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State v. Miller

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, First Division

January 2, 2018


         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Harrison County, Missouri The Honorable Jack N. Peace, Judge

          Before: Cynthia L. Martin, Presiding Judge, James Edward Welsh, Judge and Karen King Mitchell, Judge

          Cynthia L. Martin, Judge

         Charles Lee Miller ("Miller") appeals from the trial court's entry of judgment convicting him of possession or sale of equipment with altered identification numbers. Miller asserts on appeal that there was insufficient evidence to support the conviction and that the trial court committed plain error in refusing to allow Miller to introduce evidence relating to the content of text messages he exchanged with another person. Based on application of the escape rule, Miller's appeal is dismissed.

          Factual and Procedural Background [1]

         In April 2015, Miller approached James Meyers ("Meyers"), proposing that Meyers trade his 1972 Chevrolet Nova valued at approximately $6, 000 for a motorcycle in Miller's possession. Meyers met Miller to inspect the motorcycle, which was a Suzuki Intruder that had been converted into a chopper. The two men agreed on a trade. Miller took possession of the Nova, and Meyers took possession of the motorcycle. Meyers gave Miller the Nova's title, and Miller gave Meyers an envelope containing the motorcycle's title. The motorcycle's title was an "open" title, as it did not have Miller's name on it. Instead, the title indicated that Jeffrey Beckham ("Beckham") was the motorcycle's owner.

         Approximately a week after the two men traded vehicles, Meyers attempted to locate the motorcycle's VIN to check that it matched the VIN on the title. When Meyers was unable to find a VIN on the motorcycle, he contacted Miller. Miller told Meyers that the motorcycle's VIN was located underneath the seat at the bottom on the motorcycle's frame. Meyers looked where Miller said the VIN would be but did not find one. Then Miller searched in the same place and also could not locate the motorcycle's VIN. Miller offered to stamp a VIN on the motorcycle, and Meyers declined the offer. At that point, Miller told Meyers that he was going to have Meyers arrested for stealing the motorcycle from him.

         Meyers took the motorcycle to Vintage Cycle and Auto Repair, a business in Bethany owned by Danny Spurling ("Spurling"), to have work done on the motorcycle. Spurling was also unable to locate a VIN on the motorcycle. One or two days after Meyers took the motorcycle to Vintage Cycle and Auto Repair, Miller went to the shop and asked Spurling to do additional work on the motorcycle. Spurling told Miller that since Meyers was the owner of the motorcycle, only Meyers could authorize repairs. Miller informed Spurling that the trade "wasn't going to go through so he actually owned the machine." Because Spurling was uncertain as to the ownership of the motorcycle, he refused to work on it and asked Meyers to remove it from the shop.

         Meyers contacted Harrison County Sheriff Josh Eckerson ("Sheriff Eckerson") about the motorcycle. Meyers told Sheriff Eckerson that the motorcycle had no visible VIN and that he had received an "open title" from Miller. Sheriff Eckerson inspected the motorcycle and could not find a VIN, but Sheriff Eckerson located a number on the motor that indicated that it belonged to a 1996 Suzuki. Sheriff Eckerson testified that he inspected the title that Miller had given Meyers. That title had a VIN. Sheriff Eckerson checked that VIN in the Missouri State Highway Patrol MULES system to find whether the VIN was registered to Beckham or otherwise. Any vehicle that has been issued a Missouri certificate of title would be in the MULES system. Sheriff Eckerson's search yielded no results. Sheriff Eckerson testified that he believed two motorcycles had been used to make one custom vehicle, which was the motorcycle that Miller traded Meyers for the Nova.

         Sheriff Eckerson contacted Jeffrey Ellis ("Ellis"), a motor vehicle inspector for the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Ellis examined the motorcycle and could not find a VIN. Ellis testified that there a method by which a homemade vehicle may obtain a valid VIN from the Highway Patrol. First, a person must purchase a form from the Department of Revenue. Then, the person must request an inspection from the Highway Patrol. During that inspection, the person must provide receipts for any used parts from donor vehicles and the VIN numbers of the donor vehicles. After inspecting the receipts and the homemade vehicle, the motor vehicle inspector will assign the vehicle a VIN and affix a metal plate with that VIN to the vehicle. Ellis testified that, without receipts and titles to the donor vehicles, Meyers would not be able to obtain a VIN for the motorcycle in question, and that Meyers would not be able to obtain a title for the motorcycle without a VIN. Ellis further testified that a VIN stamped on the vehicle without the metal plate attached by a motor vehicle inspector for the Highway Patrol would not be valid.

         The State charged Miller as a prior offender with one count of possession or sale of equipment with altered identification numbers in violation of section 301.390.[2] Miller represented himself throughout the proceedings. Prior to trial, Miller requested copies of text messages that he exchanged with Meyers from the State. The State informed the trial court that it had given Miller "everything [it] had." The State told the trial court that the text messages that Miller sought were on a phone that no longer existed and that no text messages had been provided to the prosecution. Miller argued to the trial court that Sheriff Eckerson had seen text messages that Miller and Meyers had exchanged, but the State told the trial court that it had never seen such text messages. Further, the State argued that, if Miller had copies of the text messages, he should not be permitted to use them at trial because they were never disclosed to the State.

          During argument on a motion to dismiss filed by Miller, the trial court heard testimony from Sheriff Eckerson. Sheriff Eckerson testified that, during the course of his investigation, Meyers had shown him text messages that he had exchanged with Miller. Sheriff Eckerson testified that there was only one text message regarding the motorcycle and testified that, in that text message, Miller told Meyers he was going to report the motorcycle as stolen. Sheriff Eckerson did not initially collect the text messages, and when he attempted to collect the text messages after Miller requested them from the State, he was unable to do so because Meyers's phone had been damaged. The trial court denied Miller's motion to dismiss.

         Meyers testified during trial. When Miller was cross-examining Meyers, he asked a question about the text messages. The State objected and argued that Miller should not be able to ask about the contents of the text messages because those text messages were never disclosed to the State by Miller. The trial court sustained the objection, allowing Miller to inquire as to the existence of text messages but disallowing Miller to ask about the content of those text messages. The trial court explained that the text messages "should've been disclosed to the State." Miller also attempted to use the text messages when he cross-examined Sheriff Eckerson. The State objected, and the trial court told Miller he could ask about the existence of the text messages but not the content thereof.

         On April 26, 2016, the jury found Miller guilty of possession or sale of equipment with altered identification numbers, a class D felony. The trial court ordered a sentencing assessment report, increased bond for Miller from $350 to $15, 000 cash, and ordered Miller to appear for sentencing on May 19, 2016. Miller posted bond on May 11, 2016. Miller failed to appear on May 19, 2016, and the trial court revoked Miller's bond and issued a capias warrant due to Miller's failure to appear. The warrant was served on October 2, 2016, while Miller was in Colorado. Miller was then transported from Colorado to Harrison County, and Miller appeared for sentencing on October 20, 2016, over five months after the date his sentencing had ...

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