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State v. Benoit

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

June 1, 2016

John Benoit.

         Kent County Superior Court (K2/13-467A), Allen P. Rubine Associate Justice.

          For State: Christopher R. Bush Department of Attorney General

          For Defendant: Lara E. Montecalvo Office of the Public Defender

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



         This case is before the Court on appeal by the defendant, John Benoit, from judgment after a jury convicted him on one count of entering an apartment with the intent to commit larceny. The defendant received a four-year sentence, with eighteen months to serve and thirty months suspended, with thirty months of probation. On appeal, the defendant argues that the trial justice erred by: (1) denying his motion for judgment of acquittal, based on his assertion that the state failed to produce sufficient evidence of his intent to commit larceny at the time he entered the apartment; and (2) denying his motion for a mistrial and for a cautionary instruction. This matter came before us, sitting at Smithfield High School, on April 6, 2016, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised by this appeal should not summarily be decided. After considering the parties' oral and written arguments, and after examining the record, we are of the opinion that cause has not been shown and that this case can be decided without further briefing or argument. For the reasons discussed below, we affirm the judgment of conviction.


         Facts and Travel

         "Times are tough." This was probably not quite the reaction the complaining witness, Christopher Gervais, expected from defendant, John Benoit, when he confronted the tradesman as he was rifling through the wallet Mr. Gervais kept on top of his bedroom dresser. Although that response may have been surprising, defendant's presence in Mr. Gervais's apartment was not totally unexpected. That is because, in April 2013, Cowesett Hills, an expansive apartment complex located in Warwick, was undergoing renovations to replace 3, 000 windows and some 1, 500 to 2, 000 sliding glass doors. The defendant was one of the workers hired to complete this yearlong project. As a member of the crew tasked with completing the project, Benoit's primary responsibility was installing the trim and caulking around the new doors and windows. When he later testified at trial, Mr. Gervais said that he had received written notice that work would be done on the sliding glass door in the living room of his apartment. However, he was under the impression that the work on his bedroom window had been completed because he had been sent a separate notice about work being done on that window about a week earlier. That window already had been replaced "so there was no reason [for defendant] to be in the bedroom." As Mr. Gervais understood it, the notice the management company provided described the work to be done that day, but it was "only for the back sliding window and the workers w[ould] only need to be at that part of the unit inside each apartment" and "[t]here was absolutely no reason why anybody should [have been] inside [his] bedroom."

         Mr. Gervais testified that his girlfriend and another friend had spent the previous night at his home, but that they had left in the morning. The friend left sometime after defendant arrived to work on the sliding door. Mr. Gervais remained in bed after his guests left that morning, but he was awakened by the sound of his bedroom door opening about an hour after the work began in the living room. He said that "[w]hen I woke up, [defendant] was going through * * * my wallet to find some sort of valuables or cash." He said that he noticed when defendant entered the room, he immediately turned right to where the dresser was, "looking for where items were situated in any typical bedroom, " and "[a]s soon as he saw the wallet, he opened it up to see what was in there." Mr. Gervais also testified that, at no point while defendant was in his bedroom, did defendant attempt to approach the bedroom window or even look in the direction of the window.

         Having seen enough, Mr. Gervais confronted defendant and asked him, "[C]an I help you?" According to Mr. Gervais, defendant appeared "very nervous and startled" when he realized that Mr. Gervais was still in the apartment. When asked why he was going through the wallet, defendant responded that "times are tough" and that "he really didn't mean to do anything personal and steal from [Mr. Gervais]." Mr. Gervais said that defendant, in an apparent attempt to make amends, then offered to buy him a case of his favorite beer. After defendant put the money back, Mr. Gervais asked him to leave. However, before he left the apartment, defendant finished putting up the blinds in the living room, and wrapped up his work on the sliding glass door.

         Irked by this incursion, Mr. Gervais called the police. After the police arrived, he made a statement and described defendant as having a thin build, pronounced veins in his arms, and gray hair. Officer Robert Hart of the Warwick police department testified that, on the morning in question, he received a dispatch call to respond to the Cowesett Hills apartments. Over defendant's objection, Officer Hart testified that the call was for a "[p]ossible burglary in progress."

         At that point, defendant moved for a mistrial, arguing that, although he was on trial for entering an apartment with the intent to commit larceny, the jury had just heard irrelevant hearsay evidence regarding a possible burglary, the prejudicial effect of which was so severe that a mistrial was warranted. The trial justice denied the motion, reasoning that the testimony was not hearsay because it did not go to the truth of the matter asserted, but rather to the state of mind of Officer Hart at the time he was responding to the call. The defendant then asked for a cautionary instruction that the testimony was "introduced only to explain why the police officer ever arrived at the apartment complex, " but "not to consider it as evidence of breaking and entering." The trial justice denied the request as unnecessary, stating that the testimony "didn't go to whether the burglary was in place, it went to why did he respond to this address." Officer Hart went on to say that after he arrived on the scene, he took a statement from Mr. Gervais and then asked Mr. Gervais to come outside to see if he could identify the perpetrator. He said that, when they stepped outside there were a number of workers present, that Mr. Gervais immediately identified defendant as the person involved, and that he made note of the fact that defendant had pronounced veins in his arms and a slim build.

         Officer James Michailides of the Warwick police department also testified. He said that, when he responded to the Cowesett Hills apartment complex, he was approached by Mr. Gervais. After speaking briefly with Mr. Gervais, he sent him back to his apartment to wait for Officer Hart to arrive. Meanwhile, Officer Michailides spoke with a group of men working at the other end of the building. As he approached, he noticed that defendant fit the description of the suspect that had been provided to him, including the pronounced veins in his arms. He asked defendant what had occurred; at first, defendant denied being involved. However, after Officer Michailides asked the whole group of men what happened, defendant conceded that he had indeed taken money, but said that he had immediately put it back. Lastly, Officer Michailides testified that in Mr. Gervais's apartment the sliding glass door was located in the rear of the apartment, and his bedroom was located by the front door.

         After Officer Michailides testified, the state rested. The defendant then made a motion for judgment of acquittal, arguing that the evidence established that he was in the apartment to work but that there was no evidence that defendant had the intent to commit larceny at the time he entered Mr. Gervais's apartment. He argued that the state could not "invite the jury to speculate about some other possible intent, [as] he was there to work." Specifically, defense counsel argued that the evidence was that he went to the apartment to complete the work there and at some point entered the bedroom, but that what occurred after he entered the apartment was not relevant, and that there was no circumstantial evidence of intent that justified giving the case to the jury.

         The state argued that the motion for judgment of acquittal had to be denied based on Mr. Gervais's testimony, because his testimony, if believed, was that he watched defendant enter his bedroom, go directly to his dresser, and rifle through his money. The state asserted that Mr. Gervais had testified that defendant told him that "times were tough, indicating that this defendant was in need of some money prior to entering the apartment, " which, the state argued, was circumstantial evidence of defendant's intent. The state argued that, from all of this evidence, the court could infer that defendant had the requisite intent to commit larceny. The state also argued that it was plausible that, when defendant entered the apartment, he simultaneously had the intent to both work on the apartment and to commit larceny.

         The trial justice denied defendant's motion, ruling that it was premature to take the case away from the jury because there was evidence that the jury could consider to find intent. The trial justice said that, even accepting defense counsel's argument that defendant's intent to commit larceny needed to be formed at the time he entered the apartment, he believed there was a sufficient level of direct and circumstantial evidence that would allow a jury to make reasonable inferences about defendant's intent at the time he entered the apartment.

         The defendant called one witness, Henry Bozzo, to testify on his behalf. He said that, in April 2013, he was working on a yearlong project to replace all the windows and doors at the Cowesett Hills apartment complex. He testified that he hired defendant to work on the job and that, on the day of the incident, defendant's job was to work on the trim on the inside of the apartments, including caulking the windows and cleaning up afterwards. He testified that, although workers were instructed to inspect every window before they left, the workers were allowed to touch only the windows or doors they were working on and that they were allowed to touch only furniture that needed to be moved. He confirmed that if a worker ...

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