Criminal Law Blog

Fighting Saliva with Saliva: As Long as there’s a Reasonable Belief of Imminent Harm, You Can Spit on Somone Who Spat at You, Even If You are a Little Angry

 


Parker v. United States (decided March 16, 2017)

Players: Associate Judges Thompson and Easterly, Senior Judge Ferren. Opinion by Associate Judge Easterly. Concurring Opinion by Senior Judge Ferren. Dissenting Opinion by Judge Thompson. Paul J. Riley for Ms. Parker.  Trial Judge: Judith N. Macaluso.

Facts: One evening, Ms. Parker walked outside of her home to get into a friend’s car.  Mr. Powell, a man who previously dated Parker’s daughter, began yelling threats from across the street in the direction of Parker—“[I] should go over and smack the shit out of that bitch.”  When Parker asked whether Powell was referring to her, Powell walked onto Parker’s property, aggressively stood “face-to-face” with her, and then indicated that he wanted to fight.  Powell’s mother and several brothers joined Powell in surrounding Parker, and then proceeded to hurl threats and insults at her.  When standing less than two feet from Parker, Powell spit in her face. Because Parker was “scared” and “didn’t know what [Powell] was going to do next,” she spit back.

In the moments before the spitting, a police officer arrived and saw Powell and Parker standing face-to-face, surrounded by approximately ten people.  The officer could not discern any of the specific things yelled between the two people, but did observe Parker spit on Powell.  Parker was arrested for simple assault.

At trial, the government only called the arresting officer, who only saw a limited portion of the interaction between Parker and Powell.  Relying on a self-defense theory, Parker testified that she spit on Powell because he spit first, and that she was “scared for [her] life.” Although the trial court credited Parker’s testimony and believed that she reasonably believed that she was in imminent danger of bodily harm, the court nevertheless convicted Parker because it perceived that Parker spit back because of anger or indignation.

Issue: If the government fails to disprove that a defendant reasonably believed that she was in imminent danger of bodily harm, can it still carry its burden to rebut a claim of self-defense by showing that there was another motive guiding defendant’s actions?

Answer: No.  When self-defense is raised, the fact-finder must first determine whether the defendant actually and reasonably believed that she was in imminent danger of bodily harm.  If the government cannot disprove this threshold question, the fact-finder must then look to the amount of force used by the defendant, as the defendant may use only reasonable force to repel the perceived attack and not excessive force.  The DCCA found no cases to suggest that, after a finding that the defendant actually and reasonably believed to be in imminent danger of bodily harm, self-defense is defeated if the defendant acted out of a motive of anger or retribution.  Thus, the trial court erred by injecting motive as an independent inquiry that a fact-finder must make in order to determine whether the government disproved self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.  Ms. Parker should have been acquitted.

JW

Read the full opinion here.