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City of Helena v. Strobel

Supreme Court of Montana

March 14, 2017

CITY OF HELENA, Plaintiff and Appellee,
v.
RICK DENNIS STROBEL, Defendant and Appellant.

          Submitted on Briefs: December 21, 2016

         APPEAL FROM: District Court of the First Judicial District, In and For the County of Lewis and Clark, Cause No. DDC 14-413 Honorable James P. Reynolds, Presiding Judge

          For Appellant: Chad Wright, Chief Appellate Defender, James Reavis, Assistant Appellate Defender, Helena, Montana

          For Appellee: Timothy C. Fox, Montana Attorney General, C. Mark Fowler, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana Thomas Jodoin, Helena City Attorney, Todd Baker, Deputy City Attorney, Helena, Montana

          OPINION

          BETH BAKER, JUSTICE

         ¶1 Rick Dennis Strobel was charged with partner or family member assault (PFMA) after attacking his wife, Bridget Rogers. Rogers told the police that Strobel hit her in the face and tried to force her into a pickup truck. At trial, Rogers recanted her prior statement to the police. The Municipal Court nonetheless convicted Strobel of PFMA, and the District Court affirmed. Positing that the only evidence establishing the required element of "bodily injury" was Rogers's prior inconsistent statement, Strobel argues that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction.

         ¶2 We affirm.

         PROCEDURAL AND FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         ¶3 Helena Police Officer Jonathan Cook responded to a bystander's 9-1-1 call reporting that a man-later identified as Strobel-was trying to force a woman into a pickup truck. Upon arrival at the scene, Officer Cook spoke with Rogers. He observed that Rogers was visibly upset, that she was crying, and that she smelled strongly of alcohol. Officer Cook testified that Rogers told him that Strobel tried to push her into the truck, that he grabbed her by the face, and that he punched her twice in the face. Officer Cook did not observe any injuries on Rogers, and she refused medical attention.

         ¶4 The City of Helena charged Strobel with PFMA under § 45-5-206(1)(a), MCA. Thomas Baty, the bystander who called 9-1-1, testified that he saw Strobel trying to push Rogers into the passenger side of the truck and that this "looked wrong" to him. He stated that Rogers resisted Strobel's efforts to push her into the truck. Baty did not see Strobel punch Rogers or hear Rogers scream or cry for help.

         ¶5 When Rogers took the witness stand at trial, she testified that she was drunk at the time of the alleged assault and could only vaguely remember what happened. She claimed to not recall what she told Officer Cook, and she asserted that Strobel did not strike her in the face.

         ¶6 Strobel moved to dismiss the charges for insufficient evidence. The Municipal Court denied the motion and convicted him. Strobel then appealed his conviction to the First Judicial District Court. He argued that because Rogers recanted her statement and there was no other testimony that Strobel had struck her or otherwise caused her bodily injury, the evidence was not sufficient to support every element of the crime of PFMA under § 45-5-206(1)(a), MCA.

         ¶7 The District Court affirmed Strobel's conviction. The court reasoned that Officer Cook's and Baty's testimony supported the Municipal Court's conclusion that Strobel had caused Rogers bodily injury. Thus, the District Court held that sufficient evidence existed to support a finding that Strobel was guilty of PFMA. Strobel appeals.

         STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         ¶8 When reviewing a district court's ruling on the decision of a municipal court, we examine the record independently of the district court's decision, applying the appropriate standards of review. City of Missoula v. Tye, 2016 MT 153, ¶ 8, 384 Mont. 24, 372 P.3d 1286. We review questions on the sufficiency of the evidence in a criminal matter to determine whether, after reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Spottedbear, 2016 MT 243, ¶ 8, 385 Mont. 68, 380 P.3d 810. Whether sufficient evidence exists to convict a defendant is ultimately an application of the law to the facts and, as such, is properly reviewed de novo. State v. Colburn, 2016 MT 246, ¶ 7, 385 Mont. ...


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