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Burton v. Commonwealth, Supreme Court of Virginia, Virginia Supreme Court

281 Va. 622 (2013)

Nature of the case:

Abduction for the purpose of sexual gratification.

Facts and Issues on Appeal:

The victim was parked in a shopping mall deck when the defendant, dressed as a mechanic, approached her vehicle and knocked on the window. Defendant claimed fuel was leaking from the victim's vehicle and asked her to exit the vehicle. She complied, testifying that work had recently been done on the vehicle and she "felt like something wasn't quite right.”

The Defendant told the victim to open the hood of her vehicle and instructed her to lie across the two front seats of the car and release a lever on the passenger side. The victim complied, but after five to ten minutes of being in a horizontal position, face down across the seats, she got out of the car and approached the Defendant who was squatting near the rear of the car with his hand in his unzipped pants. The victim stepped back and stated she needed to leave. The defendant stepped in front of her. She again stated her desire to leave, and finally the defendant stepped aside.

A jury found the defendant guilty of abduction. His initial appeal was denied, and the Supreme Court of Virginia granted further review. The defendant argued the evidence was insufficient to prove that he intended to deprive the victim of her personal liberty. The court agreed, reasoning as follows:

Ruling & Rationale:

To convict a person of abduction, the state must prove that the Defendant intended to deprive the victim of her personal liberty. In Johnson v. Commonwealth, 221 Va. 872 (1981), the court held that detention by deception is insufficient to prove intent to deprive a person of personal liberty. Thus, the evidence here was insufficient to establish guilt because the defendant’s intention was to obtain sexual gratification, not deprive the victim of her personal liberty.

A dissenting opinion concluded that the evidence was sufficient to prove that the defendant intended to deprive the victim of her personal liberty.

Editorial Comment

This decision concludes that an offender can trick or obstruct another so as to keep the other in place for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification without having the intent to restrain that person’s liberty. While this result might be possible on different facts, the evidence here shows that the Defendant intended to obtain sexual gratification BY restraining the victim’s person’s liberty generally.

Liberty as a constitutional matter exists in the right to be let alone, and includes concepts such as personal autonomy and bodily integrity. An encroachment that intentionally restricts freedom of movement – however brief – is significant. Moreover, this Court’s rationale is unpersuasive because it overvalues the brevity of the intrusion at the expense of the individual's experience of having been detained.

While this case involves no actual physical contact, by overemphasizing the importance of the amount of time that was spent restraining the victim’s freedom, the decision threatens to inhibit fair assessments of victims’ liberty interests in future cases by allowing the fact-finder to discount the victim’s subjective experience of restraint.

Advocates and prosecutors should consider whether this case suggests a need to elicit stronger testimony from victims about whether and to what extent they felt constrained by the circumstances of the crime. Victims should also testify in depth about the nature of personal autonomy and bodily integrity and how these concepts were affected by the crime, as well as how these concepts relate to the core constitutional principles of freedom and liberty.

Submitted By: Erin M. Glynn -- Law Student

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