Criminal Law Blog

The Term "Parking Area" in POCA Statute Does Not Mean a Parking Lot

Campbell v. United States (decided July 20, 2017)

Players: Associate Judges Beckwith and McLeese, and Senior Judge Belson. Opinion by Judge Beckwith. Vincent A. Jankoski for Mr. Campbell. Trial Judge: Milton C. Lee.

Facts: On June 9, 2014, Officer Poor saw a car parked on an unmarked grassy area between two church parking lots. The car was off, and a towel was draped over a missing rear window. When the officer approached the car, he saw Mr. Campbell sleeping in the driver’s seat and a half-empty bottle of vodka in the center console. Officer Poor woke Mr. Campbell up and asked if he had been drinking. Mr. Campbell admitted that he had a few sips.

At trial, Mr. Campbell was convicted of first-degree theft, unauthorized use of a vehicle, receiving stolen property, and possession of an open container of alcohol (POCA) in a “vehicle in or upon any street, alley, park, or parking area,” D.C. Code § 25-1001(a)(2). On appeal, Mr. Campbell challenged the sufficiency of the evidence for each of the convictions. He argued that the phrase “parking area” in the POCA statute does not include the location in which he was arrested. Based on this statutory claim, he challenged the convictions of theft and unauthorized use of a vehicle by arguing that “the trial court should have suppressed the fruits of the search incident to his unlawful arrest for POCA.”

Issue 1: Is Mr. Campbell’s statutory sufficiency challenge preserved if at trial his motion for judgment of acquittal (MJOA) only focused on his constructive possession of the bottle of alcohol?

Holding: Yes. A general motion for acquittal preserves the full range of sufficiency challenges. At trial, Mr. Campbell presented a specific sufficiency argument instead of a general MJOA. The DCCA expressed doubt that making one specific sufficiency claim renders another sufficiency claim unpreserved, but did not need to decide that. In any event, Mr. Campbell’s sufficiency claim would be reviewed de novo because it is a question of statutory construction.

Issue 2: Does the phrase “parking area” in the POCA statute include the location in which Mr. Campbell was arrested?

Holding: No. The original language of the POCA statute prohibited possession of open containers of alcohol in vehicles in a “parking,” not a “parking area.” Although the term “parking area” is not defined in the statute, the term “parking” is defined as “that area of public space which lies between the property line and the edge of the actual or planned sidewalk which is nearer to such property line, as such property line and sidewalk are shown on the records of the District,” D.C. Code § 25-101(36). This is distinct from the common meaning of parking area that the government advances, which is closer to a parking lot. There was no discussion of a change in meaning when the POCA statute was amended to change “parking” to “parking area.”

Elsewhere in the Code, the Council also uses “parking” and “parking area” interchangeably. The Urban Forest Preservation Act of 2003 defines “public parking” similarly to the POCA statute, but only uses the term “public parking area” throughout the rest of the statute. D.C. Law 14-309 § 102(4). The Council has also demonstrated their ability to use the term “parking lot” when they mean parking lot. D.C. Code § 38-826.05(a); D.C. Code § 7-2509.07(a), (a)(2).

Further, if the term “parking area” were interpreted as distinct from “parking,” subsection (b) of the POCA statute would be rendered meaningless. Subsection (b) currently exempts certain areas of the “parking” from the rest of the statute’s prohibitions. But if “parking” had a different meaning than “parking area,” those area within the “parking” would be excluded from the statute’s prohibition.

When there is ambiguity in the statutory construction of a criminal statute, the rule of lenity requires the court to construe the prohibition narrowly. Therefore, “parking area” must be given the less expansive definition, and must be construed as interchangeable with “parking.”

Finally, the government didn't argue that Mr. Campbell was found in the “parking” within the meaning of the statute. Instead, it argued that Mr. Campbell was on public property. However, it does not matter whether Mr. Campbell was on public property if that public property is not one of the enumerated places covered by the POCA statute. The Council has shown that it is able to ban activities in all public places if it so chooses. D.C. Code § 22-1312.

The DCCA reversed Mr. Campbell’s conviction and remanded to the trial court. It also remanded to allow the court to vacate Mr. Campbell’s conviction for receiving stolen property.

Of Note: The Court upheld Mr. Campbell’s convictions for first-degree theft and unauthorized use of a vehicle. In footnote 13, the Court held Mr. Campbell’s suppression arguments on these convictions were waived, because the statutory argument on which they were based was not raised at trial. The government moved to vacate the conviction for receiving stolen property after Mr. Campbell argued that conviction contradicted his conviction for first-degree theft.  LS

Read the full opinion here.