Tuesday, January 14, 2014

People v. Goolsby (Cal. Ct. App. - Jan. 14, 2014)

One of the common misconceptions about appellate jurisprudence amongst laypeople is the belief that if you're a criminal defendant who prevails on appeal, you get to go free.  Not true.  Almost always, your remedy is simply a retrial.  A retrial which will more than likely have the same result as your initial trial; i.e., a conviction.

There are, of course, exceptions.  Sometimes the prosecution will offer a plea deal.  Sometimes some of the witnesses might be unavailable.  Sometimes the retrial will result in an acquittal.  Nonetheless, the vast majority of the time, you're facing another trial.

But then there are cases like these.

This is probably what most people think of when they think about a criminal defendant "getting off on a technicality."  (Though, here, it's a substantive problem with the prosecution, not a Fourth Amendment or similar problem.)  Richard Goolsby has an argument with the girlfriend with whom he resides in a mobile home, so he pours gasoline on the thing and burns it down.  With her inside.  Fortunately, she gets out, but they charge Goolsby with felony arson.

Felony arson's broken down into a variety of degrees, with corresponding punishment.  You get the most prison time (not surprisingly) if you hurt someone, the next most if you burn down an "inhabited structure or inhabited property" (e.g., a house), less if you torch a "structure or forest land", and not much if you burn "other types of property".

Since both Goolsby and the victim were living in the mobile home, not surprisingly, the DA charges him with arson of an inhabited structure.  "Structure" being defined (for our purposes) as "any building".  Goolsby's also charged with the lesser "arson of other property" offense, on the theory that it's (somewhat) a lesser included offense.  But once the jury convicts on the greater offense, consistent with the instructions they were given, they don't issue a verdict on the lesser.

Here's the problem:  Is a mobile home a "structure"?  Which, given the definition, is to ask whether it's a "building".

You can see why there might be some debate here.  On the one hand, it's got four walls, a floor and a roof.  People live in it.  On the other hand, it's mobile.  It's got wheels.  Our traditional understanding of "building" doesn't include something with wheels.  So that's the debate.

The Court of Appeal says it ain't a building.  Yes, there are some cases that hold that when a mobile home is "permanently" attached to the ground it's a "building".  But -- perhaps unwisely -- the DA didn't offer any such evidence here.  Hence the Court of Appeal holds that the evidence is insufficient as a matter of law.

Which leaves the lesser offense, right?  For which the guy's indisputably guilty.

Except for two problems.  One, the jury didn't render a guilty verdict on that.  Two, there are some other facts you need to prove -- e.g., that the defendant doesn't own the property (because, with limited exceptions, it's not arson to torch your own stuff -- that weren't proven here.  So on the state of this record, the Court of Appeal says it's can't just enter a judgment of conviction on the lesser.

So what to do?

The Court of Appeal bites the bullet.  It says that since Goolsby was already charged with the relevant act, the Double Jeopardy clause bars his reprosecution.  The state had its chance.  It blew it.  Goolsby goes free.

Justice Richli slightly disagrees.  She agrees that the home here wasn't a "structure".  But disagrees on the retrial point.  She'd let the guy be retried.  On the theory that the lesser offense is still "pending" since the jury never reached it, so the Double Jeopardy Clause doesn't bar its continued prosecution.

I think everyone's got a good point here.  Including but not limited to the (absent) dissent.  I think it's a close issue whether a mobile home is a "building".  Looks (mostly) like a duck, quacks like a duck, etc.  So I might be somewhat more willing than the panel here to affirm Goolsby's conviction.

But I'll forthrightly admit that I'm torn -- as I recognize I shouldn't be -- by the fact that Goolsby may well get to go free unless I so hold.  It's a close case.  We don't want someone who tried to burn up his girlfriend on the street.  Even if it's the DA's fault (and I'm not saying it is), I'm not excited about letting the guy go.  Which I might well have to do if I say the home isn't a building.

Admittedly, Justice Richli's got a potential way out.  But as between calling a mobile home a "building" and adopting her interpretation of the Double Jeopardy Clause, I'm not sure the former isn't somewhat more persuasive as a matter of doctrine.  So that's the way I lean.

Yet I understand that my motivation for doing so is "impure".  That I'm thinking thoughts that I should not (e.g., about justice in this particular case).  But I'm human.  It's hard to put those aside.  Try as I might.

A colleague of mine asked me earlier today whether my jurisprudential theory generally imposed any "hard" interpretive limits.  For me, this opinion may well demonstrate the difficulty of providing a solid, easily definable answer to that query.