SCoVA Addresses Elements of Duress Defense

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by | July 20, 2016

On July 14, 2016 the Supreme Court of Virginia, in Edmonds v. Commonwealth of Virginia adopted the Court of Appeals’s formulation of the duress defense found in Buckley v. City of Falls Church, 371 S.E.2d 827, 827-28 (1988) and reiterated in Humphrey v. Commonwealth,  553 S.E.2d 546, 550 (2001). To use the defense of duress or necessity, the offender must show:

(1) a reasonable belief that the action was necessary to avoid an imminent threatened harm; (2) a lack of other adequate mans to avoid the threatened harm; and (3) a direct causal relationship that may be reasonably anticipated between the action taken and the avoidance of the harm. Humphrey, 553 S.E.2d at 550.

The case itself addressed the defense in the context of the trial court’s refusal to grant Mr. Edmonds’ withdrawal of his guilty plea. Initially, Mr. Edmonds pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm after conviction of a felony. But after pleading guilty and before sentencing, he got a new attorney. His new attorney filed a motion to withdraw his plea arguing that he took the gun under duress because of a threat of imminent harm to his girlfriend.

According to the stipulated facts, Arlington police responded to a report of a man threatening a woman and saying that he had a gun. When they arrived, they learned that a Mr. Miller, had threatened Mr. Edmonds’s girlfriend with a gun. They then heard a disturbance and saw Mr. Edmonds come running out of an apartment. He was wearing clothing similar to the clothing described by the caller to 911. The Police detained him and they found a loaded handgun on him. Mr. Edmonds then told the police that he was not involved in the disturbance and that he was trying to do the right thing by getting the gun out of the apartment so that Mr. Miller couldn’t access it while he was drunk and angry.

The trial court denied his motion to withdraw the guilty plea and held that the threat of danger was not sufficiently imminent to trigger the duress defense. The Court of Appeals agreed and, in addition, stated that “taking possession of the firearm was not the only way for [Mr. Edmonds] to avoid the threatened harm.”

The Supreme Court of Virginia also agreed and noted that:

The record is devoid of a sufficient proffer of evidence that there was a threat of imminent danger. Numerous questions are left unanswered by the record, including the location of the apartment, where the firearm was actually located, whether [Mr. Miller] even possessed the firearm or knew of the firearm’s location.

Accordingly, it held that the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in denying the motion to withdraw Mr. Edmons’s guilty plea.