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Evans v. State

Superior Court of Delaware

April 30, 2019

HAKEEM M. EVANS, Defendant-Below, Appellant
STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff-Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: January 17, 2019

         Upon Appeal from the Court of Common Pleas of the State of Delaware in and for New Castle County, REVERSED.

          Benjamin S. Gifford, IV, Esquire, The Law Office of Benjamin S. Gifford, IV, Wilmington, Delaware, for Appellant, Hakeem M. Evans.

          Julia C. Mayer, Esquire, Deputy Attorney General, Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware, for Appellee, the State of Delaware.




         "The more you look at 'common knowledge', the more you realise that it is more likely to be common than it is to be knowledge."[1] Since the adoption of our criminal impersonation statute, Delaware practitioners and jurists assumed that the State need only prove that one gave a false name to be convicted. The Court here must, for the first time, confront that precise assumption. That examination reveals that no matter what was once believed to be in the font of common Delaware criminal law knowledge, one cannot criminally impersonate a wholly fictitious person; the State must prove as an element of that statutory offense that a false name given is one belonging to "a human being who has been born and is alive."[2]

         Hakeem M. Evans appeals his conviction for misdemeanor criminal impersonation. Evans' only contention on appeal is that, at his Court of Common Pleas trial, the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he "impersonate[d] another person" when he verbally gave the police a name that was not his own. The Court must conclude here that he is right. And because there was insufficient evidence to support Evans' conviction of misdemeanor criminal impersonation, it must be REVERSED.


         Just before midnight on April 30, 2017, New Castle County Police Officer Christopher Nikituk was dispatched to Stonebridge Boulevard in New Castle, Delaware, for a loud music complaint. Officer Nikituk found the reported vehicle and spoke to its two male occupants. One of the two was the Appellant Hakeem M. Evans. Officer Nikituk asked each man for his name, date of birth, phone number, and address. After some back-and-forth, Evans told the officer that his name was "Nasir Evans." Evans also provided a date of birth and phone number. Officer Nikituk searched the Delaware Criminal Justice Information System ("DELJIS"), but found no records for that name and date of birth.

         Officer Nikituk asked Evans to identify himself once more. This time Evans told the officer that his name was "Johnny Roberts" and gave a different birthdate. Again Officer Nikituk searched DELJIS. Again he could find no records matching the information given. A second officer on-scene then ran the phone number Evans had first provided. That DELJIS search revealed Evans' true identity: Hakeem Evans, born August 23, 1994. That search also revealed that Evans had an open arrest warrant.

         Evans was arrested and eventually charged by Criminal Information with one count of criminal impersonation.[3] He was tried before the Court of Common Pleas without a jury. The only trial evidence presented was Off. Nikituk's testimony. When he was asked to describe his attempt to identify Evans with the two false names provided, Off. Nikituk explained: "With both of those names specifically I don't know if the name actually populated or not. I know the pictures didn't match. Either the name didn't populate or the pictures did not match. It was one or the other."[4]

         During closing argument, Evans' counsel posited that the State failed to meet its burden because it did not prove that the name Nasir Evans belonged to a real person which, he argued, is an element of criminal impersonation.[5] But, the trial court found Evans guilty of criminal impersonation, holding:

[C]onsidering the totality of the circumstances I understand, but don't agree with, but understand [the] defense argument as to the requirement that . . . -the name given has to be an actual person. Actual person, meaning, according to the defense, a living, breathing person. That seems to be the argument, [an] identifiable [person] as opposed to nonidentifiable. I don't read the Statute in that manner. I think that it does damage to what the statute is intending to prove and how the Statute has been historically applied.[6]

         Evans was sentenced to one year of imprisonment, suspended in whole for one year of non-reporting unsupervised probation. Execution of this sentence was stayed pending Evans' direct appeal.[7]


         This Court takes criminal appeals from the Court of Common Pleas.[8] When considering such an appeal from the Court of Common Pleas, this Court functions in its position as an intermediate appellate court, "in the same manner as the Supreme Court."[9] So an appeal from a verdict of the Court of Common Pleas, sitting without a jury, "is upon both the law and the facts."[10] The Court reviews the trial court's factual findings to determine if they are "sufficiently supported by the record" and "the product of an orderly and logical deductive process."[11] And when considering on appeal the sufficiency of evidence to convict, the Court must discern "whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt."[12] The Court considers all probative evidence, whether direct or circumstantial.[13] If the trial court's findings are sufficiently supported by the record, this Court must accept them.[14] It does not "make its own factual conclusions, weigh evidence, or make credibility determinations."[15] Only where the record below indicates the trial court's factual findings are "clearly wrong" may the Court, "in justice," correct them.[16]

         But this Court reviews de novo the trial court's formulation and application of legal concepts to undisputed facts.[17] And the Court must correct the trial court's errors of law.[18]


         On this appeal, the Court must review de novo the questions of law presented-i.e., those of statutory construction and interpretation.[19] So, the Court must first determine whether the Court of Common Pleas committed an error of law when it interpreted Delaware's criminal impersonation statute and formulated the elements that must be proven thereunder. The Court then must determine whether the State's evidence was sufficient to meet the properly constructed elements of our criminal impersonation statute-11 Del. C. § 907(1).

         A. The Elements of Criminal Impersonation Under 11 Del. C. § 907(1)-Those Proven, That Contested.

         Section 907 of Title 11, in the part pertinent here, provides that one "is guilty of criminal impersonation when the person . . . [i]mpersonates another person and does an act in an assumed character intending to obtain a benefit . . . ."[20] So the elements of that offense as charged here are: (1) Evans impersonated another person, in this case, a "Nasir Evans"; (2) Evans did some act in that assumed character; and (3) Evans did that act intending to obtain some benefit therefrom. Evans conceded at trial and concedes now that the State proved the second and third elements.[21] And for good reason: The evidence of his act-misidentifying himself during a criminal inquiry-and intent when acting-avoiding arrest on outstanding warrants-have long been understood as sufficient.[22] Evans questions just one element essential to his conviction: Whether the State was required as a matter of law and did as a matter of fact prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Evans "impersonate[d]" another "human being who was born and is alive."[23]

         B. Under The Plain Reading Of 11 Del. C. § 907(1), One Must Be Proven to Have Impersonated a Real, Living Person to be Convicted.

         Evans argues that the Court of Common Pleas erred in its interpretation of the criminal impersonation statute when it found that the State need not prove that the false name Evans provided belonged to an actual person. This Court applies settled principles of statutory interpretation, giving effect to the plain language of an unambiguous statute, and applying the literal meaning of the statute's words.[24]"[T]he meaning of a statute must, in the first instance, be sought in the language in which the act is framed, and if that is plain ... the sole function of the courts is to enforce it according to its terms."[25] A statute is ambiguous only if it is "reasonably susceptible to different interpretations, or if giving a literal interpretation to the words of the statute would lead to an unreasonable or absurd result that could not have been intended by the legislature."[26]

         Section 907(1) requires that the State present sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that one "impersonate[d] another person." True, "the general rule that a penal statute is to be strictly construed does not apply to [Delaware's] Criminal Code."[27] And "the provisions [thereof] must be construed according to the fair import of their terms to promote justice and effect the purposes of the law."[28] But that statutory admonition is not an invitation to abandon the ordinary rules of statutory construction and interpretation to effect what the State argues would be a more "workable" result[29] or sound public policy.[30]

         To discern the meaning of a word in a criminal statute, the Court must first look to the Criminal Code itself. In the Delaware Criminal Code "when the word 'means' is employed in defining a word or term, the definition is limited to the meaning given."[31] And "[w]hen used in th[e] Criminal Code . . . 'Person' means a human being who has been born and is alive."[32] Hence, when §907(1) proscribes passing oneself off as "another person," it proscribes only taking on the identity of another real living person.

         The Court of Common Pleas judge-first confronted with Evans' textual argument only during oral closings of his misdemeanor bench trial-believed Evans' suggested reading was inconsistent with the purpose of the criminal impersonation statute and "how the statute has been historically applied."[33] Here the Court must find that the trial court erred when it strayed from the plain text of §§907(1) and 222(21).

         But the Court recognizes that a reasonable reading of prior Delaware decisions could easily lead one astray and only this closer mapping on appeal dispels the seemingly long-accepted assumption that any use of a false name would suffice. Indeed, neither the parties to this appeal nor this Court could identify a prior Delaware decision expressly defining the element "impersonates another person."[34]And the closest that could be found was the resolution of a Fourth Amendment challenge wherein our Supreme Court found a police officer had probable cause to arrest the appellant for criminal impersonation, in part because the officer "had nothing to indicate that the person before him was [fake name given], or that a [fake name given] even existed."[35] This is, of course, far from a definitive answer from the Court on the question of what is necessary to prove the essential element of "impersonating] another person." The Court there observed that its holding only spoke to probable cause to arrest. And that "[p]robable cause does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, only a reasonable ground for belief of guilt."[36] Yet, the language "or that a [fake name given] even existed" can certainly be viewed as endorsing the notion that the element of criminal impersonation at issue here might be met by giving any false name.

         But §§ 907(1) and 222 are unambiguous. So their plain language controls[37]and the trial court should have applied the statutory language to the facts of the case before it.[38] If it had, the court would have found the proper construction of the element required the State prove that Evans impersonated a human being that was born and is alive.

         C. The State's Fruitless Attempts to Suggest Ambiguity.

         When "a statute is unambiguous, and an application of the literal meaning of its words would not be absurd or unreasonable, there is no legal basis for an interpretation of those words by the court."[39] But even if the Court needed to consult some other sources it might to discern the meaning of "impersonates another person," the State's postulation would fair no better.

         This Court must presume that each word and phrase choice by the legislature when defining elements of a crime is meaningful.[40] And the Court cannot lightly assume that the General Assembly ascribed some broader meaning to a particular elemental phrase-here, "another person"-than the plain statutory text evinces. All the more so when the General Assembly has shown elsewhere in the very same legislative act that it knows how to make such a broader meaning manifest.[41]

         As explained before, the criminal impersonation statute at § 907(1) says that one must impersonate "another person." By contrast, the very same subchapter of the Criminal Code defines forgery, in part, as issuing certain writings which purport "to be the act of another person, whether real or fictitious., "[42] This differing operative language of these two related provisions became Delaware law at precisely the same time via precisely the same act of the General Assembly.[43] This is strong textual evidence that the General Assembly purposely intended to narrow the other persons whom one might criminally impersonate under § 907(1) to "human beings who ha[ve] been born and [are] alive." [44] If the legislature intended to include taking on ...

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