PEOPLE v. BRAY

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.”

People v. Hernandez

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.”

People v. Vogel

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.

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.”

Donnelly v. U.S.

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.”

Fasulo v. U.S.

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; hence, 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.” 

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