Thursday, June 02, 2016

People v. Castillolopez (Cal. Supreme Ct. - June 2, 2016)

It's so, so nice to live in a state that has an incredibly smart state supreme court.

As it happens, I was at oral argument in the California Supreme Court last week, and was incredibly -- incredibly -- impressed with the questions from the bench.  The justices got to the central issues so quickly, and so cogently.  That's great to see, and it's also what every advocate should hope for.

I've also taken to live-streaming the oral arguments in the background whenever I've got little better to do at the office.  An academic's version of multi-tasking, so well known to the teenage generation (and their crappy music).  I find myself impelled to turn it down sometimes when one of the advocates is especially dull or raspy or overly aggressive, but never have I felt that way about the justices.  To see the California Supreme Court at work is truly great.  I may not -- and surely don't -- agree with every decision that tribunal renders.  But I profoundly respect the intellectual heft that's behind the opinions. And the questions at oral argument, to tell the truth, might be even better (at times, anyway) than the final written work product.

Now, you might be thinking that, with such an introduction, I'm going to slam the thing.  Not true.  I really, really like this one.  Couldn't have written it better -- or even half as good -- myself.  It's fairly short, at 14 double-spaced pages, and yet despite its brevity, is incredibly comprehensive.  It's the type of opinion that I absolutely love.  Incredibly well done.

Justice Kruger writes the opinion, and it's unanimous.  It's so good that it's hard to see how anyone could disagree with the opinion.  At least after reading it.  The actual issue isn't self-evident:  Does an your typical open Swiss Army Knife count as a "dirk or dagger" when the statute says that such a knife qualifies "only if the blade of the knife is exposed and locked into position."  Like your regular Swiss Army Knife, the knife here was open, and didn't have a separate "lock", but the spring on the knife nonetheless held the blade in the open position -- though you could push the blade back without manipulating anything other than the blade on the knife.  Does that count as "locked"?

The California Supreme Court says no.  Justice Kruger goes through the various iterations of the statute at length.  Which highlight, in part, not only its history, but also how much time is sometimes wasted on tinkering with statutory definitions that simply don't work.  I thought the background here was interesting (even if not providing much insight into the actual resolution of the question presented):

"Penal Code section 21310 makes it a criminal offense to carry "concealed upon the person any dirk or dagger."  The origins of the statute can be traced to 1917, when the Legislature enacted a statute that prohibited possessing several types of dangerous weapons "commonly associated with criminal activity,"  including "a blackjack, slungshot, billy, . . . metal knuckles, [or] bomb," and carrying "a dirk or a dagger."  In 1923, the law was changed to prohibit carrying a dirk or dagger only if it was "concealed upon his person."

Neither of these statutes defined the terms "dirk" or "dagger." Courts accordingly construed these terms in accordance with their dictionary definitions: "Dirk and dagger are used synonymously and consist of any straight stabbing weapon, as a dirk, stiletto, etc. (Century Dict.) They may consist of any weapon fitted primarily for stabbing. The word dagger is a generic term covering the dirk, stiletto, poniard, etc."

"Whether a folding knife or pocketknife qualified as a dirk or dagger under the statute, as the courts understood it, depended on whether the blade "locked" into place. [Cites]

In 1993, the Legislature undertook the first of several efforts to supply a definition of ―dirk or dagger.‖ In its initial effort, the Legislature defined "dirk" or "dagger" to mean "a knife or other instrument with or without a handguard that is primarily designed, constructed, or altered to be a stabbing instrument designed to inflict great bodily injury or death." (Pen. Code, § 12020, subd. (c)(24), as added by Stats. 1993, ch. 357, § 1, p. 2155.) But this definition "ultimately proved too narrow and too difficult of proof. Prosecutors complained that ‗since we can never show that the primary purpose of a butcher knife, hunting knife, survival knife, ice pick, etc., is to cause death or great bodily injury by stabbing, we cannot obtain convictions under the statute, even when the person was carrying the concealed instrument for potential use as a weapon." (Rubalcava, supra, 23 Cal.4th at p. 337 (conc. opn. of Werdegar, J.).) 

In 1995, the Legislature amended the reference to a knife or other instrument that is '"primarily designed, constructed, or altered to be a stabbing instrument" with a broader reference to a knife or other instrument that is "capable of ready use as a stabbing weapon." (Pen. Code, § 12020, subd. (c)(24) as amended by Stats. 1995, ch. 128, § 2, p. 504.) The Legislative Counsel recognized that this change "would expand the scope of existing crimes"‖ (Legis. Counsel‘s Dig., Assem. Bill No. 1222 (1995-1996 Reg. Sess.) 5 Stats. 1995, Summary Dig., p. 35.) But this change, too, raised concerns — this time that the definition was too broad, rather than too narrow, particularly as applied to folding knives and pocketknives. In response to those concerns, the Legislature amended the statute in 1997 to provide that a folding knife or pocketknife would qualify as a dirk or dagger "capable of ready use as a stabbing weapon" only if the blade of the knife was "exposed and locked into position."

So there you have it.  So many amendments.  So many attempts to get it right.  And yet, a century later, we're still debating what the terms mean.

Ultimately, Justice Kruger says that an open pocketknife isn't "locked" when its simply held open by regular force that can be overcome merely by pushing the blade.  And that seems very much right to me.  Justice Kruger does an outstanding job of very intelligently dissecting the various arguments to the contrary -- nonfrivolous arguments, to be sure, but ultimately meritless.  Justice Kruger says that "when the Legislature referred to blades "locked into position," it intended to refer to knives with blades rendered immobile, as by operation of a locking mechanism, rather than knives with blades that could be collapsed simply by folding the blade back into the handle."  Otherwise pretty much any knife would qualify as "locked into position", since something -- some force -- holds the blade open in every pocketknife, lest the thing fold up while you're using it.  So let's make the statute both make sense as well as comply with our traditional understanding of various knives and their composition.

A beautiful opinion.  Fantastic to read.  Another great product of an outstanding court.