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Inga v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

March 1, 2019

JERRY GENE INGA, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF ALASKA, Appellee.

          Appeal from the Superior Court Trial Court No. 3PA-13-1048 CR, Third Judicial District, Palmer, Kari C. Kristiansen, Judge.

          Nancy Driscoll Stroup, Law Office of Nancy Driscoll Stroup, Palmer, under contract with the Office of Public Advocacy, Anchorage, for the Appellant.

          Brittany L. Dunlop, Assistant District Attorney, Palmer, and Craig W. Richards, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

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

          OPINION

          ALLARD, JUDGE

         Following a jury trial, Jerry Gene Inga was convicted of second-degree sexual assault and third-degree assault.[1] According to the State's evidence, Inga committed these offenses while he was alone at his stepfather's house with his stepfather's girlfriend, L.P. Inga had been violent towards L.P. in the past, and his stepfather had previously promised L.P. that he would not leave Inga and L.P. together again.

         While Inga and L.P. were watching television, Inga propositioned L.P. to have sex with him. L.P. told him no. Inga then grabbed L.P.'s breasts. (This was the basis of the second-degree sexual assault charge.) L.P. pushed Inga away. Inga then pulled L.P. to the ground and beat her brutally. During this beating, Inga straddled L.P. and tried to restrain her hands above her head. L.P. suffered multiple injuries from this assault, including a fractured nose. (This was the basis of the third-degree assault charge.)

         At trial, Inga's attorney conceded that Inga was guilty of beating up L.P., but the defense attorney contended that Inga never grabbed L.P.' s breasts. The attorney argued that L.P. was lying about this aspect of the attack - that she invented a story of sexual assault so that Inga would get in more trouble for the physical assault. The jury rejected the defense attorney's contention and convicted Inga of both sexual assault and physical assault.

         On appeal, Inga challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support his conviction for second-degree sexual assault. Inga concedes that the jury could reasonably have found that he grabbed L.P.'s breasts. But Inga now argues that the State failed to present sufficient evidence of coercion to render Inga's act of grabbing L.P.'s breasts "without consent" as that term is defined in AS 11.41.470(8)(A).

         For the reasons explained in this opinion, we conclude that the evidence presented at Inga's trial was sufficient to establish the "without consent" element. We therefore affirm Inga's conviction for second-degree sexual assault.

         Inga also separately appeals his sentence, arguing that his sentence is excessive and that the superior court erred in rejecting the proposed mitigator that his conduct was "among the least serious" included in the definition of second-degree sexual assault. We affirm the superior court's rejection of the statutory mitigator, and we conclude that Inga's sentence is not clearly mistaken.

         Factual background and proceedings in the trial court

         Because Inga challenges the sufficiency of the evidence to support his sexual assault conviction, we present the following background facts in the light most favorable to upholding the jury's verdict.[2]

         In early May 2013, Inga was with his stepfather and his stepfather's girlfriend, L.P., at the house his stepfather was renting in Big Lake. A few months earlier, there had been an incident where Inga had pushed L.P., and L.P. was therefore aware that Inga could become violent. At that time, Inga's stepfather had promised L.P. that he would not leave Inga and L.P. together again.

         Despite this promise, Inga's stepfather left to go to Anchorage, leaving Inga and L.P. to clean the house. After Inga and L.P. had been cleaning for a while, Inga found ten dollars, and they decided to walk to the liquor store and buy alcohol. On the way home, Inga and L.P. were drinking shots of the vodka they had purchased. L.P. later testified that Inga seemed like he was getting upset with her.

         When they arrived back at the house, Inga and L.P. sat on the couch and started watching television. According to L.P.'s testimony at trial, Inga propositioned her for sex. When L.P. said no, Inga grabbed her breasts. L.P. pushed Inga away, and then he began beating her. During the beating, Inga was straddling L.P., trying to restrain her hands above her head, and biting her. L.P. fought back and punched Inga. L.P. testified that she was bitten a couple of times on the face and on her arms and then "somehow I got out of it, and I ran out the side door." L.P. suffered multiple injuries from the assault, including a fractured nose.

         In her statement to the police (which was played for the jury), L.P. was asked if Inga had touched her sexually during the assault. L.P. replied, "He grabbed my boobs... but I did not let him get any further than that." At trial, L.P. confirmed that Inga "grabbed [her] breasts in the course of the assault," and that he did so in a "groping-type way," although it "all happened so fast."

         After escaping from the house, L.P. ran barefoot to a neighbor's house located about a quarter-mile away. Inga chased L.P. for part of the way, but eventually he gave up. He was found by the troopers a few hours later walking south on the Parks Highway.

         At trial, Inga's defense attorney argued that L.P. was lying about Inga grabbing her breasts, and that L.P. told the trooper that this happened because she wanted to get Inga in even more trouble for the physical assault. During closing argument, the defense attorney replayed L.P.' s interview with the trooper for the jury, emphasizing that L.P. told the trooper that Inga grabbed her breasts only after the trooper asked L.P. if Inga had touched her sexually. The defense attorney also attacked L.P.'s credibility, emphasizing her intoxication and mental health issues.

         Following deliberations, the jury convicted Inga of both second-degree sexual assault and third-degree assault. At sentencing, the trial court rejected Inga's proposed mitigator that his conduct was "among the least serious conduct included in the definition of the offense, "[3] rejecting Inga's contention that this was a "touch-and-go" breast grab. The superior court ultimately sentenced Inga to 13 years with 3 years suspended (10 years to serve) on the second-degree sexual assault and 5 years on the third-degree assault, to run consecutively for a composite sentence of 18 years with 3 suspended (15 years to serve).

         This appeal followed.

         Why we conclude that the evidence presented at Inga's trial was sufficient to establish the coercion element of "without consent"

         On appeal, Inga argues that the evidence presented at trial was legally insufficient to support his conviction for second-degree sexual assault.

         To prove this charge, the State had to establish (1) that Inga knowingly engaged in sexual contact with L.P. (here, touching L.P.'s breasts), [4] (2) that this sexual contact was "without consent" as that phrase is defined in AS 11.41.47O(8)(A), and (3) that Inga acted at least recklessly with respect to the circumstance that the sexual contact was "without consent."[5]

         Under AS 11.41.470(8)(A), an act of sexual penetration or sexual contact is "without consent" if:

a person[, ] with or without resisting, is coerced by the use of force against a person or property, or by the express or implied threat of death, imminent physical injury, or kidnapping[.][6]

         In other words, to establish that sexual activity occurred without consent, the State must prove that the victim was not willing to engage in the sexual activity, and that the victim was coerced by force or by the threat of force. Thus, the phrase "without consent" refers to a particular type of unwanted sexual activity: unwanted sexual activity that is coerced by force or the threat of force.[7]

         For purposes of our criminal code, the word "force" is defined in AS 1 l.81.900(b)(28) as any "bodily impact, restraint, or confinement, or the threat of imminent bodily impact, restraint, or confinement." However, in the context of sexual offenses, the "bodily impact, restraint, or confinement" that the defendant uses or threatens must be more than simply the bodily impact or restraint inherent in the charged act of sexual penetration or contact.[8]

         In the present case, Inga concedes that the State presented sufficient evidence that Inga knowingly engaged in unwanted sexual contact with L.P. - i.e., that he knowingly touched L.P.' s breasts through her clothing when she did not want him to do so. However, Inga contends that the State failed to present sufficient evidence of the coercion element of "without consent"-that is, he contends that there was insufficient evidence that the sexual touching was "coerced by the use of force."

         But, as Chief Judge Mannheimer's concurrence points out, whether coercion exists in a particular case is inherently a fact-intensive inquiry that ultimately turns on the totality of the circumstances present in a given interaction.[9]

         Inga argues that the facts of his case are analogous to the facts in State v. Townsend, an unpublished decision involving a charge of sexual assault in which a majority of this Court held that the State failed to present sufficient evidence that the victim was "coerced by the use of force."[10] But the facts of Townsend are materially different from the facts of Inga's case.

         In Townsend, T.M. and his fiancee were walking through a crowded bar, brushing against people.[11] Townsend, dressed in drag, approached T.M. and grabbed T.M.'s penis (through T.M.'s clothing) for a few seconds. T.M. immediately chased after Townsend and reported the incident to a nearby police officer, who arrested Townsend for second-degree sexual assault - i.e., engaging in sexual contact "without consent."[12] When Townsend was arrested, he admitted that he had grabbed the victim's penis. He told the officer that he did not know T.M., and that he grabbed T.M.'s penis because he wanted to "hit on" T.M.[13]

         Following Townsend's indictment, Townsend's attorney moved to dismiss the sexual assault charge, arguing that the evidence did not support a finding that Townsend's act of momentarily grabbing T.M.'s penis constituted sexual contact that was "coerced by the use of force." The superior court agreed that there was insufficient proof that Townsend used any force or threat of force beyond the "bodily impact [or] restraint" inherent in the act of touching itself, so the court dismissed the indictment.[14]

         When the State appealed the superior court's decision, the case resulted in separate opinions from each of the three members of this Court-with two members of this Court voting to affirm the superior court's decision, but for slightly different reasons. Central to both the lead and concurring opinions, however, was the concept that there is a difference between an act of unwanted sexual touching that a person may find offensive and an act of unwanted sexual touching that is coerced by the use of force or threat of force.[15] The former may constitute the criminal offense of first-degree harassment, but it does not constitute the crime of second-degree sexual assault.[16]

         In Townsend, there was no evidence of force or threat of force, apart from the force inherent in the sexual contact itself. Nor was there any evidence that the victim felt threatened or fearful. The same is not true in Inga's case. Townsend involved a momentary grab of a man's genitals in a crowded public bar. Here, the sexual contact occurred in an isolated location by a man who the victim had good reason to be afraid of. The sexual contact also occurred immediately after the victim had just unequivocally refused to have sex with the defendant, and the defendant's immediate response to the victim's attempt to resist any further contact was to physically attack her, pushing her down to the floor, straddling her body, and trying to restrain her arms as he did so.

         In his briefing on appeal, Inga repeatedly tries to separate his act of grabbing L.P.'s breasts from his ensuing physical attack on L.P. that left her injured, focusing on L.P.'s comment that she momentarily looked towards her cigarettes after pushing Inga away from her breasts. But when we review a claim of evidentiary insufficiency on appeal, we are required to view the evidence presented at trial - and all reasonable inferences to be drawn from this evidence - in the light most favorable to upholding the verdict.[17] Viewing the evidence at Inga's trial in that light, we conclude that a fair-minded juror exercising reasonable judgment could find that Inga's grabbing of L.P.'s breasts and his ensuing attack were connected parts of a continuous episode, and that Inga's contact with L.P.'s breasts occurred without consent, as that term is defined under Alaska law.[18] Accordingly, we reject Inga's argument on appeal that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction for second-degree sexual assault.

         Inga 's sentencing arguments

         Inga had one prior felony conviction and multiple prior misdemeanor convictions, many of which involved assaultive behavior. As a result of his prior felony conviction, Inga faced a presumptive sentencing range of 10 to 25 years' imprisonment for the second-degree sexual assault conviction and a ...


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