[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
Rita Joan Griffith, Attorney at Law, Cynthia B. Jones, Jones Legal Group, LLC, Seattle, WA, for Petitioner.
Sara I. Beigh, Lewis County Prosecutors Office, Chehalis, WA, for Respondent.
[178 Wn.2d 891] ¶ 1 David Wooten was convicted of first degree malicious mischief for damaging a home he was purchasing on a real estate contract. Wooten claims he did not damage " property of another" — an element of malicious [178 Wn.2d 892] mischief— because he had exclusive possessory and proprietary interests in the property. He also argues the trial court abused its discretion by excluding closing argument about financing issues relating to the home.
¶ 2 We affirm. For purposes of malicious mischief, Wooten was not the exclusive owner of the property, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion by limiting Wooten's attorney's closing argument.
¶ 3 In May 2005, Wooten executed a purchase and sale agreement to buy a house from Dennis Kohl in the name of Wooten Primary Care (Primary), Wooten's family medical practice. In an addendum to the purchase and sale agreement, Primary and Kohl agreed to enter into an " option to Lease Purchase the Property." Ex. 1, at 9. Ultimately, Kohl and Primary entered into a real estate contract in November 2005, listing $225,000 as the purchase price. Bob Miller, Wooten's business partner, signed the contract on behalf of Primary. Wooten did not sign the real estate contract. The contract also obligated the buyer to pay all taxes, keep the property in good repair, and bear the risk of loss for destruction of the property. No one recorded the purchase and sale agreement or the real estate contract.
¶ 4 Wooten and his family moved into the house in May 2005. Wooten claims he began remodeling the house in July 2007 to add a bedroom. When Wooten started work, however, he testified he found black mold in a bathroom and had to remove a large amount of sheetrock from the house. Wooten took a break from the project for the Christmas holiday.
¶ 5 Without telling Wooten, Kohl took out a mortgage on the property for $216,000 four or five months after entering [178 Wn.2d 893] into the purchase and sale agreement. Kohl testified he had informed Miller, Wooten's partner, that he was in the process of getting the mortgage when he entered into the agreement with Primary. Kohl further testified that the Wootens had failed to pay taxes for the property, which had accumulated to $8,000, and that he had driven by the house and found it in disarray. According to Kohl, his attorney advised him to " flip" the property back to the bank because Kohl could not afford to pay the back taxes or repair the
damage to the property. Kohl stopped paying on the mortgage in September 2007.
¶ 6 When the Wootens came home after the holidays, they found a default notice attached to the front gate. Wooten was surprised to find the notice because he had not used the property to secure any loans, nor had he defaulted on the monthly payments to Kohl. Wooten discovered that because of the mortgage Kohl had taken out, Wooten would have to pay double the sale price to avoid foreclosure. The Wootens moved out of the house in May 2008.
¶ 7 On May 24, 2008, Kohl went to the house and found it was badly damaged. Kohl called the sheriff's department, and a deputy arrived who had seen the house before. In January 2006, the deputy found the house in fairly good repair, with sheetrock and carpeting intact. On this visit, however, the deputy found a large amount of garbage outside the house. Inside, Kohl and the deputy found extensive damage. Carpet and tiling had been removed from the floor. Sheetrock was taken off most of the walls. Medical waste— including hypodermic needles and vials of blood— lay on the floor, as did trash, dog feces, and rotting food.
¶ 8 Wooten was charged with first degree malicious mischief. At trial, the State's construction expert testified it would cost at least $15,000 to bring the house back " to code" and more to restore the house to finished condition. Verbatim Report of Proceedings (VRP) (Apr. 15, 2010) at 11. The expert testified garbage removal would cost approximately [178 Wn.2d 894] $3,000, after an initial expense of $500 for a hazardous material assessment due to the medical waste. The State argued Wooten was not remodeling the house but that he had damaged it out of anger.
¶ 9 During closing argument, the court prohibited Wooten's attorney from arguing about the mortgage Kohl took out after entering the purchase and sale agreement with Primary. The court found the financing details were irrelevant to the issue of whether Wooten damaged the property.
¶ 10 Wooten was convicted and appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed in a split decision. State v. Wooten, noted at 169 Wash.App. 1029, 2012 WL 3011730, at *8. Judge Armstrong dissented on the grounds the State had not proved that an entity other than Wooten had an ownership interest in the property or that the bank's security interest had been diminished. Id. at *9-10 (Armstrong, J., dissenting). We granted review.
¶ 11 To convict Wooten of first degree malicious mischief, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Wooten knowingly and maliciously caused physical damage to the property of another in an amount exceeding $1,500. Former RCW 9A.48.070 (1983). Malice is defined as " an evil intent, wish, or design to vex, annoy, or injure another person." RCW 9A.04.110(12). Property of another " means property in which the actor possesses anything less than exclusive ownership. " RCW 9A.48.010(1)(c) (emphasis [178 Wn.2d 895] added). The meaning of a statute is a question of law, reviewed de novo. Dep't of Ecology v. Campbell & Gwinn, LLC, 146 Wash.2d 1, 9, 43 P.3d 4 (2002) (citing State v. Breazeale, 144 Wash.2d 829, 837, 31 P.3d 1155 (2001)).
¶ 12 Wooten claims the State failed to show he damaged " property of another" because he had sole ownership of the real properly. Suppl. Br. of Pet'r at 10-11. Wooten contends the seller (or the successor in interest to the seller) had only a security interest in ...