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.” 

Baender v. Barnett (1921)

US Criminal Law

Baender v. Bennett
‘Five Dollar Gold Coin’ by Toby Mikle

Confession to a crime under federal statute leads to the incarceration of a felon, who later cites a constitutional violation when revoking his awareness of the act imprisoned for.

Having been found in possession of counterfeit coin dies, the petitioner acquiesced to the charge and was summarily indicted and sentenced under 18 U.S.C.A. § 487, which reads:

“Whoever, without lawful authority, possesses any such die, hub, or mold, or any part thereof, or permits the same to be used for or in aid of the counterfeiting of any such coins of the United States shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than fifteen years, or both.”

Later claiming a violation of the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the petitioner argued that the statute failed to acknowledge whether a charge of possession was established through conscious knowledge or by accidental means, a contention dismissed by the District Court of Northern California, who concluded:

“Such is the possession intended by the indictment, and such is the possession, the petitioner having pleaded guilty to the indictment, that he must be held to have had. Otherwise he was not guilty. He might have pleaded not guilty, and upon trial shown that he did not know the dies were in his possession.”

Appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court under writ of habeas corpus, the petitioner again cited that the statute was incriminating by effect, however, the Court referred to United States v. Kirby, in which it had stressed that:

“All laws should receive a sensible construction. General terms should be so limited in their application as not to lead to injustice, oppression, or an absurd consequence. It will always, therefore, be presumed that the Legislature intended exceptions to its language, which would avoid results of this character.”

While again in United States v. Jin Fuey Moy, the Court had later explained how:

“A statute must be construed, if fairly possible, so as to avoid, not only the conclusion that it is unconstitutional, but also grave doubts upon that score.”

Thus it was for these reasons that the Court held the previous decision as lawful, while reminding the petitioner that although the U.S. Constitution is designed to safeguard the needs and rights of its citizens, there was equal importance for Congress to enforce the punishment of those found possessing the means with which to duplicate, and thereby counterfeit, U.S. currency in all its forms.

Willard v. First Church of Christ, Scientist (1972)

US Property Law

Willard v First Church of Christ, Scientist
Image: ‘Berkeley’ by Richard Diebenkorn

Reservation of interest for a third party to a conveyance when honouring the intentions of the vendor was at one point impossible, however in this matter the court broke with tradition for the sake of modernity and allowed the claim to stand.

In 1972, litigation commenced when a somewhat unconventional conveyance was initiated by parties not entirely privy to its completion. This began when the part owners of conjoined plots decided to sell their property along with the adjoining vacant plot, despite having title only to their home, while the second plot was itself used by a local church adjacent to the site for parking purposes under express permission by the landowner.

At the point of sale, the vendor approached the landowner and explained that a joint sale was under offer, and that with her permission, the two parties would stand to profit at the price suggested. Having considered the opportunity, the owner requested that an easement be inserted into the deeds for the second plot, after which the sale went through as hoped.

Unfortunately for one reason or another, the purchaser and now respondent was unaware that the easement existed, and so now sought quiet title to the plot, whereupon the district court upheld the claim on grounds that under common law, a grantor cannot reserve interest to a stranger to a title, and therefore the easement was unlawful and void, as was also expressed in ‘The Law of Real Property’ (1939) and ‘Reservations in Favor of Strangers’ (1953) both of which stated how while a reservation allowed a grantor’s whole interest to pass to a grantee, it reverted a newly created interest in the grantor, but not to a theoretical third party to the disposition.

Presented in the Supreme Court of California, the appellant church argued that under art.5 s.1085(a) of the California Civil Code, interest to a disposition of property was assignable to persons not named in the deed, however the Court held that as the appellants were a corporation and not individual entities, the statute could not reasonably apply.

Instead, the Court referred to both Townsend v. Cable and Garza v. Grayson, within which the supreme courts of Kentucky and Oregon had abandoned the existing common law rule in favour of following the wishes of the grantor, a position subsequently adopted by the Court as a show of indifference to the now outdated and restrictive approach to property conveyance.

It was then argued by the respondents that the easement was invalid as the property insurers had not relied upon it when drafting their policies, however there was no evidence to support such a claim and so the Court held that a balance must be struck between the want of policy and the equitable nature of the claim, which on this occasion fell in favour of the needs of the grantor, despite the limitations of the statute presented. It was thus for this reason that the Court upheld the appeal and reversed the previous judgment.

 

Adam v. Saenger (1938)

US Civil Procedure

Adams v Saenger
Image: ‘Texas Longhorn Skull’ by Marlon Rose

When parties to an existing litigation require an immediate defence response, the essence of the Constitution reminds those involved, that regardless of how such matters are realised, the purpose of natural law is to permit resolution in every State.

On this occasion, a Texas-based exporter and importer commenced action against a former California-based client for the recovery of monies concerning goods purchased and delivered prior to their dissolution. In response, the appellant issued a cross-complaint to recover monies for the conversion of chattels, after which the superior court of California dismissed the respondents claims, along with their contention that the cross-complaint had not been lawfully served, thus prompting an appeal to the Texas Court of Civil Appeals. Here, it was held that at the time the complaint was served, the California court lacked jurisdiction to uphold such a claim over an out-of-state entity, therefore due process was unsustainable and null by effect.

Pursued in the U.S. Supreme Court, the decision of the Texas Appeals Court was reviewed, giving particular regard to § 1 of art. IV of the U.S. Constitution, which reads:

“Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State. And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe the Manner in which such Acts, Records and Proceedings shall be proved, and the Effect thereof.”

And while the complaint served was ancillary to the original action, the Texas Court of Appeals based its judgment on the principle that any matter of fact or law determinable by jurisdiction unrelated to the cause of litigation is subject to adjudication, as was held in Thompson v. Whitman, and that the complaint was deemed independent of the original matter, and therefore subject to such a review.

However, in Hanley v. Donoghue it had been equally held by the U.S. Supreme Court that:

“Whatever was matter of law in the court appealed from is matter of law here, and whatever was matter of fact in the court appealed from is matter of fact here.”

More importantly, § 442 of the California Code of Civil Procedure provides that:

“Whenever the defendant seeks affirmative relief against any party, relating to or depending upon the contract, transaction, matter, happening or accident upon which the action is brought, or affecting the property to which the action relates, he may, in addition to his answer, file at the same time, or by permission of the court subsequently, a cross-complaint.”

While § 1015 (as amended by St.Cal.1933) also notes:

“When a plaintiff or a defendant, who has appeared, resides out of the State, and has no attorney in the action or proceeding, the service may be made on the clerk or on the justice where there is no clerk, for him. But in all cases where a party has an attorney in the action or proceeding, the service of papers, when required, must be upon the attorney instead of the party…”

Therefore when the appellant issued his complaint to the attending attorney, both aspects of Californian law were satisfied enough to uphold the powers of art. IV of the Constitution, and that such diligence by the appellant lawyer was now grounds enough for the Court to reverse the Texas Appeal Court’s decision with a view to the resolution of the proceedings in question while holding that:

“There is nothing in the Fourteenth Amendment to prevent a State from adopting a procedure by which a judgment in personam may be rendered in a cross-action against a plaintiff in its courts, upon service of process or of appropriate pleading upon his attorney of record.”