The DC Court of Appeals on November 9, 2017 in Elaine Jones v. U.S. reversed the defendant’s conviction for simple assault and possession of prohibited weapon.
Elaine Jones was charged with simple assault and possession of prohibited weapon a cigarette lighter as she had attempted to ward off another homeless person from her personal space designated by cardboard boxes.
She has set a section of her cardboard box taken over by the intruder on fire momentarily to scare off her adjacent homeless neighbor intruding on her and not respecting her personal space.
At issue here was employing reasonable amount of force to protect one’s property and to ward off an intruder.
The trial court in convicting the defendant ruled that by setting fire to a flammable cardboard box near her neighbor, she used intentionally her cigarette lighter as a dangerous weapon and threatened her neighbor with serious bodily injury.
That a cigarette lighter used in this fashion is tantamount to a dangerous weapon as it can clearly inflict serious bodily injury.
Ms. Jones was guilty of intent-to-frighten assault even though she did not actually set fire to anyone. The lower court also rejected defense of property as a justification for her actions.
The Court of Appeals disagreed.
The Court held that once a valid self-defense or defense of property has been presented at trial the burden shifts to the government to prove otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt.
That is, it was lawful for the defendant to propel with as much force as was reasonably necessary under the circumstances to eject the intruder from her personal property, the cardboard box that was her bed and board.
The Court of Appeals rejected the government’s argument that Ms. Jones used extremely dangerous force and that she had ignited a highly flammable material directly beneath Mr. Livingston’s feet.
In her defense and at trial defendant had testified that she was very frustrated by her neighbors’ abuse, set the cardboard on fire to scare him, the cardboard was not combustible and the fire was like a cigarette and never burst into flame and just created smoke.
The Court reasoned that under the circumstances she used as much force as was necessary to repel her intruder. She did not cause any injury and herself quickly put out the fire. She used reasonable force to defend her property and thus self defense or defense of property was a valid defense.
Igniting the cardboard box in the limited fashion and under control was lawful in defending her property from trespass.
In conclusion, the evidence was insufficient to prove that that the defendant had used excessive force to repel her neighbor from her personal space.
Also in order to sustain the conviction for possession of prohibited weapon, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant possessed the weapon with the specific intent to use it unlawfully.
Because the defendant had used the cigarette lighter reasonably for a valid defense of property, and there was no unlawful intent proven; then the conviction for possession of prohibited weapon must also be reversed.
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