In State v. Yelovich, the WA Court of Appeals held that an owner of property cannot use force to defend that property when (1) the interference with the property occurs when the defendant was not present, (2) the interference has been completed and the property is no longer in the owner’s possession, and (3) the property has been removed from an area within the owner’s control.
Assault & Arrest
Defendant Yelovich and his ex-girlfriend De Armond dated for several years before breaking up. A domestic violence no-contact order was in place that prevented Yelovich from contacting De Armond. According to Yelovich, on the morning of June 7, 2015, he was at his son’s house packing boxes in the garage and moving them to his car. While he was working, Yelovich left several items unattended in his car, which had a broken passenger-side window. One of the items was a cell phone. As Yelovich was taking a box to his car, he caught a glimpse of someone walking down the street. At that time, he could not tell who the person was.
When he reached his car, he noticed that his cell phone and other items were missing.
Yelovich walked to the middle of the street and saw that the person in the street was De
Armond. De Armond was repeatedly turning around and looking back toward Yelovich.
Yelovich immediately believed that she had taken his cell phone.
Yelovich got into his car and chased after De Armond. He drove to the end of the road a
few blocks away and turned the corner before encountering De Armond. He parked his car, got out, and demanded that she return his phone. Yelovich knew at that point that he was violating the no-contact order. But he believed that the action was necessary before De Armond disappeared with his phone.
Yelovich grabbed De Armond’s purse strap and attempted to pull the purse from her, believing that the cell phone was in the purse. De Armond resisted, holding tightly to her purse. In the struggle, De Armond fell to the ground. After a bystander intervened, law enforcement officers arrived and arrested Yelovich.
The State charged Yelovich with violating the no-contact order. The information alleged
that Yelovich had assaulted De Armond, making the violation a felony under RCW
Trial and Conviction
At trial, the witnesses testified to the facts recited above. Yelovich proposed a jury instruction that included both defense of property and self-defense components. The trial court ruled as a matter of law that a defense of property instruction did not apply because Yelovich was not using force to prevent the cell phone from being taken; he was trying to recover the cell phone that was no longer in his possession.
A jury convicted Yelovich of the felony contact order violation. Yelovich appeals his
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
In short, the Court of Appeals disagreed with Yelovich’s argument that the trial court erred by refusing to give a defense of property jury instruction.
“Yelovich asserted as a defense that he was justified in using force against De Armond because she had taken his cell phone,” said the Court. It reasoned, however, that Yelovich’s own testimony established that he used force in an attempt to recover the cell phone after De Armond allegedly had taken it and had left the immediate area, not to prevent De Armond from taking the cell phone in the first instance. “The issue here is to what extent a defendant can rely on the defense of property as a defense when he or she uses force to recover property that already has been taken and is no longer in his or her possession,” said the Court.
The Court further reasoned that the plain language of the “Use of Force” Statute RCW 9A.16.020(3) establishes that an owner of property cannot use force to defend that property after the interference with the property has been completed.
First, the property owner can use force only if he or she is about to be injured. “Once the interference with the property has been completed, the owner no longer is about to be injured; he or she has been injured,” said the Court.
Second, the property owner can use force only in preventing or attempting to prevent
the interference. An action taken to prevent interference must occur before the interference has been completed. Defense of property by definition is defensive rather than offensive. “Once the interference with the property has been completed, the owner’s use of force is to recover the property, not to prevent the interference,” said the Court.
Third, the property owner can use force only if the property is lawfully in his or her
possession. “Once the interference with the property has been completed, another person has obtained possession of the property and the owner necessarily no longer has possession,” said the Court.
“Based on the language of RCW 9A.16.020(3) and relevant case law, we hold that an owner of property cannot use force to defend that property when (1) the interference with the property occurs when the defendant was not present, (2) the interference has been completed and the property is no longer in the owner’s possession, and (3) the property has been removed from an area within the owner’s control.”
The Court reasoned that here, application of this three part test and the statutory language show that a defense of property instruction was not appropriate. First, Yelovich was not present at his car when De Armond allegedly removed the cell phone. He discovered that the cell phone was gone only after it already had been taken. Second, at that point De Armond had completed the alleged taking and had possession of the phone. Third, De Armond had left the area of Yelovich’s control – his car – and was a few blocks away. Therefore, the undisputed evidence shows that De Armond’s theft of Yelovich’s cell phone, if it occurred, already had been completed when Yelovich chased after De Armond and accosted her. Yelovich was attempting to recover the cell phone, not to prevent its theft.
The Court furthe rreasoned that Yelovich was not about to be injured when he accosted De Armond; he already had been injured through the loss of his cell phone. He was not attempting to prevent a theft; the theft already had occurred. And Yelovich no longer had possession of the cell phone; the phone allegedly was in De Armond’s possession.
“Therefore, defense of property under RCW 9A.16.020(3) cannot apply and there was no evidence to support Yelovich’s other proposed instruction,” said the Court.