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State v. Copeland

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Second Circuit

September 25, 2019

STATE OF LOUISIANA Appellee
v.
ARIJORAY LAVON COPELAND Appellant

          Appealed from the Fourth Judicial District Court for the Parish of Ouachita, Louisiana Trial Court No. 16F2498. Honorable Clarence Wendell Manning, Judge

          LOUISIANA APPELLATE PROJECT By: Meghan Harwell Bitoun Counsel for Appellant

          ARIJORAY LAVON COPELAND Pro Se

          ROBERT STEPHEN TEW District Attorney Counsel for Appellee

          HOLLY A. CHAMBERS-JONES MICHELLE ANDERSON THOMPSON Assistant District Attorneys

          Before GARRETT, STONE, and COX, JJ.

          STONE, J.

         This criminal appeal arises from the Fourth Judicial District Court, Ouachita Parish, the Honorable C. Wendell Manning presiding. The defendant, Arijoray Lavon Copeland ("Copeland"), was charged with armed robbery and illegal possession of a stolen firearm. Following a jury trial, Copeland was found guilty and sentenced to 40 years at hard labor, without benefits, for armed robbery, and 5 years at hard labor, without benefits, for illegal possession of a stolen firearm, to be served concurrently. On February 8, 2018, Copeland filed a motion to reconsider sentence, which the trial court denied on the same day. Copeland now appeals his convictions and sentences. For the following reasons, Copeland's convictions and sentences are affirmed.

         FACTS

         Copeland was charged by bill of information on November 15, 2016, with one count of armed robbery and one count of illegal possession of a stolen firearm. On January 5, 2017, Copeland waived formal arraignment and entered a not guilty plea. Jury selection began on October 23, 2017, and concluded on October 24, 2017. After the conclusion of jury selection, the trial began with opening statements. The state then presented its case-in-chief, and called West Monroe Police ("WMP") Detective Paul Blunschi ("Detective Blunschi") as its first witness.

         Detective Blunschi testified that he was the on-call detective on September 15, 2016. Detective Blunschi received a call regarding an armed robbery at Motel 6 in West Monroe shortly after 5:00 that morning. Detective Blunschi arrived on the scene, spoke with the victim, Kushana Walton ("Ms. Walton"), and watched a copy of the video surveillance that captured the robbery. Detective Blunschi testified that he made a copy of the video, which was later identified and played in court.

         The state called Ms. Walton as its next witness. Ms. Walton testified that on September 15, 2016, she was working at Motel 6 at 401 Constitution Drive, in West Monroe, Louisiana. She arrived at work a little after midnight and at approximately 5:00 a.m., as she was sitting at the front counter, she saw someone enter the motel from the left of the front door, holding a gun. The man rushed in, jumped over the counter, while pointing the gun at her, and demanded she open the cash drawer.

         Ms. Walton testified that she pushed her chair away from the front counter, falling to the floor. She described the perpetrator as a black male dressed in all black with a youthful build, a couple of inches taller than her 5'5" frame. Ms. Walton testified that the robber had on black pants, a black hoodie pulled over his head, a black mask/hat on underneath the hoodie with some type of black and white skull pattern, and black and white striped gloves. Ms. Walton stated that the gun was grey and black, and identified the gun used during the robbery as Exhibit S-5. The robber initially placed the gun at Ms. Walton's side, but after she fell to the floor, it was then placed to her head. The robber removed the cash drawer containing $357 and exited the motel.

         During trial, Ms. Walton also identified photos of the cash drawer removed during the robbery. Trial continued on October 25, 2017 however, prior to the jury being brought back inside the courtroom, and at the request of defense counsel, the state's previous plea offers to Copeland were placed on the record, which Copeland thereby confirmed that he was rejecting. Counsel for Copeland also put on the record that Copeland had just recently provided exculpatory information to him that he (Copeland) was not the only suspect for this armed robbery. However, Copeland refused to provide his counsel with additional information, such as who the other suspect(s) were.[1]

         The jury was brought into the courtroom and the state continued with its case-in-chief and called its next witness, David Drumwright ("Mr. Drumwright"). Mr. Drumwright testified that on September 15, 2016, he was in Monroe, Louisiana, for work and stayed at the Quality Inn, in West Monroe near I-20 and Downing Pines Industrial Park. Mr. Drumwright testified that on the morning of September 15, 2016, he got up shortly after 5:00 a.m. to go running. He then left the Quality Inn, began running behind the LaQuinta Inn & Suites on a gravel path, heading west toward Restoration Park. To illustrate the area where he was running, the state introduced and offered a Google map of the park.

         Mr. Drumwright testified that during his run he encountered a black male and described him as a couple of inches taller than himself, having an athletic, but not large build, wearing a dark hoodie and dark pants. Mr. Drumwright testified that he is between 5'8½"- 5"9' and that his reference to a couple of inches is between two and three inches. About 30 seconds later, as he continued to run down Constitution Drive, he was stopped by a police officer. Mr. Drumwright explained to the officer that he was running down the designated running trail, but it was not stable, so he was trying to get back to a well-lit area. He further stated that he saw someone as he was running, but other than that did not see anything unusual. The conversation with the police officer lasted less than a minute, around 45 seconds. Mr. Drumwright then returned to his hotel room, dressed, checked out, and, as he was leaving the hotel, dropped off his business card with officers, who were still at Restoration Park.

         The state called WMP Officer Ryan May ("Officer May") as its next witness. Officer May testified he has been employed with the WMP for about 3 years. Officer May testified that he was on duty on September 15, 2016, and at approximately 5:03 a.m., he was dispatched to Motel 6. Officer May testified that as he was traveling east on Constitution Drive, he saw a white male jogger near Restoration Park. Officer May made contact with the jogger, and after his conversation, which lasted between 30 and 45 seconds, he went to the parking lot of Restoration Park and observed a white Ford Expedition. Officer May stated that there was no one near the vehicle, at least one window was partially down about 2 to 3 inches, and all doors were closed. Officer May inspected the vehicle and observed that it was still warm and that there was a Louisiana ID or driver's license in the cup holder or middle console. Officer May stated he remained with the vehicle until Corporal Yarbrough and Officer Henson arrived and took possession of the vehicle. Officer May stated that he unsuccessfully attempted to get video footage from two other businesses and walked through Restoration Park, but found no evidence connected to the robbery.

         The state then recalled Detective Blunschi, who testified that while he was at Motel 6, he received a call informing him that a white Ford Expedition had been located in Restoration Park. After speaking with Ms. Walton, watching video footage from Motel 6, and taking photos of the interior and exterior, which were later identified by Detective Blunschi, offered and introduced into evidence, and published to the jury, he left Motel 6 and headed to the location of the vehicle. He testified that the vehicle was located approximately 200 to 300 yards from Motel 6 and when he arrived at Restoration Park, he observed officers with a white Ford Expedition. The vehicle had either 1 or 2 windows cracked about 2 inches. Detective Blunschi testified that as he could see into the vehicle, he noticed a driver's license in the front console/cup holder area, but he was unable to read the name. Detective Blunschi testified that he was also able to see into the back seat and photographed a camouflage mask and some black and white gloves which matched what he observed in the Motel 6 surveillance video.

         After he took the photographs, the vehicle was seized and towed to the crime scene bay at the West Monroe Police Department. Detective Blunschi testified that once the vehicle was towed, he made contact with Arijoray Copeland, the person whose driver's license[2] he had previously observed in the vehicle.[3] Detective Blunschi further testified that he received written consent to search the vehicle, Copeland was present during the search, and Copeland did not terminate the search at any time. Once the vehicle was open, Detective Blunschi observed a camouflage mask/hat combination and black and white striped gloves on the back seat which were shown to the jury. Under the backseat, Detective Blunschi testified that a cash tray full of money totaling $337.86 and a semi-automatic pistol were also found.

         Detective Blunschi also confirmed that the semi-automatic pistol found during the vehicle search was the same firearm recovered from the vehicle and was loaded with live ammunition. The serial number was obtained from the grip, which was also photographed and entered into the NCIC database to determine if it was stolen. Detective Blunschi testified that the NCIC report confirmed that the firearm was stolen out of Ouachita Parish and provided the information for Ouachita Parish Sheriff's Office Investigator Lamar Cole ("Detective Cole"), the officer assigned to the stolen firearm investigation. Copeland was arrested and a more thorough inventory search was done the following day, pursuant to a search warrant.

         In the middle of Detective Blunschi's testimony, the jury was excused from the courtroom. The court, with both the state and defense counsel present, discussed other crimes evidence related to the burglary that involved the stolen firearm. Defense counsel stipulated to law enforcement testifying about the burglary investigation at 161 Cowboy Lane, Calhoun, which resulted in Copeland's charge of illegal possession of stolen things (including the firearm used in the instant offense) in another docket number, for purposes of guilty knowledge, identity, and absence of mistake or fact.[4]

         Detective Blunschi resumed testimony by identifying additional photos of the white Ford Expedition after it was towed to the evidence bay to be searched. During that second search, which was pursuant to the search warrant, several additional items were recovered and photographed, which included a cell phone, a camo backpack, and a hoodie which matched the one worn by the robber as seen in the Motel 6 video surveillance. The hoodie, hat/mask, glove recovered from the vehicle; along with swabs from the firearm and magazine, reference swabs of Copeland and MiShon Cage ("Cage"), another suspect, were all sent to the North Louisiana Crime Lab for DNA testing.

         Two cell phones were located in the vehicle, however only one was working. Detective Blunschi testified that he retrieved the phone number of the working cell phone from 911, and used that information to obtain a search warrant to get information on the phone's movement from the service provider. Detective Blunschi testified that the information provided by AT&T indicated that between 1:24 a.m. and 4:24 a.m. the phone traveled from Copeland's home in Calhoun in an eastward direction to Commercial Parkway, where Motel 6 is located.[5]

         The state's next witness was Kari Shiffman Dicken ("Ms. Dicken"), a forensic DNA analyst at the North Louisiana Crime Lab. Ms. Dicken testified that she is responsible for examining evidence, extracting DNA, getting profiles from the items tested, writing reports based on the evidence examined, and then testifying in court as to her report. Ms. Dicken testified that she received the following evidence to examine: A Nike sweatshirt, hat/mask, and gloves, all recovered from the white Ford Expedition, along with swabs from the firearm magazine and reference swabs of Copeland and Cage. Ms. Dicken testified that a "single source DNA profile" match to Copeland was found on the mask and one of the gloves. Ms. Dicken also testified that on the hoodie and other glove, Copeland's DNA profile was present and 98.7% of the rest of the population was excluded as possible donors of the DNA, including Cage.

         The state's final witness was Detective Cole. Detective Cole investigates property crimes and theft, and was involved in the investigation of the burglary at 161 Cowboy Lane, Calhoun. As previously mentioned, he became involved with the armed robbery at Motel 6 when Detective Blunschi contacted him regarding a firearm that was located in the course of the investigation. Detective Cole identified the firearm as a match to the firearm stolen from 161 Cowboy Lane, Calhoun. Detective Cole stated that once Detective Blunschi contacted him, he came to the crime scene bay at the West Monroe Police Department where the vehicle was located and looked at the recovered items to see if there was anything else from the Cowboy Lane burglary in the vehicle.

         Detective Cole testified that he also identified a camo Camelbak brand backpack as a stolen item. Detective Cole stated that he then got a search warrant for Copeland's residence and found additional items that were stolen from 161 Cowboy Lane, Calhoun. Several hundred Pokémon playing cards, a camo duffel bag with the name "Nick" on it, and a cardboard box with several .22 rounds that matched the previously recovered firearm were located at his residence. Detective Cole stated that once they were provided Copeland's name, he was able to search a database to determine if Copeland had pawned any items stolen from 161 Cowboy Lane, Calhoun. A Nintendo DS system and a Pokémon game had been sold to GameStop in West Monroe.

         Following Detective Cole's testimony, the state rested and the jurors were excused until the next day. The following day, on October 26, 2017, the trial court reconvened outside the presence of the jury, with all parties present to discuss the jury instructions. The parties agreed upon the instructions to be presented to the jury.[6] When the jury was brought back into court, the state rested and the defense rested, indicating that no witnesses would be called and that Copeland did not intend to testify. The evidence, with the exception of the firearm, was published for the jury to review and inspect, while in the courtroom.

         After the jury looked at the evidence, court resumed and closing statements were given by the state and defense, with the state giving a rebuttal to the defense's closing. The court then read the agreed upon jury instructions to the jury and the jurors were excused to deliberate. The jury reached a verdict, finding Copeland guilty as charged of armed robbery and illegal possession of a stolen firearm. Copeland's matter was set for sentencing and a presentence investigation report was ordered by the trial court.

         On February 7, 2018, Copeland was sentenced to 40 years at hard labor without benefits for armed robbery and 5 years at hard labor without benefits for illegal possession of a stolen firearm, with both sentences to run concurrently. Following sentencing, counsel for Copeland gave oral notice of his intent to file a motion to reconsider sentence and motion for appeal. On February 8, 2018, counsel for Copeland filed a motion to reconsider sentence, which was denied the same day. In addition, on February 8, 2018, counsel for Copeland filed a motion for appeal which was granted, and this appeal ensued.

         DISCUSSION

         Evidence Insufficient to Convict Defendant of Armed Robbery

         On appeal, Copeland argues ineffective assistance of counsel and sufficiency of evidence as it relates to both of his convictions and improper jury instruction. Because defendant's second and third assignments of error challenge his convictions rather than his sentences, they will be addressed first.

         Copeland argues that in the instant case, no jury could have found beyond a reasonable doubt he committed armed robbery. He maintains that there is no evidence that he was at or near Motel 6 on September 15, 2016. Argument by Copeland states that two people encountered the armed robber: Ms. Walton and Mr. Drumwright, neither of whom was able to identify him as the robber. Ms. Walton described the robber as 5'6" tall, whereas Mr. Drumwright described the person he encountered as 6' tall. Copeland is 5'9" and argues the he does not fit either description.

         Copeland further argues that the white Ford Expedition that was found near Motel 6 which had his driver's license and clothing inside, the clothing had appeared to match the clothing seen on the Motel 6 video surveillance, had both Copeland and Cage's DNA on them. Copeland argues that the evidence presented to the jury was insufficient to show beyond a reasonable doubt that he committed the armed robbery. Copeland cites State v. Williams, 423 So.2d 1048 (La. 1982), which held that circumstantial evidence in a Louisiana criminal conviction is held to a higher standard. La. R.S. 15:438 provides, "The rule as to circumstantial evidence is: assuming every fact to be proved that the evidence tends to prove, in order to convict, it must exclude every reasonable hypothesis of innocence."

         Copeland argues that the state's evidence does not exclude every reasonable hypothesis of innocence. Copeland alleges there were multiple persons associated with the white Ford Expedition that contained the stolen items. He further alleges that the state attempted to exclude other possible perpetrators, by sending the DNA of Cage to be tested against the evidence. Copeland interprets the DNA evidence to say that Cage could not be excluded as a contributor of DNA on some of the clothing and further argues that the state failed to put forth evidence of Cage's age or height, to exclude him as a suspect.

         The state responds that Copeland's argument is without merit because the witness testimony and evidence presented created a sufficient basis for a reasonable jury to find him guilty. Ms. Walton testified that the robber came from a westerly direction (the left) before entering the motel lobby at approximately 5:00 a.m. Ms. Walton testified that the robber was wearing all black, black and white gloves, a black mask with a pattern on it that covered his face with a hoodie over his head. Ms. Walton testified the robber pointed a gun at her during the robbery and exited the motel headed in a westerly (to the left) direction. Additionally, the state argues that based on the physical appearance and voice of the robber, Ms. Walton testified the robber was a young African-American male with a young body frame that was a bit taller than her 5'4" or 5'5" height.

         The state contends that Ms. Walton made this assessment regarding the robber's height, although she did not have an opportunity to stand next to him as she was on the ground during most of the robbery. The state highlights that there was no testimony regarding Copeland's height presented during trial. The state argues that the jury watched the video of the armed robbery numerous times and was able to compare the build, stature, and height of the robber to that of Copeland, who was present in the courtroom throughout the proceedings standing, sitting, and moving.

         The state further argues that Restoration Park is approximately 200 to 300 yards west of Motel 6 and at approximately 5:10 or 5:15 a.m., Mr. Drumwright encountered a young man as he was running through the parking lot. Mr. Drumwright described the young man as a young black male not large, athletic build, and not tall, wearing black pants and a black hoodie, standing outside an open door of a white Ford Expedition.

         Mr. Drumwright testified that although it was dark, the parking lot was well lit. Within 30 seconds of seeing the young male, Mr. Drumwright encountered Officer Ryan May, who went directly to the white Ford Expedition.

         Officer May testified that the hood of the vehicle was still warm and that he saw through the windows a hat/mask, gloves on the back seat, and an identification card in the front console cup holder. Once the vehicle was searched, a hoodie, which matched that worn by the robber, and cell phone were also recovered. The hoodie, hat/mask, and gloves were sent for DNA analysis. Ms. Dicken testified that a "single source DNA profile" match was found on the mask and one of the gloves. Ms. Dicken also testified that on the hoodie and other glove, Copeland's DNA profile was present and 98.7% of the rest of the population was excluded as possible donors of the DNA, including Cage.

         Additionally, the state argues that the cell phone data from the working cell phone found in the white Ford Expedition places Copeland traveling shortly before the robbery at approximately 4:26 a.m. in a vehicle from his home in Calhoun to Restoration Park. The state argues that the witness description, the clothing, the DNA results, and the data from the cell phone was sufficient evidence of Copeland's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

         When issues are raised on appeal both as to the sufficiency of the evidence and as to one or more trial errors, the reviewing court should first determine the sufficiency of the evidence. State v. Robinson, 51, 830 (La.App. 2 Cir. 2/28/18), 246 So.3d 725, writ denied, 18-0573 (La. 2/11/19), 263 So.3d 897. The reason for reviewing sufficiency first is that the accused may be entitled to an acquittal under Hudson v. Louisiana, 450 U.S. 40, 101 S.Ct. 970, 67 L.Ed.2d 30 (1981), if a rational trier of fact, viewing the evidence in accord with Jackson v. Virginia, infra, in the light most favorable to the prosecution, could not reasonably conclude that all of the elements of the offense have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Hearold, 603 So.2d 731 (La. ...


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