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Hilton v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Virginia

April 13, 2017

TAVON HILTON
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA

          FROM THE COURT OF APPEALS OF VIRGINIA

          OPINION

          ELIZABETH A. McCLANAHAN, Judge

          A jury convicted Tavon Hilton of carjacking and use of a firearm in the commission of carjacking, along with robbery, attempted robbery, attempted malicious wounding and three other counts of using a firearm in the commission of these felonies. On appeal, Hilton contends the trial court erred in denying his motion to strike the Commonwealth's evidence as insufficient to sustain the carjacking and related firearm convictions. He also contends the trial court erred in refusing his proffered jury instruction on carjacking. Finding no error, we affirm Hilton's convictions.

         I. BACKGROUND

         "In accordance with familiar principles of appellate review, the facts will be stated in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth, the prevailing party at trial." Scott v. Commonwealth, 292 Va. 380, 381, 789 S.E.2d 608 (2016) (citing Baldwin v. Commonwealth, 274 Va. 276, 278, 645 S.E.2d 433, 433 (2007)). The two victims in this case were Ronald Wetzler and his son, Rodney Wetzler, both of whom testified at trial. Seeking to purchase a used vehicle, Rodney discovered a Craigslist advertisement offering to sell a 2002 Cadillac Seville and called the purported owner, who went by the name of "James, "-later identified by the police as Hilton. Rodney agreed to meet Hilton at the leasing office of an apartment complex to look at the car. Later that afternoon, Ronald drove his son, Rodney, to the leasing office in Ronald's pickup truck. When they found no one at that location, Rodney called Hilton, at which time Hilton directed them to drive to the back of the apartment complex where he would meet them. Ronald then drove to that location, parked his truck and exited it, along with Rodney.

         There, they encountered two individuals, Hilton, who introduced himself as James, and another male, who remained unidentified. The advertised car was nowhere to be seen. Hilton said he had sent someone with the car to put gas in it. As the four men chatted at the rear of Ronald's truck, Hilton pulled out a revolver-type handgun, pointed it at Ronald's chest and stated, "don't make me shoot you." Hilton's accomplice proceeded to go through Ronald's and Rodney's pockets. The accomplice took Ronald's truck keys and wallet, but returned the wallet after finding no money in it. He also took cash from Rodney totaling $2, 773. After taking the cash and truck keys, Hilton ordered both Ronald and Rodney to get into the truck. When they complied, Hilton and his accomplice started walking away.

         A few moments later, Ronald exited his truck with a shotgun, yelled at Hilton and his accomplice to drop the truck keys, and then fired a shot in the air. The assailants ran, after which Rodney grabbed the shotgun from Ronald and chased after them. Rodney ended his pursuit when Hilton fired four shots in Rodney's direction. Hilton and his accomplice then fled from the area.

         After the Commonwealth presented its case in chief on the various charges against Hilton at his jury trial, Hilton moved to strike the Commonwealth's evidence on the charges brought against him for carjacking in violation of Code § 18.2-58.1, and use of a firearm in the commission of carjacking in violation of Code § 18.2-53.1. Hilton argued that the evidence was insufficient because it showed only that he took possession of Ronald's truck keys, and not that he actually took possession or control of the truck, as required under Code § 18.2-58.1. The trial court denied the motion to strike. Hilton then renewed the motion to strike at the close of all the evidence based on the same argument, and the trial court again denied the motion.

         With respect to the carjacking related charges, Hilton proffered a jury instruction specifically addressed to the jury's consideration of the act of taking the truck keys. The Commonwealth objected to the instruction, arguing that it imposed upon the Commonwealth a higher burden than the law required. The trial court sustained the Commonwealth's objection, concluding that the Virginia model jury instruction tendered by the Commonwealth for carjacking was sufficient.

         The jury found Hilton guilty on all charges and the trial court entered judgments of conviction imposing the jury's verdicts, including the sentences of imprisonment fixed by the jury.

         Hilton appealed his convictions of carjacking and use of a firearm in the commission of carjacking to the Court of Appeals, arguing that the trial court erred by (i) denying his motion to strike the Commonwealth's evidence supporting the charges for those offenses on sufficiency grounds, and (ii) rejecting his proffered carjacking related jury instruction. Hilton's petition for appeal was denied by the Court of Appeals in a per curiam order (Hilton v. Commonwealth, Record No. 0552-15-2 (December 30, 2015)) and again denied by order of a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals (Hilton v. Commonwealth, Record No. 0552-15-2 (March 15, 2016)). We subsequently awarded Hilton this appeal.

         II. ANALYSIS

         A. Sufficiency of the Evidence

         When the sufficiency of the evidence is challenged on appeal in a criminal case, "we review factfinding with the highest degree of appellate deference." Bowman v. Commonwealth, 290 Va. 492, 496, 777 S.E.2d 851, 854 (2015). In such cases, as we have repeatedly stated, "[a]n appellate court does not ask itself whether it believes that the evidence at the trial established guilt beyond a reasonable doubt." Id. (quoting Williams v. Commonwealth, 278 Va. 190, 193, 677 S.E.2d 280, 282 (2009) (citing Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 318-19 (1979)). "Rather, the relevant question is, " upon review of the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, "whether any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt." Id. ...


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