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State v. Bell

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Second Circuit

May 17, 2017

STATE OF LOUISIANA Appellee
v.
CHRISTOPHER M. BELL Appellant

         Appealed from the First Judicial District Court for the Parish of Caddo, Louisiana Lower Court Case No. 333, 559, Honorable Ramona L. Emanuel, Judge.

          J. RANSDELL KEENE Counsel for Appellant.

          JAMES E. STEWART, SR., District Attorney, REBECCA ARMAND EDWARDS JOHN AARON CRAWFORD WILLIAM C. GASKINS Assistant District Attorneys, Counsel for Appellee.

          Before BROWN, GARRETT, and COX, JJ.

          GARRETT, J.

         The defendant, Christopher M. Bell, was charged with aggravated burglary and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Following a jury trial, he was convicted of the responsive verdict of attempted aggravated burglary and as charged on the firearm offense. He was adjudicated a second felony offender and sentenced as such on the attempted aggravated burglary charge to 15 years at hard labor without benefit of probation or suspension of sentence. On the firearm offense, he was sentenced to ten years at hard labor without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence. The trial court ordered that the sentences be served concurrently with credit for time served. The defendant appeals. For the reasons stated below, we affirm the defendant's convictions and sentences.

         FACTS

         On the night of July 7, 2015, Benny and Rebecca York were sleeping in recliners in the den of their home on Lowry Road in rural Caddo Parish. Mrs. York was awakened by a sound she assumed was caused by her cat. When she called the cat's name, she heard the sound of a person's voice. Realizing there was an intruder in their home, she immediately woke up her husband. Mr. York saw a large man leaving through the front door. He grabbed a high intensity flashlight and his unloaded shotgun, and placed three shotgun shells in his pocket. Although he and his wife initially went out the back door of the residence together, he sent her back inside to call 911.[1]

         As Mr. York went around the corner of the home, he observed car lights in his neighbor's yard. He then came across a man crouched behind a pine tree in his yard. The man was wearing a hoodie and holding a roll of duct tape. The man told Mr. York to not "mess" with him and to go back in his house. Mr. York responded by instructing the man to put his head in the grass until the sheriff arrived. At trial, Mr. York identified this man as the defendant.

         At this point, a "huge"[2] man came up behind Mr. York and hit him in the back. This man put a gun against Mr. York's neck and demanded his shotgun, while threatening to shoot him in the head. After taking Mr. York's shotgun, the two men fled over a fence toward a dark-colored automobile with an open trunk, which was parked in the neighbor's yard. Mr. York saw his shotgun thrown by one of the men but was unsure of where it landed. Initially, he thought it was in the neighbor's yard.

         Mr. York ran back to the house, where his wife was still talking to the 911 operator. In a state of great excitement, he gave descriptions of the men and their vehicle, which were then dispatched to law enforcement officers. [3]

         Sgt. James Moore of the Caddo Parish Sheriff's Office responded to the call about a burglary in progress with two men and a gun and headed toward the crime scene. At approximately 11:30 p.m., he was about five miles from the York residence, driving west on Blanchard Latex Road, when he was passed by a vehicle matching the broadcast description of the burglars' car and occupied by two men. Based upon his reasonable suspicion that this was the suspect vehicle, Sgt. Moore turned around and initiated a stop. The defendant, who was driving, was ordered out of the vehicle and patted down by Sgt. Moore. Sgt. Moore checked his driver's license; the vehicle registration and insurance proof were retrieved from the car for examination. The car was registered to the defendant and a relative. Sgt. Moore walked the defendant to the front of his patrol car. A reserve deputy who arrived on scene got the passenger, Donte Demunguia, out of the car and patted him down. He kept Demunguia at the back of the defendant's car. Unbeknownst to Sgt. Moore, who was focusing his attention on the defendant, Demunguia gave the deputy permission to open the trunk. As soon as it was opened, the defendant said he did not want his car searched. Sgt. Moore directed the deputy to secure the trunk, which he did.

         In the meantime, Mr. York was brought to the scene of the stop. According to his testimony, only 30 to 45 minutes had passed since the incident at his home. He positively identified first the car and then the two men. Following the identification, the officers determined that they had probable cause to arrest the men, and a decision was made to tow the car to the impound lot. According to Sgt. Moore's testimony, an inventory search of the vehicle was conducted before the car was moved. Two shotguns were found in the trunk, which was cluttered with numerous items, including shoes, boots, clothing and various bottles. The shotguns - Mr. York's unloaded Smith & Wesson shotgun and a loaded Remington Model 870 20-gauge shotgun owned by Demunguia - were removed by Corp. John McCain, a crime scene investigator. Mr. York, who was still at the scene of the stop, identified his stolen shotgun.

         Subsequently, a search warrant was obtained by Detective Purgerson, and a more thorough search of the impounded car was conducted. A plastic bag was found under the spare tire; it contained a 9 mm Ruger pistol, two black gloves, a long-sleeve black shirt, a black hood, and a chisel. Crime lab testing of these items revealed the defendant's DNA on the gloves. While Demunguia was excluded as the source of DNA on any of the items, the defendant could not be excluded as to the hood and the shirt. Law enforcement officers learned that the pistol had been reported stolen in Texas.

         The defendant and Demunguia were charged with aggravated burglary. The defendant, who had a 2012 conviction for attempted armed robbery, was also charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. In January 2016, Demunguia pled guilty to simple burglary and agreed to testify against the defendant.

         The defendant's attorney filed a motion in limine to exclude any reference to the pistol recovered from the defendant's trunk as having been stolen. The motion was argued at a hearing on March 1, 2016; the court deferred ruling until March 7, 2016, when trial was set to commence. At that time, the court granted the motion.

         Defense counsel also filed a motion to suppress and, alternatively, motion for a free and voluntary hearing, and/or a motion in limine as to the defendant's statement to the police. The state agreed it would not use the statement, except for rebuttal purposes, and defense counsel deemed that motion satisfied.

         On the first day of trial, the defendant filed a pro se pleading entitled "Motion of Ineffective Counsel, " in which he claimed that his appointed attorney threatened him "with intimidation" to take a plea deal and failed to file pretrial motions "that were essential to defendant charges, as well as victim/witness(s) testimony." He requested that his attorney be relieved and that the court assign "adequate, " "competent" counsel. The trial court allowed the defendant to argue the matter in open court; it then denied the motion. Additionally, the state declined the defendant's offer to plead guilty to attempted possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and serve four years at hard labor in exchange for the state dropping the other charge and not filing a habitual offender bill.

         After lunch, the defendant refused to return to court or to wear a leg restraint device under his civilian clothing, which would "lock up" if he attempted to run. Despite the urging of the deputies and his own attorney, the defendant insisted that he wanted to stay downstairs in the jail. Court was continued, over the state's objection, until the following morning on the motion of defense counsel.[4] The defendant was present when the trial resumed the next day. He again complained of the trial court's denial of his pro se motion. He now contended that his counsel should have filed a motion to suppress an illegal search of his car. The trial court reiterated its prior denial of the motion.[5] The defendant then expressed interest in a five to six year plea agreement; however, the state rejected that offer.

         In addition to the victims, crime lab personnel and various law enforcement officers, the state presented the testimony of the defendant's accomplice, Demunguia. Although his version of the events differed somewhat from Mr. York's testimony, his testimony placed the defendant at the scene. He testified that the burglary was the idea of the defendant, who was his girlfriend's cousin and a recent acquaintance. He admitted that, while he brought his own shotgun that night, the defendant was the one wearing the ski mask and gloves. According to his testimony, the defendant was about to open the door to the Yorks' residence when Mr. York came around the side of the house with a flashlight and a shotgun. He and the defendant tried to hide behind trees. He testified that Mr. York told him to not move and that the defendant then pushed or tackled Mr. York. He also stated that, after they fled from the Yorks' yard, the defendant put Mr. York's shotgun in the back seat of the car, and that he placed his shotgun there also. However, he testified that, after they drove away, the defendant stopped the car so Demunguia could put the shotguns in the trunk. According to his testimony, they were pulled over by the police five to six minutes after they resumed driving.

         During his testimony about the items recovered from the defendant's car, Corp. McCain inadvertently made a reference to the pistol being reported stolen in Texas. The defendant's motion for mistrial was denied, and the trial court admonished the jury to disregard the remark.

         The defendant was convicted of the responsive verdict of attempted aggravated burglary and as charged on the firearm charge. Defense counsel filed a motion for post-verdict ...


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