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Courts ponder if bank robbers can be non-threatening

Missouri courts are considering what to do with two convicted bank robbers — or should that be bank stealers?

On Wednesday, the Missouri Supreme Court heard arguments from a man who was charged with second-degree robbery in connection with a bank heist in St. Charles County. Claude Dale Brooks argued that because he never threatened anyone, he cannot be guilty of robbery, which requires the use of force or at least a threat to use force. Instead, he said the state can only convict him of stealing — a change that could drastically reduce his 25-year sentence.

By coincidence, the argument came just a day after the Court of Appeals Western District issued a split ruling in a nearly identical case. The appellate panel ruled Tuesday that Gary Leland Coleman was only guilty of stealing from a Callaway County bank because he didn’t use force. To do otherwise, Judge Joseph Ellis wrote, would mean “virtually all stealing other than by means of deceit will be the same as robbery in the second degree.” Judge Rex Gabbert concurred.

The panel’s ruling brought a sharp dissent from Judge Karen King Mitchell, who wrote that while Coleman might not have actually threatened anyone, the bank staff surely felt threatened by his actions.

“I think it unreasonable — and thus contrary to our standard of review — to infer that Coleman walked into the bank solely motivated by the hope that the bank would willingly give him money in response to his request,” she wrote.

Citing the pending Brooks argument, the Western District transferred Coleman’s case to the Supreme Court shortly after it issued its opinion.

According to court records, Brooks entered a Regions Bank in St. Charles in 2011 wearing a wig with dreadlocks, a baseball cap and sunglasses, and handed the teller a note saying: “Fifties, hundreds, no bait money and bottom drawer.” When the teller tried to move to a different cash drawer, he slammed his hand on the counter and said, “Get back here.” Police caught him a short time later with $5,150.

Coleman was convicted of robbing a Bank Star One in New Bloomfield. Wearing sunglasses, he handed the teller a plastic grocery bag and, speaking in a “low, serious tone,” said, “I need you to do me a favor. Put the money in this bag.” When a manager approached, he told her, “Ma’am, stop where you are and don’t move any farther.” He then ran out with $1,472. He was later caught in Texas.

Neither defendant was armed, but prosecutors alleged that both men did things that elevated their crimes above mere stealing. One of Coleman’s hands was behind the counter, leaving the teller uncertain if he had a weapon. Brooks raised his voice and slammed his hand on the counter.

“The reasonable inference is, what would follow would be physical force if [the teller] did not comply with these demands,” assistant attorney general Robert Bartholomew said Wednesday.

But Brooks’ public defender, Samuel Buffaloe, said the hand slam was merely to “get the victim’s attention.” A threat could be implied, he said, but it would have to be a “strong implication.”

It was not clear which way the judges intended to rule. As several of them noted, any encounter with someone attempting to take money would make the victim apprehensive at the least. But was that fear enough? As Judge Zel Fischer asked, did Brooks’ “get back here” carry an unstated “or else”?

“He was compelling her to give him money everyone knew he had no right to,” Judge Paul C. Wilson asked. “Why isn’t that in itself a threatened use of force?”

Buffaloe offered that Coleman “coerced,” rather than “compelled,” the teller to hand over the money. Under the distinctions in Missouri’s statutes, “stealing by coercion is stealing,” he said.

The Brooks case was previously decided by the Eastern District, which had ruled that the defendant’s crime amounted to stealing. Whether the Supreme Court’s taking transfer of the case indicates disagreement with Eastern District’s ruling — and now that of the Western District — remains to be seen.

The Supreme Court case is State v. Brooks, SC94154. The Western District case is State v. Coleman, WD76520.