Not guilty: Aggravated Criminal Trespass, Assault, Threatening

No Trespassing signs can lead to aggravated criminal trespass charges

Dru Bloomfield via flickr

This is one of the strangest cases I’ve ever tried. My client faced charges of felony aggravated criminal trespass, assault and  criminal threatening. The charges stemmed from a dispute with a neighbor and while the facts were odd, the victim seemed credible. My client maintained that he was not guilty and insisted on a trial. He was much more confident than me. In the end, the jury found him not guilty on all counts.

Strange Story Leads to Felony Charges

My client lived in a Portland, Maine apartment building and had a low level dispute with his across the hall neighborhood for some time. One day, the neighbor contacted building security and the police to allege that my client forced his way into his home, held him against his will, threatened to kill him and punched him repeatedly. The neighbor also said that he let my client borrow his cell phone and was forced to accompany him across the hall into my clients apartment. There he was further detained and offered a meal while my client made phone calls before releasing him.

My client was charged with aggravated criminal trespass, assault, and criminal threatening. The trespass charge was the the most serious. Maine law defines the crime as follows:

Aggravated Criminal Trespass Definition title 17-A §402-A.

A person is guilty of aggravated criminal trespass if:

  1. knowing that they are not permitted to do so, the person enters a dwelling place and,
  2. While inside that place commits a crime listed in chapter 9 (including assault or threatening) or chapter 11 (sexual assault and related crimes)

This crime is a Class C Felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison.

The Evidence at Trial

To be completely honest I was not confident as the trial started. The victim was a very presentable and articulate medical student who, in my estimation, seemed credible and genuinely terrified by what happened. My client was a strange guy, he was emotional, animated, had a temper, and a history of feuding with other tenants. Still he had no obvious motivation for these acts, he said he was not guilty and I supported him in his decision to try the case. To add an extra element of excitement, my client insisted on asking his own questions directly to the witnesses and the judge allowed this.

The key witness was the across the hall neighbor. He testified about my client forcing his way into the home, holding him captive, assaulting, and threatening him. Though he testified that he did not allow my client in, he also sent an email to a friend shortly after the incident. There he explained that he had invited my client in and the incident arose after that. Under cross examination, the neighbor was forced to acknowledge he sent the email and read a portion to the jury. As noted above, aggravated criminal mischief requires that the defendant enter without permission and this email undercut the evidence of that crime.

The neighbor’s testimony was not verified by any other evidence. The victim claimed that several other residents witnessed portions of the event but none of them were called to trial. A surveillance camera should have captured the scene from the hallway between the two apartments but that video wasn’t presented. The victim claimed that he first reported the incident to the security desk but the guard on duty was not called as a witness. He claimed he was scared to return home and stayed with a friend for the rest of that evening, that witness never testified.

Other facts simply did not make sense. Though the victim claimed he was held against his will, he had access to his cell phone for most of the time and never called for help. He said that when he was in fear for his life he did not use the phone or try to run, he instead checked Facebook to see if any of his friends were online so he could chat a “help” message to them. By the timeline the victim explained, he would have had a significant opportunity to simply walk out of the apartment and down the hall.

The Case Goes to The Jury

In my closing I argued that the only evidence was the victim’s memory and we knew that was questionable since he told two different versions of the events, one on the witness stand and another in an email to a friend. That discrepancy alone cast doubt on whether my client had committed a felony. I also pointed out that the prosecution had no corroborating evidence, and this only made sense: Since the crime never happened that evidence didn’t exist. I suggested that the victim had disliked my client for a long time and wanted him out of the building. He was motivated to embellish  distort, or even fabricate to accomplish that goal and. In fact, he was successful and my client was evicted from the building.

The jury deliberated for several hours and sent back some cryptic notes asking the judge to give further instructions on the definitions of the crimes. The prosecutor and I spent quite a bit of time trying to guess what they were thinking based on the notes. We never did reconstruct their exact thought process, but at the close of deliberations the jury returned returned a verdict of not guilty on all counts.

For me, this trial was a real lesson. I stated out thinking we were going to lose, but I learned that even cases which seem un-winnable can end with a not guilty verdict. No one can predict what a witness will say on the stand of how evidence and the other sides tactics might play to your advantage. If you never pick a jury you will never know what kind of a shot you had at walking away with an acquittal.

Not guilty: Aggravated Criminal Trespass, Assault, Threatening by
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