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Criminal Law
Villanova University School of Law
Ouziel, Lauren M.

Criminal Law

Who defines crimes?

(1) Legislature: writing statutes

they hand these to the prosecutors/judiciary to deal with interpretation and enforcement

(2) Judiciary: interpreting statutes, establishing common law

*Our criminal justice system is a function of this power delineation.

Crime: any combination of conduct and intent that violates a criminal statute, as enforced by a prosecutor and interpreted by a court.

Purposes of Law/ Criminal Punishment:

(1) Deterrence (a “social construct” moving, molding human behavior; law as a tool)

(2) Retribution (morality based—it’s not fair if there is no punishment)

(3) Rehabilitation (to make defendant better)

[Dudley v. Stephens]— (moral argument and deterrence)

[People v. Kellog]—public good reasoning (no deterrence and no moral reason); law is more than just a moral arbiter; it’s an establisher of social order and social good

Criminal punishment notes:

Not like civil cases—not based on amount of harm, but on the seriousness of the crime as determined by the legislature. Thus, juries and courts are limited to the categories and gradations of punishments set in place.

Avoid vigilantes/ promote social order

(Note about fines as a deterrent/punishment: meaningless to the very rich and the very poor)

Constitutional Limits on crime:

1. Proportionality Doctrine: arises from 8th amendment C&U punishment

a. Severity of crime corresponds with severity of punishment

b. Outside death penalty, strict porportion

2. Void-for-vagueness doctrine:

a. arises from due process clause

i. one cannot reliably avoid criminal conduct

ii. it can be interpreted by enforcement personnel in arbitrary ways.

b. Is it confusing to the average person?

c. Inform people about how to avoid criminal conduct

[Nash—conspiracy; “restraint of trade]

[Papachristou—driving at night]

[Gray—Bible distribution; “legit business”; Fl. Statute stricken in part]

d. A statute is only unconstitutional if it is impermissibly vague in all of its applications, not just “some”

3. Other limits: privacy (abortion), equal protection (how prosecuters enforce)

Defining Criminal Conduct:

Deconstructing traditional definition of crime:

(1) Act à not always, the law imposes duty. sometimes omission (e.g. taxes, seatbelt, subpoena to testify) is criminal

(2) Voluntariness à more often a question of individual and public harm

[Robinson—‘status’ alchoholic, in home—no threat to public]

[Kellog and Powell—involuntarily and voluntarily drunk in public= threat to public; both regulated]

(3) Causing harm à potential to cause harm [assisted suicide: does causing harm = culpability? See In Re Joseph G. and Cleaves]

In Re Joseph and Cleaves: in both cases, defendants were “active” in their “assisting” the suicides of others. While both satisfy the “Matlock test,” but the court differentiates between them. Suicide pact is crucial difference.

(4) Specificity à is this really the case? Nope. Vagueness: unconstitutional

statute; stricken; about what happens to statute

Lenity for ambiguous: court will interpret statute in favor of the defendant: about remedy

The Rule of Lenity:

1. The court will interpret an ambiguous statute in favor of the defendant. (Ambiguity requires lenity.)

2. Rule of statutory construction (broad v. narrow; plain meaning v. purpose)—

a. Brogan: argued exculpatory no fit within the plain meaning of the statue, but did the statute really mean to criminalize such innocuous and common behavior as a felony?

b. Statutory interpretation is not a matter of policy as much as it is about the plain meaning of the text.

c. Compare Bronson: each side sought to add language to the statute to include or exclude a certain class of cases; ct says NOPE.

d. When statute is clear, the rule of lenity does not apply even if the legislature didn’t conceive a particular class of cases arising under the statute—that’s for the legislature to change.

1. see Muscarello: is “carry” ambiguous?

2. Ct. says no.

a. no deficiency of notice to defendant,

b. and if they define statute narrowly, it will nullify the purpose of the statute.

*Not the same as vagueness doctrine. A particular level of vagueness is unconstitutional (as seen in Gray). Result: vague statute is stricken b/c it fails to give proper notice….

Interpreting statutes:

e. [Morris—took truck that was running, then flees the scene]

i. Holding: no theft; running away evidence no intent to keep the truck


a. The big idea: the effect of mistake doctrine is to make it harder for criminal defendants to escape liability based on their own testimony

b. Mistake of fact

i. Ogilvie [bigamy, falsifying records]

1. General intent for bigamy requires honest and reasonable

a. Reasonable person would of have double checked

ii. Binegar [contact lenses]

1. Theft (specific intent)—harder to prove

2. Honest mistake required—easier to get off

c. Mistakes of law

i. Ignorance/ misunderstanding of the law is no excuse

ii. Marerro- peace officer off duty with gun

1. argues ambiguity and loses so…

2. Mistake of law!

3. Holding:

a. mistake IN the law is an exemption, NOT mistaken interpretation

b. Any broader view fosters lawlessness

c. Precedent for bad law—carry a gun anywhere if fed corrections office (slippery slope)

4. Dissent:

a. what about good faith?

b. MOL isn’t really a defense!

iii. Darab—bonafide belief of their right to remain in mosque

1. Holding:

a. A bonafide belief defense rests on a belief that one has a LEGAL authority to stay/act

i. NOT religious or moral authority

ii. E.g., a fatwa doesn’t win against U.S. law

iii. Jury didn’t find the motivation to stay arose from a reasonable belief in lawful authority to remain

iv. State v. Varseegi [contract, landlord, took computer]

1. An honest claim of a legal right to allegedly stolen property does excuse defendant from liability

d. other notes:

i. mistake of fact and mistake of law—blurry distinction

ii. example—fact: divorced; law: status as married or single