Tuesday, July 14, 2015

People v. James (Cal. Ct. App. - July 14, 2015)

There's lots of evidence that the defendant was acting crazy at the time of the offense.  Indeed, that he was crazy.  He was behaving weirdly at a senior housing complex in Oakland, and was trying to climb the exterior of the building as well as running around the parking lot "crashing his head into cars and garbage cans."  He saw a random woman and asked her to give him a kiss, and then grabbed her and bit her multiple times.  When the police came, he was mumbling and running around between two cars.  The police used a taser on him several times, and when the officer threatened to use the taser again, the defendant said "Tase me!"  Defendant was eventually handcuffed after a struggle, and went to trial for his crimes.

This would well have been the result of psychosis.  Whether drug-induced or not; the defendant has a history of polysubstance abuse, but he was also shot in the head and had a traumatic brain injury when he was 17.

Whatever.  The jury found him guilty, but then not guilty by reason of insanity.

That verdict makes sense.  I understand it.  The guy was apparently so out of it that he couldn't tell right from wrong.  Or at least that's what the jury concluded.

That part I get.

But that's not what today's opinion is about.  The Court of Appeal holds that the conviction has to be reversed because the jury wasn't instructed that it's a substantive defense to criminality that at the time of the offense you were unconscious, and that there was substantial evidence here that the defendant was unconscious.

Whoa.  That's a little weird.

Justice Ruvolo's opinion does a very good job explaining the evolution of the jurisprudence of "unconsciousness" and its interaction with sanity determinations.  What we normally think of when we talk about someone being "unconscious" isn't necessarily the same as what we mean by that term in criminal law.

Okay.  I get it.  We're using this term in a broader sense.

But even after reading the entire opinion a couple of times, I'm still not at all sure of the dividing line between "unconscious" and "insane" under the Court of Appeal's approach.

I get that when you're sleepwalking, you're "unconscious" even though you might be moving and appear to have voluntary control.  Ditto for when you're in the midst of an epileptic seizure.  Or when you've had a severe blow to the head.  You might look like you're in control, but you're not.

But for people with, say, paranoid schizophrenia, or with the kind of mental disorder that defendant her might have had, I'm not sure how one tells the difference between "just" being insane -- a status that means you're found guilty but are placed in a hospital -- and being "unconscious" and hence are entirely relieved of all punishment/treatment.

It seems to me that the Court of Appeal is saying something like when you're "really" insane, you may have no voluntary/volitional control over your actions.  Or at least no "rational" control.  I get that.  It resonates with me.  But I'm not sure that I then understand what the difference is between being insane and being unconscious.  If you're so "insane" that the "crazy" part of your brain is the one that's taking control, then it seems like you're always (or nearly always) "unconscious" too, at least under the Court of Appeal's interpretation.  Or, at a minimum, I'm not at all sure how a jury is supposed to determine the difference -- and I feel confident that whatever jury instructions we try to come up for this one won't explain things well at all, especially since the Court of Appeal can't seem to explain the difference well even to (relatively) sophisticated non-laypeople like me.

Maybe there's a clear dividing line here.  I just don't see it.  Justice Ruvolo's intuition doesn't seem entirely wrong.  I'm just not sure were "insane" ends and "unconsciousness" begins.  At all.   Despite the fact that there's tons that's riding on that distinction; i.e., being found guilty but insane versus not being found guilty at all.

I understand that this is a tough issue.  I understand that concepts are evolving.  I understand that there might be some potential overlap.  I understand that there might be a serious problem here.

I'm just not certain precisely where the Court of Appeal is drawing the line.  Or whether the resulting line makes sense.