Mejia-Cortez v. United States, 15-CM-1046

Case DateAugust 12, 2021
CourtCourt of Appeals of Columbia District

Manuel Mejia-Cortez, Appellant,

United States, Appellee.

No. 15-CM-1046

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

August 12, 2021

Argued February 21, 2018.

Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CMD-5129-15) (Hon. A. Franklin Burgess, Trial Judge).

Aaron Marr Page for appellant.

Christopher R. Howland, with whom Channing D. Phillips, United States Attorney at the time the brief was filed, and Elizabeth Trosman, Elizabeth H. Danello, Nigel Cooney, and Melissa M. Price, Assistant United States Attorneys, were on the brief, for appellee.

Before THOMPSON and BECKWITH, Associate Judges, and WASHINGTON, Senior Judge.


Beckwith, Associate Judge:

Appellant Manuel Mejia-Cortez was leaving the Georgia Avenue Metro station on his way home from watching a game at a friend's house when a transit police officer arrested him for suspected fare evasion. In an ensuing search of a bag Mr. Mejia-Cortez was carrying, the arresting officer discovered a six pack of beer containing two opened half-full bottles. The government prosecuted Mr. Mejia-Cortez in Superior Court for possessing an open container of alcohol (POCA). After a bench trial, the trial court convicted him of violating the subsection of the POCA statute that prohibits possession of an open container of alcohol in any place "to which the public is invited" and "for which a license to sell alcoholic beverages has not been issued[.]" D.C. Code § 25-1001(a)(4).[1]

This appeal involves Mr. Mejia-Cortez's challenge to the sufficiency of the government's evidence supporting his conviction-specifically, the evidence that the Metro station where Mr. Mejia-Cortez possessed the open beer bottles was not a place for which a license to sell alcohol had been issued. The government may have been able to prove this element. But where the government presented no proof of this element at trial, where it did not ask the trial court to take judicial notice of the grounds it now offers as sufficient proof, and where the matter is not so free from doubt as to justify such a deviation from constitutional norms, we conclude that the evidence was insufficient to support Mr. Mejia-Cortez's POCA conviction. We therefore reverse that conviction and remand with instructions to enter a judgment of acquittal on that count.


According to the evidence at trial, Metro Transit Police Officer Zachary Gardner approached Manuel Mejia-Cortez in the Georgia Avenue Metro Station after watching Mr. Mejia-Cortez follow another passenger through the turnstile in a way Officer Gardner suspected was "piggy-backing" to avoid paying the fare for his trip. Though Officer Gardner intended to issue Mr. Mejia-Cortez a $50 citation for failure to pay, he decided instead to arrest him for fare evasion after Mr. Mejia-Cortez presented an identification card Officer Gardner believed (albeit erroneously) was fake. In a search incident to that arrest, Officer Gardner looked in a black plastic bag Mr. Mejia-Cortez was carrying and found six beer bottles-two full bottles that were sealed, two empty bottles, and two bottles about half full of beer. Mr. Mejia-Cortez was subsequently charged with POCA under D.C. Code § 25-1001(a)(1), which prohibits possessing an open container of alcohol in or upon a "street, alley, park, sidewalk, or parking area."

Testifying in his own defense through a translator, Mr. Mejia-Cortez stated that when Officer Gardner confronted him, he thought the officer was asking him to add money to his card, as he mistakenly used a card with a negative balance. With respect to the bottles he was carrying, Mr. Mejia-Cortez testified that he had purchased the beer in Maryland on the way to his friend's house in Hyattsville. Contrary to Officer Gardner's account, Mr. Mejia-Cortez said he was carrying four Pilsner beer bottles, not six, in a pack-two sealed full bottles and two empty bottles-and that two of the bottles were open because he "had had those over at [his] friend's house." He did not throw out the two empty beer bottles, he said, because he "just got the bag when [he] was leaving [his] friend's house."

During closing argument, the prosecutor argued that the credible evidence indicated that Mr. Mejia-Cortez was carrying six beer bottles, not four, and that two of them were partially consumed and were thus open containers for purposes of the POCA statute. When, during his rebuttal argument, the prosecutor began reciting the language from the subsection of the POCA statute under which Mr. Mejia-Cortez was charged-the section prohibiting POCA "in or upon . . . a street, alley, park, sidewalk or parking area," D.C. Code § 25-1001(a)(1)-the trial court stated, "[N]ow that you've read it, I was noticing that they don't mention a subway here," and asked, "[W]hat part of the statute do you think this fits?" The prosecutor responded that "at a minimum, it falls under . . . number four"-meaning D.C. Code § 25-1001(a)(4), a different subsection that prohibits POCA in "[a]ny place to which the public is invited and for which a license to sell alcoholic beverages has not been issued under this title."[2] The prosecutor said nothing further about the no-license requirement of subsection 4 and did not specify what evidence established that the incident occurred in a place that had not been issued a liquor license.

The court found Mr. Mejia-Cortez guilty under subsection 4 of the POCA statute, crediting Officer Gardner's testimony that "there were six bottles of beer, two of which were open and half full," and rejecting the argument that the bottles were not "open" because they were in a bag.[3] The court did not specifically mention the no-license requirement in its verdict.


On appeal, Mr. Mejia-Cortez argues that we should reverse his POCA conviction because the government failed to present sufficient evidence-or any evidence-that the offense occurred in a place "for which a license to sell alcoholic beverages has not been issued." D.C. Code § 25-1001(a)(4). When addressing a challenge to the sufficiency of the government's proof of an offense, we consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the government in determining whether any rational trier of fact could have found that the essential elements of the crime were proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 316-20 (1979); Rivas v. United States, 783 A.2d 125, 134 (D.C. 2001) (en banc).

Mr. Mejia-Cortez's claim differs from the typical challenge to evidentiary sufficiency in that the government here acknowledges that it presented no evidence on the question whether the Washington Metro and Transit Authority (WMATA), the entity that operates the District's Metro system, had been issued a license to sell alcoholic beverages at the time of Mr. Mejia-Cortez's arrest. The government contends instead that we should conclude the evidence was sufficient to convict Mr. Mejia-Cortez because, in its view, "there is no question that a license to sell alcohol had not been issued for the Georgia Avenue Metro station."[4]

The constitutional right to due process generally requires actual proof beyond a reasonable doubt of each element of an offense-not assurance that "there is no question" a critical fact exists-before a defendant can be convicted of committing that offense. In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 364 (1970). Such proof of a crime's essential elements is required even where the fact in question may seem incontrovertible. See, e.g., Turner v. United States, 684 A.2d 313, 315 (D.C. 1996) (holding that, in order to convict the defendant of possessing an unregistered firearm, the government had to present proof that the machine gun the defendant possessed was not registered even though D.C. law prohibited the registration of machine guns).[5] Recognizing this, the government does not, at bottom, suggest that it could satisfy its burden by pointing to the obviousness of a particular fact in lieu of presenting proof. Instead, it asks this court to "take judicial notice that all drinking is prohibited on the Metro, which leads to the self-evident inference that the Metro station had not been issued a license to sell alcohol."

"A judicially noticed fact must be one not subject to reasonable dispute in that it is either (1) generally known within the territorial jurisdiction of the trial court or (2) capable of accurate and ready determination by resort to sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned." Christopher v. Aguigui, 841 A.2d 310, 311 n.2 (D.C. 2003) (quoting Fed. R. Evid 201(b)); see also Poulnot v. District of Columbia, 608 A.2d 134, 141-42 (D.C. 1992). Thus, a court may take judicial notice of its own records, Daniels v. United States, 33 A.3d 324, 330 (D.C. 2011), of the jurisdiction's "laws and statutes," Gaither v. District of Columbia, 333 A.2d 57, 59 (D.C. 1975), and of many other facts one cannot reasonably contest. See, e.g., Shannon v. United States, 206 F.2d 479, 481 (D.C. Cir. 1953) ("Because of the 13-hour differential, we may judicially notice that when it was midnight, January 2, 1946 here, it was 1:00 p.m., January 3, 1946, in the Philippines."); Bruno v. Western Union Financial Servs., Inc., 973 A.2d 713, 715 n.3 (D.C. 2009) (taking judicial notice of driving distances); W.M. v. D.S.C., 591 A.2d 837, 840 (D.C. 1991) (holding that the trial court did not err in taking judicial notice "that the period of conception is about 280 days, or nine months").

As a threshold matter, separate and apart from whether a no-license finding is the sort of fact that can be judicially noticed, the government faces a potential setback in that the trial court itself never took judicial notice of the fact the government now asks this court to notice. Although our cases make clear that judicial notice can be taken on appeal, see Christopher, 841 A.2d at 311 n.2, this court has expressed skepticism about taking judicial...

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