Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Return Of The Prodigal Son

Can you burglarize a home that you partly own?

Yes, according to an opinion issued yesterday by the South Carolina Supreme Court.

The facts:

By virtue of intestate succession, Singley inherited a 12.5 percent interest in his childhood home from his father in August 2001.  His brother owns an additional 12.5 percent, and his mother owns the remaining 75 percent.  Singley remained in the house until his early twenties, and then returned again in April 2005.  He resided there for three weeks, until his mother "put him out" of the house.  He did not return his key to his mother, telling her that he had lost it.  As between Singley and his mother, Singley did not have permission to return to the house.  It was not until one night in early October 2005, some six months later, that he did so.

On that night, Singley's mother was at a bar with friends, returning home at approximately 2:30 am.  While she was out of the house, Singley entered through a back window after climbing a small stepladder.  When she returned, Singley jumped out from behind her and put a knife to her throat.  He threatened to kill her if she screamed, and then demanded money from her.  After she complied with his requests, he forced her into her bedroom and tied her to the bed using jogging pants, medical tape, and pajamas.  He threw her telephone out the window and ordered her to wait twenty minutes before attempting to find help.  Once she was sure Singley had left and would not return, his mother freed herself from her restraints and went to a neighbor's house to call the police.  Police arrested Singley at his residence, which was around the corner from his mother's house.

Singley was indicted for first degree burglary, armed robbery, and kidnapping.  Singley moved for a directed verdict on all charges.  As to the burglary charge, Singley argued that because he is a part owner of the house and there was no order of protection or similar legal instrument divesting him of his right to enter it, the State failed to prove that he entered the house without the consent of a person in lawful possession.  In essence, he argued that because he was a person in lawful possession, he could enter freely without his mother's consent.  The circuit court denied Singley's motion.  The jury found Singley guilty of burglary and armed robbery, but it acquitted him of kidnapping.  The circuit court sentenced Singley to consecutive sentences of life without parole.  On appeal to the court of appeals, Singley challenged only his burglary conviction. State v. Singley, 383 S.C. 441, 441, 679 S.E.2d 538, 539 (Ct. App. 2009).  He repeated the arguments he made at the directed verdict stage that one cannot commit burglary by breaking into one's own dwelling. Id.  The court of appeals affirmed, holding that Singley's mother was the sole possessor of the dwelling when the burglary occurred, and therefore her consent was needed to enter.

The court concluded:

...we wish to emphasize that the inquiry into whether a defendant has a sufficient possessory interest in the dwelling burglarized is highly factual.  A defendant's ownership interest in the dwelling will not preclude a conviction of burglary as a matter of law.  Rather, the jury must determine whether, under the totality of the circumstances, the defendant used the dwelling in such a manner that it could be said to be his own home, therefore making him a person in lawful possession.

(Mike Frisch)


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