Harris v. State

Decision Date28 July 2021
Docket NumberNo. 1515, Sept. Term, 2019,1515, Sept. Term, 2019
CourtCourt of Special Appeals of Maryland
Parties Dawnta HARRIS v. STATE of Maryland

Argued by: Megan E. Coleman (Marcus, Bonsib, LLC, Paul B. DeWolfe, Public Defender, on the brief), Greenbelt, MD, for Appellant.

Argued by: Andrew J. Dimiceli (Brian E. Frosh, Atty. Gen., on the brief), Baltimore, MD, for Appellee.

Panel: Graeff, Kehoe, Zic, JJ.

Graeff, J.

On May 1, 2019, Dawnta Harris, appellant, was convicted by a jury in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County of first-degree felony murder, first-degree burglary, and theft less than $25,000. These convictions were based on his actions on May 21, 2018, when he struck and killed a Baltimore County Police officer with a stolen car during the commission of a burglary with three other individuals. Appellant, who was 16 years old at the time of the crime, was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

On appeal, appellant presents the following questions for this Court's review, which we have rephrased slightly, as follows:

1. Has an unintentional, common law felony murder that was perpetrated by the operation of a motor vehicle been preempted by statute, thus precluding the common law offense from serving as a basis for a crime in Maryland?
2. Did the circuit court abuse its discretion and commit a constitutional violation by declining to instruct the jury that, in determining the voluntariness of appellant's statement to the police, it may consider as a factor whether there was denial of a parent at the juvenile's interrogation?
3. Is an automatic life sentence for a juvenile convicted of felony murder, without consideration of the juvenile's youth and attendant circumstances and penological justifications, unconstitutional under the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment?
4. Is the felony murder rule, as applied to juveniles, constitutional under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments’ Due Process Clauses and Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights?

For the reasons set forth below, we shall affirm the judgments of the circuit court.

I.Factual History

On May 18, 2018, Kirk Thomas arrived at his home on Linwood Avenue in Baltimore City to discover that it had been burglarized, and the spare key to his 2016 Jeep Wrangler was missing. He called the police, but just before they responded, another officer arrived at his door to investigate a hit-and-run involving that vehicle. He reported the vehicle as stolen, but he had no personal knowledge of who took it.

Three days later, on May 21, 2018, appellant, Darrell Ward, Derrick Matthews, and Eugene Genius skipped school and drove Mr. Thomas’ black Jeep Wrangler from Baltimore City to the Parkville area in Baltimore County.1 Several burglaries connected to a black Jeep occurred that afternoon.

The first, at approximately 12:30 p.m., occurred on Ardmore Avenue. Home surveillance video captured Mr. Genius stealing a package from a porch.2 A neighbor observed a black Jeep at the residence and saw a person take the package. Although the windows of the Jeep were "heavily tinted," the neighbor could distinguish the silhouettes of four people in the Jeep as it drove by his home.

An hour later, at approximately 1:30 p.m., a black Jeep was observed outside a residence on Northwind Road. The homeowner was not present at the time, but she called the police after she returned home at approximately 4:00 p.m. and found her home "ransacked." She reported several stolen items, including an "old gaming system," a candlestick holder, jewelry, coins, a bottle of wine, and some snacks.3

At approximately 1:50 p.m., Kristin Roller observed a black Jeep Wrangler parked on Linwen Way, and she saw a male individual that she did not recognize looking into one of the houses on the street. She took a picture of the Jeep with her cell phone and texted it to the homeowners, who were not home at the time, to ask if they were expecting any visitors. They immediately called her back, and she called 911 when she observed two additional individuals exit the rear of the Jeep.4

The three individuals proceeded to walk around the sides of the house looking into windows, while a fourth individual remained in the Jeep. Ms. Roller described them to the 911 dispatcher as "African American kids." While she was waiting inside for the police to arrive, she could see that they had entered the home. Ms. Roller called 911 again and witnessed the events described below from her window.5

At approximately 2:10 p.m., Officer Amy Caprio of the Baltimore County Police Department responded to Linwen Way. As she approached the Jeep, it drove away, but it soon returned to Linwen Way, which ended in a cul-de-sac. Officer Caprio positioned her squad car so it was partially blocking the exit to the cul-de-sac, and she got out of the car.

The Jeep turned around at the end of the cul-de-sac and drove toward her. As discussed in further detail, infra , Officer Caprio drew her service weapon as the car continued to approach, pointed it at the driver, and instructed him to stop and get out of the car. The Jeep stopped inches in front of her, and she again yelled at the driver to get out. The driver's door opened, and Officer Caprio stepped in front of the Jeep. The door to the Jeep closed slightly, and then the Jeep accelerated, struck Officer Caprio, and drove away. Officer Caprio fired one gunshot, which struck the front windshield of the Jeep.6 Bystanders, including Ms. Roller, rushed to the scene and attempted to administer first aid. Paramedics transported Officer Caprio to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

Christopher Squires was sitting on his patio a short distance from Linwen Way when he observed a Jeep traveling quickly down his quiet street. He saw the Jeep park behind a neighbor's car, and he observed the driver, a thin African American male wearing a black sweatshirt, exit the vehicle and quickly walk away. Although he was unaware of the events that had just taken place on Linwen Way, Mr. Squires notified the police because he could see that the back window of the Jeep was damaged, and he thought it was suspicious that someone would leave their car there without going into a house. He subsequently observed a bullet hole in the windshield on the driver's side.

Officer Michael Deremiek was en route to the scene at Linwen Way when he observed "a teenaged black male casually walking down the sidewalk." After arriving on the scene and hearing a description of the suspect from the neighbors, he suspected that the young man he passed on the street might have been involved. He went to look for the young man and saw him walking towards Belair Road and talking on a cell phone. Officer Deremiek got out of the car and began to approach him. He heard the young man, appellant, saying: "Where are you? Where are you?"

After some brief questioning, Officer Deremiek took appellant into custody. Officer Deremiek seized a "small black grocery bag" of loose change from appellant's person. Police then brought Mr. Squires to appellant's location for a show-up, and Mr. Squires identified appellant as the young man he had seen leave the Jeep on his street.7

The police took appellant to headquarters, and at 3:30 p.m., they placed him in an interview room. The police seized two cell phones, which contained calls and messages from the other young men. One of the phones was registered to Mr. Ward, and appellant stated that he bought it from Mr. Ward because his phone was broken.

At approximately 6:30 p.m., appellant was read his rights and signed the Miranda waiver form. Detective Alvin Barton, a member of the County Homicide Unit, interviewed appellant. He did not attempt to contact appellant's parents prior to the interview. Appellant did ask to make a phone call, but he did not request the presence of a parent or an attorney, and he indicated that he understood each item on the Miranda waiver form as they were read to him.

Appellant told Detective Barton that he was 16 years old, he lived with this mother and sister in Baltimore City, and he was in ninth grade at Francis M. Wood High School. He said that he had spent the previous night at Mr. Ward's house in East Baltimore and went to Baltimore County at approximately 8:30 a.m. that morning to visit his girlfriend. He remained at her house for "an hour or two," and he was walking down the street toward the 7-11 to call his cousin for a ride home when he was picked up by the police.

Appellant initially claimed that he did not know anything about the Jeep. He then stated that, while he was walking, he saw the Jeep parked near where he was stopped by police. It was running, so he briefly got into the car, but he then noticed that the back windshield was broken, and realizing it may have been stolen, he got out of the vehicle.

Appellant then changed his story. He told Detective Barton that he was with Mr. Ward and a mutual friend named Ke'andre at Mr. Ward's house that morning. Mr. Ward left and came back with the Jeep and called for them to get in. Appellant declined and instead took the city bus with Ke'andre to Patterson High School.

After Ke'andre went into the school, appellant took the bus to a gas station on Orleans Street, where he was approached again by Mr. Ward, who was in the Jeep with his friend, Mr. Genius. Mr. Ward again asked appellant if he wanted to get into the car. Appellant stated that he was skeptical at first, but Mr. Ward said that "his people's had gave it to him," so appellant did not question it further and got in the car. When they stopped at another station for gas, Mr. Ward's friend Derrick Matthews joined them in the Jeep, and the four young men drove north to Baltimore County.8

The young men eventually pulled up to a house. The others got out, but appellant remained in the car. The other individuals were gone for 10 to 15 minutes, and appellant was unsure what they were doing, but he knew...

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