed of the truck. Numerous cigarette butts were also found in the vehicle. The State introduced evidence that the truck had been previously registered to Dobbins; however, there was also evidence that Ingram frequently drove the truck and would sell tools from it. Neither Dobbins nor Ingram were arrested for the school burglary at the time of the stop, and the State offered no evidence from the stop to indicate that either Dobbins or Ingram knew the property in the bed of the truck had been stolen from the school several weeks previously.

         However, on December 25, 2014, an officer was dispatched to the school after a silent alarm was triggered. The responding officer saw two people running away from the school, one of whom was caught and identified as Ingram. Ingram was subsequently released on bail, failed to appear, and was still at large at the time of Dobbins' trial. A few months later, a forensic expert determined that DNA from one of the cigarette butts found at the school matched Dobbins' DNA; he was subsequently arrested for the burglary of the school.

         After the State rested its case, Dobbins' moved for a judgment of acquittal, arguing that the State's evidence was solely circumstantial and did not contradict his reasonable hypothesis of innocence, i.e., that while the cigarette may have proven his presence at the school at some point in time, it was insufficient to prove that he committed the charged burglary. Furthermore, Dobbins argued that his mere presence near the stolen property did not prove possession. The trial court denied the motion, and the jury convicted Dobbins as charged. Dobbins now appeals his conviction and sentence, contending that the trial court erred by denying his motion for judgment of acquittal.

         The denial of a motion for a judgment of acquittal is subject to de novo review. See State v. Platt, 154 So.3d 1200, 1201 (Fla. 2d DCA 2015) (citing Pagan v. State, 830 So.2d 792, 803 (Fla. 2002)). "[W]here the only proof of guilt is circumstantial, no matter how strongly the evidence may suggest guilt, a conviction cannot be sustained unless the evidence is inconsistent with any reasonable hypothesis of innocence." Knight v. State, 186 So.3d 1005, 1009 (Fla. 2016) (quoting Jaramillo v. State, 417 So.2d 257, 257 (Fla. 1982)). Circumstantial evidence that fails to exclude a defendant's reasonable hypothesis of innocence requires an acquittal "no matter how strongly the evidence may suggest guilt." Singleton v. State, 105 So.3d 542, 544 (Fla. 2d DCA 2012) (quoting State v. Law, 559 So.2d 187, 188 (Fla. 1989)).

         In this appeal, Dobbins relies on this court's opinion in Singleton to support his contention that the State's evidence was legally insufficient to support his conviction. In Singleton, the evidence showed that the day before the burglary at issue, Singleton and his friend were helping someone move. Id. at 543. The person who rented the moving truck had the only key and was due to pick up the truck the next day. The morning after the move, the police received a report that items had been stolen from the house next door. Id. While searching the area, police smelled a tobacco odor emanating from inside the rental truck. When the officer opened the door of the truck, he found the stolen items along with a burning cigar near the rear edge of the truck. Singleton's DNA was later detected on the cigar. Id. The State also presented evidence that Singleton smoked that type of cigar and had been seen in the area earlier that morning walking his dog. Id. at 542-43. The State contended that this evidence was sufficient to support Singleton's convictions for burglary and grand theft, the trial court denied Singleton's motion for judgment of acquittal, and the jury convicted him of these offenses. Id. at 544.

         On appeal, this court held that the "State's proof was woefully lacking." Id. at 545. Quoting Professor Ehrhardt's classic example, this court reiterated the difference between direct and circumstantial evidence:

Direct evidence is evidence which requires only the inference that what the witness said is true to prove a material fact; e.g., "I saw A shoot B" is direct evidence that A shot B. Circumstantial evidence is evidence which involves an additional inference to prove the material fact; e.g., "I saw A flee the scene" is ...

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