People v. Bray (1975)

US Criminal Law

People v. Bray
‘Still Life with a Gun’ by Alexi Antonov

Knowledge of a criminal act is unquestionably key to any successful conviction, as was shown here in a case between a previously convicted citizen and an irascible district attorney, whose sole prerogative appeared to stem not from lawful application but sheer bloody-mindedness.

Having been arrested in conjunction with an earlier offence in Kansas 1969, the appellant was later sentenced to probation on grounds that his participation was deemed no greater than a misdemeanour, while a lack of criminal activity prior to his conviction noted a man of reasonable character, and so after relocating to California several years later, he was successful in (i) registering to vote, (ii) gaining employment requiring the use of a handgun, and (iii) the purchase and subsequent registration of such a weapon while disclosing his past without reservation.

A little over three years after establishing his new residency the respondent ordered an investigation of the appellant’s property, during which he cooperated and openly showed the investigators his .22 and .38 pistols, however he was still arrested and charged with felonious possession of a concealable firearm under § 12021 of the California Penal Code.

Following his conviction in the Superior Court of San Diego County, the appellant challenged the judgment in the California Fourth District Court of Appeals on grounds that the trial court erred in failing to instruct the jury that ignorance and mistake of fact were viable defences as per § 4.35 of the California Jury Instructions-Criminal (CALJIC), which read that:

“An act committed or an omission made under an ignorance or mistake of fact which disproves any criminal intent is not a crime. Thus a person is not guilty of a crime if he commits an act or omits to act under an honest and reasonable belief in the existence of certain facts and circumstances which, if true, would make such an act unlawful.”

Whereupon the court referred to People v. Hernandez, in which the California Supreme Court had held that:

“[T]he courts have uniformly failed to satisfactorily explain the nature of the criminal intent present in the mind of one who in good faith believes he has obtained a lawful consent before engaging in the prohibited act.”

Before noting how in People v. Vogel the same court had also held that:

[T]he intent with which the unlawful act was done must be proved as well as the other material facts stated in the indictment; which may be by evidence either direct or indirect, tending to establish the fact, or by inference of law from other facts proved.”

And so in light of the obvious judicial oversight, the court sustained the motion that when adjudged as no more than a past minor offender, the appellant had therefore lawfully obtained and exercised his rights when possessing the very items relied upon to convict him, whereupon the previous judgment was reversed in full, while the court reminded the respondents that:

“[K]nowledge that one is a felon becomes relevant where there is a doubt the defendant knew he had committed a felony.”

Norton v. U.S. (1932)

US Criminal Law

Norton
‘Clark Gable’ by Mary Bassett

While intention to defraud and deceive are crucial to a lawful conviction, when the evidence shows there was no plausible theory upon which to establish a victim the courts simply cannot pass judgment, as was shown in this case between the alleged lover of a well-known Hollywood film star and those bent on convicting her.

Sometime in 1937 the appellant was indicted before the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California on charges of mail fraud as per 18 U.S.C.A. § 338, which reads in relevant part that:

“Whoever, having devised or intending to devise any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises….places in any post office or authorized depository for mail matter, any matter or thing whatever to be sent or delivered by the Postal Service….shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”

While the charge itself was reliant upon the fact that the appellant had organised and attempted to effectuate a letter-based scheme whereby she claimed to have given birth to a daughter in years following a romantic liaison with actor Clark Gable in England some fifteen years prior to the hearing, and so following her subsequent conviction, she appealed against the judgment on grounds that the allegations were in fact, false.

Heard in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the court quickly established that although the letter sent was one containing very personal statements and terms of endearment toward the actor, there was no historical evidence that the intended victim had even been in the United Kingdom at the time alleged, and so in the first instance the court referred to Donnelly v. U.S. in which the U.S. Supreme Court had held that:

“[O]ne may not be punished for crime against the United States unless the facts shown plainly and unmistakably constitute an offense within the meaning of an act of Congress.”

While also noting that in Fasulo v. U.S. the Court had again held that:

There are no constructive offenses; and, before one can be punished, it must be shown that his case is plainly within the statute.”

And so on this occasion the court noted that although the allegations suggested a purposeful attempt to defraud and thereby obtain money from the actor, the appellant was cognisant of the futility of such a plan when at the time of writing the letter, she knew that neither one of them had physically met, never mind engaged in any form of relationship, and so with no means upon which to properly convict, the court reversed the previous judgment in full, while reminding the litigants that:

“There can be no intent to deceive where it is known to the party making the representations that no deception can result.” 

Mayes v. People (1883)

US Criminal Law

Mayes
‘Still Life Beer’ by Neil Carroll

Death resulting from a reckless act is on most occasions deemed manslaughter, however with overwhelming evidence of wilful intent, the court cannot simply accept anything less than a charge of murder, as was explained in this case between the convicting State and the subjective argument of a clearly mentally distressed man.

The nature of this 1883 matter rests upon the testimony of both a grandmother and the defendant in error’s young daughter, who at the time of the offence witnessed their father return home from a nearby saloon in a drunken state, while obviously angry for reasons left unknown to the court.

Having entered the family home around 9pm, the defendant in error proceeded to request arsenic while explaining that either himself or the deceased needed to die, upon which the deceased made a number of strategic attempts to placate his temper and settle his mind.

After his refusing to eat food or engage with those around him, the defendant in error later sat alone and continued to make demands upon his wife and daughter, until for no sound reason he threw a tin of food at his daughter, who ran for safety as the deceased quickly followed with a gas lamp in hand, at which point the defendant in error forcefully threw a heavy beer glass at his wife, and upon which the glass struck the lamp and caused the ignited oil to spill all over her clothing.

Seemingly unwilling to assist the deceased, the defendant in error watched as she was engulfed in flames and suffered five major burns to her head, neck, legs and body, all of which led to her death some five days later, and so indicted in the Circuit Court of Jersey County the jury convicted the defendant in error of murder, whereupon he appealed the decision under writ of error in the Illinois Supreme Court.

Here the court first referred to § 140 of the Illinois Revised Statutes, which read that:

“Malice shall be implied when no considerable provocation appears, or when all the circumstances of the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.” 

And then to Francis Wharton’s ‘A Treatise on the Law of Homicide in the United States’, in which p. 45 read that:  

“When an action, unlawful in itself, is done with deliberation, and with intention of mischief or great bodily harm to particulars, or of mischief indiscriminately, fall where it may, and death ensue, against or beside the original intention of the party, it will be murder.”

While the defendant in error continued to explain that he was simply attempting to dispose of the glass through an open rear door, a statement which was reasoned away by the two witnesses, who confirmed that the door was in fact closed at all times that evening. 

Thus with no reason to accept the alcohol-hazed recollection of a man claiming to have felt no ill-will toward the deceased, the court instead noted that had there been no aggression behind the act then the verdict would have likely been in doubt, however it was patently clear that harm was intended when assessing the impact of the glass upon the lamp, and so with little hesitation the court upheld the previous judgment while reminding those present that:

“Malice is an indispensable element to the crime of murder.” 

Martin v. State (1944)

US Criminal Law

Martin v State
‘The Drunk’ by Alessandro Pomi

Liability for public drunk and disorderly behaviour under Alabama State law requires the defendant to display a willingness to appear so, while in this case the accused was found within the privacy of his own property at the time of arrest, thus the court was left explaining the process to those bringing charges.

After receiving reports of a drunken man walking along the local highway, the respondent police force located and apprehended the appellant in his home address, before charging him with public intoxication under § 120 of the Alabama Criminal Code of 1940, which read in relevant part that:

“Any person who, while intoxicated or drunk, appears in any public place where one or more persons are present….and manifests a drunken condition by boisterous or indecent conduct, or loud and profane discourse, shall, on conviction, be fined” 

Whereupon the Circuit Court of Houston County convicted the appellant accordingly, and after which he challenged the judgment in the Alabama Court of Appeals, who simply referred to Thomas v. State, in which the Georgia Court of Appeals had held that:

“[T]he place where the drunken condition exists is no less essential to the offense than the condition itself….”

While further noting that on this occasion the arresting officers had physically escorted the appellant from his house to the location described in order to secure their arrest, hence the court instantly reversed circuit court judgment in full while reminding the attending parties that: 

“[A]n accusation of drunkenness in a designated public place cannot be established by proof that the accused, while in an intoxicated condition, was involuntarily and forcibly carried to that place by the arresting officer. 

U.S. v. Peoni (1938)

US Criminal Law

U.S. v. Peoni
‘Twenty Six Dollars’ by Victor Dubreuil

The limitations and inclusions of conspiracy have something of a chequered past, and so on this occasion a defendant known and proven to have sold forged dollar bills was charged with exerting influence over transactions that were not only beyond his actual control, but were also separated by time, space and possible knowledge, thus the job of the court was to establish where the proximate lines of culpability lay.

Sometime prior to 1938 the appellant was charged and convicted in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York for possession of, and conspiracy to possess, counterfeit U.S. currency, whereupon he challenged the judgment in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.

Here the court noted that in the chain of events prior to his conviction, the appellant had indeed possessed counterfeit money, but had since sold it on to a second party, who then in turn sold it to a third party within the same borough albeit unknown to the appellant.

First referring to 18 U.S.C.A. § 550, the court noted how it read that:

“Whoever commits an offense against the United States or aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures its commission, is punishable as a principal.”

Which translated that had it been shown that the appellant was instrumental to the second transaction, he was rightfully convicted, after which the court turned to Anstess v. U.S., in which the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals had held that:

“One who, with full knowledge of the purpose with which contraband goods are to be used, furnishes those goods to another to so use them, actively participates in the scheme or plan to so use them.”

However the court also noted how in Graves v. Johnson the Massachusetts Supreme Court had held that:

“[A] sale otherwise lawful is not connected with subsequent unlawful conduct by the mere fact that the seller correctly divines the buyer’s unlawful intent, closely enough to make the sale unlawful.”

And so the court reasoned that regardless of the illegality of the appellants initial possession, it was contrary to sound law that he should be held to account as the principle conspirator in a sequence of events that occurred after the fact of his selling the notes on, thus the conviction was quashed in its entirety, while the court reminded the attending parties that:

“Nobody is liable in conspiracy except for the fair import of the concerted purpose or agreement as he understands it; if later comers change that, he is not liable for the change; his liability is limited to the common purposes while he remains in it.”

Shevlin-Carpenter Co. v. State of Minn. (1910)

US Criminal Law

Shevlin
‘Fallen Timber’ by Jospeh Laverti

The constitutionality of statute drafted and designed to preserve the interests of a State, coupled with the presumption that such laws are irrelevant to the needs of commerce, provide the basis of a case where those later prosecuted are left arguing that word of mouth is sufficient grounds upon which to acquire property.

Having operated as a timber merchant under State licence, the plaintiff in error corporation found themselves in need of a second licence extension following the recent expiration of their previous reissue, and so instead of applying through the proper channels, chose to rely upon verbal declarations of State officials as to their ability to continue removing trees from government land.

For clarity at the time of the offence, § 7 of the Laws of Minnesota 1895 stated that:

“If any person, firm or corporation, without a valid and existing permit therefor, cuts or employs, or induces any other person, firm or corporation to cut, or assist in cutting any timber of whatsoever description, on state lands, or removes or carries away or employs, or induces or assists any other person, firm or corporation to remove or carry away any such timber, or other property, he shall be liable to the state in treble damages, if such trespass is adjudged to have been willful; but double damages only in case the trespass is adjudged to have been casual and involuntary….”

And so when the plaintiff in error’s activities were discovered, the defendant in error brought charges in the District Court of St. Louis County on grounds of wilful trespass, thus claiming treble damages as prescribed.

Here the court found for the defendant in error and awarded damages of around $44,000, whereupon the plaintiff in error challenged the judgment in the Minnesota Supreme Court, who upheld the judgment, while holding that:

“The Legislature may declare that a willful trespass upon the lands of another shall constitute a criminal offense and fix the limits of punishment therefor, either by fine or imprisonment, or by compensating the injured party in damages to be recovered in a civil action, or by both, as its judgment may dictate.”

After which the plaintiff in error appealed on grounds that it had acted in good faith and reliance upon the statements made by those with apparent authority, while in response the court referred to State v. Shevlin-Carpenter Co., in which it had earlier held that:

“Where the defendant is a willful trespasser, the measure of damages is the full value of the property at the time and place of demand; but, if he is only an unintentional or mistaken trespasser,-that is, where he honestly and reasonably believed that he had a legal right to take the property,-then the measure of damages is the value of the property at the time and place and in the condition it was taken.”

Before partially reversing their previous judgment and remanding the matter back in keeping with a significant reduction in damages, thus the plaintiff in error challenged the decision under writ of error in the U.S. Supreme Court on grounds that the statue was violative of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when denying due process, and that as such, no damages were due.

Having reexamined the facts and constitutional argument, along with the right to protect State property through appropriate statute, the Court reasoned that at no point was the questioned legislation hidden from view, nor remotely difficult to understand, while also noting that contrastingly, at no point in history had trespass ever been considered a harmless act.

In closing the Court also noted that despite the harshness of its construction, the State had proscribed the offence within constitutional bounds, and were therefore sound in their enforcement, after which it upheld the previous judgment in full, while holding that:

“[I]nnocence cannot be asserted of an action which violates existing law, and ignorance of the law will not excuse.”

United States v. Falcone (1940)

US Criminal Law

United States v. Falcone
‘Oranges and Antique Moonshine Jugs’ by J.R. Secor

Criminal conspiracy, while simple enough in its description, is an offence often hard to quantify, and so on this occasion the actions of a lawful vendor proved hard to distinguish from those charged, which resulted in an outcome some may find contradictory to the rule of law.

Indicted in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, the respondent was later convicted as a party to facilitating prohibited still operations, whereupon he challenged the judgment in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals on grounds that when selling sugar to his co-defendants, the respondent did so without conscious knowledge of its intended use.

Here the court noted that despite numerous States ruling on the principle, there remained a division as to when a defendant became a co-conspirator, and so in this instance the court elected to follow U.S. v. Peoni, in which it had held that:

“Nobody is liable in conspiracy except for the fair import of the concerted purpose or agreement as he understands it….”

Thereby reversing the trial court judgment, while holding that:

“Civilly, a man’s liability extends to any injuries which he should have apprehended to be likely to follow from his acts. If they do, he must excuse his conduct by showing that the interest which he was promoting outweighed the dangers which its protection imposed upon others….”

Whereupon the Government pressed their argument before the U.S. Supreme Court under writ of certiorari, who proceeded to examine the facts as presented.

For clarity, 18 U.S.C.A. § 550 (now §2) stated that:

“Whoever directly commits any act constituting an offense defined in any law of the United States, or aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces, or procures its commission, is a principal….”

And so the Court held that in mind when referring to Pettibone v. U.S., in which it had held that:

“A conspiracy is sufficiently described as a combination of two or more persons, by concerted action, to accomplish a criminal or unlawful purpose, or some purpose not in itself criminal or unlawful, by criminal or unlawful means….”

Before noting that in U.S. v. Hirsch it had also held that:

“Although by the statute something more than the common-law definition of a conspiracy is necessary to complete the offence, to wit, some act done to effect the object of the conspiracy, it remains true that the combination of minds in an unlawful purpose is the foundation of the offence, and that a party who did not join in the previous conspiracy cannot, under this section, be convicted on the overt act.”

Thus the Court was left with no other option than to uphold the court of appeal judgment, while conclusively holding that:

“Those having no knowledge of the conspiracy are not conspirators…”