May 31, 2013 – Defendant Courtney Beamon, convicted of eluding police by vehicle, argued that he never accelerated to ditch officers in hot pursuit, and the jury instructions required the jury to find that he “increased the speed of the vehicle to flee.”
Recently, in State v. Beamon, 2013 WI 47 (May 29, 2013), a Wisconsin Supreme Court majority (4-2) upheld his conviction, citing erroneous jury instructions that added an additional burden the state was not required to prove under the relevant criminal statute.
“We conclude that jury instructions that add requirements to what the statute sets out as necessary to prove the commission of a crime are erroneous,” wrote Justice Patience Roggensack, noting that evidence must conform to what the statute requires.
In this case, Beamon argued that the jury instructions required the state to prove that he sped up after police began to pursue him in connection with gunshots fired near the American Legion bar in Racine. Off-duty officers, working as private security at the bar, saw Beamon scattering in proximity and called dispatch after he drove off.
With police on his tail, Beamon eventually jumped out of the moving vehicle. The back wheels rolled over his legs, but he fled on foot. Eventually, police officers caught him. The state charged Beamon with fleeing or attempting to elude police by car.
Under Wis. Stat. section 346.04(3), a person flees or attempts to elude police if, knowing police are in pursuit, he or she interferes with or endangers other vehicles or pedestrians, increases the speed of the vehicle, or extinguishes the vehicle’s lights.
Beamon was driving with no lights and the car from which he jumped hit a parked car. But the jury instructions suggested that “increasing the speed of the vehicle” was a necessary element of the crime. Beamon said the state could not prove this element.
The jury found Beamon guilty, and the circuit court entered judgment. But Beamon appealed, arguing there was not sufficient evidence to show he accelerated. The court of appeals affirmed, noting that any error in the jury instruction was harmless.
A supreme court majority agreed: “In light of all the testimony, we conclude that it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that a rational jury, properly instructed on the statutory requirements of fleeing or eluding, would have found Beamon guilty.”
Justice Ann Walsh Bradley dissented, joined by Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, concluding the state requested a tailored jury instruction to reflect its prosecution theory, which was that Beamon endangered a traffic officer by increasing the speed of his car.
“Subsequent insufficient evidence to support this factual theory of prosecution does not render the jury instruction incorrect,” wrote Justice Bradley, urging reversal. “It is now unclear to what extent circuit courts should deviate from a standardized, pattern jury instruction in each individual case lest the factual theory of prosecution be transformed into an element of the offense and the instruction thereby deemed erroneous.”