MELVIN D. WILLIAMS
STATE OF MARYLAND
Circuit Court for Harford County Case No. 12-K-08-1673
Barbera, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, McDonald, Rodowsky, Lawrence F. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.
Petitioner, Melvin D. Williams, was prosecuted in the Circuit Court for Harford County for controlled substance and resisting arrest offenses. Following his convictions, Williams appealed to the Court of Special Appeals arguing that: (1) the trial court violated Maryland Rule 4-215(e) by failing to respond to a letter he sent to the court, prior to trial, seeking to discharge his counsel, and (2) the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction on the charge of resisting a lawful arrest under Maryland Code (2002, 2011 Cum. Supp.), Criminal Law Article, § 9-408(b)(1). The intermediate appellate court affirmed the judgment of the trial court. Williams asks us to reverse on the grounds that the letter he sent to the trial court (filed in the case jacket) was sufficient to trigger Rule 4-215(e) and that the trial court's failure to conduct an inquiry consistent with the mandates of the Rule is reversible error. He asks us also to hold that the Court of Special Appeals erred when it held that the use of force element necessary to sustain a conviction for resisting arrest may be satisfied by the deployment of force against a civilian who assisted voluntarily the arresting law enforcement officers in the capture of Williams.
We hold that Williams's letter to the trial court was sufficient to trigger the rigors of Rule 4-215(e), and further that the trial court's failure to inquire into the reasons behind Williams's request to discharge counsel was reversible error. We hold also that, on this record, the intermediate appellate court did not misinterpret Maryland's resisting arrest statute. Accordingly, we reverse in part and affirm in part the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals and shall direct remand ultimately to the Circuit Court for further proceedings not inconsistent with our opinion.
FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
On 8 October 2008, the State's Attorney for Harford County filed in the Circuit Court a four-count criminal information charging Melvin D. Williams with three controlled dangerous substances offenses and one count of resisting a lawful arrest. John Janowich, Esquire, from the local Office of the Public Defender entered his appearance as Williams's counsel on 11 February 2009. On 27 January 2010, Williams sent from jail a letter that reads in its entirety:
Case No 12-K-08-1673
The Honorable Judge ?? 1/27/2010
My name is Melvin Williams JR Im writting to request New representation From the Public defender's office. Pending me being able to afford an attorney. MR John Janowich has truly No interest on my behalf in trying to help me on my case. I truly feel Im being mis-represented. May U please remove him from my case. I'll truly be appreciated.
Sincerely Melvin Williams
This letter, filed in the court jacket, has a date stamp by the Circuit Court Clerk as being received on 29 January 2010. An entry on the docket confirms the Circuit Court's receipt of Williams's letter: "Letter of Defendant requesting new representation from the public defender's office. Filed: 1/29/10 Entered: 2/17/10." An additional notation in the same docket entry states "Copies sent to SAO, and PD 2/17/10, " presumably meaning that the Clerk sent copies of Williams's letter to the State's Attorney's Office and the local Office of the Public Defender.
There was utterly no response to Williams's letter documented. Mr. Janowich continued to represent Williams over the course of the next sixteen months, including a hearing in the Circuit Court on 7 June 2010, three subsequent hearings, and a two-day jury trial. There is no further mention in the record of Williams's letter by any of the four judges who presided over those various proceedings, by Janowich, by the assistant state's attorney who prosecuted the case, or by Williams.
At Williams's jury trial, two law enforcement officers testified to the following facts pertinent to the circumstances of Williams's arrest. During the evening of 15 September 2008, Deputies Grant Krulock and Robert Schultz of the Harford County Sheriff's Office (collectively, "the Officers") were in uniform and on bicycle patrol in Edgewood, Maryland. At approximately 11:00 P.M., the Officers were talking to a group of civilians clustered around a van parked on the side of Fountain Rock Way. During this conversation, Melvin Williams, who the Officers did not know or recognize at the time, was observed walking toward them down the center of the street, holding his left hand inside of his shorts. Williams veered toward the driver's side of the van, but, after making eye contact with Krulock, changed direction and walked past the van and returned to the center of the street.
At that point, Krulock, with Schultz close behind, began to follow Williams on their bicycles. Krulock asked Williams to stop so the Officers could identify him. He also asked Williams to take his hand out of his pants. Williams removed his left hand from his pants, but, while doing so, turned away from Krulock. The Officer saw a clear plastic baggie fall to the ground from Williams's hand. Krulock decided then to detain Williams, and asked him to put his hands behind his back. Williams began to comply, but suddenly ran away. The Officers yelled for Williams to stop running. Schultz deployed his Taser to no avail. A chase ensued, in which Williams, with the Officers in hot pursuit, ran around a nearby apartment building. Krulock's literal narrative picks up the "Cat Ballou-like" chase:
We continued to pursue the subject on foot around the apartment building. We completely circled the apartment building that we were originally in front of. As we came around back to the area where we originally tried to detain him, one of the subjects as I mentioned earlier that we were talking to at the van, he came running along side [sic] the building and pursued the subject in front of us and he ended up tackling him and holding him down on to the ground for us to catch up.
As soon as we turned the corner we saw the subject that we were originally talking to holding the subject down on the ground who was attempting to get away at the time and then we approached him. I advised for the subject to get down on the ground and he refused to listen to my commands. Several times I then advised that he was going to be Tased if he did not listen to commands. He continued to ignore my commands. At that point I Tased him to gain compliance and detain him and end up getting the cuffs on him.
Krulock concluded by stating that he searched Williams's wallet, finding a fingernail-sized plastic bag containing crack cocaine.
At the close of the State's case-in-chief, Williams moved for judgment of acquittal on the resisting arrest count, arguing that the force used against the officers, if any, was de minimis. The Circuit Court denied the motion, finding that the use of force was a question of fact for the jury to decide.
Williams testified in his defense. Much of his testimony contradicted that of the Officers. In particular, although Williams admitted to running from the Officers, he did not admit to using force against the bystander who tackled him. On direct examination, Williams stated:
I ran. Basically, when I got back into the middle of the street I gave up because I'm safe now, but a guy that I remember when I was a little kid, he jumps on me. I gave up. I got my weight back from not using [drugs]. He was only like about 100 pounds and I was 250, real big. He didn't pin me nowhere. I gave up.
Williams testified similarly in response to cross-examination questioning regarding his arrest:
I ran back in the middle of the street by the civilians where everybody had a visual of what was going on with me.
I just gave up. I was laying on the ground. A citizen was supposedly holding me, a ond [sic] hundred pound pound [sic] guy.
Following his testimony, Williams rested his case and renewed his motion for judgment of acquittal on the resisting arrest count. The Circuit Court denied ...