Monday, March 24, 2014

People v. Garcia (Cal. Ct. App. - March 24, 2014)

If you want to get a sense of some of the many absurdities in criminal law, take a look at this opinion.

Not that I'm crying all that much for the defendant, who deserves -- and receives -- a very long prison sentence.  But how we go about making that sentence 74 to life is as strange as some of the conduct that generated that dictate.

I'll not discuss at length why he gets many extra years for putting three different fingers inside the rape victim's vagina before inserting his penis.  You can read more about that in the opinion if you're interested.  Nor, with respect to other counts, does one need to discuss the particular facts of this case.

Instead, I'll summarize the Court of Appeal's central holding with a simple hypothetical:

Imagine that I burglarize a house by entering an open sliding glass door, intending to steal a purse that I view therein.  Then, once I'm in the house, I decide to see if there's any prescription medication I can steal, so I go into a bathroom to check out the medicine cabinet and while I'm there steal a hand towel.  Which for some reason gets me thinking about jewelry, so I go into a bedroom in the house and find and take a necklace.  At which point I start thinking about other pretty things, go into a different bathroom, and steal some makeup.

I burglarized and stole from one house.  But according to the Court of Appeal's ruling, I'm now guilty of four separate counts of burglary.  If I'd have entered the home with a plan of "cleaning the place out," I'd only be guilty of one count.  If I'd have entered the home and all of the items above were in one common room, I'd only be guilty of one count.  But the pure happenstance that (1) I occasionally changed my mind, and (2) the fact that the various items were located in different rooms means that I'm guilty of (and can be punished for) four separate offenses rather than one.  To put it a different way, the guy with the more culpable mental plan who intends to steal everything that's not bolted down is punished less than the guy who enters with a more limited vision of just stealing selected items.

That's what the Legislature intended.  At least according to the Court of Appeal.

As for how the Court of Appeal gets there, I thought that it was interesting that the opinion discusses at some length the reasoning articulated by Justice Benke's dissent in an earlier case.  As I read that portion of the Court of Appeal's opinion, I simultaneously thought (1) that that reasoning had some persuasive merit, but (2) that it was nonetheless a little weird to be quoting from a dissent, which only highlights the fact that the current opinion -- which goes even further than that earlier case -- may perhaps be somewhat "pressing the envelope".

Though I think I understood the opinion's discussion of Justice Benke's dissent a little better once I got to the very end of the opinion.  At which point I noticed that the current opinion was authored by Justice Benke.

Having read literally hundreds of similar burglary cases over time, I'm largely at the point at which I simply throw up my hands.  As presently articulated, this incredibly commonly charged offense is so far from what we commonly understand to be the relevant crime that it's virtually incomprehensible.  Nothing makes any sense at all.  But we seem to have stopped caring at all about that fact long, long ago.  We're instead happy to build fiction upon fiction upon fiction to where we have this giant cairn of a doctrine that looks as fragile and as absurd as any man-made pile of teetering rocks you'll ever see anywhere.

Yet there is stands.  A definite marker for where we are, where we're going, and how we got there.

Add this opinion to the top of the pile.