Monday, May 15, 2006

People v. King (Cal. Supreme Court - May 15, 2006)

We all know the Marbury v. Madison move from our basic Constitutional Law class: Let Party X win but, in deciding in their favor, articulate a holding that Party X will totally hate. The unanimous opinion by Justice Kennard in this case is a classic example of a less well-known, but equally tactical (and effective), move: Refuse to adopt Party X's position, and ostensibly make arguments that demonstrate the injustice of such a result, but adopt an alternative doctrine that appears opposite to the one advanced by Party X and yet that actually results in precisely the same result.

Here are the facts of the case. Defendant (allegedly) possesses a fairly short rifle. It's over two feet long (24+ inches), which may facially appear somewhat bulky, but California makes it a crime to possess any rifle that's less than 26 inches long. (Note: We're talking about overall length here, not the length of the barrel.) So the defendant gets prosecuted for having a rifle that's less than two inches shorter than allowed. Defendant claims not only that the rifle wasn't his (it was in a common area, etc.), but also that even if he possessed it, he didn't know that this weapon was overly short. He's not claiming ignorance of the law -- though assuredly he would have mentioned that fact as well -- but rather that even if he did know the law, he didn't know that the rifle was in fact less than 26 inches. So, he argues, he didn't have the mens rea to establish the offense.

But the prosecution responds that the statute is basically a strict liability offense; that once the prosecution has established possession, it doesn't matter whether or not you knew that the rifle was too short. It's like a prosecution for, say, selling adulterated food: a public welfare offense that doesn't require any proof that you knew that what you were doing was illegal; e.g., the underlying (adulterated or illegal) nature of the product.

The Court of Appeal disagrees, and reverses the conviction. The California Supreme Court takes up the case and starts out with ten pages of fairly cogent analysis that rejects the prosecution's position that you're guilty just because you possess the weapon. This is not a strict liability offense (vis-a-vis mens rea), the Court holds, and a contrary result would be both inconsistent with the statute as well as unfair. You can't convict someone just because they possess an illegal weapon. That wouldn't be right. Fair enough.

So then, after slamming the prosecution for ten pages, the Court then quickly -- and with virtually no analysis -- articulates its alternative doctrine. Yes, the prosecution has to show mens rea (take that!), but all that they have to show is that the defendant knew that the weapon was short. Not that it was illegally short; e.g., not that the weapon was under 26 inches. Just that the weapon, to use the Court's own language, "was unusually short." To make clear, "the defendant need not know the rifle's actual dimensions." He gets convicted merely if he's aware that the weapon seems fairly short. Again, remember, "the prosecution need not prove that the defendant knew there was a law against possessing the item, nor that the defendant intended to break or violate the law." Just that the rifle seemed short.

So, in the end, you have basically the precise result that the State argued for, albeit adopted in a manner that makes it appear that its position has been rejected. Yeah, the prosecution has to establish mens rea. But they can do so in a way that's utterly, utterly easy: just knowing that the rifle appears short is good enough. And if you doubted the practical effect of this doctrine, look no further than the single paragraph of the opinion in which the Court applied this new test to the facts of the case. Sure, the court below erroneously didn't require the prosecution to prove any mens rea whatsoever. But this was harmless error, because just by looking at a rifle that's around24 inches long anyone can tell that it's a bit short. So conviction affirmed.

In other words, no, it's not enough that the defendant merely knowingly possess a 26 inch rifle. You have to show that he knew it was a 26 inch rifle. But any rifle that's anywhere near 26 inches is so obviously short that this fact alone establishes the necessary statutory knowledge that the weapon is illegal.

Nice trick. One for the books.