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In re M. C.

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

May 24, 2018

IN THE INTEREST OF M. C., A CHILD.

          ANDREWS and BROWN, JJ.

          Miller, Presiding Judge.

         The Walton County Juvenile Court adjudicated M. C. delinquent for having committed the offenses of aggravated assault upon a peace officer (OCGA § 16-5-21 (b) (2016)), attempting to elude a police officer (OCGA § 40-6-395 (a)), obstruction of an officer (OCGA § 16-10-24 (a) (2016)), and reckless driving (OCGA § 40-6-390 (a)). M. C. appeals from the denial of his motion for new trial, arguing (1) that during closing argument the State improperly commented on his assertion of his right to remain silent, and (2) the evidence was insufficient because the State failed to establish venue. First, we find no reversible error on the basis of a violation of M. C.'s constitutional right to remain silent. We determine, however, that although the evidence was sufficient to support venue for the charge of attempting to elude a police officer, the State did not establish venue as to the remaining offenses for which M. C. was adjudicated delinquent. Therefore, we affirm in part and reverse in part.

When reviewing a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, we construe the evidence favorably to the juvenile court's judgment. We do not weigh the evidence or resolve issues of witness credibility, but merely determine whether a rational trier of fact could have found that [M. C.] committed the acts charged in the delinquency petition.

(Citations omitted.) In the Interest of M. S., 292 Ga.App. 127 (664 S.E.2d 240) (2008).

         Viewed in this light, the evidence shows that while an officer with the Loganville Police Department was on patrol, his "tag reader" alerted him to a passing stolen vehicle, driven by M. C. The officer pursued the vehicle as it accelerated and drove through a grass field and a parking lot, and then onto Highway 78. Additional officers joined the chase, during which M. C. was driving at speeds of up to 126 miles per hour. During the pursuit, which spanned at least six miles, M. C. swerved and drove directly toward two of the police cars. Eventually, M. C. crashed into a tree, and he and the other juvenile in the vehicle fled on foot. Officers chased and apprehended them at the scene, and a gun was found in the glove compartment of the vehicle.

         The State filed a delinquency petition against M. C., and the juvenile court found that he committed the offenses of aggravated assault upon a peace officer (two counts), attempting to elude a police officer, obstruction of an officer, and reckless driving.[1] M. C. moved for a new trial, claiming that during closing argument the State improperly commented on his silence, that the juvenile court wrongfully attached significance to his failure to testify, and that the evidence was insufficient to support the verdict as to all counts of the petition. The juvenile court denied the motion, and this appeal followed.

         1. As his first enumeration of error, M. C. argues that a portion of the State's closing argument constituted an improper comment on his invocation of his right to remain silent. We discern no error on the part of the juvenile court.

A comment upon a defendant's silence or failure to come forward is far more prejudicial than probative, and therefore will not be allowed. Nevertheless, to reverse a conviction, the evidence of the defendant's election to remain silent must point directly at the substance of the defendant's defense or otherwise substantially prejudice the defendant in the eyes of the jury.

         (Citations and footnotes omitted.) Haggins v. State, 277 Ga.App. 742, 747 (6) (627 S.E.2d 448) (2006). Further, insofar as M. C.'s silence could have been construed as evidence of his guilt, "[i]t is presumed that a trial judge, when he sits as the trier of fact, considered only legal evidence." (Citations omitted.) Peek v. State, 234 Ga.App. 731, 732 (2) (507 S.E.2d 553) (1998).

         Here, during closing argument, the prosecuting attorney stated, "[w]ith regard to the vehicle . . . . Well, you've heard the officers. . . . [M. C.] didn't say anything, didn't talk to the officers, didn't give any statement." Defense counsel objected, after which the prosecuting attorney withdrew these remarks, but then added, "[w]ell, I can give the statement that he didn't give his name. Although he may not have given the statement of the facts of the case, he didn't provide a name, address, parents' information, nothing."

         Assuming without deciding that these comments were improper, we observe that they were made in relation to the charge of theft by receiving stolen property, and the trial court acquitted M. C. of this offense. See Dumas v. State, 216 Ga.App. 643, 644 (455 S.E.2d 354) (1995) (considering the context of prosecutor's argument when determining "the natural and necessary impact of the statement") (citation omitted). Indeed, at the hearing on the motion for new trial, the juvenile court noted the context of the challenged remarks, and that it had not found that M. C. committed the theft. Therefore, the juvenile court's judgment does not suggest that it considered any improper argument from the State in violation of M. C.'s constitutional right to remain silent, and reversal is not warranted on these grounds.

         Relatedly, M. C. contends that the juvenile court drew "prejudicial inferences" from his failure to testify. He identifies the juvenile court's following statement, made after the close of evidence and before rendering the verdict: "[M. C.] didn't testify because he didn't have to testify, because [the other juvenile] was called by the State, and he laid out, in my opinion, the story . . . ."

         Although the juvenile court commented on M. C.'s failure to testify, the transcript of the proceedings belies M. C.'s suggestion that he was adjudicated delinquent on this basis. Immediately after stating that the other juvenile had given an account of the events, the juvenile court referenced that testimony and stated that it had not found it credible, particularly given the video of the high-speed chase that the juvenile court had ...


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