Friday, March 9, 2007

Williams v. State (Ct. of Special Appeals)

Filed March 8, 2007– Opinion by Judge James R. Eyler.

Appellant was convicted in a non-jury trial by the Circuit Court of Prince George’s County on three counts of failure to return a rental vehicle. On appeal, Appellant contends the evidence was legally insufficient to sustain the convictions and that the court erroneously interpreted the statute as not requiring the requisite mens rea.

Appellant was convicted for violating C.L. § 7-205(a), which provides:

"A person who leases or rents a motor vehicle under an agreement to return the motor vehicle at the end of the leasing or rental period may not abandon the motor vehicle or refuse or wilfully neglect to return it."

The standard for reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence is whether, after considering the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The statute requires proof that (1) he rented the vehicles under an agreement to return them at the end of the rental period, and (2) he abandoned, refused to return, or wilfully neglected to return the vehicles. Appellant argues that the State failed to produce legally sufficient evidence to support a finding as to the requisite mens rea, and the court treated the charges as strict liability offenses, thus applying the wrong legal standard.

The relevant language in the statute provides that a lessee may not "abandon" a vehicle or "refuse" or "willfully neglect" to return it. Focusing on the plain language of the statute, both parties agree that it does not create a strict liability offense and some form of scienter is required. The ordinary, dictionary definition of the terms "abandon," "refuse," and "willfully neglect" all involve knowing and voluntary conduct. Section 7-205 requires a general intent, i.e., that the acts of abandonment, refusal or willful neglect be done knowingly and voluntarily with actual knowledge of the circumstances. It does not require an intent beyond that just stated. Absent evidence that Appellant, and not one of his employees, was in physical possession of the vehicles at the end of the rental periods, the trial court, acting as trier of fact, would have had to resort to pure speculation to determine whether Appellant acted intentionally when he failed to return the vehicles.

The evidence in this case was legally insufficient to support a finding of abandonment, and no such finding was made. However, the evidence was legally sufficient to support a finding with respect to the other two modalities. Refusal requires an intent not to comply. The word neglect, standing alone, indicates the omission of a duty through inadvertence or inability. The term willful neglect requires a knowing disregard of the duty to return. "Refusal" and "willful neglect" substantially overlap, both requiring a knowing and voluntary disregard of a duty, and the evidence was sufficient to support a finding that Appellant refused or willfully neglected to return the vehicles. The evidence permitted an inference that Appellant had the ability to return the vehicles, that he had actual knowledge that the vehicles were overdue, that he had a duty to return them, and that he possessed the requisite mens rea.

Even though the evidence was legally sufficient to sustain the convictions, the Court vacated the judgments because the circuit court erroneously did not regard scienter as an element of the crime.

The full opinion is available in PDF.

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