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Coleman v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

October 13, 2017

JAMES KEVIN COLEMAN (aka JAMES KEVIN ALMUDARRIS), Appellant,
v.
STATE OF ALASKA, Appellee.

         Appeal from the Superior Court, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Stephanie E. Joannides, Judge. Trial Court No. 3AN-12-6523 CR

          Sharon Barr, Assistant Public Defender, and Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for the Appellant.

          A. James Klugman, Assistant District Attorney, Anchorage, and Craig W. Richards, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

          Before: Mannheimer, Chief Judge, Allard, Judge, and Suddock, Superior Court Judge. [*]

          OPINION

          ALLARD, JUDGE

         James Kevin Coleman[1] was convicted, following a jury trial, of second-degree burglary, second-degree theft, and fifth-degree criminal mischief based on allegations that he broke into a storage shed used by a commercial bike shop and stole two bicycles.[2] Coleman was also convicted of making a false report.[3]

         On appeal, Coleman challenges his conviction for burglary, arguing that the bicycle storage shed was too small to qualify as a "building" for purposes of the burglary statutes. Coleman further contends that there was insufficient evidence that he was the person who broke into the shed and stole the bicycles, and that the trial court erred in denying his motion for a new trial based on the weight of the evidence. Coleman also challenges his conviction for making a false report, arguing that his false statement to the police did not qualify as a false "report" of a crime under AS 11.56.800(a)(2).

         For the reasons explained in this opinion, we conclude that the bicycle storage shed qualified as a "building" as that term is defined in the burglary statutes. We also conclude that the evidence supporting Coleman's burglary, theft, and criminal mischief convictions was legally sufficient, and that the trial court did not err in denying Coleman's motion for a new trial. However, we conclude that there was insufficient evidence to convict Coleman of making a false report, given the nature of his false statement to the police and the circumstances under which that statement was made.

         Accordingly, we affirm Coleman's convictions for second-degree burglary, second-degree theft, and fifth-degree criminal mischief, and we reverse his conviction for making a false report.

         Why we conclude that the bicycle storage shed was large enough to qualify as a "building" for purposes of Alaska's burglary statute

         Under AS 11.46.310(a), a person commits burglary if the person "enters or remains unlawfully in a building with the intent to commit a crime in the building." Alaska Statute 11.81.900(b)(5) defines "building, " in pertinent part, as follows:

"building, " in addition to its usual meaning, includes any propelled vehicle or structure adapted for overnight accommodation of persons or for carrying on business[.]

         In the current case, Coleman was convicted of second-degree burglary for breaking into a shed that was used to store bicycles for a business. The shed was a permanent wooden structure with four walls, a floor, and a roof; it contained multiple enclosed storage lockers, secured by individual padlocks. Although the record does not reveal the exact dimensions of the shed, the evidence presented at trial indicated that the shed was approximately chest- to shoulder-high, and the shed could contain 20 to 25 bicycles. To enter the shed to retrieve the bicycles, an average-sized person would need to stoop.

         At trial, the general manager of the bicycle shop testified that the shed was used to store bicycles that were brought in for repairs. On an average summer work day, 5 to 6 employees would access the shed to retrieve or store bicycles. The manager testified that employees would typically not need to fully enter the shed to retrieve the bicycles, but that they would sometimes have to crawl all the way into the shed if they were having difficulty getting a bicycle out. The entrance to each storage locker in the shed was kept secured with a padlock and equipped with a break-in alarm.

         On appeal, Coleman argues that the shed did not qualify as a "building" for purposes of the burglary statute. Coleman contends that, because the crime of burglary was originally intended to protect dwellings, a structure can only qualify as a "building" for purposes of the burglary statute if it is either designed for human habitation or large enough to "comfortably accommodate people moving around" in it. According to Coleman, because the shed was made to accommodate bicycles and not people, and because an average-sized person would need to stoop to enter the shed, the shed did not qualify as a "building, " and his conviction for second-degree burglary must be reversed.

         In response, the State argues that the bicycle storage shed was a building both in the "usual meaning" of the word and because the shed was a structure that had been "adapted" for carrying on the bicycle shop's business - specifically, the storing and repairing of bicycles. The State concedes, however, that "at some point, a storage unit [may be] so small that it could not reasonably be considered 'a structure, '" and as such, would not be "a building."

         The issue presented here is, therefore, how large a structure must be in order to be considered a "building" for purposes of the burglary statute. Because the statute is ambiguous on this point, we look to the purpose of the legislation and the legislative history for indications of legislative intent.[4]

         The definition of "building" codified in AS 11.81.900(b)(5) is derived from Oregon law.[5] Both Alaska and Oregon define "building" broadly, and the two statutory definitions of "building" are essentially the same. As already set out, the Alaska statute defines "building" to include "its usual meaning" as well as "any propelled vehicle or structure adapted for overnight accommodation of persons or for carrying on business."[6]Likewise, under the Oregon statute, "building" is defined "in addition to its ordinary meaning" as also including "any booth, vehicle, boat, aircraft or other structure adapted for overnight accommodation of persons or for carrying on business therein."[7]

         The legislative history of these statutory definitions indicates that the Alaska and the Oregon legislatures intended these definitions to be expansive. The commentary to the tentative draft of Alaska's 1978 criminal code revision states that the definition is intended to be "broad enough to include house trailers, mobile field offices, house boats, vessels and even tents used as dwellings."[8] The commentary to the Oregon Criminal Code likewise explains that the definition of "building" was expanded from the "ordinary meaning of the word" so as to also include "those structures and vehicles which typically contain human beings for extended periods of time, in accordance with the original and basic rationale of the crime [of burglary]: protection against invasion of premises likely to terrorize occupants."[9]

         Coleman relies heavily on the Oregon commentary for his claim that the Oregon and Alaska legislatures intended to limit the definition of "building" to only those vehicles or structures that "typically contain human beings for extended periods of time." But neither the plain language of the statute nor the legislative history support this claim.

         At common law, the crime of burglary required proof that the defendant unlawfully entered a human habitation. Burglary was defined as the breaking and entering of a dwelling at night with the intent to commit a crime therein.[10] The common-law offense of burglary was therefore strictly an offense aimed at protecting the security of habitation rather than property.[11]

         But statutory enactments over the past 60 years have changed and expanded the common-law definition of the offense. For most jurisdictions, the requirement that the crime take place at night or that it be directed at a dwelling have disappeared.[12]Instead, most states (including Alaska and Oregon) now define burglary simply as unlawfully entering or remaining in a "building" with the intent to commit a crime therein.[13] The offense is elevated to a higher degree of burglary with increased punishment if the "building" is a "dwelling" or if the defendant's conduct poses a particular danger to people found within the building.[14]

         This transformation is evident in the relevant Oregon caselaw, which has upheld burglary convictions involving storage sheds and storage containers, even though they were designed to accommodate property, not people.[15] For example, in State v. Essig, the Oregon Court of Appeals held that a large potato storage shed qualified as a building under the burglary statute, describing it as a substantial structure and thus a building within the ordinary meaning of the term.[16] Similarly, in State v. Handley, the Oregon Court of Appeals held that a storage locker in an apartment complex's carport qualified as a building.[17] In State v. Barker, the court held that "self-contained storage units" within a commercial storage facility qualified as "buildings, "[18] and in State v. Webb, the court held that a tractor trailer adapted by a business to store goods likewise qualified as a "building."[19]

         Coleman points out that these Oregon cases all involve storage containers or sheds that are considerably larger than the bicycle storage shed involved in his case. For example, the potato shed in Essig was large enough to "contain several trucks."[20]Likewise, the tractor trailer in Webb was twenty-five feet long and eight to nine feet wide (although no height was listed).[21] But not all of the Oregon cases involve such large storage structures. The storage lockers in Handley were only four feet wide, nine feet long, and seven feet high.[22] And the dimensions of the storage unit in Barker were essentially unknown, although the court noted that it was "large enough for a human being to enter and move about."[23]

         Coleman also relies on State v. Scott, [24] a 1979 Oregon Court of Appeals case in which the court reversed a conviction for burglary of a railway boxcar because it concluded that the boxcar did not qualify as a "building" for purposes of Oregon's burglary statute. In Scott, the court quoted the legislative commentary to Oregon's burglary statute, noting that the expanded definition of "building" under the statute was still intended to comport with "the original and basic rationale for the protection against invasion of premises likely to terrorize occupants."[25] The court therefore concluded that the railway boxcar did not fit the expanded definition because there was no evidence presented at trial that the boxcar had been adapted "for carrying on business therein" or "for accommodating people overnight" and there was nothing to indicate that the boxcar was anything other than "a structure on wheels designed for the storage of goods during their transportation."[26]

         We conclude that Coleman's reliance on Scott is misplaced. Subsequent Oregon Court of Appeals cases have narrowed Scott to its facts, explaining that Scott involved a movable structure on wheels akin to a vehicle, rather than a stationary structure that could fit into the ordinary meaning of the term "building."[27] The reasoning of Scott has also been criticized. In Barker, for example, the Oregon Court of Appeals rejected the premise that a court must examine the primary uses of the storage units at issue "to determine whether an unauthorized entry would be likely to terrorize any human occupants."[28] Instead, the court looked to the "ordinary meaning" of the term "building, " as evidenced by various dictionary definitions of the term - ultimately concluding that the storage units at issue qualified as "buildings" in the "ordinary sense of the word" because they were part of a "roofed and walled structure constructed for permanent use."[29]

         Like the storage units in Barker, the storage shed at issue in Coleman's case appears to fit within the dictionary meaning of the term "building." Black's Law Dictionary defines the word "building" as:

[A] structure designed for habitation, shelter, storage, trade, manufacture, religion, business, education, and the like. A structure or edifice inclosing a space within its walls, and usually, but not necessarily, covered with a roof.[30]

         Here, the storage shed was a permanent structure with four walls, a roof, a floor, and a fixed entry place through which a person could enter the structure in order to store or retrieve the bicycles placed there by the business.

         Coleman contends that, despite these attributes, the storage shed does not qualify as a "building" because the entrance was not high enough for an average-sized person to enter without stooping and it was not big enough for an average-sized person to move around "comfortably."

         We agree with Coleman that, as a general matter, a structure that is too small for a human being to physically enter and occupy with their whole body cannot be considered a "building" that can be burglarized. We note that courts in other jurisdictions have reached a similar conclusion with regard to their burglary statutes.[31]

         For example, in Paugh v. State, the Wyoming Supreme Court held that a three-foot display case in a department store was not a "separately secured or occupied portion" of a building for purposes of Wyoming's burglary statute because the display case was "too small to accommodate a human being."[32] The Washington Court of Appeals similarly held that a police evidence locker that was 10 inches high, 10 inches wide, and 2 feet deep was too small to qualify as a "building" under Washington's burglary statute.[33] Coin boxes at a car wash have likewise been found to be too small to qualify as a "building, "[34] as have soft drink vending machines, [35] and a large tool box on wheels.[36]

         But these cases all involve containers that are significantly smaller than the storage shed at issue in Coleman's case. Here, the trial testimony indicated that the bicycle shop's storage shed was designed to be wide enough, long enough, and tall enough - approximately chest- to shoulder-high - to allow an average-sized person to enter the shed and move about, albeit not necessarily for an extended period of time and not necessarily entirely comfortably. Indeed, the testimony at trial established that human beings did, at times, fully enter the shed to retrieve the bicycles stored inside.

         Given these circumstances, and given that the shed otherwise exhibited all of the attributes associated with the term "building" in the usual meaning of the term, we conclude that the storage shed at issue here qualified as a "building" for purposes of Alaska's second-degree burglary statute. We therefore reject Coleman's claim that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction for second-degree burglary on this ground.

         Why we conclude that the evidence was insufficient to support Coleman's conviction for making a false report

         Alaska Statute 11.56.800(a)(2) provides, in relevant part, that "[a] person commits the crime of false ... report if the person knowingly ... makes a false report to a peace officer that a crime has occurred or is about to occur." In the present case, Coleman was charged with making a false report based on the fact that, when Coleman was stopped by the police and questioned about why he was in the area, Coleman falsely claimed that he was in the area because he was chasing his van, which he falsely said had been stolen.

         The evidence at trial established that the police responded to the burglary alarm at the bicycle shop around 4:00 a.m. After arriving at the scene, the police found two bicycles from the bicycle shop on the ground nearby. In the vicinity, the police also discovered Coleman's van, which was "high-centered" on a cement pillar in the parking lot.

         The police also saw a man (later determined to be Coleman) trying to leave the scene in a taxi cab. One of the officers stopped the taxi and questioned Coleman, who was in the back seat of the cab, sweating profusely. When the officer asked Coleman why he was in the area, Coleman told a confusing story about his van being stolen and chasing the stolen van on his bicycle. Coleman could not explain why he was in a taxi cab or why he was leaving his van behind. Coleman also could not explain where the bicycle he had used to chase the van was. When the officer asked Coleman why he had not called to report the stolen van to the police, Coleman said that the police "handle things differently" and that he would "take care of it himself."

         At trial, the officer testified that Coleman was clearly nervous during the police questioning and that his explanation for his presence at the scene made no sense and was not believable. Based on their suspicions that Coleman was responsible for the burglary, the police arrested Coleman. Following his ...


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