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Defendant appealed from the judgment of conviction of Carjacking in the Second Degree. On appeal, defendant argued that the Superior Court "relieved the State of its burden to establish every element of an indicted charge beyond [a] reasonable doubt when it erroneously interpreted...the [statutory] language of [Title 11, section 836(a) of the Delaware Code.]" The court concluded that defendant's argument was without merit where the statute was properly construed and affirmed the judgment.Receive FREE Daily Opinion Summaries by Email
IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF DELAWARE
STATE OF DELAWARE,
No. 551, 2011
Court Below – Superior Court
of the State of Delaware,
in and for New Castle County
Cr. ID. No. 1012003936
Submitted: March 21, 2012
Decided: April 12, 2012
Before STEELE, Chief Justice, HOLLAND and JACOBS, Justices.
Upon appeal from the Superior Court. AFFIRMED.
Raymond D. Armstrong, Esquire, Office of the Public Defender,
Wilmington, Delaware, for appellant.
Paul R. Wallace, Esquire, Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware, for
The defendant-appellant, Roger Dennis (“Dennis”), appeals from his
judgment of conviction, after a Superior Court jury trial, of Carjacking in the
Second Degree. Dennis raises one claim of error in this appeal. Dennis argues that
the Superior Court “relieved the State of its burden to establish every element of an
indicted charge beyond [a] reasonable doubt when it erroneously interpreted . . .
the [statutory] language of [Title 11, section 836(a) of the Delaware Code.]” We
have concluded that Dennis’ argument is without merit. Therefore, the judgment
of the Superior Court is affirmed.
On the morning of December 6, 2010, Cassandra Butler (“Butler”) left her
home in Wilmington, Delaware and got into her car, which was parked on the
street directly in front of her house. After starting her car, Butler got out to retrieve
items from her house. As she was walking along the driver’s side of the car toward
the back of the car, Butler “felt a breeze.” She turned around and saw a man inside
her car. As the man began to drive away, Butler ran alongside the car, yelling
“give me my car” in protest.
Butler then called 911 to report her car stolen. She described the perpetrator
as a heavyset black male with a long beard, wearing a green Army jacket.
Approximately two hours after the incident, a Wilmington Police Department
officer observed Butler’s car being driven by a man who matched that description.
The officer stopped the driver and arrested him. The driver was later identified as
Dennis. The police charged Dennis with Carjacking in the Second Degree.
Prior to instructing the jury, the Superior Court reviewed jury instructions
with counsel. The initial jury instruction explaining the elements of Carjacking in
the Second Degree stated that the State must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the
(1) The defendant took possession or control of a motor vehicle from
Cassandra Butler[;] (2) [t]he taking was accomplished through [sic]
without the permission of Cassandra Butler[; and] (3) [t]he defendant
acted knowingly and unlawfully.
The State requested that the second enumerated element in the instruction be
amended to read that the taking “was accomplished in the immediate presence and
without the permission of Cassandra Butler,” to comport with the language of the
Carjacking in the Second Degree statute. In response to that request, Dennis’ trial
counsel argued that the jury instruction should also include the element “coercion
or duress,” so as “to give the full language of the statute.”
The Superior Court judge incorporated the “immediate presence” language
requested by the State, but declined to include the defense’s requested “coercion or
duress” language. The Superior Court held that neither coercion nor duress were
necessary elements of the alleged crime in the unambiguous statutory text. A jury
found Dennis guilty of Carjacking in the Second Degree.
Standard of Review
Dennis contends that the Superior Court erroneously interpreted the
Carjacking in the Second Degree statute. He argues that the statute requires the
State to prove that the victim was under coercion or duress when the carjacking
We review de novo the Superior Court's jury instructions1 and its
interpretation of a statute.2 If statutory text is unambiguous, this Court's role is
limited to an application of the literal meaning of the statute’s words.3 A statute is
ambiguous if it is reasonably susceptible to different interpretations, or if giving a
literal interpretation to the words of the statute would lead to an unreasonable or
absurd result that could not have been intended by the legislature.4
Statute Properly Construed
The relevant portion of the Carjacking in the Second Degree statute reads as
A person is guilty of carjacking in the second degree when that person
knowingly and unlawfully takes possession or control of a motor
vehicle from another person or from the immediate presence of
another person by coercion, duress or otherwise without the
permission of the other person.5
Dennis argues that the statute makes either coercion or duress a necessary
element of any Carjacking in the Second Degree offense.
That argument is
Corbitt v. Tatagari, 804 A.2d 1057, 1062 (Del. 2002).
Taylor v. Diamond State Port Corp., 14 A.3d 536, 538 (Del. 2011).
Coastal Barge Corp. v. Coastal Zone Indus. Control Bd., 492 A.2d 1242, 1246 (Del. 1985).
LeVan v. Independence Mall, Inc., 940 A.2d 929, 933 (Del. 2007).
Del. Code Ann. tit. 11, § 835(a) (2007) (emphasis added).
contradicted by the plain language of the statute. The Carjacking in the Second
Degree statute unambiguously states that where the defendant steals a car through
coercion, duress “or otherwise,” the offense is established, if the defendant does
not have permission to take the car.
The use of the disjunctive “or” has
consistently been understood as distinguishing alternative elements of the defined
crime.6 The disjunctive “or” in this statute is grammatically and legally decisive,
because it establishes that neither coercion nor duress is required.
Dennis argues that interpreting the statute this way produces an
unreasonable result that could not have been intended by the General Assembly,
because it leaves no distinction between the offenses of Carjacking in the Second
Degree and the Theft of a Motor Vehicle.7 That is incorrect. Theft of a Motor
Vehicle, unlike Carjacking in the Second Degree, does not require that the
defendant take possession or control of the car “from another,” or “from the
immediate presence of another.”8 In other words, stealing a parked car outside the
presence of its owner constitutes Theft of a Motor Vehicle, but not Carjacking in
the Second Degree.
Banther v. State, 884 A.2d 487, 493 (Del. 2005).
Del. Code Ann. tit. 11, § 841A(a) (2007) (“A person is guilty of theft of a motor vehicle when
the person takes, exercises control over or obtains a motor vehicle of another person intending to
deprive the other person of it or appropriate it.”).
See Lewis v. State, 2005 WL 2414293 (Del. Sept. 29, 2005) (upholding a Second Degree
Carjacking conviction where the defendant took possession of the car by grabbing the steering
wheel from the driver).
The General Assembly made a rational distinction between a crime against a
person and a crime against property. The key fact that distinguishes Carjacking in
the Second Degree from Theft of a Motor Vehicle is the presence of the victim and
not whether the motor vehicle was taken by the use of “coercion, duress or
otherwise.” The presence of the victim makes a carjacking a crime against the
person, whereas a theft of a motor vehicle is a crime against property only.9
Therefore, these crimes do not have identical elements, and the Superior Court’s
statutory interpretation in this case does not produce an absurd result.10
General Assembly made this same rational distinction between property crimes
and crimes against the person in the theft and robbery statutes.11
The judgment of the Superior Court is affirmed.
See Price v. Maryland, 681 A.2d 1206, 1211-12 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. 1996).
Reddy v. PMA Ins. Co., 20 A.3d 1281, 1288-89 (Del. 2011).
See, e.g., Delaware Criminal Code with Commentary § 831 at 258 (1973) (“It seems desirable
to treat the robber more seriously than the stealthy thief because the former is not deterred by the
presence of his victim or by sanctions against injuring or threatening his victim.”)