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Anderson v. State

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division

June 11, 2019

ANDERSON
v.
THE STATE.

          DILLARD, C. J., GOBEIL and HODGES, JJ.

          DILLARD, CHIEF JUDGE.

         Following trial, a jury convicted Patricia Anderson on two counts of exploitation of an elder person, two counts of theft by taking, and eleven counts of financial-transaction-card fraud. On appeal, Anderson challenges the sufficiency of the evidence supporting her convictions and further argues that the trial court erred in (1) failing to apply the rule of lenity in sentencing her for the commission of a felony as to the two theft-by-taking convictions, (2) failing to merge several of the financial-transaction-card-fraud convictions for sentencing purposes, and (3) denying her claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. For the reasons set forth infra, we affirm Anderson's convictions, but we vacate her felony sentences as to the theft-by-taking convictions and, thus, remand the case to the trial court for resentencing.

         Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict,[1] the evidence shows that in January 2010, not long after her husband passed away, 89-year-old Alberta Wells moved from Jacksonville, Florida, to Savannah, Georgia, to live with her daughter, Anderson. As a result of her retirement savings, the sale of her Florida home, and bequests from her husband's will, Alberta possessed a significant amount of money in several different brokerage and bank accounts. And upon moving in with Anderson, Alberta agreed to allow her daughter to obtain power of attorney. Anderson then added her name to Alberta's checking, savings, money market, and brokerage accounts, providing her with access to her mother's money.

         In May 2013, Anderson was no longer in a position to care for her mother. Consequently, Alberta's son and Anderson's brother, Carl Wells, agreed to move Alberta back to Florida to live with his family. Upon arriving in Savannah to move his mother and her belongings, Carl noticed that Alberta appeared significantly underweight and distressed. And while packing, Alberta's distress was exacerbated by Anderson's refusal to allow Carl to pack several of Alberta's personal items. Carl and his wife also observed that Anderson's house was littered with boxes from Amazon and other online retailers.

         A few days after moving back to Florida, Alberta suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized for several weeks. During that hospitalization, an echocardiogram indicated that she also suffered a heart attack approximately ten days prior to the current one. And not long thereafter, Alberta granted Carl power of attorney, and he began to examine the records of her various accounts in an attempt to determine what happened to his mother's finances. In doing so, Carl discovered that hundreds of thousands of dollars appeared to be missing. Indeed, despite his mother's frugal nature, the records indicated that her money had been used for dozens of online purchases, catalog purchases, as well as numerous furniture and jewelry purchases. Ultimately, Carl learned that, despite the significant amount of money that had been in his mother's accounts when she moved in with Anderson, Alberta now had only $1.75 to her name.

         Following her release from the hospital, Alberta took up residence at Carl's home, but eventually the need for 24-hour care resulted in her moving into an assisted-living facility. There, Alberta's physical and mental health improved, but nevertheless, in June 2014, she passed away. And unfortunately, with his mother's savings completely depleted, Carl was forced to sell Alberta's wedding ring to pay for her funeral expenses. At no point between the time Alberta moved back to Florida and her passing did Anderson contact her mother. Not long thereafter, based on his suspicions that Anderson depleted their mother's various accounts without her knowledge or approval, Carl contacted law enforcement in Savannah, who opened an investigation into the matter.

         In the subsequent investigation, detectives in the financial-crimes unit of the Savannah-Chatham County Police Department reviewed the records of Alberta's various accounts, including those to which Anderson added her name. And as a result of that review, the detectives discovered that, from 2010 to 2013, Anderson transferred over $150, 000 from Alberta's checking account into her personal checking account. Moreover, during this same time period, Anderson also transferred $143, 988 from Alberta's brokerage account into her personal checking account. Additionally, through their review of the accounts, the detectives learned that there had been numerous ATM withdrawals, some of which occurred after Alberta moved back to Florida. The detectives also discovered that, on four separate occasions, Anderson transferred funds from Alberta's accounts to an account in Malaysia owned by an individual named Olaniyan, who had been arrested in Canada on fraud charges. Eventually, one of the detectives interviewed Anderson, who claimed that, while she could not recall the exact amount of money transferred from her mother's accounts to her personal checking account, she had her mother's permission to make the transfers.

         Subsequently, the State charged Anderson, via indictment, with two counts of exploitation of an elder person, two counts of theft by taking, and eleven counts of financial-transaction-card fraud. The case then proceeded to trial, during which Carl and his wife testified regarding Alberta's move to Savannah and return to Florida, the state of her finances after her return to Florida, and their opinion that Alberta would not have authorized Anderson's extravagant spending of her life savings. The State also called one of Alberta's friends as a witness, who similarly testified that Alberta was never an extravagant spender. In addition, the jury heard Anderson's interview and testimony from the financial-crimes detectives regarding their investigation. Finally, the jury listened to testimony from Alberta's former financial advisor, who reported his suspicions of fraudulent activity to superiors based on the types of transfers he was seeing. Anderson did not testify, but her son-who lived in his mother's home for part of the time Alberta also resided there-testified that Alberta was not tech savvy and he doubted she made any online transfers; but he also claimed that Alberta allowed Anderson to spend her money. Nevertheless, at the conclusion of the trial, the jury found Anderson guilty on all charges in the indictment, and the trial court imposed a sentence totaling six years, all of which were to be served in confinement.

         Thereafter, Anderson obtained new counsel and filed a motion for new trial, in which she argued, inter alia, that her trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance. The State filed a response, and the trial court held a hearing on the motion, during which Anderson's trial counsel testified regarding her representation. Ultimately, the trial court denied Anderson's motion. This appeal follows.

         When a criminal conviction is appealed, the evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, and the appellant no longer enjoys a presumption of innocence.[2] And in evaluating the sufficiency of the evidence, we do not weigh the evidence or determine witness credibility, but "only determine whether a rational trier of fact could have found the defendant guilty of the charged offenses beyond a reasonable doubt."[3] Thus, the jury's verdict will be upheld so long as there is "some competent evidence, even though contradicted, to support each fact necessary to make out the State's case."[4] With these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to Anderson's claims of error.

         1. Anderson first contends that the evidence was insufficient to support her convictions. Specifically, as to each charge on which she was convicted, she argues that the State failed to produce evidence that her use of the money from Alberta's various accounts was not authorized but, rather, a result of deception. We disagree.

         With regard to the offense of exploitation of an elder, the former version of OCGA § 30-5-8 (a) (1) provided: "In addition to any other provision of law, the abuse, neglect, or exploitation of any disabled adult or elder person shall be unlawful."[5] And former OCGA § 30-5-3 (7.1) defined "elder person" as "a person 65 years of age or older who is not a resident of a long-term care facility. . . ."[6] As to theft by taking, OCGA § 16-8-2 provides that "[a] person commits the offense of theft by taking when he unlawfully takes or, being in lawful possession thereof, unlawfully appropriates any property of another with the intention of depriving him of the property, regardless of the manner in which the property is taken or appropriated." Finally, as to financial-transaction-card fraud, OCGA § 16-9-33 (a) (2) (A) provides:

A person commits the offense of financial transaction card fraud when, with intent to defraud the issuer; a person or organization providing money, goods, services, or anything else of value; or any other person; or cardholder, such person . . . [o]btains money, goods, services, or anything else of value by . . . [r]epresenting without the consent of the cardholder that he or she is the holder of a specified card[.]

         In this matter, Count 1 of the indictment charged Anderson with exploitation of an elder person by alleging that she, "between the 8th day of March, 2010, and the 5th day of June, 2013, did, by means of deception, exploit Alberta Wells, an elder person who is more than 65 years of age . . . by improperly using her access to Alberta Wells's Bank Account *1859 to spend those funds for her own personal benefit . . . ." Count 3 charged Anderson with the same offense with the difference being the allegation that she improperly used "her access to Alberta Wells's Bank Account *4842[.]" Count 2 of the indictment charged Anderson with theft by taking by alleging that she "between the 8th day of March, 2010, and the 5th day of June, 2013, being in lawful possession thereof, did unlawfully appropriate money from [Account * 1859], the property of Alberta Wells, with a value greater than $500.00, with the intention of depriving said owner of said property[.]" And Count 4 charged Anderson with the same offense, but alleged that she appropriated money from "[Account *4842]." Additionally, Count 5 charged her with financial-transaction-card fraud by alleging that she "on or about the 1st day of February, 2011, with the intent to defraud Wells Fargo . . . did unlawfully obtain $200, money, by presenting Wells Fargo Debit Card *2843, a financial transaction card, without the authorization of Alberta Wells, the cardholder . . . ." Finally, the remaining charges, Counts 6 through 15, charged Anderson with the same offense, with the difference being the date the offense occurred and, in some, the amount appropriated.

         Here, as previously discussed, the evidence shows that from 2010 to 2013, Anderson transferred over $150, 000 from Alberta's checking account and $143, 988 from her brokerage account into her own personal checking account. The evidence also shows, again during this same time period and including after Alberta moved back to Florida, that numerous ATM withdrawals of various amounts had been made from Alberta's bank account. Furthermore, the evidence demonstrated that some of these funds were transferred to a friend of Anderson in Malaysia, who had previously been arrested for fraud. In addition, there was evidence that Anderson spent Alberta's money extravagantly, in ways that she would not have countenanced, buying online merchandise, furniture, and jewelry. And based on her interview with one of the detectives, the jury could have questioned Anderson's credibility as to her sole defense that Alberta authorized such spending. Consequently, and contrary to Anderson's contention on appeal, there was at least circumstantial evidence that Alberta did not authorize Anderson's near total depletion of her various financial accounts.[7] Accordingly, the evidence was sufficient to support Anderson's convictions.[8]

         2. Anderson also contends that the trial court erred in failing to apply the rule of lenity by imposing a felony sentence as to the two theft-by-taking convictions. We agree and, thus, vacate the sentences as to those convictions.

         The Supreme Court of the United States has referred to the rule of lenity "as a sort of junior version of the vagueness doctrine," which requires fair warning as to what conduct is proscribed.[9] The rule of lenity applies where "two or more statutes prohibit the same conduct while differing only with respect to their prescribed punishments."[10] And according to this rule, when "any uncertainty develops as to which penal clause is applicable, the accused is entitled to have the lesser of the two penalties administered."[11] Importantly, the essential requirement of the rule of lenity is that "both crimes could be proved with the same evidence."[12]

         As discussed supra, Count 2 of the indictment charged Anderson with theft by taking by alleging that she, "between the 8th day of March, 2010, and the 5th day of June, 2013, being in lawful possession thereof, did unlawfully appropriate money from [Account *1859], the property of Alberta Wells, with a value greater than $500.00, with the intention of depriving said owner of said property[.]" And Count 4 charged Anderson with the same offense as to Anderson's account designated "Account *4842." Thus, under the indictment, Anderson committed the offenses of theft by taking at some point within this three-year span, and the State was only required to prove the offense occurred within that time span.

         But during this three-year time frame, the applicable sentencing statute changed. Former OCGA § 16-8-12 (a) (1) (2009) provided: "A person convicted of a violation of Code Sections 16-8-2 through 16-8-9 shall be punished as for a misdemeanor except . . . [i]f the property which was the subject of the theft exceeded $500.00 in value, by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than ten years or, in the discretion of the trial judge, as for a misdemeanor[.]" Nevertheless, effective July 1, 2012, [13] OCGA § 16-8-12 was amended and at that point it provided:

A person convicted of a violation of Code Sections 16-8-2 through 16-8-9 shall be punished as for a misdemeanor except . . . If the property which was the subject of the theft was at least $1, 500.01 in value but was less than $5, 000.00 in value, by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than five years and, in the discretion of the trial judge, as for a misdemeanor[.][14]

         Thus, the 2012 amendment raised the value of the subject property-from $500 to $1, 500.01-that the State was required to prove before a felony sentence could be imposed, but also limited such sentence to five years unless an even higher value (at least $5, 000) was alleged and proven.

         Given that the trial court imposed a sentence of six years to serve on each of Anderson's theft-by-taking convictions, it appears to have sentenced her under the pre-amendment version of OCGA § 16-8-12. But because the indictment only generally alleged that the offenses occurred at some point in a three-year span and the jury was only provided a general verdict form, it is impossible to discern if it found Anderson guilty on one or both of these counts for conduct occurring before or after the July 1, 2012 amendment of the statute. As a result, Anderson cannot be sentenced to the longer term imposed by the pre-amendment version of OCGA § 16-8-12 (a).[15] Accordingly, we vacate this aspect of Anderson's sentence and remand the case to the trial court for resentencing.[16]

         3. Anderson also contends that the trial court erred in failing to merge several of the financial-transaction-card-fraud convictions for sentencing purposes. We disagree.

         When two or more charges are "indistinguishable because all of the averments, including date (which was not made an essential element), victim, and description of defendant's conduct constituting the offense were identical, only one sentence may be imposed."[17] But when an averment in one count of an accusation or indictment "distinguishes it from all other counts, either by alleging a different set of facts or a different date which is made an essential averment of the transaction, the State may on conviction punish the defendant for the various crimes."[18] Put simply, if the underlying facts show that "one crime was completed prior to the second crime, there is no merger."[19]

         As previously noted, the State charged Anderson with eleven counts of financial-transaction-card fraud. In Counts 5, 6, 9, and 15, the State alleged that, on four separate dates, Anderson "did unlawfully obtain $200, money, by presenting Wells Fargo Debit Card *2843, a financial transaction card, without the authorization of Alberta Wells . . . ." Similarly, in Counts 7, 8, and 13, the State alleged that, on three separate dates, Anderson "did unlawfully obtain $500, money, by presenting Wells Fargo Debit Card *2843, a financial transaction card, without the authorization of Alberta Wells . . . ." And following conviction, the trial court imposed a sentence of three years to serve on each count. Anderson now contends that the trial court erred in failing to merge Counts 5, 6, 9, and 15, arguing that the charges in those counts are indistinguishable other than the date the alleged fraud occurred, which she claims were not material averments. Anderson identically contends that the court erred in failing to merge Counts 7, 8, and 13.

         Although the State employed the phrase "on or about" preceding the date of the alleged fraudulent conduct in the indictment, it also alleged specific and separate dates that such conduct occurred. Indeed, none of these dates overlapped, and each count of financial-transaction-card fraud was supported by specific, distinguishable, and independent documentary evidence at trial in the form of Alberta's account records.[20] Moreover, the trial court did not instruct the jury that the dates of the offensive conduct alleged in the indictment were not material averments but, rather, instructed the jury it could only return a guilty verdict if it found that Anderson "committed the offense or offenses as alleged in the Indictment . . . on or about the time alleged in the Indictment . . . ."[21] Given these particular circumstances, the record does not support a finding that Anderson was "convicted on more than one count for the same actions committed on a single day or during the same period of days, as would be required for the convictions to merge as a matter of fact."[22] Thus, the trial court did not err by failing to merge these convictions.[23]

         4. Finally, Anderson contends the trial court erred in denying several claims that her trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance. Again, we disagree.

         In order to evaluate Anderson's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, we apply the two-pronged test established by the Supreme Court of the United States in Strickland v. Washington, [24] which requires Anderson to show that her trial counsel's performance was "deficient and that the deficient performance so prejudiced her that there is a reasonable likelihood that, but for counsel's errors, the outcome of the trial would have been different."[25] In doing so, there is a strong presumption that trial counsel's conduct falls within the broad range of reasonable professional conduct, and a criminal defendant must overcome this presumption.[26] In fact, the reasonableness of counsel's conduct is "examined from counsel's perspective at the time of trial and under the particular circumstances of the case[.]"[27] And importantly, decisions regarding trial tactics and strategy may form the basis for an ineffectiveness claim only if "they were so patently unreasonable that no competent attorney would have followed such a course."[28] Furthermore, unless clearly erroneous, we will "uphold a trial court's ...


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