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Date: 03-17-2021

Case Style:

Jason D. Stevens a/k/a Jason Daniel Stevens a/k/a Jason Stevens v. State of Mississippi

Case Number: 2020-KA-00102-COA

Judge: Jack L. Wilson



Defendant's Attorney:

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Jackson, MS - Criminal defense attorney represented Jason Stevens with appealing a grand larceny charge.

In March 2018, Craig Construction Company was building a power substation in
Neshoba County. On Thursday, March 8, 2018, work ended for the week, and Craig
Construction’s employees stored their tools in a locked trailer on the construction site. The
site was surrounded by a chain-link fence with a locked gate.
¶3. On March 12, 2018, Lucas Hale, an employee of Craig Construction, arrived at the
construction site and discovered that someone had cut a hole in the chain-link fence and had
cut the padlock off the trailer. Hale discovered that several tools were missing from the
trailer, including a Husqvarna K760 concrete saw, a nail gun, a circular saw, four drills, an
impact wrench, and miscellaneous other tools. Hale estimated that the stolen tools were
worth between $2,000 and $2,500.
¶4. A person who lived nearby had seen a “suspicious” vehicle parked at the construction
site and had written down the tag number. Investigator Derek Wyatt of the Neshoba County
Sheriff’s Department determined that the tag number was associated with a vehicle registered
to Jason Stevens. Wyatt contacted Stevens, but Stevens told Wyatt that he no longer owned
the vehicle. Stevens said he had scrapped the vehicle after hitting a deer.
¶5. Wyatt then ran Stevens’s name in “LeadsOnline,” an online database of pawnshop
transactions. Wyatt testified—over Stevens’s hearsay objection—that LeadsOnline showed
that on May 1, 2018, Stevens had pawned a Husqvarna K760 concrete saw at AAA Jewelry
2& Loan, a pawnshop in Starkville. The trial judge overruled Stevens’s hearsay objection,
noting that Wyatt was “testifying from his investigation.” A “LeadsOnline Ticket” for the
transaction was also admitted into evidence, again over Stevens’s hearsay objection.
¶6. Wyatt subsequently interviewed Stevens at the Neshoba County jail. After signing
a Miranda1 waiver, Stevens admitted that he stole the concrete saw and other tools from the
construction site. He also admitted that he pawned the concrete saw at AAA Jewelry& Loan
in Starkville. Stevens stated “that he did not know where [the other tools] had gotten off to.
That over time they had disappeared here and there.” He told Wyatt “that he wasn’t a bad
person. It was just simply when he was on drugs, that he stole things.” Stevens only wanted
to give an oral statement and refused to give a written statement.
¶7. Hale and Wyatt were the State’s only witnesses. Stevens did not testify or call any
witnesses. The jury found Stevens guilty of grand larceny, and the court sentenced him to
serve five years in the custody of the Department of Corrections as a nonviolent habitual
offender.2 Stevens filed a motion for a new trial, which was denied, and a notice of appeal.
On appeal, he raises the three issues noted in the opening paragraph of this opinion.
I. LeadsOnline Evidence
¶8. Stevens first argues that the trial judge erred by allowing Wyatt to testify that
LeadsOnline showed that Stevens had pawned the Husqvarna K760 concrete saw and then
1 Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966).
2Stevens had prior convictions for third-offense driving under the influence, burglary
of a motor vehicle, burglary of a dwelling, and attempted grand larceny.
3by admitting the “LeadsOnline Ticket” documenting the transaction. The State argues that
the testimony and evidence was not offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted but rather
to explain why Wyatt took the next steps in his investigation, i.e., to explain why he
interviewed Stevens at the Neshoba County jail. “We employ an abuse-of-discretion
standard when reviewing claims that the trial judge erred by admitting hearsay.” White v.
State, 48 So. 3d 454, 456 (¶9) (Miss. 2010) (footnote omitted).
¶9. An out-of-court statement is hearsay if it is offered “to prove the truth of the matter
asserted.” M.R.E. 801(c). Thus, to determine whether a statement is hearsay we must first
determine the purpose for which it was offered and admitted. Smith v. State, 258 So. 3d 292,
309 (¶50) (Miss. Ct. App. 2018). Our Supreme Court and this Court have held repeatedly
that out-of-court “[s]tatements do not constitute hearsay when admitted” not to prove the
truth of the matter asserted but rather “to explain an officer’s course of investigation or
motivation for the next investigatory step by that officer.” Eubanks v. State, 291 So. 3d 309,
322-23 (¶51) (Miss. 2020) (emphasis added) (quoting Smith, 258 So. 3d at 309 (¶52)
(quoting Fullilove v. State, 101 So. 3d 669, 675 (¶20) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012))).
¶10. In this case, Wyatt testified that he ran Stevens’s name in the LeadsOnline database
and found that he had pawned a concrete saw in order to explain why he focused on Stevens
as his “main suspect” and why he then interviewed Stevens about the theft at the Neshoba
County jail. In other words, his testimony was offered “to explain [the] course of [his]
investigation” and his “motivation for [his] next investigatory step.” Id. Therefore, we
conclude that the trial judge did not abuse his discretion by overruling Stevens’s initial
4hearsay objection.
¶11. Nonetheless, we do find that the trial judge abused his discretion by admitting the
“LeadsOnline Ticket” documenting the transaction into evidence. By the time the document
was offered into evidence—and Stevens again objected—Wyatt had already explained why
his investigation focused on Stevens as the main suspect. There was no need to offer further
documentary evidence of the pawnshop transaction. At that point, the only purpose of the
additional evidence was to show that Stevens had, in fact, pawned a Husqvarna concrete saw
at a pawnshop in Starkville several weeks after the construction site theft—i.e., to prove the
truth of the matter asserted. Accordingly, the document was hearsay and should not have
been admitted.
¶12. Although the document was admitted in error, we conclude that the error was
harmless and does not require reversal. See Chaupette v. State, 136 So. 3d 1041, 1047 (¶12)
(Miss. 2014) (“We will not reverse a conviction based on a harmless error.”). “For a case
to be reversed on the admission or exclusion of evidence, it must result in prejudice and harm
or adversely affect a substantial right of a party.” Jackson v. State, 245 So. 3d 433, 439 (¶32)
(Miss. 2018) (quoting Pham v. State, 716 So. 2d 1100, 1102 (¶12) (Miss. 1998)). The error
in this case was harmless because the document admitted into evidence was essentially
cumulative of other admissible evidence. Wyatt properly testified that Stevens himself
admitted that he pawned the Husqvarna concrete saw at the Starkville pawnshop. Given that
Stevens’s car was seen parked at the construction site and that Stevens subsequently
confessed both to the theft and to pawning the saw, we cannot say that the admission of the
5LeadsOnline ticket prejudiced his defense or adversely affected his substantial rights.3
II. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel
¶13. The defendant’s constitutional “right to counsel is the right to the effective assistance
of counsel.” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 686 (1984) (quoting McMann v.
Richardson, 397 U.S. 759, 771 n.14 (1970)). A claim of ineffective assistance of counsel
may be asserted on direct appeal if the defendant is represented by appellate counsel who did
not represent him at trial. Ellis v. State, 281 So. 3d 1092, 1099 (¶20) (Miss. Ct. App. 2019).
“Generally,” however, such “claims are more appropriately brought during post-conviction
proceedings.” Ross v. State, 288 So. 3d 317, 324 (¶29) (Miss. 2020) (brackets omitted).
“This Court will address such claims on direct appeal when [1] the record affirmatively
shows ineffectiveness of constitutional dimensions, or [2] the parties stipulate that the record
is adequate and the Court determines that the findings of fact by a trial judge able to consider
the demeanor of witnesses, etc., are not needed.” Id. (quotation marks and other brackets
3 The better practice in this case would have been to obtain evidence of the pawnshop
transaction that could have been admitted to prove the truth of the matter asserted. The
LeadsOnline ticket shows that Wyatt learned of the transaction two days after it occurred,
and he obviously contacted the pawnshop because he later returned the concrete saw to
Craig Construction. The law requires pawnshops to maintain detailed records of all pawn
transactions and to provide those records to law enforcement upon request. Miss. Code
Ann. § 75-67-305 & -309 (Rev. 2016). The State should have called an owner or employee
of the pawnshop to authenticate records of Stevens’s transaction, which would have been
admissible as substantive evidence. See M.R.E. 803(6). Such a witness also might have
been able to identifyStevens or even authenticate surveillance video of the transaction. Any
such evidence would have been admissible as substantive evidence, would have
strengthened the State’s case, and would have avoided Stevens’s objection and argument on
appeal. Thus, while the admission of the LeadsOnline ticket was harmless error in this case,
we encourage the State to avoid this problem in the future by obtaining evidence of
pawnshop transactions that is admissible to prove the truth of the matter asserted.
6omitted). In addition, we may address such “claims on direct appeal when the record
affirmatively shows that the claims are without merit.” Id.
¶14. To prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance, the defendant must show both (1) “that
counsel’s performance was deficient”—i.e., “that counselmade errors so serious that counsel
was not functioning as the ‘counsel’ guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth
Amendment”—and (2) that he was prejudiced as a result—i.e., “that counsel’s errors were
so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.”
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. The defendant “bears the burden of proving both prongs of
Strickland.” Ravencraft v. State, 989 So. 2d 437, 443 (¶31) (Miss. 2008). “If either prong
is not met, the claim fails.” Havard v. State, 928 So. 2d 771, 781 (¶8) (Miss. 2006).
¶15. Courts must “indulge a strong presumption that counsel’s conduct falls within the
wide range of reasonable professional assistance.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689; see also
Branch v. State, 882 So. 2d 36, 52 (¶26) (Miss. 2004) (“Trial counsel is presumed competent,
and the burden of proving that counsel’s performance was deficient and prejudicial falls upon
the Appellant.”). Therefore, “the defendant must overcome the presumption that, under the
circumstances, the challenged action might be considered sound trial strategy.” Strickland,
466 U.S. at 689 (quotation marks omitted).
¶16. Stevens argues that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance by permitting him
to be tried in jail attire (a yellow jumpsuit), by not requesting a jury instruction that Stevens’s
attire had no bearing on his guilt or innocence, and by not requesting a jury instruction on the
limited purpose for which the LeadsOnline evidence was admitted. We address these
7arguments in turn.
¶17. As to the jail attire, “the State cannot, consistently with the Fourteenth Amendment,
compel an accused to stand trial before a jury while dressed in identifiable prison clothes.”
Estelle v. Williams, 425 U.S. 501, 512 (1976). Thus, Stevens had a right not to be tried in
jail attire, and he would have been entitled to civilian attire had he objected. However, there
is no “compulsion” and, hence, no “constitutional violation” when the defendant fails to
object to being tried in jail attire. Id. at 512-13; accord, e.g., Bell v. State, 168 So. 3d 1151,
1152-53 (¶¶4-6) (Miss. Ct. App. 2014).
¶18. Here, Stevens concedes that he did not object to being tried in a yellow jumpsuit.
Rather, he argues that his attorney provided ineffective assistance by failing to object and
then pointing out his yellow jumpsuit during voir dire. Counsel stated:
Now, Mr. Stevens is sitting over here at the table with me, and I’m sure that
you all are aware that he’s wearing a yellow jumpsuit. Now, all that means is
that he was not able to make bail in this case. It does not mean that he’s more
or less guilty of this charge. In fact, the defendant is cloaked in what is called
the presumption of innocence, which means, as we sit here today, the law
presumes that Mr. Stevens is innocent.
Is there anybody in here who tends to think Mr. Stevens might be guilty
because of the clothing that he’s wearing today?
The attorney’s question drew no response from the potential jurors.
¶19. We cannot say that the attorney provided constitutionally ineffective assistance of
counsel by the way he handled this issue. As the United States Supreme Court observed,
“[I]nstances frequently arise where a defendant prefers to stand trial before his peers in
prison garments. The cases show, for example, that it is not an uncommon defense tactic to
8produce the defendant in jail clothes in the hope of eliciting sympathy from the jury.”
Estelle, 425 U.S. at 508 (collecting cases). This might have been a valid trial strategy in this
case, given that Stevens had confessed and that the proof of his guilt was strong. As stated
above, Stevens “must overcome the presumption that, under the circumstances, the
challenged action might be considered sound trial strategy.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689
(quotation marks omitted). Stevens cannot meet this burden.
¶20. We also hold that counsel did not provide ineffective assistance by not requesting a
jury instruction regarding Stevens’s prison attire. The trial judge gave a series of six jury
instructions regarding Stevens’s presumption of innocence, the State’s burden to prove guilt
beyond a reasonable doubt, and the jury’s duty to acquit if the State failed to meet its burden.
The instructions thoroughly emphasized the jury’s duty and the State’s high burden. Counsel
did not provide ineffective assistance by not requesting yet another instruction pertaining
specifically to Stevens’s jumpsuit.
¶21. Finally, we hold that counsel did not provide ineffective assistance by not requesting
a jury instruction regarding the limited purpose for which the LeadsOnline evidence was
admitted. “We presume that counsel’s decision not to request a limiting instruction was
within the ambit of trial strategy.” Curry v. State, 202 So. 3d 294, 301 (¶24) (Miss. Ct. App.
2016). We have recognized that “such an instruction has the potential to do the defendant
more harm than good,” id., because “a limiting instruction can actually focus the jury’s
attention on sensitive information.” Herrington v. State, 102 So. 3d 1241, 1246 (¶18) (Miss.
Ct. App. 2012) (quotation marks omitted) (quoting Moss v. State, 977 So. 2d 1201, 1214
9(¶32) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007)). Therefore, “the decision . . . not to request a limiting
instruction falls under the umbrella of trial strategy.” Id. Accordingly, this argument is also
without merit, and Stevens fails to show that he received ineffective assistance of counsel at
III. Sufficiency of the Evidence
¶22. Finally, Stevens argues that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction
because the indictment and the jury instruction on the elements of the offense erroneously
described the stolen items as “the personal property of Lucas Hale d/b/a Craig Construction
Company.” At trial, Hale testified that he was not an owner of Craig Construction but “just
an employee.” He testified that the tools were not his “personal tools” but that he was “in
charge of them . . . for Craig Construction.” On appeal, Stevens argues that the jury could
not have convicted him because the jury could not have found that he stole Hale’s property
or that Hale was doing business as Craig Construction.
¶23. In support of his argument, Stevens cites Bester v. State, 222 Miss. 706, 77 So. 2d 270
(1955), which stated,
It is well-settled that in a prosecution for larceny the State must prove
ownership of the stolen property as alleged in the indictment beyond a
reasonable doubt. Johnson v. State, 186 Miss. 405, 191 So. 127. And where
ownership of stolen property is laid in a person named, the jury should be
instructed that the ownership of the property must be proved as laid.
Id. at 713, 77 So. 2d 273 (other citation omitted). Stevens argues that he is entitled to a
judgment of acquittal because the jury could not have found that the owner of the stolen
property was as alleged in the indictment or set out in the jury instruction.
10¶24. “However, the ‘strict rule’ from Bester . . . , which was taken from Johnson v. State,
186 Miss. 405, 412, 191 So. 127, 129 (1939), has been ‘implicitly overruled’ by several
cases.” Wilson v. State, 101 So. 3d 1182, 1186 (¶13) (Miss. 2012) (quoting Cooper v. State,
639 So. 2d 1320, 1323 (Miss. 1994) (citing Bullock v. State, 391 So. 2d 601, 609 (Miss.
1980); Mahfouz v. State, 303 So. 2d 461, 462-63 (Miss. 1974))). More recently,
[t]he Mississippi Supreme Court has stated: “As a general rule of law in a
prosecution for larceny, an allegation of the ownership of stolen goods is
supported by proof of any legal interest or special property in the goods; for
example, where the person or corporation named in the indictment is in lawful
possession as a bailee or common carrier.”
Wilson, 101 So. 3d at 1186 (¶14) (quoting Mahfouz, 303 So. 2d at 462-63).
¶25. Thus, in Wilson, the defendant was convicted of stealing the “personal property of
Cook Tractor” even though the evidence at trial showed that the property (a truck) was
actually owned by William Cook individually. Id. at 1187 (¶18). The truck was taken from
the premises of Cook Tractor after Cook “had left it within the fence of the business over the
weekend.” Id. We affirmed the conviction on appeal, reasoning that “[r]egardless of
whether Cook or Cook Tractor had title ownership of the truck, [the defendant] did not have
the right to take the truck,” and “[t]here was no defense that could have been mounted
against Cook Tractor that could not have been mounted against Cook.” Id.
¶26. In addition, the Supreme Court has held that any person “who has lawful possession
of the property at the time of the theft” may be identified in the indictment as the property’s
owner. Mahfouz, 303 So. 2d at 463. Furthermore, such an indictment is considered valid and
need not be amended to reflect the true or technical owner of the property. Id.
11¶27. Here, Hale was not the owner of the stolen tools, but he was in “lawful possession of
[them] at the time of the theft” because his employer, Craig Construction, had entrusted him
with them. Furthermore, the detailed indictment in this case gave Stevens clear notice of the
charges against him, and there was no defense that Stevens could have asserted against Craig
Construction that he could not have asserted against Hale. Finally, because it was
permissible for the indictment and jury instruction to name Hale as the owner of the stolen
property, the inaccurate use of the term “d/b/a” was “mere surplusage.” Edmonson v. State,
301 So. 3d 108, 113 (¶21) (Miss. Ct. App. 2020) (holding that an indictment’s use of a
“d/b/a” was “mere surplusage that [did] not affect the sufficiency of the indictment”); see
also S. Ins. Co. v. Consumer Ins. Agency Inc., 442 F. Supp. 30, 31-32 (E.D. La. 1977)
(stating that a “d/b/a” is “much like” an “alias” or an “a/k/a” and “does not create an entity
distinct from the person” named). In summary, there was ample evidence that Stevens stole
the tools identified in the indictment and that those tools had been entrusted to Hale’s
possession. Accordingly, this issue is also without merit.

Outcome: Although the LeadsOnline ticket should not have been admitted into evidence, that
error was harmless in light of the other evidence presented. In addition, Stevens’s trial counsel provided effective assistance, and the State presented sufficient evidence to support Stevens’s conviction for grand larceny.

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