Law School Case Brief
Parker v. United States - 155 A.3d 835 (D.C. 2017)
Under the District of Columbia's long-standing common law test for self-defense, captured in the standard jury instructions, whether the government has disproved a claim of self-defense turns on two questions: (1) whether a defendant reasonably believed that she was in imminent danger of bodily harm (an inquiry that may be informed, among other things, by motive evidence presented by the government); and (2) if so, whether the force used was excessive. Motive is not separately and additionally considered as a basis for disproving a claim of self-defense.
Defendant Tameka Parker walked out of her home where she lived with her three children. She was about to get into a friend's car, when she heard Mr. Powell yell from across the street that he "should go over and smack the *** out of that ***." When defendant asked to whom he was speaking, Powell crossed the street and came onto her property, positioned himself so that he and defendant were face-to-face, and said, "***, you." Powell's "aggressive” approach indicated to defendant that "he was trying to fight [her]," and Powell asked her "do you want that smoke," a question defendant understood as a threat to shoot her. At about that time, unbeknownst to defendant, a police officer arrived. While sitting in his car, the officer saw Powell face-to-face with defendant, surrounded by approximately ten people, all standing near a car and yelling at each other. The officer could not hear what they were saying, but he saw defendant spit on Powell. When he spoke to her at the scene, she explained "that she wouldn't just spit on [Powell] for no reason, that he spit on her first." The officer then arrested defendant for simple assault. The trial court, after determining that defendant's spitting was an assaultive act, rejected her claim of self-defense. Defendant sought appellate review.
Was the government successful in disproving a claim of self-defense?
Defendant's conviction for simple assault under D.C. Code § 22-404(a)(1) (2016 Supp.) was not supported by sufficient evidence, as she established that she reasonably believed that she was in imminent danger of bodily harm when the assailant and his family accosted her, and the assailant threatened and then spit on her; as such, the Government failed to sufficiently disprove her claim of self-defense. Defendant sufficiently established that she acted in self-defense when she spit on the assailant and that she was actually and reasonably afraid of the assailant, such that the trial court should have determined whether she employed excessive force, which was clearly not present in the circumstances. The trial court's finding that defendant acted with a retaliatory motive was error because it improperly conducted a separate inquiry into her motive.
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