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State v. James

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit

April 5, 2017

STATE OF LOUISIANA
v.
CHRISTOPHER O. JAMES

         APPEAL FROM THE THIRTY-THIRD JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT PARISH OF ALLEN, NO. CR-2015-2085 HONORABLE ERROL DAVID DESHOTELS, JR., DISTRICT JUDGE

          Paula Corley Marx Louisiana Appellate Project COUNSEL FOR: Defendant/Appellant - Christopher O. James

          Herbert Todd Nesom District Attorney - 33rd Judicial District Court Steven Sumbler Assistant District Attorney - 33rd Judicial District Court Plaintiff/Appellee - State of Louisiana

          Court composed of Ulysses Gene Thibodeaux, Chief Judge, Marc T. Amy, and Phyllis M. Keaty, Judges.

          ULYSSES GENE THIBODEAUX CHIEF JUDGE

         Christopher James was arrested after he removed a bag from his pocket that contained five rocks of crack cocaine and threw it onto the front driver's seat. He did so as the arresting officer was conducting a pat-down subsequent to a traffic stop. He was charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and obstruction of justice. A jury found him guilty of both charges. The trial judge sentenced him to serve concurrent terms of ten years for the drug charge and five years for obstruction of justice. Mr. James now appeals the convictions. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the conviction and sentence for obstruction of justice, but reverse the possession of cocaine with intent to distribute conviction and enter a judgment of guilty on the lesser charge of possession of cocaine. We remand the matter for resentencing on that conviction.

         I.

         ISSUES

         We must decide:

1. whether there was sufficient evidence to support a guilty verdict of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute;
2. whether there is sufficient evidence to support a guilty verdict of obstruction of justice;
3. whether the trial court deprived Mr. James of his right to present a defense when it denied his motion for a continuance to conduct additional discovery;
4. whether the trial court erred in denying Mr. James's motion for a mistrial;
5. whether prospective jurors were struck because of their race (Black), in violation of Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), resulting in an all-white jury; and
6. whether the obstruction of justice verdict form was defective.

         II.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Mr. James was pulled over for driving without a valid driver's license. Before the traffic stop, Officer Brandon Johnson was alerted via a narcotics tip that Mr. James was selling crack cocaine. Officer Johnson attested that he previously cited Mr. James for operating a motor vehicle without a valid driver's license. Officer Johnson confirmed through the Louisiana traffic database that Mr. James still did not have a valid license and a traffic stop followed. Officer Johnson instructed Mr. James to get out of the car and to place his hands on the top of the car.

         During the subsequent pat-down, Mr. James removed contents from his pocket and threw them through the car's open window. The contents included a small bag containing .77 grams of crack cocaine (five rocks). Mr. James's passenger, Kennon Richard, grabbed the bag and attempted to hide it between the armrest and the passenger's seat. Mr. James and Mr. Richard were both placed under arrest. The bag containing the crack cocaine was in plain view and was confiscated by Officer Johnson. Mr. James was charged by bill of information with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and obstruction of justice.

         On the morning of trial, the trial court heard and denied Mr. James's oral motion to continue the trial. During voir dire, the State exercised peremptory challenges to strike six minority persons from the jury, resulting in Mr. James being tried by an all-white jury. The jury found Mr. James guilty on both charges.

         III.

         ERRORS PATENT

         In accordance with La.Code Crim.P. art. 920, we review all appeals for errors patent on the face of the record. After reviewing the record, we find one error patent.

         We note that Mr. James was advised incorrectly at sentencing that he had two years from that date to file an application for post-conviction relief. However, La.Code Crim.P. art. 930.8 provides that a defendant has two years after the conviction and sentence become final to seek post-conviction relief. Thus, the trial court is directed to correctly inform Mr. James of the provisions of La.Code Crim.P. art. 930.8 by sending appropriate written notice to him within ten days of the rendition of the opinion and to file written proof in the record that he received the notice. State v. Baylor, 08-141 (La.App. 3 Cir. 11/26/08), 998 So.2d 800, writ denied, 09-275 (La. 11/20/09), 25 So.3d 795.

         IV.

         LAW AND DISCUSSION

         A. Whether there was sufficient evidence to support a guilty verdict of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.

         Mr. James first argues that there is insufficient evidence to support a guilty verdict of possession of cocaine with the intent to distribute.[1] He notes that: (1) the cocaine weighed less than a gram; (2) the rocks were all in one bag; and (3) he was arrested with cigarettes, a lighter, and only five dollars, all of which indicate his intention to use but not distribute cocaine. In doing so, Mr. James admits that he possessed cocaine but that there is insufficient evidence to prove his intent to distribute the cocaine.

         The State contends that his intention to distribute is inferred from the circumstances surrounding his arrest. The State posits that: (1) the cigarettes were not hand rolled, which would ordinarily be used to smoke crack cocaine; (2) the cocaine was packaged in a baggie, which indicated an intent to distribute because crack users typically receive their crack unbound; and (3) there was no evidence that Mr. James was a cocaine user.

         The standard of review in a sufficiency of the evidence claim is "whether, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found proof beyond a reasonable doubt of each of the essential elements of the crime charged." State v. Leger, 05-11, p. 91 (La. 7/10/06), 936 So.2d 108, 170, cert. denied, 549 U.S. 1221, 127 S.Ct. 1279 (2007) (citing Jackso ...


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