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State v. Collins

Court of Appeals of Kansas

July 20, 2018

State of Kansas, Appellant,
Seth Collins, Appellee.


         1. The "stand your ground" law in Kansas encompasses a number of provisions providing for the use of force, including deadly force, in defense of a person or property. K.S.A. 2017 Supp. 21-5220 et seq. The linchpin of this law is its provision for self-defense immunity.

         2. Kansas courts have developed a two-prong test-subjective and objective-to determine whether a person's use of deadly force was lawful. The subjective prong of the test requires a showing that the person sincerely and honestly believed it was necessary to kill or cause great bodily harm to defend himself or herself. The objective prong requires a showing that a reasonable person in such person's circumstances would have perceived the use of deadly force in self-defense as necessary.

         3. K.S.A. 2017 Supp. 21-5231 provides immunity to a person using lawful force in defense of a person or property. Immunity represents a far greater right than any encompassed by an affirmative defense, which may be asserted during trial but cannot stop a trial altogether. Immunity prevents a case from going to trial.

         4. When considering a defendant's motion for immunity under K.S.A. 2017 Supp. 21-5231, the district court must consider the totality of the circumstances, weigh the evidence before it without deference to the State, and determine whether the State has carried its burden to establish probable cause that the defendant's use of force was not statutorily justified.

         5. To overcome a defendant's self-defense immunity claim, the State merely has to establish probable cause that the defendant's use of force was not justified. Probable cause has been defined as evidence sufficient for a person of ordinary prudence and caution to conscientiously entertain a reasonable belief of the defendant's guilt despite his claim of justified use-of-force immunity. Stated another way, the State must present evidence showing that an ordinarily prudent and cautious person could believe that (1) a reasonable person would not have believed deadly force was necessary under the circumstances or (2) the defendant did not honestly believe deadly force was necessary to protect himself or herself from death or great bodily harm.

          Appeal from Sedgwick District Court, John J. Kisner Jr., judge.

          Matt J. Maloney, assistant district attorney, Marc Bennett, district attorney, and Derek Schmidt, attorney general, for appellant.

          Patrick H. Dunn, of Kansas Appellate Defender Office, for appellee.

          Before Powell, P.J., Atcheson and Bruns, JJ.

          POWELL, J.

         Seth Collins was involved in a tragic and unfortunate fracas with three unarmed women at the top of the stairs in his apartment building, resulting in the death of one and serious injury to another. Collins was charged with second-degree murder and aggravated battery, but he claimed self-defense immunity pursuant to K.S.A. 2017 Supp. 21-5231. After an evidentiary hearing, the district court granted Collins' motion for immunity and dismissed the case. The State now appeals the district court's grant of self-defense immunity, claiming the district court erred because (1) Collins lacked the reasonable belief that he needed to use deadly force to prevent great bodily harm against himself and (2) Collins was precluded from self-defense immunity because he was an aggressor under K.S.A. 2017 Supp. 21-5226(c) and was not subject to either safe harbor retreat exception. We agree with the State that a grant of self-defense immunity was unwarranted and reverse and remand for further proceedings.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         In May 2016, the State charged Collins with one count of intentional second degree murder in violation of K.S.A. 2015 Supp. 21-5403(a)(1) and one count of reckless aggravated battery in violation of K.S.A. 2015 Supp. 21-5413(b)(2)(B). The charges arose from two incidents on April 30, 2016, between Collins and his neighbor's identical twin daughters that ended in a fatal stab wound to Kayla Brown's neck and another to her shoulder, a stab wound to Shayla Brown's bicep, and multiple injuries to Collins' head and body. Prior to trial, in July 2016, Collins filed a motion to dismiss and requested an evidentiary hearing on his claim of self-defense immunity from prosecution. In response, the district court held a three-day evidentiary hearing where multiple witnesses testified to the events that occurred on that tragic day in April.

         On April 30, 2016, Collins was returning home to his apartment around 9 p.m. after getting ice cream with his two daughters. As he drove to the front of his building, he saw an open parking space and attempted to park his car. However, Collins realized he could not park his car safely in the space because the car next to the space had the driver's-side door open and Shayla was standing inside of the open car door talking to her friend, Luz Toral. It was disputed whether Collins politely asked Shayla to move so that he could park his car in that space. What was undisputed was that Collins and Shayla got into a verbal argument that included an exchange of racial and other insults. Eventually, Collins parked elsewhere in the guest parking lot.

         For context, Collins is a 38-year-old, white male who is 5' 11" and weighs about 250 to 255 lbs. Shayla is a 22-year-old black female who is 4' 11" and weighs about 113 lbs.; her identical twin Kayla was the same height as Shayla but weighed nearly 10 pounds less. Toral is a white female, who is about 5' 3" and weighs about 180 lbs.

         After parking his car, Collins walked towards Shayla and Toral while his two daughters walked behind him. Another argument started between Collins and Toral that led to the two pushing each other back and forth. As this was occurring, Collins' 15-year-old daughter took his 8-year-old daughter's hand and went to the closest apartment building. Shayla and Kayla became involved, and eventually a physical fight broke out between Collins, the three girls, and a few others. Trishall Dear, the twins' mother, heard the commotion from inside her apartment and ran down to see what was happening. Dear attempted to break up the fight, but she was hit by Collins, prompting her to hit him back. Ultimately, Dear was able to break up the fight. This first altercation lasted about five to ten minutes.

         Dear told Collins to go to his apartment, and he complied. Collins lived in a second floor apartment beneath Dear. Dear then told Toral to leave, and Toral testified that she did so. Shayla, Kayla, and their friend Coriaynia Porter, who was involved in the altercation, went and sat in Kayla's car. Dear planned to stay outside and let things calm down and then go upstairs to her apartment to get a cigarette.

         During the altercation, Collins' older daughter called 911, and, because the girls were scared, a neighbor led them back to their apartment. Collins stated that when his daughters arrived, his older daughter was on the phone with the police. After the first altercation, Collins had injuries to his head, which caused bruising and swelling to his eyes, ears, and a bump on the right side of his face. He also had scratches on his back and injuries to other parts of his body. After five to ten minutes had passed, Collins realized he did not have his eyeglasses and went outside to look for them. Collins testified that he carries a pocket knife in his pants pocket on a daily basis and that he had the knife on him throughout the night, including during the first altercation. The pocket knife is foldable with a four-and-a-half-inch handle and four-inch blade.

         Several witnesses gave conflicting testimony regarding the second altercation. When Collins walked out of the only entrance to his apartment building, Shayla and Dear were standing outside. Porter testified that Kayla was sitting in the car with her, and Shayla and Dear were outside talking near the front entrance. Collins found his glasses on the ground and walked back towards the entrance. Witnesses Brittany Carr-Bidwell and Porter stated that, at this time, Collins was muttering, and Carr-Bidwell told detectives that night that he was repeatedly saying the "N-word" and "B-word."

         Another argument erupted between Collins and the twins. Three witnesses testified that when Collins walked past Dear into the building, he muttered something under his breath that escalated the situation. Eva Bidwell-who saw the first altercation while helping her son, Michael Bidwell, and daughter-in-law, Carr-Bidwell, move out of a nearby apartment-testified that when Collins muttered something to Dear, Dear responded, "I wish you would touch me," and things escalated. Collins testified he did not say anything to Dear when he walked past her and into the stairwell but claimed the twins were yelling insults at him, and he turned and told them it all could have been prevented if they had let him park his car.

         Dear testified that she did not remember Collins saying anything to her when he walked past her and that she opened the door for Collins and followed him inside to make sure things stayed calm. Dear testified that there was not a confrontation between Collins and the twins before he walked into the building but that her daughters followed her inside to protect her. Shayla testified that she got out of the car and followed her mother inside because she wanted to make sure Dear was okay. Porter stated that Kayla got out of the car after she saw Dear and Shayla go inside.

         Collins then walked up the nine steps to the second floor landing. As he walked, Dear was about one to two steps behind him; and Shayla and Kayla were about one step behind Dear. Shayla testified that she did not remember Collins saying anything outside or inside the stairwell, but several witnesses testified that there was yelling and the three women followed Collins quickly into the building. Michael testified that he attempted to tell the women not to follow Collins into the building.

         At the second floor landing, Collins turned towards the three women and brandished his knife in his right hand at about shoulder height with the blade out and pointing up. Collins testified that he told the women to back off but did not advance towards them or stab or swing the knife at them. Collins stated that as he walked up the stairs, the women were brushing his back, but he admitted no one had punched, pushed, or smacked him. Dear testified that she blacked out when she saw the knife. Shayla testified it was the first time she saw that Collins had a knife and that he did not say anything and started swinging the knife.

         After that, Shayla testified Collins' back might have been turned and that she grabbed his shirt collar and pulled him down, causing all four people to fall backwards down the stairs. Collins was swinging his knife as everyone fell, and Shayla stated that he hit her in the arm at that time. Collins testified that, at one point, his knife hit something that felt more like a stab than a cut and that he swung the knife to defend himself as he fell down the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs, Kayla hit a large window and several people saw that she was bleeding from her neck and mouth. Shayla testified she tried with both hands to get the knife out of Collins' hand when she reached the bottom landing. Eva testified she started yelling at Dear and Shayla to stop and help Kayla due to her injuries. Dear testified ...

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