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The Virginia Appellate Lawyer’s Court of Appeals of Virginia Blog

An en banc grant and three decisions, two by split panels

Facing multiple deadlines in three different appellate courts, your humble correspondent is running a bit behind on the posting analysis of the Court of Appeals’ decisions this week. There are three criminal appeals and one grant of an en banc petition in a civil case. The latter is for Telegraph Square II, A Condominium Unit Owners v. 7205 Telegraph Square, LLC, and once again I shall take undeserved credit for predicting that the panel’s decisions would raise sufficient eyebrows to warrant an en banc.


Mamodoh Abouemara v. Commonwealth of Virginia involves the offense of bribery of a public official. Abouemara owns a convenience store in the Town of La Crosse and desired to have “skill machines” therein. Now some of you who follow the world of “gaming” in Virginia know that as of July 1, 2020 these ersatz slot-machines are no longer permitted in retail establishments unless they are grandfathered by having been in place before July 7, 2020. We therefore know that Abouemara must have committed the alleged act of bribery before that date.


In fact, Abouemara had a number of such machines in his store sometime on 2019, which the La Crosse Police Chief discovered after noticing an unusual pattern of activity at the store in the wee hours of the night. As you can ascertain from the interest this aroused with the po-po, the machines were not properly licensed.


You might assume that the bribery was an attempt to get the chief to look the other way, but no, in fact the police seemed to be fairly reasonable about the issue because Abouemara was able to get the advice of a lawyer on how to go about getting approval for the machines. What got Abouemara into trouble was his offer to make “donations” to the town in exchange for a letter supporting his application for a skill games license.


The town manager advised Abouemara that the Town could not take such donations, but that Abouemara could make donations to a non-profit organization that supported public works in the town. There was no direct implication that this would result in the town supporting the application, however, the manager agreed to take the offer to the Town Council.

At its next meeting, the manager duly reported that Abouemara would make payments of $500 to the town each month in exchange for the letter of support. The Town Council did not take up the offer. Abouemara nonetheless delivered a check for $200 payable to the Town to the manager shortly thereafter. On the advice of the Police Chief, the check was marked “Void” and not deposited.


Abouemara was charged with two counts of bribery; one for the $500 offer and the other for the $200 check. The circuit court struck the latter count, finding that there was no evidence that Abouemara expected any quid-pro-quo. However, Abouemara was convicted of bribery for the original offer and sentenced to five years imprisonment with all time suspended and one year of probation.


On appeal, Abouemara maintains that the Commonwealth failed to prove that he acted with a corrupt intent or with an intent to undermine the administration of justice. The Court of Appeals, Judge Raphael joined by Judge Callins, gives a nice essay on the history of bribery, which the Court says has “a long pedigree.” The majority then finds that Abouemara plainly sought to corruptly influence the Town Council to provide him with a letter of support for obtaining the skill machines license.


Judge Chaney dissents. In her view, Abouemara’s request for the letter of support in exchange for the monthly donation to the town did not constitute an attempt to corrupt the Town Council to perform an official act. In her view, the letter of support was a discretionary act that required no official decision or exercise of authority. She contends that under the application of the law adopted by the circuit court and approved by the majority, it would be bribery to offer a donation to the town in exchange for a promise from the mayor to send “a birthday greeting to the community’s oldest citizen.”


While I appreciate Judge Chaney’s view, I don’t agree with her conclusion that asking the town for a letter of support for a gaming license (or an ABC license, or to support an application for clemency, etc.) does not involve an official act. Such a letter would be on Town stationery and be signed by the Mayor or City Manager in an official capacity. Arguably the birthday greeting example would also be “official,” but the difference in my view is that the latter involves no tangible benefit for the person requesting the act of courtesy, whereas Abouemara was hoping for support that would result in a very tangible benefit – one sufficient to justify his cutting the town in for $500 of the take each month.


Colton Allen King v. Commonwealth of Virginia involves the application of a “Miller defense” to the possession of a firearm by a person adjudicated delinquent as a minor for an offense that would have been a felony if applied to an adult. A Miller defense bars the Commonwealth from prosecuting a person who made a good faith effort “to learn what conduct the government has proscribed, but is misadvised by the government itself.”

A minor at least 14 years of age who is adjudged delinquent of a crime that would be a felony if applied to an adult is thereafter barred from possessing a firearm until they reach 30 years of age (and have no felony convictions in the meantime). King was convicted of just such an offense in Pennsylvania, but was correctly advised that his right to possess a weapon would be restored in Pennsylvania upon his release from juvenile probation. The circuit court disallowed the Miller defense and King was convicted. The Court of Appeals, Judge Friedman joined by Judges AtLee and Causey, affirm. The Court noted that Miller expressly limits its application to advice received about Virginia law by a Virginia official. It declines King’s request to expand that holding, reasoning that it does not have the authority to do so because it is bound by the decision in Miller.


I disagree with the panel’s assertion that it could not expand the holding in Miller to a broader range of circumstances. I do not see that this would violate the binding decision principle. Expanding Miller would not overturn the decision or render its application non-binding. However, I also do not think that the Court should expand Miller on these facts. Whether Pennsylvania chooses to restore certain civil liberties to a person whose rights have been impaired by judicial process is a matter for Pennsylvania and Virginia owes that decision full faith and credit. But Virginia was not impairing King’s right to possess a firearm in Pennsylvania. He was in Virginia and subject to its law.


One additional issue probably means that this case is not likely to have any real impact in the future – and maybe will give King hope for a successful habeas action for ineffective assistance of counsel. I quote footnote 3, “King also notes on appeal that the General Assembly amended Code § 18.2-308.2 in 2015 to provide a procedure for recognition in Virginia of another jurisdiction’s restoration of a defendant’s right to possess a firearm, and he argues that this amendment should apply here. King did not raise this argument in the trial court, so it is procedurally barred. See Rule 5A:18.” The Court suggests that King’s right to possess a firearm was never taken away in Pennsylvania, so it could not have been “restored,” but I am not sure that is a correct reading of the facts. It would depend, at least in part, one the age at which it is lawful to possess a firearm in Pennsylvania and when King completed his probation.


Finally, we have Katie Orndoff v. Commonwealth of Virginia. Orndorff was the victim and principal witness in a criminal trial in Loudoun County. During her testimony she repeatedly strayed into matters that the circuit court had ruled were not relevant or admissible. Eventually, defense counsel suggested to the court that perhaps Orndoff had fortified herself for trial with some “liquid or pharmaceutical courage.” Orndoff admitted to having smoked marijuana before coming to court. The court held her in summary contempt and sentenced her to ten days in jail.


The Commonwealth, no doubt concerned that its principal witness was now in the custody of the sheriff, asked the court to reconsider its finding and to appoint counsel for Orndoff. The court demurred, asserting that her admission to having smoked the evil weed and then daring to appear before the court was summary contempt for which Orndoff was neither required notice nor an opportunity to defend.


A majority of the panel, Judge Chaney joined by Judge Raphael, reverses the summary contempt finding (technically, summary contempt does not result in a “conviction”). The majority first finds that while the court was entitled to question Orndoff about her intoxication, her responses “cannot serve as the trial court’s factual basis for finding any essential element of the alleged contemptible conduct.” However, the majority then approves of some slight-of-hand by the circuit court, which initially said it relied on her admissions, but then said that no, after reflecting, it had not done so. Instead, the majority reasons that because the circuit court did not rely on those statements, it necessarily lacked evidence that Orndoff had voluntarily become intoxicated.


Judge Athey dissents. In his view, and frankly the view I think most judges would take, it was sufficient for the circuit court to observe that Orndoff was behaving in a manner consistent with her being impaired to the point that she could not follow the court’s instructions to limit her testimony in accord with its rulings and was otherwise incoherent. While I agree with Judge Athey on the law, I am less sanguine on the circuit court’s decision to punish Orndoff – however, that is something that has already been addressed in the Court of Public Opinion.

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