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Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Curtis Allee Williams

May 8, 2012

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA APPELLEE
v.
CURTIS ALLEE WILLIAMS, JR. APPELLANT



Appeal from the Judgment of Sentence May 16, 2011 In the Court of Common Pleas of Dauphin County Criminal Division at No(s): CP-22-CR-0002330-2009

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gantman, J.

BEFORE: GANTMAN, J., ALLEN, J., and MUNDY, J.

OPINION BY GANTMAN, J.:

Appellant, Curtis Allee Williams, Jr., appeals from the judgment of sentence entered in the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas, following his jury trial convictions for aggravated assault and recklessly endangering another person ("REAP").*fn1 Appellant now challenges the court's decision to exclude evidence of the victim's blood alcohol content, as well as the court's use of the phrase "victim." We hold that a defendant's after-acquired knowledge of the victim's intoxication is not relevant to a claim of self- defense. We further hold the trial court properly denied Appellant's motion in limine to preclude the use of the term "victim" at trial because the phrase "victim" was not unduly prejudicial, given the circumstances of this case. Accordingly, we affirm.

The relevant facts and procedural history of this appeal are as follows. This case involves an incident of aggressive driving that escalated into a roadside shooting. On April 12, 2009, Appellant was driving down Nyes Road in Harrisburg after having dinner with his family; Harrison Purdy was in a sports utility vehicle directly behind Appellant. Appellant believed Mr. Purdy was going too fast and following too close, so Appellant slammed on his breaks to alert Mr. Purdy. Mr. Purdy took exception, and the situation intensified to the point where both men were driving aggressively and in a hostile manner toward each other. While stopped at a red light, Mr. Purdy exited his car and approached Appellant's vehicle. Appellant also left his car, but with a gun. He pointed the gun at Mr. Purdy and fired three shots; one shot hit Mr. Purdy in the leg. Mr. Purdy was rushed to the hospital, where doctors treated him for the gunshot wound. Routine tests performed at the hospital revealed Mr. Purdy had a blood alcohol content ("BAC") of 0.156.

Police charged Appellant with criminal attempt homicide, aggravated assault, and REAP. Both parties filed motions in limine seeking evidentiary rulings from the court. The Commonwealth sought to preclude Appellant from introducing Mr. Purdy's BAC results at trial. Appellant tried to prevent the Commonwealth or the court from using what Appellant referred to as "loaded language," such as "victim" and "crime scene" at trial. On December 3, 2010, the trial court granted the Commonwealth's motion and denied Appellant's motion. The case went before a jury on March 7, 2011, where Appellant raised a claim of self-defense. The jury heard two days of testimony before finding Appellant guilty of aggravated assault and REAP, but not guilty of criminal attempt homicide. On May 16, 2011, the trial court imposed an aggregate sentence of five (5) to ten (10) years' imprisonment. Appellant timely filed a notice of appeal on May 25, 2011. The court ordered Appellant to file a concise statement of errors complained of on appeal pursuant to Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b), and Appellant timely complied on June 22, 2011.

Appellant raises the following issues for our review:

RELEVANT EVIDENCE IS ADMISSIBLE UNLESS OTHERWISE

PRECLUDED BY LAW. HARRISON PURDY WAS INTOXICATED AND WAS MAKING AGGRESSIVE GESTURES WHEN HE APPROACHED [APPELLANT] AND HIS JUVENILE CHILDREN. WAS EVIDENCE THAT MR. PURDY WAS INTOXICATED ADMISSIBLE WHERE [APPELLANT] CLAIMED SELF-DEFENSE IN SHOOTING MR. PURDY?

THE DICTIONARY DEFINITION OF THE WORD "VICTIM" IS "ONE HARMED BY A CRIME OR WRONG." THE QUESTION AT ISSUE IN THE PRESENT CASE IS WHETHER MR. PURDY WAS INJURED BY A CRIME OR WRONG. WAS THE TRIAL COURT'S DECISION TO CALL MR. PURDY THE VICTIM ON AT LEAST 17 OCCASIONS ERROR, FOLLOWING ITS DENIAL OF [APPELLANT'S] MOTION IN LIMINE TO PRECLUDE SUCH LANGUAGE?

(Appellant's Brief at 1).

Appellant argues evidence of Mr. Purdy's BAC results was relevant to Appellant's claim of self-defense because it would aid in the jury's determination of whether Appellant reasonably believed that force was immediately necessary to protect himself and his children. Appellant maintains the court's decision to preclude the BAC evidence denied Appellant the opportunity to present expert testimony on the link between alcohol and violent tendencies. Appellant also argues the BAC evidence was relevant to show bias, where Mr. Purdy had a BAC over the legal limit, but the Commonwealth did not charge him with DUI. Appellant seizes on this fact to claim the Commonwealth gave Mr. Purdy "preferential treatment," which in turn supplied Mr. Purdy with a motive to testify in a manner consistent with the Commonwealth's theory of the case. Appellant further contends that Mr. Purdy's high BAC was relevant to impeach his perception of the events in question. For these reasons, Appellant concludes the court erred in precluding the admission of Mr. Purdy's BAC results at trial. We disagree.

"A motion in limine is a procedure for obtaining a ruling on the admissibility of evidence prior to or during trial, but before the evidence has been offered." Commonwealth v. Bobin, 916 A.2d 1164, 1166 (Pa.Super. 2007). A trial court's decision to grant or deny a motion in limine is generally subject to an evidentiary abuse of discretion standard of review. Commonwealth v. Moser, 999 A.2d 602, 605 (Pa.Super. 2010), appeal denied, ___ Pa. ___, 20 A.3d 485 (2011).

Relevance is the threshold for admissibility of evidence. Commonwealth v. Cook, 597 Pa. 572, 602, 952 A.2d 594, 612 (2008).

Relevant evidence is "evidence having any tendency to make the existence of any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable than it would be without the evidence." Pa.R.E. 401. "Evidence is relevant if it logically tends to establish a material fact in the case, tends to make a fact at issue more or less probable or supports a reasonable inference or presumption regarding a material fact." Commonwealth v. Drumheller, 570 Pa. 117, 135, 808 A.2d 893, 904 (2002), cert. denied, 539 U.S. 919, 123 S.Ct. 2284, 156 L.Ed.2d 137 (2003). "Evidence that is not relevant is not admissible." Pa.R.E. 402.

"Although relevant, evidence may be excluded if its probative value is outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury, or by considerations of undue delay, waste of time, or needless presentation of cumulative evidence." Pa.R.E. 403. "Evidence will not be prohibited merely because it is harmful to the defendant." Commonwealth v. Page, ...


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