Monday, June 02, 2014

People v. Elmore (Cal. Supreme Ct. - June 2, 2014)

I cannot fathom how the California Supreme Court comes up with an opinion like this one.

Check that.  I actually can fathom how the Court comes to this result.  So I "understand" why.  It's more accurate to say that what I really feel -- fairly strongly -- is that the logic and policy rationales articulated by the decision cannot withstand analytical scrutiny.

It's a fairly straightforward criminal law question, so some background might be in order.  Murder requires malice.  There's no malice if you act in an (1) honest, and (2) reasonable mistake of fact regarding self-defense.  So, for example, if you honestly and reasonably think that someone else is about to illegally shoot you -- say, for example, that you think you see a gun and hear them say "I'm going to kill you" -- you're not guilty even though they in fact are holding a cucumber and said "I'm going to feed you."  That's self-defense, even though it's based upon a mistake of fact.

You can see why we don't punish people for that.  If what you did was mistaken, but reasonable, we don't put you in prison.  Because that can happen to anyone.

But when your mistake of fact was unreasonable, the analysis changes somewhat.  If you think you see a gun when it's in fact a cucumber, and it would be pretty darn obvious to everyone (looking at the thing with your eyesight, from the distance you were, etc.) that it's not a gun but instead a cucumber, your mistake of fact is unreasonable.  So we still punish you.

But we don't punish you for murder.  Because that's got a mental state (malice -- e.g., premeditation) that you don't possess.  You didn't intend to kill the guy for bad reasons.  So you're still guilty.  But not as culpable as a first-degree murderer.  You're instead guilty of voluntary manslaughter.  We call that defense "imperfect" self-defense.  Your mistake of fact was unreasonable, so you're still guilty, but of a lesser offense.  You should have known better, but didn't.  Punished, but not for a crime that requires malice.

All of this is undisputed.  That's the law, and it makes sense.

But what about when your mistake of fact is really unreasonable?  You're standing two feet away from the guy, he's peeling the cucumber with a cucumber peeler into a salad, you see the cucumber peeler and the salad, but you still inexplicably think the cucumber is a gun (and think that, for some reason, the guy is holding the gun over a salad and touching it with a cucumber peeler prior to a decision to shoot you).  Your mistake of fact is just totally mistaken.  Same rule?

The answer, in my mind, is unmistakably "Yes".  Whether you're "unreasonably" mistaken or "really unreasonably mistaken" doesn't matter.  You lack the requisite mental state in both cases.  In both of these situations, we want to punish you, but we don't want to punish you for murder.  Because that (heavy) punishment (e.g., death) is reserved for people with really culpable mental states; i.e., those who deliberately kill with malice.  Whether you're stupid or "really" stupid, you're liable for voluntary manslaughter.  End of story.

Mind you, just how "stupid" your mistake of fact is might be relevant to questions about whether you actually believed it.  So, for example, in our "cucumber salad" hypothetical, a jury might perhaps find that in light of your distance and the cucumber peeler and the other facts, you didn't actually think the cucumber was a gun.  Even though you testified otherwise.  But if the jury found that you did, in fact, think the cucumber was a gun, well, then, it's voluntary manslaughter.

The California Supreme Court, however, holds otherwise.

The Court, in a 4-3 decision, creates a distinction between an "unreasonable" mistake of fact and a "really unreasonable" one.  Holding that the former is a defense on the merits, but the latter is not.  A "really unreasonable" mistake is, the Court holds, a "delusional" one.  So you can only bring those up via an insanity plea.  Not on the merits.  (And good luck with that.  Because the standards for insanity are extraordinarily high, and contrast in a plethora of substantive ways with defenses on the merits like imperfect self-defense.)

Here's a pretty good summary of the holding, from page 11 of Justice Corrigan's opinion:

"[U]nreasonable self-defense, as a form of mistake of fact, has no application when the defendant's actions are entirely delusional. A defendant who makes a factual mistake misperceives the objective circumstances. A delusional defendant holds a belief that is divorced from the circumstances. The line between mere misperception and delusion is drawn at the absence of an objective correlate. A person who sees a stick and thinks it is a snake is mistaken, but that misinterpretation is not delusional. One who sees a snake where there is nothing snakelike, however, is deluded.  Unreasonable self-defense was never intended to encompass reactions to threats that exist only in the defendant‟s mind."

With respect, that's just crazy.

For one thing, unreasonable self-defense was -- and always has been -- intended precisely to encompass "reactions to threats that exist only in the defendant's mind."  Everyone agrees that if someone shoots a guy with a cucumber 40 feet away, thinking (unreasonably) that it's a gun, that's indeed imperfect self-defense.  Even though cucumbers don't shoot bullets and hence the threat exists only in the defendant's mind.  The distinction the Court attempts to draw simply does not exist.  All of these cases encompass reactions to threats that exist only in the defendant's mind.

For another thing, the line between "unreasonable" and "really unreasonable" (i.e., "delusional") mistakes of fact is, as a practical matter, virtually entirely arbitrary.  Justice Corrigan says that when a belief is "divorced from the circumstances," it's delusional.  But all mistakes of fact are necessarily "divorced from the circumstances."  That's why they're mistakes.  The guy from 40 feet away who thinks that the cucumber is a gun is divorced from reality because the reality is that he's looking at a cucumber, not a gun.  Ditto for the guy two feet away.  This "divorced from the circumstances" standard makes no sense to me.

That's true even when one uses Justice Corrigan's hypothetical.  She says that if you see a stick and think it's a snake, that's imperfect self-defense, but not when you "see[] a snake where there is nothing snakelike."  But that's wrong on both ends.  On the one hand, when you see a stick and think it's a snake, that's "delusional" too because the stick ain't a snake; it's got no fangs, it's has no skin, it does not move, etc.  Your perception is "divorced from reality".  On the other end, it's meaningless for the Court to say that when you "see[] a snake where there is nothing snakelike," you're deluded.  If only because there's always something snakelike about everything, or at least those things you perceive as snakes.  Imagine that you perceive a dinner plate as a snake.  Well, they're both made of matter.  They are both roughly the same weight.  And, most relevantly, they both create the impression of a snake in your mind.  Which is why you honestly, but mistakenly, believe the plate is a snake.

It's simply arbitrary to say that things that are "snakelike" create a defense but thinks that are not "like a snake" do not.  Which characteristics matter?  Height?  Weight?  Shape?  Movement?  Remember that we're already (necessarily) talking about unreasonable mistakes of fact here.  Creating a legal dividing line between what's "snakelike" and what's not, when dealing with unreasonable mistakes, is to create an artificial and irrational distinction.

More importantly, it's a distinction that doesn't matter.  What matters, for culpability purposes, is what the defendant sees.  If the defendant honestly sees a snake, than that's what matters.  Because if he in fact honestly sees a snake, and shoots at it, thereby killing a person, it matters not whether the person was "snakelike" or not.  The fact is that the defendant shot at something he thought was a snake.  We should punish that person.  But not for a crime that requires malice.  Because he didn't have it.  We know that because the jury found that, in fact, the guy honestly thought he was shooting at a snake.

The California Supreme Court wants to channel all those inquiries into an "insanity" defense.  But that creates an arbitrary and irrational line.  For purposes of culpability, a guy who sees a snake because his eyesight is bad is no different than a guy who sees a snake because as a child, his parents daily put a snake into his crib while screaming the word "cucumber".  In both cases, someone sees a snake even though a snake is not, in fact, there.  That's what their brain processes.  When that's what their brain sees, and what they act upon, the culpability is the same.  Whether it's because their optic nerve is the one that's faulty or whether it's because the part of their brain that deals with cucumbers is faulty.

Yes, I understand, there might be some overlap.  It may well be that insane people make mistakes of fact.  Indeed, I'm pretty confident that many do.  But that's no reason to deprive them of a defense that everyone else has.  One that's entirely appropriate to their undisputed mental state.

The California Supreme Court's opinion also results in a punishment scheme that seems profoundly distorted to me.  Under their view, this is the pantheon of punishment:

(1)  Reasonable mistakes of fact:  No punishment (i.e., acquittal).
(2)  Unreasonable mistakes of fact:  Some punishment (i.e., voluntary manslaughter).
(3)  Really unreasonable ("delusional") mistakes of fact:  Full punishment (i.e., first-degree murder).
(4)  Really, really unreasonable ("insanity") mistakes of fact:  No punishment (i.e., insanity acquittal).

How does the existence of (3) make any sense?  You would think that the degree of "crazy" (i.e. irrationality) would -- and should -- consistently scale with the degree of culpability.  So a deliberate, malicious person gets full punishment, a somewhat ("unreasonable") crazy person gets punished to a lesser degree (since they're less culpable), and a totally crazy ("insane") person gets no punishment (of a criminal nature) at all.

But under the majority's view, the partially crazy person ("unreasonable") gets lesser punishment, the totally crazy person ("insane") gets no punishment, but the guy in the sweet spot between these two -- the "delusional" person -- gets full punishment.  What the hell?

I need not discuss at length some of the additional arguments made by the dissent:  how the majority's rule conflicts with the statutory language, etc.  I think it sufficient that the majority's rule makes neither practical nor doctrinal sense.  Yeah, I get the practical reason why the Court might so hold:  it's much easier -- and punishes people a lot more severely (given the difficulty of mounting an insanity defense) -- to shunt all of these inquiries into a separate insanity phase.

But you can't do that.  Not if you have -- as we do -- a defense based upon imperfect self-defense.  If you have a regime that -- as we do -- looks into the mental state of the defendant, than that's what you have to do.  You can't coherently draw a doctrinal distinction between "crazy" and "really crazy" and "totally crazy" mental states.  Much less punish the middle of these more severely than the other two.

So, irony aside, I just think this decision is crazy.  Not delusional, mind you.  But unreasonable.

With the caveat that it shouldn't matter.