On Judicial Notice and Mejia-Cortez

by Jamison Koehler on September 20, 2021
D.C. criminal defense lawyer

A metro station in D.C. is not licensed to serve alcoholic beverages.  

Can the court take “judicial notice” of this fact – that is, assume it to be true — when the fact is an element of a criminal offense?  Or must the government prove this fact through the introduction of evidence?

This was the issue in Manuel Mejia-Cortez v. District of Columbia, __ A.3d __ (D.C. 2021).   

After arresting Mejia-Cortez for fare evasion at the Georgia Avenue metro station, police recovered a six-pack of beer containing two opened and half-full bottles from his bag.  Mejia-Cortez was ultimately convicted of violating that part of the statute that makes it illegal to possess an open container of alcohol (POCA).  Specifically, D.C. Code § 25-1001(a)(4) prohibits possession of an open container of alcohol in any place “to which the public is invited” and “for which a license to sell alcoholic beverages has not been issued.”

At trial, the government proved that Mejia-Cortez possessed an open container of alcohol.  But it introduced no evidence that the metro station at which Mejia-Cortez was arrested was not licensed to sell alcohol.  Instead, it argued on appeal that this fact was so obvious that no such proof was necessary:  “there is no question that a license to sell alcohol had not been issued for the Georgia Avenue metro station.”  

In a decision penned by Associate Judge Corrine Beckwith, the D.C. Court of Appeals did not agree:  The constitutional right to due process requires that the prosecutor prove every element of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt, even when a particular element appears obvious.  

The government asked the Court on appeal to take judicial notice of the fact that all drinking is prohibited on the metro.  This would allow the Court to infer that the metro station in question was not licensed to sell alcohol.  

Wrote the Court:  “A judicially noticed fact must be one not subject to reasonable dispute in that it is either (1) generally known within the territorial jurisdiction of the trial court or (2) capable of accurate and ready determination by resort to sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned.”  Thus, a court may take judicial notice of its own records.  It may also notice without proof the jurisdiction’s laws and statutes and “many other facts one cannot reasonable contest.”  The court can notice, for example, that the period of conception is about 280 days, or nine months. 

The government’s argument in this case was complicated by the fact that the prosecution had not asked the court to take judicial notice of the lack of the metro’s liquor license at the trial level.  Although the Court of Appeals will sometimes take judicial notice of particularly straight-forward facts, this was not such a case, particularly when the fact constituted an element of the offense the government was required to prove.  

The Court concluded: “In Mr. Mejia-Cortez’s case, the government may have been able to prove the no-license element . . . But it failed to do so, and the circumstances do not support taking judicial notice on appeal.”

Joseph Molina represented Mejia-Cortez at a trial presided over by Judge Franklin Burgess, and Aaron Marr Page filed the appeal. 

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