Gheorghiu v. Com.

Decision Date25 August 2009
Docket NumberNo. 0801-07-4.,04 July 0801
Citation682 S.E.2d 50,54 Va. App. 645
PartiesMihai GHEORGHIU v. COMMONWEALTH of Virginia.
CourtVirginia Court of Appeals

Jonathan Shapiro; J. Frederick Sinclair, Alexandria, for appellant.

Susan M. Harris, Assistant Attorney General (Robert F. McDonnell, Attorney General, on brief), for appellee.

Present: HUMPHREYS, HALEY and BEALES, JJ.

BEALES, Judge.

An Arlington County jury convicted Mihai Gheorghiu (appellant) of thirty-six counts of credit card theft, in violation of Code § 18.2-192 (case numbers CR05-1231 through CR05-1240, CR06-453 through CR06-469, and CR06-752 through CR06-760); eight counts of credit card forgery, in violation of Code § 18.2-193 (case numbers CR06-441 through CR06-448); five counts of identity theft, in violation of Code § 18.2-186.3 (case numbers CR05-1241 through CR05-1243, CR05-1247, and CR05-1248); three counts of credit card fraud, in violation of Code § 18.2-195 (case numbers CR06-449, CR06-451, and CR06-452); and one count of possession of burglarious tools, in violation of Code § 18.2-94 (case number CR06-440). Appellant challenges these convictions on several grounds addressed below. For the following reasons, we affirm in part and reverse in part.1

I. BACKGROUND

"On appeal, `we review the evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, granting to it all reasonable inferences fairly deducible therefrom.'" Archer v. Commonwealth, 26 Va.App. 1, 11, 492 S.E.2d 826, 831 (1997) (quoting Martin v. Commonwealth, 4 Va.App. 438, 443, 358 S.E.2d 415, 418 (1987)); see Riner v. Commonwealth, 268 Va. 296, 330, 601 S.E.2d 555, 574 (2004) (viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, "as we must since it was the prevailing party in the trial court").

So viewed, the evidence proved that appellant and his cousin traveled in a Chevrolet Trailblazer from New York City to the Northern Virginia area on September 20, 2005. Using his own credit card, appellant paid for a meal in Arlington County and for a hotel room in the City of Alexandria on the night of September 20. Appellant and his cousin checked out of the hotel before noon on the morning of September 21, 2005.

At approximately 8:00 a.m. on September 21, appellant accessed a program file on his laptop computer, interfacing the computer with a "remagger," a device that enables a person to read and write data to the magnetic strip on the back of a plastic card. It is unknown where appellant was when he accessed this program file. Throughout the day, appellant attempted to use stolen credit card numbers to purchase goods and services in Alexandria, Arlington, and Fairfax County, and some of these attempts were successful.

After 4:00 p.m. on September 21, appellant was stopped for speeding in Arlington County. The police officer discovered that appellant had an outstanding warrant in New Jersey and took appellant into custody. Appellant's cousin was permitted to leave on foot. A search of the Trailblazer yielded appellant's laptop, a thumb drive, and five compact discs, all of which contained stolen credit card information. In total, appellant possessed approximately 100 stolen credit card names and numbers. In addition, twelve credit cards were found in the vehicle, eleven with appellant's name on them, but only three cards had numbers encoded on the magnetic strip that matched the engraved number on the front of the credit card.

During appellant's pre-trial detention, the authorities recorded several phone conversations, mostly in Romanian, apparently discussing credit card fraud and credit card theft. Concerned about ongoing criminal activity, the authorities searched appellant's jail cell and retrieved "foreign language stuff" and credit card sheets. The authorities attempted to avoid disturbing papers with the letterhead of appellant's attorneys, but appellant claimed that the seized materials written in Romanian related to an ongoing federal investigation. Appellant claimed that he sought to negotiate a "global settlement" through his assistance with that investigation. Appellant acknowledged that this information was "not specific to the charges in Arlington County." After a hearing, the trial court rejected appellant's claims of Fourth and Sixth Amendment violations with respect to the warrantless jail cell search and seizure.

At trial, appellant argued that venue was improper on a number of charges, that the possession of burglarious tools charge should have been stricken, and that the Commonwealth presented insufficient proof that appellant, rather than his cousin, was the perpetrator of the offenses.2 The trial court rejected these arguments, and the jury convicted appellant of the aforementioned offenses.

II. ANALYSIS
A. VENUE
1. IDENTITY THEFT (CASE NUMBER CR05-1243)

Appellant argues that venue was improper in Arlington County for the prosecution of an indictment for identity theft listing Iris Keltz as the victim. Appellant attempted to make a purchase using Ms. Keltz's credit card number at a store in Alexandria. He contends that Meeks v. Commonwealth, 274 Va. 798, 651 S.E.2d 637 (2007), controls here and precludes prosecution in the Arlington County courts. We find venue was proper in this case.

"When venue is challenged on appeal, we determine `whether the evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, is sufficient to support the [trial court's] venue findings.'" Morris v. Commonwealth, 51 Va.App. 459, 464-65, 658 S.E.2d 708, 710-11 (2008) (quoting Cheng v. Commonwealth, 240 Va. 26, 36, 393 S.E.2d 599, 604 (1990)). The evidence in relation to venue proved appellant was arrested in Arlington County while he was in possession of Ms. Keltz's credit card number. Ms. Keltz was a resident of the State of New York and had not visited Arlington County. No evidence established that appellant newly accessed this number or newly used it in any particular manner while he was in Arlington County, but he continued to possess not only the stolen number while in Arlington but also the remagging device that he utilized to effect these offenses.

"Venue depends on the `nature of the crime alleged and the location of the act or acts constituting it.'" Id. at 464, 658 S.E.2d at 711 (quoting United States v. Anderson, 328 U.S. 699, 703, 66 S.Ct. 1213, 90 L.Ed. 1529 (1946)). For most crimes, venue is proper in the jurisdiction where all the elements of the completed crime were committed. See Green v. Commonwealth, 32 Va.App. 438, 448, 528 S.E.2d 187, 192 (2000) (finding the Commonwealth must generally establish venue with evidence that supports a strong presumption that all elements of the offense occurred within the selected venue). For prosecution of identity theft, however, the General Assembly enacted a special venue statute, which provides that "the crime shall be considered to have been committed in any locality where the person whose identifying information was appropriated resides, or in which any part of the offense took place, regardless of whether the defendant was ever actually in such locality." Code § 18.2-186.3(D) (emphasis added). Therefore, to satisfy Code § 18.2-186.3(D), the Commonwealth here needed to establish a "strong presumption" that any part of the offense took place in Arlington County. See Green, 32 Va.App. at 448, 528 S.E.2d at 192 (noting that, under the general venue statute, the Commonwealth must establish a "strong presumption" that all elements of the offense occurred within the selected venue); see also Meeks, 274 Va. at 803, 651 S.E.2d at 639 (construing Code § 18.2-198.1(i), the credit card theft venue statute, as requiring that the evidence establish a "strong presumption" that an "act in furtherance" of credit card theft occurred within the selected venue).

To consider whether any part of the crime of identity theft occurred in Arlington County, we must look to its elements and the nature of the crime. Appellant was charged in case number CR05-1243 of committing identity theft pursuant to Code § 18.2-186.3, which provides in pertinent part:

It shall be unlawful for any person, without the authorization or permission of the person or persons who are the subjects of the identifying information, with the intent to defraud, for his own use or the use of a third person, to:

1. Obtain, record or access identifying information3 which is not available to the general public that would assist in accessing financial resources, obtaining identification documents, or obtaining benefits of such other person; [or]

2. Obtain goods or services through the use of identifying information of such other person....

Code § 18.2-186.3(A).4 If any part of this offense occurred in Arlington County, then venue was proper there.

Although the Virginia appellate courts have not previously addressed the venue provision in Code § 18.2-186.3, the Supreme Court has addressed a somewhat similar venue provision enacted for credit card theft. In Meeks, the Supreme Court considered Code § 18.2-198.1, which creates a specific exception to the general venue statute for the crime of credit card theft. The Court considered the elements of credit card theft and found such thefts are "completed where the card or number is unlawfully taken from its rightful owner or is received with knowledge that it has been taken and with the intent to use it, sell it, or transfer it." Meeks, 274 Va. at 803, 651 S.E.2d at 640. The Court concluded that venue did not lie in Alexandria, where Meeks retained the credit card after she had stolen it elsewhere, as the act of taking the card (and thus the crime itself) was completed before she arrived in Alexandria. Id. at 803-04, 651 S.E.2d at 640. The Supreme Court overruled its prior opinion in Cheatham v. Commonwealth, 215 Va. 286, 208 S.E.2d 760 (1974), to the extent that Cheatham "wrongly added the element of retention to credit card theft." Meeks, 274 Va. at 803, 651 S.E.2d at 639; see Cheatham, 215 Va. at 290...

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