Saturday, February 1, 2014


State v. Cahill, 2013 VT 69

Things are a little different in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.  As a wild and picturesque section of the state boasting farms, woods, and very little infrastructure, the disputes that arise and fuel the docket in Essex County are always going to be unique. 

So it happened that today’s defendant had a long-running feud with his neighbor concerning manure.  Defendant is a vegetable farmer, and he had long complained that his neighbor, a dairy farmer, in the process of spreading liquid manure on the dairy farmer’s fields was also spreading the liquid gold onto defendant’s vegetable crops. 

The record indicates that much shouting and flared tempers over time eventually gave way to a DMZ-type pact where the dairy farmer promised not to drive the spreader more than halfway across his fields where they bordered defendant’s vegetable gardens.

This truce held until July 1, 2010 when dairy farmer instructed his field-hand to spread the manure on the fields.  Dairy farmer warned the field-hand about the dispute with defendant and the terms of the DMZ.  Field-hand, however, strayed a bit into the zone, which infuriated defendant.  Defendant ran to the field-hand and pulled out a .45 caliber pistol.  Defendant aimed the gun at the field-hand and cocked a shell into the chamber.  After a few seconds, defendant turned the gun away from the tractor and fired into the woods. 

Field-hand called the dairy farmer who came out to the field.  He and defendant argued about manure.  Defendant became enraged, hit dairy farmer’s truck, and stormed off.  Defendant went home and started shooting up his birdfeeder (presumably lacking a manure pile to shoot).  Soon after, the Sheriff’s deputies and state police arrived. 

Defendant admitted to pointing the gun but denied firing his gun on the dairy farmer’s property.  A quick search by the metal detector squad, however, turned up a shell casing from defendant’s gun in the dairy farmer’s field.

Defendant was arrested and charged with aggravated assault, reckless endangerment, and disorderly conduct.  At trial, defendant was convicted on all three counts and sentenced to be incarcerated for two to five years.

On appeal, defendant challenges all three convictions on various grounds.  His first challenge is to the aggravated assault.  He argues that he did not “intend” to threaten or shoot the field-hand, he simply wanted to raise public attention to the issue of manure because he had been unable to get the EPA involved in his plight. 

The SCOV knocks this argument down by succinctly noting that defendant’s arguments confuse motive with intent.  The question for an assault charge is whether the defendant intended to make the threat of imminent physical violence.  It does not matter why someone does this, only that they intended to do it.  (You may threaten to cut someone with a knife for charity, but it is still a threat to cut someone with a knife.) 

Defendant claims that his motive was to bring public attention to his plight.  That is all well and good, but to make that point, he intentionally pointed a gun at a person and then fired it into the woods.  He intended to do that, and as a result he intended the assault. 

Lesson here is that there is no get out of jail free card for having a “good reason” to commit an assault.

Defendant gets a little further with the SCOV on the issue of subjective intent.  Under a charge of aggravated assault, the state must prove that a defendant specifically intended through word or deed to threaten harm upon the victim.  Again defendant argued that his whole defense was that he did not intend to threaten harm, he just wanted to raise public attention. 

Defendant argues that the test for intent is not objective—what a jury presume the intent of a generic person holding a gun up to another person.   It is subjective—what did this specific defendant intend.  The SCOV agrees with Defendant’s arguments, but the facts of this case do not really raise this issue.  This was not a protest or public performance gone wrong.  It was an angry man with a gun pointing and cocking it at another person.  The subjective-objective distinction does not give two outcomes.  The SCOV does note that this is a fact-based conclusion and notes that some future case may give rise to these issues.

The last issue raised on appeal is conceded by the State. Reckless endangerment is a lesser included crime within aggravated assault.   That means that the elements are the same but aggravated assault requires one or more elements than reckless endangerment.  When that is the case, you cannot be convicted of both crimes for one event.  You can be charged with both, but the jury can only convict you of one.  In this case, because defendant was convicted of both, one must be dismissed.  The SCOV remands to the trial court to sort it out.

With that defendant’s case is over and largely affirmed.  Defendant’s efforts to transform a physical threat into some form of political theater are rebuffed, and defendant will have several years to consider the fact that vegetables with manure are nothing to go off half-cocked about.  

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