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State v. Matthews

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

April 2, 2015

Thomas H. Matthews

Newport County Superior Court. (N3/12-105A). Associate Justice Stephen P. Nugent.

For State: David T. Bonzagni, Department of Attorney General.

For Defendant: Kara J. Maguire, Office of the Public Defender.

Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.


Page 391

Robinson, Justice

On June 18, 2012, a Newport County Superior Court jury found the defendant, Thomas H. Matthews, guilty of disorderly conduct in violation of G.L. 1956 § 11-45-1(a)(3). Thereafter, on July 5, 2012, the trial justice imposed upon the defendant a sentence of six months, with thirty days to serve and the balance suspended, with probation. On appeal, the defendant contends: (1) that the trial justice erred in denying the defendant's motion for a new trial and his motion for a judgment of acquittal; and (2) that the criminal complaint lodged against the defendant was insufficient as a matter of law to place him on notice of the charge against him. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the Superior Court's judgment of conviction and its denial of the defendant's motion for a new trial and motion for a judgment of acquittal.


Facts and Travel

On January 31, 2012, Mr. Matthews was arrested by two Rhode Island State Police troopers and charged with one count of disorderly conduct in violation of § 11-45-1(a)(3), which provides that a person commits disorderly conduct if that person " intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly[,] * * * [d]irects at another person in a public place offensive words which are likely to provoke a violent reaction on the part of the average person so addressed[.]" [1] The

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Superior Court jury trial on the just-referenced charge began on June 18, 2012, and the evidence presented therein consisted of testimony from the state police troopers who arrested the defendant--viz., Trooper Anthony Washington and Trooper Edward Viera.[2] We summarize below the portions of their testimony relevant to the instant appeal.


The Testimony at Trial[3]

1. The Testimony of Trooper Anthony Washington

Trooper Washington[4] testified that, at approximately 1:00 a.m. on January 31, 2012, he and Trooper Viera were traveling together in a police cruiser in Middletown, Rhode Island; he said that, as he turned onto West Main Road, he saw from about one hundred feet away what he referred to as an " altercation" between a man and a woman. (During his testimony at trial, Trooper Washington identified the man as defendant Thomas Matthews.) When asked at trial to be more specific about his observations, Trooper Washington added that he saw the pair " hugging, doing something" and that " the male was yelling and screaming." Trooper Washington testified that he did not get a " full look" at the man and woman as he drove past them and that he accordingly made a U-turn to approach the pair again. Trooper Washington further testified that, as he made the turn, he observed the two persons " yelling and screaming" at each other.

Trooper Washington further testified that, after he made the U-turn, he and Trooper Viera drove up to where the two individuals stood; he added that both troopers immediately stepped out of the cruiser. Trooper Washington stated that, upon alighting from his vehicle, he heard defendant say, " [T]ake me now, take me now, I don't care." Trooper Washington next testified that he asked defendant for identification and that defendant responded, " '[F]uck you, cops,' 'you're gay,' 'you * * * guys are queers,' [and] 'you guys are just harassing me.'" In addition, Trooper Washington testified that defendant made " several threats, threats saying he was going to kill us." Trooper Washington stated that, at that point in time, he was concerned for " [o]fficer safety and the female's safety," explaining that, when defendant began yelling and screaming, the troopers " didn't know what was going on."

Trooper Washington testified that defendant then " made a physical movement"

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towards both troopers and that Trooper Viera proceeded to place defendant in an " arm bar." [5] Trooper Washington added that, once defendant was placed in the arm bar, Trooper Washington proceeded to " grab" from defendant's pocket the identification which he had previously requested. Trooper Washington testified that, although the troopers " ended up calming [defendant] down for literally a brief second or two," while in the arm bar defendant kept on saying, " [Y]ou guys are harassing me" and, " I didn't do anything."

Trooper Washington next testified that, while he and Trooper Viera continued their attempts to calm defendant down, Trooper Viera " loosen[ed] the arm bar," at which point " it looked like [defendant] wanted to escape." Trooper Washington stated that " [f]rom that point forward, [he and Trooper Viera] ended up putting [defendant] in handcuffs for [their] safety." Trooper Washington later confirmed that, once defendant was in handcuffs, he was deemed to be under arrest for disorderly conduct.

Trooper Washington added that, during the process of handcuffing and immediately thereafter, defendant continued to yell: " 'I'm going to kill you guys,' 'I don't care,' 'I don't care if I go back,' 'fuck you, cops,' 'you guys are queer,' 'gay,' [and] so forth." Trooper Washington further testified that he and Trooper Viera then decided to put defendant in their police cruiser; he described as follows what occurred while they were doing so:

" [The defendant] literally looked at me and he said, '[Y]ou're nothing but a bitch-ass nigger,' 'I don't know why you're doing this,' 'you're going against me,' 'you're going against your own kind.' And that was directly toward me."

Trooper Washington further testified that he and Trooper Viera transported defendant to the Wickford barracks for processing; he added that defendant was uncooperative throughout the entirety of the troopers' attempt to process him at the barracks. Trooper Washington stated that defendant was " yelling, swearing, continuously stating that he knew people, that he was going to have my badge, that he was also going to kill me, kill Trooper Viera * * * [and was] calling us gay and saying we were harassing him."

On cross-examination, Trooper Washington testified that the two individuals whom he had observed in Middletown on the date at issue (viz., defendant and his female companion) were both African-American. Trooper Washington then answered a series of questions concerning the time at which defendant was placed in the arm bar by Trooper Viera. First, Trooper Washington admitted that, after he took defendant's identification, defendant was not released from the arm bar. Next, Trooper Washington testified that, after he obtained identification from defendant, Trooper Viera " release[d] the pressure" on defendant while defendant was in the arm bar; he added that, once they did so, " it seemed like [defendant] wanted to continue at [him and Trooper Viera]." [6] Finally,

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on further questioning, Trooper Washington stated that he felt as though defendant wanted to " continue at [him]" because, when Trooper Viera released the pressure on the arm bar, defendant " made a quick forward movement." It was at that point, Trooper Washington testified, that the two troopers put defendant in handcuffs. On redirect examination, Trooper Washington testified in more detail regarding defendant's forward movement, stating that Trooper Washington " [i]nterpreted that movement towards [the troopers], the forward movement [as meaning] that he was going to attack * * *."

Finally, Trooper Washington testified on cross-examination that, during the encounter with defendant, he understood defendant's utterances " as a threat." Specifically, Trooper Washington testified that, " [w]hen a person says, 'I'm going to kill you,' I take that as a threat." He added that defendant said " I'm going to kill you" to both Trooper Viera and himself.

2. The Testimony of Trooper Edward Viera

Trooper Viera's testimony was largely consistent with the testimony of Trooper Washington regarding the night of defendant's arrest. Trooper Viera testified that, in the early morning hours of January 31, 2012, he was riding as a passenger in the vehicle driven by Trooper Washington on West Main Road. Trooper Viera stated that, at around 1:22 a.m., Trooper Washington pointed out two people, whom Trooper Viera later described as " standing in the street." To Trooper Viera the pair appeared to be " engaged in a physical altercation; " he said that " [i]t appeared they had hold of each other's shirt in the front and were like moving around in a type of scuffle." Trooper Viera testified that, as the troopers in the police car approached the pair, it appeared that the two individuals " were hugging."

Trooper Viera next testified that the troopers proceeded to pull up to the two persons, and Trooper Viera observed that one of them was a man and the other was a woman. He next stated that he had " no sooner closed the door * * * when the * * * male party stepped back from the female and threw his hands in the air and demanded to be taken away." [7] When asked to describe what happened next, Trooper Viera testified that defendant was " screaming loud[ly] and boisterously, [in a] tumultuous manner, [a] violent manner." Trooper Viera specifically stated that defendant called both troopers " motherfuckers," told the two troopers that they " weren't shit," and told the troopers that they " couldn't do anything to him." It was at that time, Trooper Viera testified, that he put defendant in what he described as a " restraint." Trooper Viera stated that he " took [defendant] into control, forced him across the hood of the cruiser to get him to calm down and gained control of him." According to his testimony, Trooper Viera did so because he believed that " at [that] point [defendant] was in such an agitated state, he was either getting ready to run or fight; " the trooper added that his belief in that regard was " based on [his] training [and] experience."

Trooper Viera next testified that, after having been restrained by the troopers, defendant began calling the troopers " motherfuckers," " queers," and " fags; " he added that defendant then " threatened to kick [the troopers'] asses." In addition,

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Trooper Viera testified, defendant " threatened to kill [the troopers]." At that point, Trooper Viera testified, he had " heard enough, seen enough; " and he handcuffed defendant, placing him under arrest for disorderly conduct.

Trooper Viera's testimony then turned to the details of how he had first restrained and then arrested defendant. Trooper Viera confirmed that, when he placed defendant in the arm bar, he was not under arrest. Trooper Viera further testified that he tried to " de-escalate the situation," telling defendant to " shut up" and " calm down," but he stated that it " didn't do any good." It was Trooper Viera's testimony that, after he released his grip " a little bit," defendant " continued to scream and move in a tumultuous and violent manner."

Trooper Viera next testified that, after defendant was placed in handcuffs and put into the back seat of the police cruiser, he " continued to scream and rant," including threatening the troopers. Trooper Viera's testimony in that regard was as follows: " [H]e just wouldn't shut up. He called us both niggers, threatened to kill both of us. Not only did he threaten[] to kill both of us, he threatened to kill our families too, just continually ranted." Trooper Viera further testified that he believed that the just-referenced utterances were directed at both Trooper Washington and himself because both troopers were in the car ...

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