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Ceballos v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

May 14, 2018

CEBALLOS
v.
THE STATE.

          DILLARD, C. J., DOYLE, P. J., and MERCIER, J.

          DOYLE, PRESIDING JUDGE.

         Following a jury trial, Gabriel Orlando Ceballos was convicted of the misdemeanor charge of giving a false name to a law enforcement officer.[1] He appeals the denial of his motion for new trial, arguing that the police officer was not in the lawful discharge of his official duties when the defendant gave him a false name and that his due process rights were violated by the State's failure to preserve exculpatory evidence. We affirm for the reasons that follow.

On appeal from a criminal conviction, we view the evidence in the light most favorable to the verdict, with the defendant no longer enjoying a presumption of innocence. We neither weigh the evidence nor judge the credibility of witnesses, but determine only whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, a "rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt."[2]

         So viewed, the record shows that on March 19, 2016, Officer J. L. Allen responded to the scene of a motorcycle accident in Gwinnett County. When he arrived, Allen saw an overturned motorcycle and a man on the ground nearby; the man, who was later identified as Jason Cruz, was still wearing his helmet and had serious injuries. Based on the placement of the motorcycle and Cruz, Allen surmised that Cruz had "lost control" in a nearby curve in the road. When he arrived, Allen also observed a second man, later identified as the defendant, "pacing back and forth, " and a second helmet approximately 10 to 15 feet away from the downed motorcycle.

         Other officers arrived minutes later and shut down the road, and paramedics attended to Cruz. Allen began looking for possible witnesses, approached the defendant, and asked if he knew the injured motorcyclist. The defendant, whose answers "were very short and somewhat not descriptive, " stated that he saw Cruz on the ground as he was passing by the area and stopped when he realized it was his friend. Allen asked the defendant for his name, but was later unable to recall what name the defendant gave.

         Officer Andrew Scott also spoke with the defendant, asked him his name, and requested that he write his date of birth and name in Scott's field notepad.[3] At the time of trial, Scott no longer had the notebook, [4] but he remembered that the last name "was too jumbled" for them to read, and they "assumed it was Gonzales or a variation of the spelling of that name." According to Allen, the last name was "almost illegible. It most certainly did not look like 'Ceballos.'. . . It looked like 'Gonzales' or something along those lines." The defendant did legibly write his correct date of birth.

         The defendant told Allen that he "knew the gentleman that had wrecked on the motorcycle. He was in a different vehicle. And they arrived at a different location and noticed that their friend was not with them. That vehicle then came looking for Mr. Cruz. And that's where they found him, [at the scene of the accident]."

         The police then "kind of conclude[d] the investigation of the accident, " and Cruz was transported to the hospital in an ambulance, and the defendant left the scene.[5] The police subsequently discovered a second, unaccompanied motorcycle approximately 80 to 100 yards propped against a sign in the grass. The motorcycle did not have a license plate. Allen ran the Vehicle Identification Number ("VIN") on the motorcycle through a police database; the VIN was not connected with the defendant, and the search revealed that the motorcycle did not have registered insurance. Through his continued on-scene database searches, Allen found a photograph of Ceballos connected to the motorcycle; the photograph matched the defendant. Ceballos's Class C drivers license was suspended, but Allen could not recall whether Ceballos had an active Class M or Class CM license, which would have permitted him to operate a motorcycle.

         Later, DUI Task Force Officer Shawn Mycols went to the hospital where Cruz had been transported with specific instructions "to obtain as much information as possible about the person who was involved in the accident."[6] Mycols had received information from officers on the scene of the accident about a second motorcycle, and he was "trying to gather information about how this other motorcycle was involved." Mycols spent approximately 20 minutes speaking with people gathered in the emergency room in an effort "to obtain the victim's information, the motorcycle, Mr. Cruz." After going to and from his car and learning that there was another motorcycle involved that was connected to an individual named Gabriel Ceballos, Mycols asked the group if there was anyone there named Gabriel "Cal-la-bos or Cell-a-bos (phonetic)." The defendant replied, "I'm Gabriel. But I'm not that person that you're asking about." When Mycols asked him his name, the defendant replied, "Gabriel Santos."[7] Mycols did not ask the defendant any additional questions, detain him, or advise him that he was the subject of an investigation. After later searching a police database, while still at the hospital, Mycols obtained a photograph of Gabriel Ceballos that matched the man in the hospital that identified himself as "Gabriel Santos." Mycols did not, however, arrest the defendant at the hospital.

         The following month, on April 7, 2016, the defendant was injured when he crashed his motorcycle, which did not have a license plate. When asked for his name, the defendant identified himself as "Gabriel Ceballos, " and he had identification on him with the same name.

         In connection with the events of March 19, Ceballos was charged with driving with a suspended or revoked license (Count 1), operating a motor vehicle without insurance (Count 2), operating a motor vehicle without a valid license plate (Count 3), giving false information to a law enforcement officer (Count 4), and driving without a valid driver's license (Count 5). The trial court directed a verdict on Counts 1, 2, 3, and 5, and the defendant was convicted of providing false information to a police officer. The trial court denied his subsequent motion for new trial, and this appeal followed.

         1. The defendant challenges the sufficiency of the evidence, arguing that Officer Mycols was not in the lawful discharge of his duties when the defendant provided him with a false name at the hospital because the accident investigation had already concluded.[8] This enumeration is without merit.

         Pursuant to OCGA § 16-10-25, a person commits the offense of giving false information to a law enforcement officer when he "gives a false name, address, or date of birth to a law enforcement officer in the lawful discharge of his official duties with the intent of misleading the officer as to his identity or birthdate."

         Construed in favor of the verdict, Officer Mycols went to the hospital to obtain information about the injured Cruz and about how the second motorcycle was involved. He spoke for 20 minutes with the group of people gathered at the hospital for Cruz. The officer then went to his car, returned, asked the group whether one of the people there was named Gabriel Ceballos, and according to the officer, the defendant gave a different name.

[These] circumstances are clearly sufficient to raise an inference that [Officer Mycols] was in the discharge of his official duties, and there was nothing in the record to counter such an inference. The evidence was sufficient for a rational trier of fact to find that [the defendant] gave a false name to a law enforcement officer in the discharge of his official duties and that [he] did so with the intent of misleading the officer as to [his] identity.[9]

         There is "no authority . . . for the proposition that a law enforcement officer, in order to be in the lawful discharge of his official duties, must inform anyone to whom he speaks in the course of that duty of the nature of his inquiry."[10] Thus, the evidence was sufficient to support the ...


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