Monday, March 23, 2020

People v. Bullard (Cal. Supreme Ct. - March 23, 2020)

The trial court and the Court of Appeal thought the case should come out one way.  The California Supreme Court unanimously reversed.

I particularly liked the last several pages of Justice Kruger's opinion.  They independently explain the issue well, as well as why the case should come out the way it does:

"The narrow interpretation of Penal Code section 490.2 as applied to section 10851 convictions would mean that a person who intends only to take the vehicle temporarily may be punished as a felon, while a person who also intends to take the vehicle permanently is subject only to misdemeanor punishment. The utter illogic of this result effectively eliminates the narrow interpretation of Penal Code section 490.2 as a possible construction. As in other instances when a statute “blindly and literally applied” would lead to “obvious injustice and a perversion of the legislative purpose” (People v. Oliver (1961) 55 Cal.2d 761, 766), we must instead choose a reasonable interpretation that avoids absurd consequences that could not possibly have been intended.  [Cites] . . . .

When voters enacted Penal Code section 490.2, they could not possibly have intended thereby to split the atom of the section 10851 vehicle taking into two separate crimes—permanent taking and the included offense of temporary taking—with the latter punished more harshly than the former. . . . If anything, to exclude a section 10851 conviction based on the taking of a low-value vehicle because the defendant’s intent was not culpable enough would contravene Proposition 47’s overarching purpose of reducing the punishment for low-level nonviolent property crimes. More to the point, we see no plausible reason why any reasonable voter or legislator might have intended such a result. . . .

The Attorney General argues that even though a person who violates section 10851 by committing what he calls a “pure taking” of a vehicle is eligible for Proposition 47 relief, a person who actually drives the vehicle at any point is not. The Attorney General illustrates the point with an example from the now-defunct MTV series Punk’d, in which a prankster towed the celebrity victim’s car as part of an “elaborate hoax.” As the Attorney General sees it, the MTV prankster who has arranged for towing services has committed a misdemeanor (assuming the car is of the requisite low value); for virtually anyone else, the crime remains punishable as a felony.

The Attorney General’s theory appears to rest on the premise that for purposes of section 10851, taking and driving a vehicle are mutually exclusive categories of conduct. This manner of parsing the section 10851 offense is contrary to both experience—which tells us that cars are commonly taken by driving them away—and our unsurprising observation in Page that “vehicle theft often involves driving the vehicle.” (Page, supra, 3 Cal.5th at p. 1188.) . . . . The distinction between taking a vehicle by driving it away and taking a vehicle by other means is not one that has ever had any significance under section 10851, and the Attorney General offers no sound basis for believing Proposition 47 was intended to distinguish among vehicle takings on this basis.

Our holding today does not mean that Proposition 47, properly read, necessarily covers every offense that one might believe to be less serious than petty theft or simple drug possession. We are not at liberty to rewrite the initiative to enact our own view of provisions that might have improved it, or that would have better vindicated its stated purpose of reducing punishment for low-level crimes, and we do not do so here. (See People v. Martinez (2018) 4 Cal.5th 647, 653–655.) Nor should our holding be taken to suggest that the term “theft,” in general, carries anything other than its settled meaning.

Our holding today is narrow, and specific to the interaction between Proposition 47 and the section 10851 offense. We hold only that to interpret Proposition 47 to split the section 10851 taking offense into two offenses— misdemeanor taking with intent to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle, and felony taking with intent to do so only temporarily—is so patently illogical that we cannot imagine any plausible reason why voters might have intended that result. The elements of taking an automobile without the intent to permanently deprive the owner of its possession are included in taking with such intent. . . .

It certainly would have made our task easier had voters expressly instructed that all vehicle takings under section 10851 are to be treated as equivalent to vehicle theft for purposes of Proposition 47’s theft-reduction provision. But Proposition 47 does not speak in this degree of granular detail, so we must discern the voters’ intent given the other tools at hand. Confronted with comparable circumstances, we have not hesitated “to find by implication provisions in a statute which are not within the scope of the statutory language taken literally.” (Bruce v. Gregory, supra, 65 Cal.2d at p. 674; see also In re Michele D. (2002) 29 Cal.4th 600, 606 [that legislators “may not have considered every factual permutation” for statute’s application does not mean application to particular conduct is beyond legislative intent].) It is, after all, “our role to make sense rather than nonsense out of the corpus juris.” (West Virginia Univ. Hospitals, Inc. v. Casey (1991) 499 U.S. 83, 101.) The narrow interpretation of Penal Code section 490.2, as both sides agree, is one that would make nonsense of the law. We therefore agree with the parties that it is an interpretation we must reject."

Well said.