Criminal Law Blog

Court Warns That Red Book’s “While Armed” Instruction Can Impermissibly Imply That Defendant Did, In Fact, Possess Charged Weapon


Nathaniel Cousart v. United States
 (decided August 4, 2016)

Players: Associate Judges Glickman and Fisher, Senior Judge Steadman. Opinion by Judge Steadman. Matthew J. Peed for Mr. Cousart. Trial Judge: Patricia A. Broderick.

Facts: Mr. Cousart was convicted of aggravated assault while armed (AAWA) for stabbing one Mr. Barrett with a knife, and with ADW for again taking out his knife and stepping threateningly toward a private security guard who came to Mr. Barrett’s aid. The security guard testified that he drew his gun in response, prompting Mr. Cousart to retreat and throw the knife down a sewer before he was apprehended. The trial court instructed the jury on AAWA using language taken virtually verbatim from Red Book Instruction 4.103, describing the elements of aggravated assault, followed immediately by Instruction 8.101(B), the “while armed” instruction. The latter began, “At the time of the offense, Nathaniel Cousart was armed with or had readily available a knife. A dangerous weapon is any object likely to produce death or great bodily injury by the use made of it. In deciding whether the defendant was armed with or had readily available a dangerous weapon, you may consider all the circumstances surrounding its possession and use. . . .” In instructing the jury on ADW, the trial court read Red Book Instruction 4.101, Option A, which defines the attempted-battery theory of ADW. It did not include bracketed language from that instruction requiring the jury to determine whether Mr. Cousart “had the apparent ability to injure” the complainant at the time of the offense. The defense did not object to either instruction.

Issue 1: Was the trial court’s AAWA instruction an improper partial directed verdict that Mr. Cousart did, in fact, possess the knife as a dangerous weapon?

Holding 1: No. Considering the jury instructions as a whole, under the rigorous plain error standard of review, the Court of Appeals held that there was no reasonable probability that jurors would have understand the challenged sentence to mean they did not have to determine whether Mr. Cousart actually possessed the alleged knife (and whether the knife met the definition of “dangerous weapon”). Nevertheless, the Court urged trial judges to take care in using the Red Book’s “while armed” Instruction, which begins, “At the time of the offense, [name of defendant] was armed with, or had readily available,” followed by a bracketed list of weapons to which the enhancement applies. The Court warned that “when this instruction is simply tacked on to a prior instruction without a clear indication that it is a statement of what the jury must find and not an assertion that the defendant did in fact carry some particular item, it could be subject to misinterpretation.”

Issue 2: Did the trial court’s omission of the “apparent ability to injure” element from its ADW instruction require reversal?

Holding 2: No. The Court of Appeals assumed without deciding that an apparent ability to injure is a required element of attempted-battery assault (as it is for intent-to-frighten assault), but declined to reverse on plain error review. In light of the government’s evidence that Mr. Cousart advanced on the security guard while brandishing the knife in a frightening enough manner to prompt him to draw his gun, the Court concluded that there was no reasonable probability the jury would have reached a different verdict had it been instructed that it must find Mr. Cousart had the apparent ability to injury the security guard.

Of Note

  • The Court of Appeals also held that there was sufficient evidence of attempted-battery ADW based on Mr. Cousart’s pulling out his knife before stepping toward the security guard. It noted, however, that it was a “close” sufficiency call. FT

Read full opinion here.