Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Page 3


Display of Firearm During False Imprisonment ‘Menacing’—C.A.


By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer


A defendant’s mere display of a handgun during a false imprisonment—even though he never actually pointed it at the victim—was sufficiently menacing to elevate the crime to a felony, the Sixth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.

The court upheld Christopher James Wardell’s conviction of felony false imprisonment for entering a man’s home and holding the man against his will during a flight from a bank robbery because Wardell, by openly holding a gun and directing the man around the house, impliedly threatened to use it.

Wardell was fleeing from a Bank of America branch in San Jose that he had robbed with the help of an accomplice driving a Toyota hatchback on the afternoon of Jan. 21, 2003 when he entered the home of David Arellanes carrying a gun.

The robbers had collected more than $20,000 in cash from the robbery, but some of it included “bait money,” the serial numbers of which bank employees had previously recorded. Bank employees had also placed several electronic tracking devices sandwiched between bills.

Within approximately 15 minutes of the robbery, police tracked the devices to an area near a home about five miles from the bank, but the signal seemed to be coming from a dark Saturn two blocks away.

When a search of the Saturn turned up no clothing or money associated with the robbery, and the monitor stopped receiving any “hits” from the vehicle, police released the driver and resumed the chase.

Meanwhile, Arellanes had just returned inside from speaking with his cousins about the police activity when he saw Wardell enter the house through the backdoor with the gun.

Wardell told Arellanes to “keep quiet” and “stay where [he] was,” and then made Arellanes walk him to a bedroom while Wardell pointed the gun at the ground.

He subsequently discovered some of the devices and shorted them out by throwing them and cash into the toilet, but not before police, who had resumed receiving signals, surrounded the home.

Arellanes and Wardell waited for the next hour and a half, during which time Wardell told Arellanes not to answer the telephone when it rang.

However, when police could be heard attempting to enter, Wardell hid in a bedroom closet and Arellanes made contact with the officers.

Police arrested Wardell, and found an address book on him with a listing for Darell Gentry—the driver of the Saturn—who later admitted having driven the getaway car.

Appealing his conviction of felony false imprisonment, Wardell conceded that he had falsely imprisoned Arellanes, but argued that it was not felonious because he had not engaged in the “violence, menace, fraud, or deceit” necessary to elevate the charge from a misdemeanor to a felony. He also contended there was insufficient evidence to support the jury’s finding—which enhanced his sentence—that he personally used a firearm in committing the crime.

But the Court of Appeal, in an opinion by Justice Nathan D. Mihara, flatly rejected both arguments.

“By openly holding a gun in his hand as he directed Arellanes around the house, [Wardell] implied that he was threatening to use the gun....” Mihara wrote. “When a rational factfinder could conclude that a defendant’s acts or words expressly or impliedly threatened harm, the factfinder may find that there is menace sufficient to make false imprisonment a felony.”

He similarly swept aside Wardell’s contentions that the sentence enhancement required proof that he specifically intended to use the firearm to commit the false imprisonment, and that Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Arthur Bocanegra had erred when he failed to define the phrase “displays the firearm in a menacing manner” for the jury.

Writing that, “[t]he issue is not one of the gun user’s subjective mental state but of the objective role that the gun use played in the commission of the crime,” Mihara said that a definition of the phrase was not required because it “is commonly understood and has no technical legal meaning.”

Justices Patricia Bamattre-Manoukian and Wendy Clark Duffy joined Mihara in his opinion.

The case is People v. Wardell, 08 S.O.S. 2954.


Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company