State v. Stephenson

Citation255 A.3d 865,337 Conn. 643
Decision Date18 December 2020
Docket NumberSC 20272
Parties STATE of Connecticut v. Joseph A. STEPHENSON
CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut

Sarah Hanna, senior assistant state's attorney, with whom, on the brief, were Richard Colangelo, chief state's attorney, Paul J. Ferencek, state's attorney, and Michelle Manning, senior assistant state's attorney, for the appellant (state).

Vishal K. Garg, West Hartford, for the appellee (defendant).

Robinson, C. J., and McDonald, D'Auria, Mullins, Kahn, Ecker and Keller, Js.


The state, on the granting of certification, appeals from the judgment of the Appellate Court, which reversed the judgment of the trial court convicting the defendant, Joseph A. Stephenson, of the crimes of burglary in the third degree, attempt to commit tampering with physical evidence, and attempt to commit arson in the second degree in connection with a break-in at the Superior Court for the judicial district of Stamford-Norwalk, geographical area number twenty, which is located in Norwalk. See State v. Stephenson , 187 Conn. App. 20, 39, 201 A.3d 427 (2019). The state claims, inter alia, that the Appellate Court improperly addressed an issue of evidentiary sufficiency sua sponte without calling for supplemental briefing as required by Blumberg Associates Worldwide, Inc. v. Brown & Brown of Connecticut, Inc. , 311 Conn. 123, 84 A.3d 840 (2014) ( Blumberg ). We agree and, accordingly, reverse the judgment of the Appellate Court.

The following facts and procedural history are relevant to our resolution of the present appeal. A silent alarm at the courthouse was triggered at around 11 p.m. on Sunday, March 3, 2013, when the defendant entered the state's attorney's office by breaking a window on the building's eastern side.1 Although the police were able to respond in about ninety seconds, the defendant successfully evaded capture by running out of a door on the building's southern side. Footage from surveillance cameras introduced by the state at trial show that the defendant was inside of the building for slightly more than three minutes. In the investigation that followed, the police determined that the broken window belonged to an office shared by two assistant state's attorneys. One of those attorneys was scheduled to commence jury selection for a criminal trial against the defendant on certain felony charges only two days after the break-in occurred. No other cases were scheduled to begin jury selection that week. Immediately after the break-in, various case files were discovered in an apparent state of disarray at the northern end of a central, common area located outside of that room. Specifically, several files were found sitting askew on top of a desk with two open drawers; still other files were scattered on the floor below in an area adjacent to a horizontal filing cabinet containing similar files. Photographs admitted as full exhibits clearly show labels on these files reading "TUL" and "SUM." Finally, in a short hallway at the opposite end of that same common area, the police found a black bag containing six bottles of industrial strength kerosene with their UPC labels cut off. The bag and its contents were swabbed, and a report subsequently generated by the Connecticut Forensic Science Laboratory included the defendant's genetic profile as a contributor to a mixture of DNA discovered as a result.

Various other components of the state's case against the defendant warrant only a brief summary. The day after the break-in, the defendant called the public defender's office at the Norwalk courthouse to ask whether the courthouse was open and whether he was required to come in that day. The state also submitted evidence showing that the defendant drove a 2002 Land Rover Freelander with an aftermarket push bumper, a roof rack, and a broken taillight, and that surveillance videos from the area showed a similar vehicle driving by the courthouse repeatedly in the hours leading up to the break-in. Finally, the state submitted recordings of various telephone calls the defendant made after he had been taken into custody as a result of his conviction on the criminal charges previously pending against him in Norwalk. During one such telephone call, the defendant asked his brother, Christopher Stephenson, to get rid of "bottles of things" for a heater, speculated about how the police located the vehicle, and attempted to arrange an alibi.

The defendant was tried before a jury on charges of burglary in the third degree in violation of General Statutes § 53a-103, attempt to commit tampering with physical evidence in violation of General Statutes § 53a-49 (a) (2) and General Statutes (Rev. to 2013) § 53a-155 (a) (1), and attempt to commit arson in the second degree in violation of General Statutes §§ 53a-49 (a) (2) and 53a-112 (a) (1) (B). The jury returned a verdict finding the defendant guilty of each of these offenses, and the trial court subsequently rendered a judgment in accordance with that verdict.

The defendant appealed from that judgment to the Appellate Court, raising several distinct claims of error.2 In the final three pages of his principal brief to that court, the defendant raised the following single, relatively narrow claim relating to the sufficiency of the state's proof with respect to the charge that he attempted to tamper with physical evidence: "The state failed to show that any materials in the state's attorney's case file for the defendant's criminal case constituted ‘evidence’ as defined by [General Statutes] § 53a-146 (8) ; the evidence was insufficient to allow a reasonable inference that the defendant believed the file contained evidence ." (Emphasis added.) This claim challenged the judgment of conviction by arguing that, even if the defendant did rummage through the case files that evening, certain evidentiary deficiencies left the jury to "speculate" that he had acted with an intent to tamper with a particular type of document—namely, that within the ambit of § 53a-155 (a) (1).3 Put differently, the defendant contended that the state had failed to submit adequate proof to allow reasonable inferences about the precise nature of the items contained within his case files. The state responded to this argument by briefing issues of statutory construction relating to the meaning of §§ 53a-146 (8) and 53a-155.

The Appellate Court ultimately reversed the trial court's judgment on a different ground, based on its conclusion that there was insufficient evidence for the jury to have reasonably concluded that the defendant intended to tamper with any case files or their contents at all. See State v. Stephenson , supra, 187 Conn. App. at 39, 201 A.3d 427. Specifically, the Appellate Court framed the dispositive question before it as whether the evidence "was insufficient to prove that [the defendant] ... acted with the intent to tamper with physical evidence within the courthouse because the state failed to establish any connection between his proven conduct within the courthouse and any of the files or materials with which he is claimed to have had the intent to tamper ." (Emphasis added.) Id., at 34, 201 A.3d 427. The Appellate Court answered that question in the affirmative, concluding that the "single fact" that there was "a disorganized pile of files on the floor" was "insufficient for the jury to infer that the defendant ever touched any case files in the state's attorney's office ... let alone pulled case files out of any file cabinet or off any desk, shelf or table, or that he went through such files for any purpose, much less that he took any steps to alter, remove, conceal or destroy the files or their contents as or after he went through them."4 Id., at 35–36, 201 A.3d 427. In reaching its decision, the Appellate Court expressly recognized that the issue was distinct from the defendant's sufficiency argument relating to the scope of items subject to the prohibition contained in § 53a-155. Id., 30, 201 A.3d 427 n.4.

In Blumberg Associates Worldwide, Inc. v. Brown & Brown of Connecticut, Inc. , supra, 311 Conn. at 128, 84 A.3d 840, this court concluded, "with respect to the propriety of a reviewing court raising and deciding an issue that the parties themselves have not raised, that the reviewing court (1) must do so when that issue implicates the court's subject matter jurisdiction, and (2) has the discretion to do so if (a) exceptional circumstances exist that would justify review of such an issue if raised by a party, (b) the parties are given an opportunity to be heard on the issue, and (c) there is no unfair prejudice to the party against whom the issue is to be decided." The state claims that the Appellate Court's decision in the present case violated this mandate by raising a different claim of evidentiary sufficiency sua sponte, without calling for supplemental briefing from the parties. For the reasons that follow, we agree.

We note at the outset that, although this court applies an abuse of discretion standard to the question of whether the Appellate Court properly addressed an issue that was never raised by the parties; see Diaz v. Commissioner of Correction , 335 Conn. 53, 58, 225 A.3d 953 (2020) ; we engage in plenary review as to the predicate question of whether a particular claim of error was, in fact, raised during the course of a prior appeal. See, e.g., State v. Connor , 321 Conn. 350, 363, 138 A.3d 265 (2016).

Our review in the present case indicates that the defendant never raised the particular claim of evidentiary sufficiency addressed by the Appellate Court. First, the defendant's own recitation of the facts in his principal brief to the Appellate Court affirmatively stated the following: "[T]he jury reasonably could have found the following facts concerning a break-in at the Norwalk courthouse. ... While inside, the perpetrator removed files from a file cabinet, which were found scattered on the floor near the...

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2 cases
  • State v. Stephenson
    • United States
    • Connecticut Court of Appeals
    • 31 Agosto 2021
    ...appeal returns to us on remand from our Supreme Court. In State v. Stephenson , 187 Conn. App. 20, 201 A.3d 427 (2019), rev'd, 337 Conn. 643, ––– A.3d –––– (2020), the defendant, Joseph A. Stephenson, appealed from the judgment of conviction, rendered after a jury trial, of burglary in the ......
  • Pennymac Corp. v. Tarzia
    • United States
    • Connecticut Court of Appeals
    • 13 Septiembre 2022
    ...we decline to sua sponte raise and dispose of this appeal on this unpreserved and unraised ground. See, e.g., State v. Stephenson , 337 Conn. 643, 650–54, 255 A.3d 865 (2020) (Appellate Court abused its discretion by disposing of appeal on "distinct question" that was not raised by parties ......
1 books & journal articles
    • United States
    • Journal of Appellate Practice and Process Vol. 22 No. 2, June 2022
    • 22 Junio 2022
    ...Conn., Inc., 84 A.3d 840, 867-69 (Conn. 2014); State v. Johnson, 416 P.3d 443, 455-59 (Utah 2017). (169.) See, e.g., State v. Stephenson, 255 A.3d 865 (Conn. 2020) (addressing an issue sua sponte without supplemental briefing contrary to precedent and the Supreme Court held that addressing ......

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