Morgan v. Commonwealth

Citation73 Va.App. 512,863 S.E.2d 19
Decision Date05 October 2021
Docket NumberRecord No. 1139-20-1
Parties William Joseph MORGAN v. COMMONWEALTH of Virginia
CourtCourt of Appeals of Virginia

Adam M. Carroll (Wolcott Rivers Gates, on briefs), Virginia Beach, for appellant.

Sharon M. Carr, Assistant Attorney General (Mark R. Herring, Attorney General, on brief), for appellee.

Present: Judges Huff, AtLee and Athey

OPINION BY JUDGE GLEN A. HUFF

William Joseph Morgan ("appellant") was convicted in the Virginia Beach Circuit Court (the "trial court") for falsely pretending to be a police officer in violation of Code § 18.2-174. His conviction was based on three primary facts: (1) he drove a police interceptor model Crown Victoria equipped with red, white, and blue emergency lights; (2) he flashed the vehicle's red and white emergency lights and tailgated other motorists, causing one motorist to slow down significantly in response; and (3) after his arrest, the police discovered that his vehicle contained various police paraphernalia and equipment. Further investigation showed that appellant was intoxicated and had a firearm in a zipped backpack on the front passenger seat while operating the vehicle, resulting in an additional conviction for carrying a concealed firearm while intoxicated in violation of Code § 18.2-308.012.

Appellant asks this Court to reverse both convictions, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support either of them. Additionally, with respect to his impersonation conviction, he asserts on relevance grounds that the trial court abused its discretion in admitting evidence of the police paraphernalia discovered in his vehicle after his arrest. Because none of the trial court's judgments were in error, this Court affirms.

I. BACKGROUND

On appeal, "this Court consider[s] the evidence and all reasonable inferences flowing from that evidence in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, the prevailing party at trial." Williams v. Commonwealth, 49 Va. App. 439, 442, 642 S.E.2d 295 (2007) (en banc ) (quoting Jackson v. Commonwealth, 267 Va. 666, 672, 594 S.E.2d 595 (2004) ). Viewed through this lens, the evidence shows the following:

On March 6, 2019, Virginia Beach Detectives Joseph Otranto and Randall Bryant were in an unmarked police vehicle when they saw a white police interceptor model Ford Crown Victoria stopped at the intersection of Virginia Beach Boulevard and First Colonial Road. The detectives had operated Crown Victoria vehicles as police officers, and the Crown Victoria they saw appeared to them to look similar to other unmarked city police vehicles. In addition, the Crown Victoria bore a decal reading, "Police Interceptor," a marking borne by other Crown Victoria police interceptor vehicles in the Virginia Beach Police Department. Given the Crown Victoria's appearance and distinctive markings, the detectives initially thought it was an unmarked police vehicle until they saw its vanity license plate, which read "SPC-COP," indicating that the Crown Victoria did not belong to the Virginia Beach Police Department.

The detectives drove past the Crown Victoria, and at that moment, the Crown Victoria pulled out of its lane and maneuvered around the detectives while exceeding the speed limit. From there, the Crown Victoria abruptly changed lanes, nearly caused an accident, and then began to tailgate another motorist's vehicle. In response to the Crown Victoria's tailgating, the motorist pulled over onto the shoulder of the road. The Crown Victoria then went around the motorist and proceeded toward South First Colonial Road.

As the detectives continued to follow the Crown Victoria, they observed it swerve on the road at excessive rates of speed. When the Crown Victoria approached close to the rear of another vehicle, Otranto saw the Crown Victoria's emergency red taillights flash in an alternating fashion like "strobe lights"1 and also noticed that the vehicle had other lights in the rear window that were not activated. The Crown Victoria then straddled the center line, and, according to Otranto, proceeded as police vehicles do when performing a traffic stop in that "[t]hey get right close to you and turn the lights on." The Crown Victoria drove for about 150 yards with its lights strobing, causing the motorist in front of it to slow down dramatically.

While the detectives were still following the Crown Victoria, Otranto radioed dispatchers for assistance. Virginia Beach Detective C. Gauthier responded to the dispatch alert, arrived at the scene of the pursuit, and conducted a traffic stop of the Crown Victoria. Otranto and Bryant parked behind Gauthier and told him what they had observed. Gauthier then approached the Crown Victoria and identified appellant as the driver. During the stop, appellant informed Gauthier that he had a gun in a backpack that was located next to him on the front passenger seat. Consequently, Gauthier detained appellant, searched the bag, and found a holstered handgun inside.2 Gauthier then noticed that appellant smelled of alcohol and placed him under arrest.

After appellant's arrest, the Crown Victoria was towed to an impound lot where Gauthier performed an inventory search. In the front seat, Gauthier found a toggle switch for a light system that plugged into the vehicle's cigarette lighter. That switch activated two strips of blue LED emergency lights that were affixed to the inside of the front and rear windows.3

Gauthier also found a number of law enforcement items in the Crown Victoria's trunk. Those items included the light bar that had been affixed to the vehicle's back window, side mirror covers with emergency lights that could be wired into the vehicle, a light system designed for mounting on the roof of the vehicle, another LED light bar, a spotlight, a fourteen-inch-long flashlight with the words "Police Security," a dog muzzle, and a dog vest marked "K-9 unit." Gauthier also found a duffle bag in the trunk that contained several firearm holsters, two safety vests, a firearm magazine pouch, gloves bearing the word "police," zip handcuffs, and a pair of sunglasses with a sunglasses case, both bearing the word "police." In the front of the Crown Victoria, Gauthier found a badge marked with a thin blue line and the word "Special Officer," a pamphlet for law enforcement services, a state police inspection form, chevrons, and appellant's concealed weapons permit.

At trial, appellant objected to the admission of the above evidence4 as irrelevant, arguing that there was no evidence he had used any of it while operating the Crown Victoria and that it was not probative of any element of Code § 18.2-174. The Commonwealth responded that the items were probative of appellant's state of mind when he committed the offense and demonstrated that he had been "pretending" to be a law enforcement officer. The trial court overruled appellant's objection, concluding that, unlike a jury, it "would be in a position to give" the appropriate weight to the post-seizure evidence.

Devin Bartnikowski, a "captain" for a private security firm, testified for appellant. He relayed that appellant had been a licensed and certified security officer for the security firm since September 2018 and had completed training courses with the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice, including "a K-9 training course." He further testified that appellant's work uniform included a golden shield badge, a patch marked with the words "Special Officer," and chevrons. Moreover, Bartnikowski claimed that appellant was permitted to install and operate red and white lights on his vehicle while on private property and write summonses for certain offenses.

Appellant moved to strike the evidence for both of his charges at the close of the Commonwealth's case-in-chief and at the close of all the evidence, both of which the trial court denied. After closing argument by counsel, the trial court found that appellant "pretend[ed] to be a law enforcement officer" and possessed "a concealed weapon" while intoxicated. Accordingly, it convicted appellant of both offenses and sentenced him to 545 days of incarceration with 515 days suspended.

This appeal followed.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Appellant's arguments against his convictions challenge the sufficiency of the evidence upon which those convictions are based.5 "When reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence to support a conviction, [this] Court will affirm the judgment unless the judgment is plainly wrong or without evidence to support it." Bolden v. Commonwealth, 275 Va. 144, 148, 654 S.E.2d 584 (2008). On appeal, this Court "does not ‘ask itself whether it believes that the evidence at the trial established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.’ " Wilson v. Commonwealth, 53 Va. App. 599, 605, 673 S.E.2d 923 (2009) (quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 318-19, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 2789, 61 L.Ed.2d 560 (1979) ). Rather, the relevant question is whether "any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." Id. (quoting Jackson, 443 U.S. at 319, 99 S.Ct. at 2789 ).

In assessing whether the evidence was sufficient to find a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt at trial, this Court "review[s] the evidence in the light most favorable to the prevailing party, including any inferences the factfinder may reasonably have drawn from the facts proved.’ "

Camp v. Commonwealth, 68 Va. App. 694, 701, 813 S.E.2d 10 (2018) (quoting Hannon v. Commonwealth, 68 Va. App. 87, 92, 803 S.E.2d 355 (2017) ). This "examination is not limited to the evidence mentioned by a party in trial argument or by the trial court in its ruling.... [A]n appellate court must consider all the evidence admitted at trial that is contained in the record." Perry v. Commonwealth, 280 Va. 572, 580, 701 S.E.2d 431 (2010) (quoting Bolden, 275 Va. at 147, 654 S.E.2d 584 ). Finally, to the extent appellant's sufficiency arguments ask this Court to interpret Virginia's criminal code, they present a question of...

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  • Smith v. Commonwealth
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Virginia
    • May 17, 2022
    ...... evidence." Va. R. Evid. 2:401. "The scope of. relevant evidence in Virginia is quite broad, as '[e]very. fact, however remote or insignificant, that tends to. establish probability or improbability of a fact in issue is. relevant.'" Morgan v. Commonwealth , 73. Va.App. 512, 527 (2021) (alteration in original) (quoting. Commonwealth v. Proffitt , 292 Va. 626, 634 (2016)). . .          If. Smith's expert had been allowed to give a list of factors. that tend to show that a confession is ......
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    • Court of Appeals of Virginia
    • May 17, 2022
    ...... evidence." Va. R. Evid. 2:401. "The scope of. relevant evidence in Virginia is quite broad, as '[e]very. fact, however remote or insignificant, that tends to. establish probability or improbability of a fact in issue is. relevant.'" Morgan v. Commonwealth , 73. Va.App. 512, 527 (2021) (alteration in original) (quoting. Commonwealth v. Proffitt , 292 Va. 626, 634 (2016)). . .          If. Smith's expert had been allowed to give a list of factors. that tend to show that a confession is ......
  • Ingram v. Commonwealth
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    • Court of Appeals of Virginia
    • December 14, 2021
    ...532 (1998)). We apply the same standard in reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence to support a conviction. See Morgan v. Commonwealth, 73 Va.App. 512, __(2021). On February 12, 2020, Rockbridge County Sheriff's Office Deputy Ryan Knick and Sergeant Terry Martin responded to a dispatch al......
  • Hendricks v. Commonwealth
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    • Court of Appeals of Virginia
    • May 31, 2022
    ...... asking that the supplemental report be excluded. . .          "Decisions. as to the admissibility of evidence 'lie within the trial. court's sound discretion and will not be disturbed on. appeal absent an abuse of discretion.'" Morgan. v. Commonwealth, 73 Va.App. 512, 522 (2021) (quoting. Blankenship v. Commonwealth, 69 Va.App. 692, 697. (2019)). A circuit court may abuse its discretion in one of. three principal ways: "(1) by failing to consider a. relevant factor that should have been given ......
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