Rice County District Court File No. 66-CR-11-1322
Lori Swanson, Attorney General, St. Paul, Minnesota; and G. Paul Beaumaster, Rice County Attorney, Terence J. Swihart, Assistant County Attorney, Benjamin Bejar, Assistant County Attorney, Faribault, Minnesota (for respondent)
David W. Merchant, Chief Appellate Public Defender, Rochelle R. Winn, Assistant Public Defender, St. Paul, Minnesota (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Peterson, Presiding Judge; Ross, Judge; and Toussaint, Judge. [*]
A jury found William Bliss guilty of felony domestic assault after hearing evidence that he hit his "girlfriend, " R.M.D., and attempted to choke her during an altercation in her home. Bliss appeals from his conviction, arguing that there is insufficient evidence to establish that he and R.M.D. were "involved in a significant romantic or sexual relationship" as required to constitute domestic abuse. Because the evidence is sufficient to allow a jury to find a romantic or sexual relationship existed between Bliss and R.M.D., we affirm.
William Bliss and R.M.D. dated on and off for two years. During their romantic relationship, they spent a lot of time together socially, going out to eat, to the movies, and to community events. They each also spent a significant amount of time with the other's children. Bliss and the state agree that the relationship eventually ended, but they dispute when it occurred. Relevant here, they do not agree whether it ended before Bliss's assault on May 9, 2011.
On that day, Bliss stopped by R.M.D.'s workplace to get her apartment key, intending to let himself in and wait for her to return after work. This was the same pattern they followed during their relationship when Bliss spent the night. On this occasion, Bliss smelled of alcoholic beverages and seemed intoxicated when he arrived at R.M.D.'s workplace. Bliss and R.M.D. smoked a cigarette together and embraced before Bliss left with R.M.D.'s key.
R.M.D. met her daughter after her shift and went home. R.M.D. knocked on a window for "[a] couple minutes" before Bliss, who was sleeping on the couch, woke up and answered. R.M.D. scolded Bliss for falling asleep and this angered him. An argument ensued and quickly escalated until Bliss punched R.M.D. twice in the head and attempted to choke her. The commotion alerted R.M.D.'s daughter, who entered the room and told Bliss to stop. He collected his things and left.
R.M.D. called a friend, who came to the apartment and saw R.M.D.'s bruised face and black eye. She took R.M.D. and her daughter to her residence and telephoned police. Faribault Police Officer Michael Thul responded, took R.M.D.'s statement, and photographed her injuries. R.M.D. identified William Bliss as her attacker and referred to him as her "boyfriend" to both Officer Thul and to hospital staff later that night. Officer Thul went to Bliss's apartment and was let inside by his roommate. The officer found Bliss sleeping and smelling like alcoholic beverages. He woke Bliss and questioned him. He directed Bliss, "[T]ell me about what happened with [your] girlfriend, " and Bliss responded narratively without correcting the characterization.
The officer arrested Bliss and the state charged him with domestic assault by strangulation, felony domestic assault, and gross misdemeanor assault.
Bliss testified at trial that his romantic relationship with R.M.D. had ended in January 2010, more than a year before the assault. But R.M.D. testified that she and Bliss were in an exclusive romantic relationship until the May 9, 2011 assault. She acknowledged that she had an on-and-off relationship with Bliss, but she testified that she always perceived it as exclusive even in the "off" periods and that she learned that Bliss may have been seeing other ...