Select Page

Criminal Law
Wayne State University Law School
Findlater, Janet

Beyond a reasonable doubt/presumption of innocence:
– The Due Process Clause requires the prosecutor to persuade the factfinder “beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime charged”
Owens v. State, Ct of Special App Maryland, 1992
– D was convicted of driving while intoxicated; Conviction was based on circumstantial evidence only; D found in car asleep, car was running, beer cans on floor and intoxicated.
o Should he have been convicted on circumstantial evidence if it is the prosecutor’s job to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he is guilty?
– D points out that the Transportation Article under which he was convicted specifically covers driving a vehicle on a highway while intoxicated, but not driving on a private road or driveway while intoxicated
o Based on the circumstantial evidence, it can be reasonably inferred that appellant had either:
§ Just arrived by way of public highway or
§ Was just about to go out onto the public highway
– Court believes that these circumstances put together are inconsistent with a reasonable hypothesis of innocence

General elements of criminal law:
There must be a voluntary act (actus reus), a requisite mental state (mens rea), and the voluntary act must cause a social harm

Principles of Legality:
Principle of legality: no crime without law
– Meant to keep the courts from creating laws
– You have to know what exactly what it takes to commit the crime so you can decide if you want to commit it or not- need to have the opportunity to find out what it illegal
o Due process

Commonwealth v. Mochan, Sr Ct of PA, 1955
– D charged with intending to “debach and corrupt, and further devising and intending to harass, embarrass and vilify Z and the members of her family” by calling her various times, during which he “wickedly and maliciously” referred to her as a lewd, immoral and lascivious woman of an indecent and lewd character…
– The conduct alleged in the indictments was not expressly prohibited by statute- so what crime did he actually commit?
o Pennsylvania Penal Code provides that “every offense *** punishable either by statute or common law of this Commonwealth….shall continue to be an offense punishable as heretofore”
o Therefore the prosecutor claimed that Mochan’s conduct was unlawful under Pennsylvania common law
– The common law is “sufficiently broad” to punish as a misdemeanor any act which directly injures the public to such an extent as to require the state to interfere and punish the wrongdoer, as in the case of acts which injuriously affect public morality

3 defenses for “injuring public morality” cases:
– I didn’t do it
– I didn’t do THAT- very specific
– I did it, but it’s not a crime
o All the evidence may be true, but what it amounts to is not a crime
o Defense that Mochan is trying to use here- yes he did do all those things, but that is not considered to be a crime under any statute therefore not a misdemeanor

Statutes always trump common law, which is done to avoid inappropriate interpretations and rulings by judges
– However most common law crimes are still used in statutory interpretation

Vagueness: look to common law for clarification
– Ex. Committing murder is a statutory offense (unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethough), but it is a very vague concept, so courts look to common law to figure out what constitutes first degree murder, second degree murder, etc

Keeler v. Superior Court, Sup Ct of CA, 1970
– D finds ex-wife, pregnant by another, kicks her in the stomach, fetus dies. D charged with murder for unborn fetus. D argues that his actions do not fall under the statute of murder bc it was an unborn fetus- not considered a “human being”. (Murder is the unlawful killing of another human being”. Prosecutor argues need to define “human being” under today’s standard. Ct went to common law to define “human being”, had to go back in time, has to be born alive. Cannot expand statute after D committed crime, if they did it would violate due process of law. Court had to decide whether an unborn but viable fetus is a “human being” within the meaning of the California statute defining murder
– If the court were to convict him of this, it would be an ex post facto law
o “when a new penal statute is applied retrospectively to make punishable an act which is not criminal at the time it was performed, the defendant has been given no advance notice consistent with due process”

In re Banks, Sup Ct of NC, 1978
Was the Peeping Tom statute unconstitutional?
– “Secretly peeping into room occupied by female person. – Any person who shall peep secretly into any room occupied by a female person shall be guilty of a misdemeanor”
– D was charged with violating peeping tom statute. D says that law is too vague, violates due process/principal of legality. Held, statute was narrow enough, because it condemns spying for the wrongful purpose of invading privacy. Ignorance of law is no excuse, must do research of laws. 2 Types of Vagueness: 1) can’t figure out what statute means, badly written or 2) gives police too much discretion—may encourage arbitrary and discriminatory conduct.

Actus Reus

nt walked in on her taking them
– Defendant called the boy about an hour later and asked him to take Burns to the basement where a Mr. Skoba was living
o She was unconscious
o Defendant said he was too drunk to help her
– Skoba and the boy put her to bed, and defendant asked Skoba to watch over her and let her out when she woke up
– Burns never woke up and when Skoba called a doctor he found her dead
– Prosecutor claimed that defendant had a duty to take care of Burns, and the failure to do so was enough to make him legally responsible for her death
– The law recognizes that under some circumstances, the omission of a duty to care for someone, where such omission results in the death of that person, will make the other chargeable with manslaughter
o The duty neglected must be a legal duty
o Not a moral obligation
o Duty must be imposed by law or by contract, and the omission of that duty must be the immediate and direct cause of death
– Court finds there was a moral duty to help her, but no legal duty
o Just because she was in his house does not mean he has a legal duty to care for her
o There was no special relationship between them like husband and wife
o They were not dependant on one another
– The courts worry about the legal duty rule
o Worry about encouraging people to intervene when they could cause more harm than good
o Criminal law tells us not to do bad, but doesn’t say anything about having to do good
o Failing to do something has an ambiguity to it that doing something doesn’t
§ It is harder to determine the culpability and the motive of someone who doesn’t do something as opposed to someone who actually does something
Barber v. Superior Court
California Court of Appeal, Second District, 1983
– Two doctors were charged with crimes of murder and conspiracy to commit murder
– Deceased Herbert underwent surgery by petitioner Nejdl and petitioner Barber
Shortly after the successful completion and while in the recovery room, Herbert suffered a cardo-respiratory arrest. He was revived and immediately placed on life support.