Friday, June 04, 2010

Not every lie to the police is obstruction of official duty

Jennifer Anne Passiglia won in State v. Sheldon, No. 98,160 (Kan. May 21, 2010), reversing a Cowley County conviction for felony obstruction of official duty. In the COA, Passiglia also earned reversals of three false information convictions, and the KSC did not review those reversals. The KSC’s reversal of the obstruction conviction was based on an insufficiency of the evidence.

Sheldon owned a pawn shop in Arkansas City. In June of 2005, he allowed Wayman Young to pawn a gun at the shop, using Young’s wife’s name (with her permission), because Young believed that he could not possess the gun because of a prior felony conviction. As it turns out, Young was legally entitled to possess the gun at the time.

When Young pawned the gun, he filled out the pawn form with his wife’s name (Linda). She later retrieved the gun, and Young brought the gun back a second time. Young again used Linda’s name, but he signed the form with his own name. The discrepancy in the forms, which were required to be turned over to law enforcement, led the police to investigate whether Young was in lawful possession of the firearm.

The police subsequently questioned Sheldon, and he said that Linda had pawned the gun because Young could not legally possess it. But Young then admitted to pawning the gun in Linda’s name on the two occasions. When the police questioned Sheldon a second time, the police “characterized Sheldon's response as 'sketchy' because it now included Young being present, leaving to bring Linda to the shop, and then Linda waiting outside. Sheldon said that he was unsure whether Young or Linda filled out the forms. When pressed, Sheldon terminated the conversation.” The State charged Sheldon with three counts of making a false information and two counts of felony obstruction of an official duty arising out of the firearm pawns. The district court judge dismissed one obstruction count, and a jury convicted Sheldon on the remaining charges. The COA reversed all of the convictions except one felony obstruction charge. The remaining obstruction charge was based on Sheldon's statements to the police regarding the firearm pawns.

In arguing that the remaining obstruction charge was not supported by the evidence, Sheldon cited State v. Seabury, 267 Kan. 431, 435, 985 P.2d 1162 (1999), where a majority interpreted the K.S.A. 21-3808 language "in the case of a felony" to mean that an underlying felony must have been committed or a felony charge must have been filed before a defendant can be charged with felony obstruction of official duty. Seabury, 267 Kan. at 437. The State relied upon State v. Hudson, 261 Kan. 535, 931 P.2d 679 (1997), in which the K.S.A. 21-3808 phrase "official duty" was under examination. In that case, the KSC held that the "touchstone for the classification of the offense [as a felony or misdemeanor] is the reason for the officer's approaching the defendant who then flees or otherwise resists, and not the status of the defendant." Hudson, 261 Kan. at 538-39.

The KSC held:

The issue before us in this case is marginally more similar to that in Seabury than that in Hudson. We are not focused on classification of the Count V obstruction charge against Sheldon as a felony or misdemeanor but on whether, under any view of the uncontroverted evidence, the State could make its case. That being said, the dispositive emphasis that the Hudson opinion places on the subjective intention of the official who is alleged to have been obstructed in carrying out his or her duty also informs our decision.

We agree with Sheldon that, as a matter of logic as well as law, the State could not meet its burden of proof on Count V. The uncontroverted testimony of Mata is that he was investigating only unlawful possession of a firearm by Young when he visited with Sheldon at the pawn shop on July 15. No investigation of making a false information committed by any potential defendant had begun; therefore, Sheldon, even if he lied to Mata, could not at that time be guilty under K.S.A. 21-3808 of "knowingly and intentionally obstructing, resisting or opposing" the detective "in the discharge of any official duty."

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