Absence of Sufficient Proof of a ‘Breaking’ Meant that Homeless Vet Couldn’t Be Guilty of Burglarizing Ocean City Vacation Residence

When you stand accused of a crime, there are several things that the prosecution must do. One of these things is proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, each element of the criminal charges against you. In the case of one recently evicted man in Ocean City, that standard worked in his favor in his fourth-degree burglary case. Since the state lacked sufficient evidence that the man broke into a crawl space, as opposed to merely walking into an open crawl space, the Court of Special Appeals determined that the case against the man was insufficient, and he was entitled to an acquittal on the burglary charge.

The case began with a police response to a vacation residence in Ocean City. When the officer arrived, he found the building’s crawl space uncovered, and on the ground was a piece of plywood the size of the crawl space opening. The officer went inside the crawl space and discovered a man there. The man stated that he was homeless and seeking a place to take a nap. After confirming that the man was inside the crawl space without permission, the officer arrested him.

From these facts, the state launched a prosecution against the man for fourth-degree burglary. The property owner testified that the plywood was typically in place covering the crawl space, but then she also testified that she could not remember the last time she specifically saw the plywood over the crawl space opening.

The man asked the trial court to issue an order of acquittal because, he argued, the state’s case did not meet the legal standards for burglary. Fourth-degree burglary has a very specific statutory definition, requiring a guilty person to have broken and entered “the storehouse of another.” The defendant in this case argued that the state didn’t have proof that he broke into the crawl space, and, regardless, the crawl space didn’t meet the law’s definition of a “storehouse.” The trial court rejected his arguments and convicted him on the burglary charge.

On appeal, however, the man achieved better success. Regardless of whether the crawl space met the law’s standard for a storehouse, the man in this case should have been acquitted, the appeals court concluded, since the state’s proof of a “breaking” simply was not sufficient.

There are two ways to break into a space under Maryland burglary law. One is through fraud or trickery. The other is through physical force. In this case, there was no evidence, nor any argument by the prosecution, that this defendant employed any deceit in getting into the crawl space. The latter version of breaking can involve almost any kind of physically forceful act, like merely opening a closed but unlocked door. On the other hand, walking through an open window or door cannot be a breaking.

The state’s case here was far too weak. The only proof was the owner’s testimony, which stated that she came by the property two to three times per week and that the plywood normally was over the crawl space opening. Even if all that was true, “the testimony failed to establish, even circumstantially, that [the man] was responsible for its removal,” the court wrote. As the court explained, a “conviction cannot be sustained on circumstantial evidence that requires the factfinder to speculate or to look past rational doubts or gaps in the evidence.” That was the case here, which meant that the man could not be found guilty.

When you or a loved one face criminal charges, it is important to have knowledgeable and aggressive counsel on your side. Maryland criminal defense attorney Anthony A. Fatemi has been using his skill and experience to fight for the accused for many years and is here to help you with your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.

More blog posts:

Maryland Court of Appeals Rules in Favor of Petition for Post Conviction Relief, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Feb. 5, 2016

Maryland Court Reviews Sufficiency of Evidence in Burglary Conviction, Maryland Criminal Lawyer Blog, Oct. 22, 2015

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