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Criminal Law
Rutgers University, Newark School of Law
Thomas, George C.

Criminal Law


Fall 2016

Owens v State 1992 MD

A conviction may be based on circumstantial evidence alone if the circumstances are such that they are inconsistent with any reasonable hypothesis of innocence.

Facts: driver found in car with beer cans in his car and passed out. Court concluded it was more likely that he had come from highway drunk than he was going somewhere. Judge convicted of driving while intoxicated.

After viewing evidence in light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could find the essential elements of a crime proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Principle of Legality-prohibition on retroactive criminal lawmaking

The Requirement of Previously Defined Conduct

Commonwealth v. Mochan 1955 PA

Any unlawful act which directly injures or tends to injure the public morals or health of the community is indictable.

Facts: defendant stalked married woman and harassed her expressing obscene language and suggesting intercourse and sodomy. Charged with indictments to debauch a citizen.

Keeler v. Superior Court 1970 CA

A viable fetus is not a “human being” under the law to which one may be charged with murder.

Facts: defendant shoved knee into his ex-wife causing her to lose baby. Delivered still-born. Expert testimony said fetus was viable.

Only legislature could change that. Guarantees due process and provides fair warning. Similar to ex post facto laws prohibiting legislature from retroactively enacting laws.

Principle of Legality 2. The Values of Statutory Clarity

In re Banks 1978 NC

A criminal statute is not void for vagueness if it gives fair notice of the criminalized conduct and provides sufficient guidance to judges and defending lawyers, and is not void for overbreadth if there is an available interpretation that does not inadvertently criminalize permissible actions.

Facts: peeping tom statute thought by trial court as unconstitutional: vague/overbroad, reasonable man could differ as to its meaning, may prohibit conduct not intended.

Intent of legislature, legislative history and circumstances surrounding its adoption , past cases, taken into account for the interpretation of statute.

Statute derived from common law crimes of nuisance/eavesdropping , one who sneaks up and peeps with the purpose of spying and invading privacy. Peep secretly.

Wrongful intent narrows it down, omitting from its scope inadvertent acts.

Yates v. United States 2015 US Supreme

The tangible object mentioned in statute refers to one used to record or preserve information such as a recorder, not a fish.

Facts: fisherman caught undersized red grouper, ordered to toss the fish into the sea to prevent authorities from confirming that he had harvested undersized fish. Defendant convicted of violating a statute that states that whoever alters, destroys, covers up any tangible object with intent to obstruct an investigation should be held liable.

Congress intent to prohibit spoliation of documents intended to obstruct investigations.

Principle of Lenity-when ambiguity it should be resolved in favor of defendant and against government as not to expose someone unknowingly to a long sentence.

Proportionality of Punishment: Constitutional Principles

Coker v. Georgia 1977 Supreme (7 joining, 2 dissenting)

The death penalty is a grossly disproportionate and excessive punishment for the crime of rape, which violates the Eighth Amendment proscription against cruel and unusual punishment.

Facts: Defendant escaped prison where he was serving sentences for murder/rape and went out and raped another victim. With a knife he took victim’s car. Trial court sentenced him to death due to judge instructing to consider aggravating circumstances whether raped had been committed by 1. Someone with a prior record or 2. In the course of capital felony: armed robbery.

A punishment is excessive/unconstitutional if 1) makes no measurable contribution to acceptable goals of punishment (no deterrence) or 2) grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime. Public attitudes: death should not be allowed from a rape.

Dissent: defendant is a chronic rapist. State should be allowed to take measures to prevent further inflicting of harm on innocent victims.

Ewing v. California 2003 US Supreme

Sentencing a repeat felon to 25 years imprisonment under a state’s three strikes law is not grossly disproportionate and does not violate the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

Facts: On parole from a 9 year prison term, petitioner walked into a shop and stole three golf clubs priced at $399 a piece. He was sentenced to 25 years to life to due his past convictions under the Three Strikes Law.

Eighth Amendment contains a narrow proportionality principle that applies to noncapital sentences. States are justified by their public safety interest in incapacitating and deterring recidivist felons.

Scalia concurring: proportionality is up to the State legislature.

Theft A. Larceny

1. Actus Reus (Acts Constituting Elements of Crime)

A. Trespassory Taking (Caption) and Carrying Away (Asportation)

Lee V. State 1984 MD

Larceny is the trespassory taking of another’s property with the intent to permanently deprive. Without consent, even though no force was used. Carrying away of personal property. And offense against property.

Exception: Bailee: who rightfully obtained possession of property from its owner is not guilty of larceny even if used property inconsistently with owner’s expectations.

Misappropriation: Court broadened definition to include these when owner gave consent for them to have physical control of property.

Rex v. Chisser 1678 Court of King’s Bench

The taking of property temporarily transferred to the defendant by the owner is trespassory.

Facts: Defendant came to shop asking for two crevats and owner handed it to him so he could see, he asked for price and he gave her less and ran out with them.

Defendant had custody of goods (physical possession) but owner retained possession(constructive). When he fled he had custody and wrongful possession.

United States v. Mafnas 1983 US Court of Appeals

One who receives property for a limited or temporary purpose does not have lawful possession of the property only custody.

Facts: Mafnas was employed of an armored car service hired by two banks to delivery bags of money. On three separate occasions he opened the bags and removed money. Convicted of stealing from banks under statute making it a crime to take with intent to steal from a bank.

Bank kept constructive possession, Mafnas only had custody.

A bailment situation arises when an owner while retaining title delivers personally to another for some particular purpose upon an express or implied contract.

If a bailee “breaks bulk” he commits larceny. Bailee carrier is given possession of a bale but not its contents. He could pilfer entire bale but not break open the bale and take a portion of all of it.

Larceny deals with possession not ownership. If he stole directly from Armored car service and he was serving as their bailee they wouldn’t be able to charge him since statute only deals with banks.

Asportation: The slightest carrying away movement suffices

Robbery: Common law robbery is simply larceny from a person by violence or intimidation. Aggravating factor that thief used or threatened to use force.

Topolewski v State 1906 Wisconsin

Where an owner of property, by himself or his agent, actually or constructively aids in the commission of an illegal act by performing some essential portion of the transaction as intended by the wrongdoer, the would-be criminal is not guilty of all the elements of larceny, speci

only on condition of a refund must be deemed to intent to permanently deprive the store of the item in case condition is not met (refund not given, incentive to keep shirt, substantial risk of permanent loss). Store could not have consented to the taking of the shirt therefore trespassory taking.

Notes: intent to take property for so extended a period as to deprive the owner of a major portion of its value or enjoyment satisfies common law intent requirement.

Theft B. Embezzlement

Rex v. Bazeley 1799 Central Criminal Court

Where a defendant employee has been entrusted with the employer’s property, the employee’s misappropriation of the property does not constitute larceny.

Facts: teller received a bank note and cash for deposit from customer, he credited his account but kept a bank note in his pocket which he appropriated for his own issue.

Defendant intercepted property and prevented ownership to transfer to employer therefore possession remains with employee. No trespassory taking. Bank never had control or custody of property yet although they may have title to it. Even if the bank had the title it cannot be said that teller intended to steal permanently, may have paid later. Notes: Embezzlement statute later created making it a felony if employee uses employer’s property fraudulently. In general, makes criminal the conversion of property received by the wrongdoer in a nontrespassory manner. Usually must be an element of entrustment making the conversation a breach of trust.

False Pretenses:makes a false representation with intent to defraud the owner of his or her property and owner is defrauded and defendant gains possession and title.

Actus Reus A. Voluntary act

Martin v. State 1944 Alabama Court of Appeals

Criminal liability may only be imposed when the unlawful conduct is committed voluntarily

Facts: Defendant arrested at home and taken to highway where defendant manifested drunken condition by using loud and profane language. Convicted of being drunk on a public highway.

Defendant involuntary taken to to the public place and can’t be guilty.

Voluntary Act-involves your own volition, power of using will, a willed movement (actus reus) , more of a physical reaction than mental capacity (mens rea)

State v. Utter 1971 Court of Appeals of Washington

Substantial evidence on the defense of conditioned response (unconscious or automatistic state) tending to demonstrate whether the defendant committed the requisite actus reus should be presented to the jury in a murder trial.

Facts: Dad fatally stabbed son claiming it was a conditioned response in which he developed an automatic response to stimuli as a result of jungle warfare training.

Not enough substantial evidence in this case, jury could only speculate.

An act committed while one is unconscious is in reality no act at all which there can be no criminal liability. Involuntary act cannot induce guilt.

People v. Decena : epileptic seizure convicted because he was driving a vehicle in a reckless of culpably negligent manner. Operating vehicle (actus reus) includes voluntary act of getting in car.