Friday, March 27, 2015

People v. McGowan (Cal. Ct. App. - March 27, 2015)

One of the great things about reading the pages of the California Appellate Reports is that you learn new things.  Including, on occasion, new crimes.  Things that you never thought of as criminal, but that you learn could indeed send you to jail.

Today's a perfect example.  Do you have a milk crate?  Maybe in your closet or garage?  You know, one of these:

If so, prepare to wear an orange jumpsuit.  Because Section 565 of the California Penal Code says you get up to six months for this offense.  As David McGowan -- who was charged with this precise offense in Santa Monica -- confronted in today's opinion.

It's only a crime if there's a "brand" on your crate; e.g., the name of a dairy.  But I expect that's a lot of them.  I'll forthrightly admit that I've got several of these baskets in my garage (containing a great deal of junk, no doubt).  I'm not sure whether they have a brand on 'em or not.  And I'm not checking and letting you know, either.  Because I have no intention of giving probable cause to everyone in the universe by publicizing it if there is, in fact, a brand on one of my baskets.

It's a funny criminal law.  I expect that there are lots of "normal" people, like me, who violate it.  Not because we stole the things.  But because we saw 'em in an alley, or in a trash can, and picked 'em up (or still have them, as I do, from college decades go).  Did we st some level realize that they belonged to "someone else" -- i.e., the dairy with the name on it?  I guess so.  But only in the same way that a pallet, or shopping bag, or things like that "belong" to other people.  They, they were at some point someone else's, but they got rid of them, or didn't care, and now they're ours.

My sense is that these things are routinely discarded, or lost, and that it's common practice to not worry about it.  For good reason.  These things cost around five bucks.  Less, I'm sure, if you buy them in bulk (as the dairies do).  Like pallets, the seller drops them off with the store when they give 'em milk.  And if they're lost, or the store dumps them, no biggie.  Would it be "nicer" if the store gave them back to the dairy?  Sure.  But it's not like the dairy really cares.  So they don't totally try to control them.  If the baskets end up in an alley, or a trash can, or someone else's garage, that's just the nature of the milk business.

Yet we're still talking six months in jail if you happen to have them.

So that's weird.

It's also a funny law because we already have the crime of "possession of stolen property".  Why do we need a special "milk crate" law?  Why doesn't the usual law apply?  Similarly, if the milk crate law is different than the regular "stolen property" law -- e.g., maybe a lower mens rea requirement -- why so?  I understand that dairies have lobbyists, and that Sacramento cares about milk.  But why have a special -- and potentially different -- law for milk than for stereos, bicycles, and all the other stuff that is routinely stolen?

I get that milk crate theft is -- apparently -- a problem.  Turns out that plastic has some value.  So if you steal 500 or so of these things a day, you can maybe make some money.

But that's true for manhole covers, aluminum cans, and pretty much everything else in the universe as well.  Steal enough and it's a problem.  Strange that we have a special rule for milk crates.  One that's sufficiently overbroad that it likely covers a nontrivial number of, say, lawyers in our state.

So check those milk crates.  You may be committing a crime.