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Criminal Law
St. Johns University School of Law
Cunningham, Larry




General Principles and Requirements

A. Theories of Punishment

1. Deterrence

a. Specific

– Message is to a particular wrongdoer

b. General

– By punishing the D, you send a message to others not to commit similar acts

– Message is to all of society

2. Incapacitation

– D is dangerous and must be kept away from society to prevent further crimes

– US is #1 in incarceration rates

3. Rehabilitation

– D requires help and treatment

4. Retribution

– Wrongful act requiring condemnation

– Disruption of public order

5. Victim’s Rights/Compensation


– Courts now are concerned with the victims and allow them to speak at sentencing

B. General Requirements Applicable to All Crimes

1. Legality

– Legislativity – created by statute, not the courts

– Specificity – not vague

– Prospectivity – not retroactive

– Publicity – statutes must be made available and public

– Lenity – multiple interpretations of the law (if there’s a tie, D wins)

o Was applicable to Common Law

o Does NOT apply to Penal Law

§ Currently: § 5.00 – Penal law not strictly construed – must be construed according to the fair import of their terms

2. Jurisdiction

– Based on geography or territory

o Any state where either conduct or result occurred

§ Hypo: D (CA) sent fraudulent insurance claim to V (Conn.) à D can be prosecuted in either CA or Conn.

3. Causation

– Concerned with the connection between the specific behavior that satisfies the conduct element (e.g., firing a gun)of the offense and the specific harm that satisfies its result element (e.g., bleeding to death)

– MPC codified causation

– NY has not codified causation

– Two requirements:

1. Direct cause (factual)

a. But-for causation

b. Sufficiently direct cause of death when the conduct is an actual contributory cause of the death (conduct set/continued in motion the events which ultimately resulted in the death) and when the death was a reasonably foreseeable result of the conduct

c. The People must prove BRD that the ultimate harm is something that should have been reasonably foreseeable to the actor.

d. Does not matter that such conduct was not the sole cause of the death, that a pre-existing medical condition also contributed to the death, or that the death did not immediately follow the injury

2. Proximate Cause (legal)

a. Intent is not required; it is sufficient that the ultimate harm was or should have been reasonably foreseeable

§ Hypo: D comes out with a gun, robs and scares Joe so much that he is paralyzed with fear; lightning strikes and kills Joe. Did D cause Joe’s death?

· No; although D is direct cause because but-for his act, Joe would not have been standing there, D’s action was not the proximate cause of Joe’s death because it was not reasonably foreseeable that he would get struck by lightning

§ Hypo: A stabs B and B is lying on the ground; C comes and shoots B in the head. Did A and C cause B’s death?

· Yes; you can have multiple causes of one particular result/death

· Both A and C are the direct cause of B’s death since they both actually contributed to the death and the death was reasonably foreseeable

§ Eggshell skull plaintiff is reasonably foreseeable

· Hypo: D slashes J’s arm and since J has a condition where he bleeds out when cut, J dies. Is the D guilty and the proximate cause of his death?

· Yes; it is reasonably foreseeable that a victim may have a medical condition such as that

o Intervening cause – something that is so unforeseen, it breaks the chain of causation and makes the intervening cause the direct and proximate cause

§ Ordinary medical malpractice is not an intervening cause because it is reasonably foreseeable

§ Gross medical malpractice is an intervening cause because not reasonably foreseeable

4. Concurrence

– All of the elements have to occur at the same time

5. Actus Reus

a. Generally

– Actus reus (physical element) is always necessary in the commission of a crime; however, mens rea (mental element) does not always need to be present [People v. Shaughnessy]

– Two requirements:

1. Voluntary – bodily movement performed consciously as a result of effort/determination

§ Not sleepwalking or convulsions

§ People v. Shaughnessy – sleeping passenger in a car that was arrested for trespassing – COA held that it was against public policy to convict her for an involuntary act; the first and essential element in criminal responsibility is missing, an overt voluntary act or omission to act, so she was not guilty

§ Hypo: cop pushes man into a building; can he be charged with trespass?

· No because his entering the building was not voluntary

§ Hypo: Cop orders man, under threat of arrest, to enter building that is not his own; can the man be charged with trespass?

· Yes because his entry was the product of a conscious decision on his part

· Voluntary is not free will

· That he did so under duress/police orders is immaterial to the question of actus reus

2. Act – affirmative bodily movement or failing to act *however slight*

§ Bodily movement

§ Certain omissions

§ Possession

§ People v. Davis – heroin addict tries to assert status of drug addict as a defense that he was only doing drugs to feed his addiction – COA states that you cannot punish someone because of their status of being an addict – status is not a bodily movement/act nor can it be asserted as a defense

§ People v. Decina – guy had a seizure and ran ov

t possession/control

o Prove knowledge by using the facts

o BOP is on the people

o Hypo: if a bad guy is running with a stolen gun and he throws it at someone, is the catcher in possession of it?

§ No, because he did not have it in his possession for long enough.

– Constructive

o No physical custody of the object but has knowledge of it and dominion and control of it

§ Custody or control can either be in an area or a person under the D’s control

§ Ex: having drugs in your jacket pocket, you take the jacket off and walk away, you are in constructive possession of it because you still have dominion and control over it

§ Ex: drug dealer doesn’t keep his huge stash on his person but he hides it in a PVC pipe under his flowerbed

o Hypo: four guys are in a car, get pulled over, cops search the car and find drugs in the center console, can they all be arrested? [very similar to People v. Levya]

§ Yes because of constructive possession

§ People’s strongest argument – § 220.25 – presence of drugs (not marijuana, only controlled substances) in car is presumptive evidence of knowing possession by everyone in the car (helps to complete the People’s prima facie case against D)

· Exceptions where this does not apply:

o Public vehicles;

o A person in the car was authorized to possess them and they are in the same container as when he received them; or

o The drugs were concealed on the person of one of the occupants

§ A jury is told that it may find defendants guilty if the prosecution proves that they and the drugs were both present in the car (beyond a reasonable doubt)

o Hypo: If D1 fetches the drugs for D2, is D1 guilty of possession?

§ Yes; constructive possession

c. Imputing the conduct of another (accomplice liability) – complicity

– § 20.00 – Criminal liability for conduct of another:

o Accomplice must have the mental culpability required by the crime

o He solicits, requests, commands, importunes, or intentionally aids the principal

§ Does not have to intend the result

§ You can intentionally aid a “non-intent” crime. The purpose to be proven is the purpose to aid, not to commit the crime

§ You can intentionally aid in recklessness or negligence (e.g., drag racing)