Criminal Law Blog

For Malicious Destruction of Property, Defendant Had to Be Aware of a Plain and Strong Likelihood That He Would Damage a Door When He Tried to Break It Open

Lawrence N. Harris v. United States (decided October 29, 2015)

Players: Associate Judges Glickman and Easterly, Senior Judge Ruiz. Opinion by Judge Ruiz. Dissent by Judge Glickman. Jeffrey L. Light for Mr. Harris. Trial judge: Marisa J. Demeo.

Facts: In the wee hours of the morning, Mr. Harris’s mother, with whom he lived, repeatedly called police to report Mr. Harris was “acting out” and under the influence of PCP. Police ultimately escorted Mr. Harris from the house. He returned and hid behind the bed in his basement room, but was discovered by his mother and made to leave again. The next time he returned, he found the front door locked and repeatedly kicked it, causing damage to the door panel, hinges and metal door frame. The damage was only visible from the inside. The trial court convicted Mr. Harris of malicious destruction of property, finding that he either “[1] intended to damage or destroy the property or [2] was aware that his conduct created a substantial risk of harm to that property, but engaged in that conduct, nonetheless.”

Issue: Was there sufficient evidence that Mr. Harris acted “maliciously” in kicking and damaging the door?

Holding: No. “To support a conviction for malicious destruction of property, the trial court must find that the defendant either intended to cause the harm to the property or acted willfully and wantonly, with the awareness of the ‘plain and strong’ likelihood of that harm.” First, there was insufficient evidence to support the trial court’s finding of guilt on grounds that Mr. Harris intended to damage the door, because the court also expressly found that the evidence equally supported the possibility that Mr. Harris did not intend damage, but only to get back in. Where the evidence was in such “equipoise,” it is insufficient for conviction beyond a reasonable doubt. Second, while Mr. Harris committed a “wanton and willful act” by repeatedly kicking the door in a way that he should have known would damage it, more than mere negligence is required. Because Mr. Harris could not see that the interior side of the door was being damaged by his kicks, there was insufficient evidence to find that he “acted with awareness of a plain and strong likelihood” that the kicking “may result” in damage.

Dissent: Judge Glickman dissented, relying on an earlier case that upheld a malicious destruction of property conviction for kicking a door in a manner that caused substantial damage. The majority distinguished the case on grounds that it had undertaken no consideration of the issue in this case: whether the door-kicking was done with “malice.”

Of note: Both the majority and dissenting opinions left open the question of whether a co-tenant whose name is on the lease is privileged to use reasonable force to gain entry to his own home. FT