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2008-UP-268 - In the Interest of James L. v. State

THIS OPINION HAS NO PRECEDENTIAL VALUE.  IT SHOULD NOT BE CITED OR RELIED ON AS PRECEDENT IN ANY PROCEEDING EXCEPT AS PROVIDED BY RULE 239(d)(2), SCACR.

THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Court of Appeals


In the Interest of James L., a Minor Under the Age of Seventeen, Appellant,

v.

The State of South Carolina, Respondent.


Appeal From Colleton County
Gerald C. Smoak, Jr., Family Court Judge


Unpublished Opinion No.  2008-UP-268
Submitted May 1, 2008 – Filed May 16, 2008


REVERSED


Assistant Appellate Defender Tara S. Taggart, South Carolina Office of Appellate Defense, of Columbia, for Appellant.

Attorney General Henry Dargan McMaster, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Salley W. Elliott, Office of the Attorney General, of Columbia; and Solicitor Randolph Murdaugh, III, of Hampton, for Respondent.

PER CURIAM:  James L. (James) appeals the family court’s sentence of suspended commitment to the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and probation based on James’ convictions for third-degree arson and third-degree burglary.  James contends the family court erred when it failed to grant his motions for directed verdicts on these two charges.  We agree.

FACTS

On the afternoon of March 25, 2004, fifteen-year-old James and his thirteen-year-old friend, T.J., entered a vacant mobile home in Walterboro, South Carolina.  According to James’ statement to the police and his testimony at trial, he and T.J. entered the mobile home through the unlocked front door.  James testified they were not planning on stealing anything or damaging the mobile home.  After walking around the inside of the unoccupied home, they remained in the living room where they smoked several cigarettes.  Once they finished smoking the cigarettes and the pack was empty, James set the empty carton on fire and threw it on the floor.  He then proceeded to stomp out the remaining flames, and both boys exited the mobile home. 

T.J. also testified they entered through the unlocked front door of the mobile home, which was missing its doorknob.  T.J. said after walking around the mobile home, they stopped in the living room where James proceeded to smoke two cigarettes.  Afterwards, James lit the pack on fire and threw it onto the floor near a mattress.  T.J. stated James asked him to urinate on the pack to put out the fire, but T.J. refused.  James stomped the pack out with his feet, but T.J. said there was still “a little bit of ashes [lit] up.”

After James and T.J. left the mobile home, the smoldering ashes caught the living room on fire, which ultimately resulted in the burning of the mobile home.  James was subsequently charged with third-degree arson and second-degree burglary.[1] 

During trial, the investigating detective testified there was no physical evidence to support the arson charge.  The detective stated James intentionally set the fire, but he also stated James was negligent in setting the fire.  Further, when questioned, the detective admitted it was possible for James to have thought he extinguished the fire without realizing it was still smoldering. 

At the conclusion of the State’s case, James’ counsel made directed verdict motions on the arson and burglary charges, which the family court denied.  James’ counsel renewed these motions at the close of trial, which the family court again denied.  The family court held the State proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt, as James acted wrongfully and willfully when he lit the cigarette pack on fire and caused the burning of the trailer.  As such, James was sentenced to a suspended commitment to the DJJ and was also placed on probation.  This appeal follows.[2] 

STANDARD OF REVIEW

On appeal from the denial of a directed verdict, this Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the State.  State v. Curtis, 356 S.C. 622, 633, 591 S.E.2d 600, 605 (2004).  When ruling on a motion for a directed verdict, the family court is concerned with the existence or nonexistence of evidence, not its weight.  In the Interest of Cisco K., 332 S.C. 649, 652, 506 S.E.2d 536, 538 (Ct. App. 1998).

If there is any direct evidence or substantial circumstantial evidence reasonably tending to prove the guilt of the accused, this Court must find the denial of the directed verdict was proper.  State v. Harris, 351 S.C. 643, 653, 572 S.E.2d 267, 273 (2002).  On the other hand, a defendant is entitled to a directed verdict when the State fails to produce evidence of the offense charged.  State v. McKnight, 352 S.C. 635, 642, 576 S.E.2d 168, 171 (2003).  Similarly, the trial court should grant a directed verdict when the evidence merely raises a suspicion that the accused is guilty.  State v. Zeigler, 364 S.C. 94, 102, 610 S.E.2d 859, 863 (Ct. App. 2005).

LAW/ANALYSIS

James argues the family court erred in denying his motions for directed verdicts on the arson and burglary charges because the State presented no direct or substantial circumstantial evidence reasonably tending to prove James’ guilt.  We agree.

I. Arson in the Third Degree

Our arson statute provides in pertinent part that “a person who wilfully and maliciously . . . sets fire to, burns, or causes a burning which results in damage to a building or structure . . . is guilty of arson in the third degree . . . .” S.C. Code Ann. § 16-11-110(C) (Supp. 2007). 

The State must present evidence of the corpus delicti for an arson case to proceed to the jury.  State v. Williams, 321 S.C. 381, 385, 468 S.E.2d 656, 658 (1996).  In an arson case, the corpus delicti is comprised of (1) a burned building or other property, and (2) some criminal agency which caused the burning.  Id. at 384, 468 S.E.2d at 658.  “In other words, the corpus delicti includes not only the fact of burning, but it must also appear that the burning was by the willful act of some person, and not as a result of a natural or accidental cause.” Id. at 384-85, 468 S.E.2d at 658 (internal quotations omitted).

In this case, the State failed to present any evidence, either direct or circumstantial, that the burning of the mobile home was an intentional, willful, or malicious act.   Both James’ and T.J.’s testimony tend to prove James did not intend to burn the mobile home when he lit the cigarette pack on fire and threw it on the floor.  Both testified James stomped on the pack more than once in an attempt to extinguish any remaining flames.  Further, James stated he did not see any ashes or smolder, but if he had, he would have stomped out the remaining flames.  James believed the fire was completely extinguished when they exited the home.

During trial, the investigating detective admitted no physical evidence existed to support the arson charge.  Further, the detective admitted it was possible for James to have thought he put the fire out without realizing it was still smoldering when he left the mobile home. 

Considering the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, there is no direct or substantial circumstantial evidence showing James’ actions rose to a level that would support the charge of arson.  While James may have been negligent in failing to extinguish the cigarette pack before leaving the mobile home, the State failed to present sufficient evidence he acted in a willful and intentional manner.  Consequently, the family court erred in denying James’ motion for a directed verdict on the arson charge.

II.  Burglary in the Third Degree

South Carolina’s burglary statute provides a “person is guilty of burglary in the third degree if the person enters a building without consent and with intent to commit a crime therein.”  S.C. Code Ann. § 16-11-313(A) (Supp. 2007).

In this case, it is uncontroverted James entered the mobile home without the owner’s permission, as the owner testified she never gave James permission to go on the property.  Thus, the determinate factor is whether James entered the mobile home with the intent to commit a crime. 

“There is no requirement that the intent element is satisfied only by proving an intent to commit the specific crime that is charged in the indictment as an aggravating circumstance.”  Pinckney v. State, 368 S.C. 502, 505, 629 S.E.2d 367, 369 (2006).  The only requirement is that the person has the intent to commit any crime at the time of entry.  Id.  The person’s actions after entering the dwelling can be evidence in determining whether the person had the intent to commit a crime at the time of entry.  State v. Pinckney, 339 S.C. 346, 349, 529 S.E.2d 526, 527 (2000).  Further, to constitute burglary, it is not necessary the intended crime be committed or the person be convicted of the intended crime.  State v. Peterson, 336 S.C. 6, 7, 518 S.E.2d 277, 278 (Ct. App. 1999).

In this case, the State argued James entered the mobile home with the intent to commit a crime.  The State first contended James entered the mobile home with the intent to commit arson, as he wanted to burn the mobile home to conceal he had entered it without permission.  This assertion mirrors the juvenile petition, which stated the burglary charge was supported by James’ unlawful entry coupled with the intent to commit arson.  As explained above, the evidence does not support a charge of arson. 

The State further argued that based on James’ prior burglary of a neighbor’s storage shed,[3] the family court could infer intent to commit larceny on the day in question.  However, the State failed to produce any evidence, either direct or circumstantial, that James stole any property or intended on that specific occasion to enter the mobile home for the purpose of stealing property.  James’ and T.J.’s testimony contradicts this assertion as well. 

James’ counsel claimed at the directed verdict stage that while the investigating officer argued James’ act of underage smoking was a crime, James’ entry into the mobile home with the intent to smoke cigarettes would not support a charge of third-degree burglary. 

While the sale or purchase of tobacco products to a minor is illegal, if a minor under the age of eighteen buys or possesses tobacco products, the minor commits only a non-criminal offense and is subject to a civil fine of twenty-five dollars.  S.C. Code Ann. §§ 16-17-500(A), (E)(1), (E)(2)  (Supp. 2007).  The statute specifically states that “a violation of this subsection is not a criminal or delinquent offense and no criminal or delinquent record may be maintained.”  § 16-17-500(E)(5).  Consequently, this argument is without merit.

CONCLUSION

The State failed to present any direct or substantial circumstantial evidence to establish James was guilty of third-degree arson or third-degree burglary.  Without more than a mere suspicion of guilt, the family court erred in failing to grant James’ motions for directed verdicts on the arson and burglary charges.

Therefore, the order of the family court is   

REVERSED.[4]

SHORT, WILLIAMS, JJ., and GOOLSBY, A.J., concur.


[1] James was initially charged with burglary in the second degree and arson in the third degree for the mobile home incident and burglary in the third degree for a separate incident.  The State moved to amend its petition from a charge of burglary in the second degree to burglary in the third degree, which the family court granted.  James pled guilty to the third-degree burglary charge stemming from the separate incident and requested a trial on the remaining two charges. 

[2] James appealed the family court’s ruling pursuant to Anders v. California, 386 U.S. 738 (1967).  James’ appellate counsel filed a brief along with a petition to be relieved, stating her examination of the record indicated the appeal was without merit.  Following our Anders review, this Court ordered the parties to brief the following issue: Whether the family court properly denied James’ motions for directed verdicts on the charge of arson in the third degree and burglary in the third degree.  This issue is now our sole appellate consideration.

[3] The record fails to fully establish the details of the storage shed incident.  It appears from the record that James admitted to removing several dishes and appliances from a neighbor’s shed prior to this incident and selling them to another individual for five dollars per box.  James pled guilty to this burglary charge and does not appeal this ruling.

[4] We decide this case without oral argument pursuant to Rule 215, SCACR.