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Lynn v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

March 15, 2018


          MCFADDEN, P. J., BRANCH and BETHEL, JJ.

          McFadden, Presiding Judge.

         After a jury trial, Herbert Martin Lynn was convicted of one count of burglary and one count of theft by taking. He appeals, arguing that the trial court committed harmful error by excluding certain testimony as hearsay. We agree. So we reverse.

         We do not reach most of Lynn's other claims of error because they are not likely to occur upon retrial. We do address Lynn's claim that he received ineffective assistance of counsel related to the failure to timely file a motion to suppress because the pretrial suppression ruling may be relevant upon retrial. We reject that claim because Lynn has not made a strong showing that the damaging evidence would have been suppressed had counsel timely filed the motion.

         1. Facts.

          Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307 (99 S.Ct. 2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560) (1979), the evidence showed that Dan and Harlee Skelton owned the Garden Wright Nursery, a retail garden center. The Skeltons were unable to re-finance the mortgage on the property and the bank foreclosed on their loan, publishing notice of a foreclosure sale on a particular Tuesday. In anticipation of the business closing, the Skeltons held a liquidation sale of their inventory. Afterwards, they began removing to their residence the several hundred items that had not sold. They worked through the week but did not finish, then locked the property and barricaded the driveways for the weekend.

         When Dan Skelton returned to the garden center on Monday morning, he saw that almost all the property was gone. He called the sheriff's department to report the apparent crime. At some point, whether before or after Skelton called the sheriff is unclear, a neighbor told Skelton that he had seen Lynn on the property Sunday removing items. A deputy arrived at the garden center and Skelton told him that he knew where the property was. Lynn went to the garden center while law enforcement officers were there. He told an investigator that he had taken some of the property, which was on a trailer at his house. Lynn returned to the nursery within the hour with his truck and trailer. Several missing items, including four or five metal tables, a tree boom, some broken brooms, and bales of pine straw, were on the trailer. Lynn said that was all the property he had taken.

         Later that night, Skelton accompanied law enforcement officers to Lynn's residence to identify property that had been taken from the nursery but not returned by Lynn. Skelton removed 15 to 20 truckloads of items from Lynn's property, including a Japanese maple tree worth $800, a metal washbasin, hoses, several hundred hooks used for hanging baskets, drainage pipe, a piece of decorative wrought iron fence, ground cover mat, ornamental cabbage plants, spray paint, concrete pots, grapevine plants, and an extension ladder.

         Lynn testified on his own behalf. He testified that he was interested in buying the real estate at the foreclosure sale, so that Sunday he went to the garden center to assess it. While he was there, he met a woman named Sheila Lanier. The trial court refused to allow Lynn to testify about the content of his conversation with Lanier on the ground that the testimony would be hearsay. But he did allow Lynn to testify that after meeting Lanier, Lynn believed that the property at the garden center had been abandoned and that he had permission to take it. Lynn testified that he returned to his house, then he, his wife, and his children drove two trucks, one with a trailer, to the garden center and spent 20 minutes loading some of the property onto the trailer.

          The next day, according to Lynn, a neighbor called Lynn's wife and told her that a police officer was at the nursery. Lynn drove over, spoke with an investigator, and admitted that he and his family had taken some things. Lynn returned the items and apologized for any misunderstanding. Lynn testified that as he was speaking with the investigator again about Sheila Lanier, Skelton walked up and denied knowing her.

         Lynn testified that the items listed on the search warrant and seized were items that he had purchased from the garden center and other businesses before this incident. He submitted into evidence receipts for items he had purchased and photographs taken before the incident showing items of property alleged to have been stolen.

         At the sentencing hearing, the trial court allowed Lynn to make a proffer of his testimony about Sheila Lanier. He testified in great detail about their conversation. These details supported his defense that his belief that he was free to take the property was reasonable. Specifically, Lynn testified that Lanier told him that she was a "very close friend to the family" and that she "loved them to death" Lanier told Lynn that she was a teacher at a particular elementary school and that her husband was a minister. According to Lynn, Lanier called the Skeltons' children by name and talked about church events the two families attended together. Lanier related to Lynn that Harlee Skelton "had done nothing but cry about losing the business." She told him that the Skeltons were " making good money [and] current on their payments but that the bank had called their note due for no reason at all."

         According to Lynn, Lanier told him that the Skeltons had told Lanier that they had to be off the property by March 1. She asked Lynn if he had seen the foreclosure advertisement. Lanier explained to Lynn that she had been at the garden center for four days in a row trying to catch the large Koi goldfish. She told Lynn that "Dan and Harlee" had given them to her the prior week. They said they would love to keep them, but they didn't have anywhere to put them. Lynn testified that he asked Lanier if she knew how much was owed on the property and Lanier said yes, it was 500 and some odd thousand dollars, giving the exact amount, although Lynn could not recall the precise amount.

         According to Lynn, Lanier told him that it broke her heart that she could not help the Skeltons, but they said that the bank refused to work with them anymore. Lynn testified that Lanier told him that when she talked with the Skeltons a couple of days before, they told her that they were finished getting what they wanted; they had stuff piled up everywhere and simply didn't have anywhere else to put any more.

          According to Lynn, Lanier told him that the Skeltons said that if there was anything left that Lanier or anyone else could use, they were welcome to it, but that they would have to get it as soon as possible because the bank had already said that they had to be gone from the property by March 1st and that the property would actually be sold on the courthouse steps Tuesday morning.

         According to Lynn, Lanier said that the Skeltons told the prior owner the same thing: get whatever he wanted and tell anyone else he knew after he got what he wanted. Lynn testified that Lanier said, "So if there's anything that you want, you had better get it now, because after Tuesday morning, no one will be able to take anything. Because the property will belong to someone else."

         After this conversation, Lynn testified, he went home then returned to the garden center with his truck, trailer, and family. According to Lynn, Lanier introduced herself to Lynn's wife and children, who began helping her load pavers into her truck.

         2. Exclusion of testimony.

         Lynn argues that the trial court committed reversible error by preventing him from testifying about the details of his conversation with Sheila Lanier. We agree.

          Lynn's defense, in part, was that, after speaking with Lanier, he believed that the property was abandoned. He sought to testify about his conversation with Lanier to demonstrate the reasonableness of his belief. The trial court concluded that Lynn could not testify about what Lanier had told him because that testimony was hearsay.

         Former OCGA § 24-3-1 (a) defined hearsay as evidence "which does not derive its value solely from the credit of the witness but rests mainly on the veracity and competency of other persons."[1] "Hearsay is testimony in court, or written evidence, of a statement made out of court, the statement being offered as an assertion to show the truth of the matters asserted therein, and thus resting for its value upon the credibility of the out-of-court asserter. [Cits.]" Bates v. State, 322 Ga.App. 319, 327 (5) (744 S.E.2d 841) (2013) (punctuation omitted).

         Lynn's proffered testimony about what Lanier told him was not hearsay because he did not offer it to prove the truth of the matter asserted. That is, it was offered to prove what Lanier said to Lynn, not what Skelton said to Lanier; it rested on Lynn's credibility, not Lanier's. Lynn sought to introduce this evidence to demonstrate that he reasonably believed he could take the property because it had been abandoned. See Graham v. State, 331 Ga.App. 36, 39 (2) (769 S.E.2d 753) (2015) (testimony concerning an out-of-court statement was not offered for its truth, but to explain its effect on those who heard the statement and their subsequent conduct, and was, therefore, admissible as nonhearsay). See also United States v. Hanson, 994 F.2d 403, 406 (7th Cir. 1993) ("An out of court statement that is offered to show its effect on the hearer's state of mind is not hearsay.") (citations omitted).

         The state concedes that Lynn's proffered testimony about what Lanier told him was not hearsay. But, it argues, the exclusion of the testimony was harmless for two reasons: (1) Lynn's belief that he could take the property was not relevant; and (2) the testimony Lynn sought to introduce was cumulative.

         (a) Relevancy.

         The state argues that the exclusion of the testimony was harmless error because the testimony was not relevant. Lynn sought to introduce the testimony to demonstrate that he only took property that he reasonably believed he could take. According to the state, the only property for which Lynn was indicted, however, was property that Lynn denied taking at all: he was not indicted for the property he admitted taking and returned to the garden center; he was only indicted for the property that he denied taking and claimed that he had purchased earlier. Since he was not indicted for taking the property he admitted taking, the state argues, whether he reasonably believed he could take that property was not relevant. We disagree. Regardless of whether Lynn's belief was relevant to the theft charge, it was relevant to the burglary charge.

         At the time of the incident, OCGA § 16-7-1 (a) provided, "A person commits the offense of burglary when, without authority and with the intent to commit a felony or theft therein, he enters or remains within . . . any . . . building. . . ." OCGA § 16-7-1 (a) (2011).[2] The indictment accused Lynn of committing burglary by entering a building on the garden center premises with the intent of committing a theft. "To convict of the crime of burglary it is not sufficient merely to prove an illegal entry, but there must also be evidence from which the jury may conclude that there was an intent to commit a theft or felony. The question of intent is for the determination of the jury under the facts and circumstances proved." Griffin v. State, 148 Ga.App. 311 (1) (251 S.E.2d 161) (1978) (citation and punctuation omitted). And "gathering abandoned property . . . is not a crime." McNeese v. State, 186 Ga.App. 410, 411 (2) (367 S.E.2d 235) (1988). The state concedes that at least some of the items that were allegedly removed from garden center buildings were items that Lynn later returned because he took them under the belief that they were abandoned. So whether Lynn had the intent to commit theft or instead believed the property to have been abandoned when he allegedly removed property from buildings was relevant to the burglary charge.

         (b) Cumulative.

         The state also argues that the trial court's error was harmless because the excluded testimony was cumulative of admitted evidence. It argues that there is little material difference between what Lynn proffered and what the jury actually heard. We disagree.

         "In determining whether [an] error [in admitting or excluding evidence] was harmless, we review the record de novo and weigh the evidence as we would expect reasonable jurors to have done so. The test for determining nonconstitutional harmless error is whether it is highly probable that the error did not contribute to the verdict." Smith v. State, 299 Ga. 424, 432 (2) (d) (788 S.E.2d 433) (2016) (citation, punctuation, and footnote omitted).

          The state argues that Lynn's proffered testimony was cumulative of the investigator's testimony and an audio recording played for the jury of the conversation with Lynn when Lynn returned to the garden center. The investigator testified at trial that Lynn said that the previous day, he had met a woman named Sheila who told him that she was good friends with the Skeltons and that the Skeltons had given permission for anyone to take whatever they wanted from the nursery. The jury heard the following when the state played the audio recording:

LYNN: [S]omeone got the wrong idea here . . . of what's going on. . . . I stopped down yesterday evening, there was a lady out here who's friends with Harlee and Dan, and she's gathering up some stuff and one thing or another. She -- we talked for 30 minutes or whatever. Her name's Sheila. . . . She's friends with them. She told me that Dan and them told her that they were done here. And I know Dan left here Friday night with tractors and everything, he left. She told me that Dan told [the former owner] and her that he was done here, anything else anybody wanted to come and help their self. And so, and of course we ain't touched no (Inaudible) or anything like that. We got a few tables and crap like that, junk mostly. But I just want to make sure that we're cleared that they ain't -- this ain't something where we stole anything, you know.
INVESTIGATOR: Okay. Well, obviously Dan and them are here. LYNN: Right. I'll be glad to talk to him. ...

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