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Criminal Law
West Virginia University School of Law
Scully, Judith A M


I.               PRINCIPLES OF CRIM. LAW


All justification defenses (self defense, defense-of-others, defense-of-property) contain a proportionality requirement: A person is not justified in using force against another unless it is “proportional or reasonable in relation to the harm threatened or the interest to be furthered.” Thus, a person may not justifiably kill another in order to prevent a minor battery to himself or another, or to prevent a theft of personal property.

Coker v. Georgia =     Is the death penalty for the rape of an adult woman a grossly disproportionate punishment prohibited by the 8th Amendment as “cruel and unusual”?

Ewing v. California =              Does the 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, bar a State from sentencing a repeat felon to a prison term of 25 years to life under the State’s 3 strikes law?


3 interrelated corollaries to the legality principle:
1) criminal statutes should be understandable to reasonable law-abiding persons
2) criminal statutes should be crafted so as not to “delegate basic policy matters to policeman, judges, and juries for resolution on a subjective basis
3) judicial interpretation of ambiguous statutes should “be biased in favor of the accused” (the lenity doctrine)

Commonwealth v. Mochan = The tr. Ct. convicted Mochan for a common law misdemeanor not codified expressly as statutory offense for telephoning the P several times per week and making lewd and obscene comments to her. HELD: Affirmed. When the conduct alleged is not prohibited expressly by criminal statute, a violation of the legality principle does not exist if a statutory provision permits punishment of common law offenses.

Keeler v. Superior Court =      Keeler murdered an unborn but viable fetus by kicking his pregnant wife in the stomach. HELD: There is violation of the Due Process Clause when a court construes a criminal statute contrary to the legislative intent and applies its expanded definition of the statute retroactively to a person’s conduct.


Lenity doctrine: when a statute is unclear or ambiguous, a court’s primary function is to ascertain the intent of the legislature that enacted the law.

Rule of Lenity: In construing an ambiguous criminal statute, the court should resolve the ambiguity in favor of the defendant.

City of Chicago v. Morales = Chicago’s anti-loitering ordinance was challenged as unconstitutionally vague b/c it failed to give adequate notice of what conduct it prohibited and gave police too much discretion. HELD: To meet the requirements of the Due Process Clause and thus survive invalidation due to vagueness, a criminal law must provide sufficiently specific limits on the enforcement discretion of the police and sufficient notice to the public of what conduct is prohibited.

FOUR ELEMENTS OF A CRIME: 1.   Actus Reus (“Voluntary Act”)
2.      Mens Rea (“Culpable Intent”)
3.      Concurrence between Actus and Mens Reus
4.      Causation of harm


The defendant must have committed a voluntary act. Look for an actus reus problem when you have the following situations:
(1) D has committed no physical acts, but has guilty “thoughts” or “words”;
(2) D does an involuntary act; 
(3) D has an omission, or failure to act.

§         Involuntary Acts:

Martin v. State =         Must a D perform the physical act for each element of a crime that has an actus reus component?

“Reflexes” =   An act consisting of a “reflex” or “convulsion” does not give rise to
criminal liability UNLESS the D had known beforehand that he was subject to such seizures and unreasonably put himself into a position where he was likely to harm others (say, driving a car)

“Unconscious” = An act performed during a state of “unconsciousness” does not meet            the actus reus requirement, BUT a self-induced state may deprive D of involuntary defense: that is, D’s earlier voluntary act may deprive him of involuntary defense.

State v. Utter =            Does a voluntary act require the consent of the actor’s will?
(D voluntarily got drunk: unconsciousness is not a complete defense in all cases)

(3) Omissions:
The actus reus requirement means that, in most situations, there is no criminal liability for omission to act (as distinguished from an affirmative act)

Exceptions:     (1) Voluntarily assume care of another and prevent others from   helping
(2) Contractual duty (captain of a ship)
(3) Create the risk of harm (put the person in danger)
(4) Statutory duty (stat

ing about a particular harm? No. Intent is satisfied if it can be shown that a person consciously desires to bring about a particular harm OR that he knows that his conduct is practically certain to cause harm

B. “Maliciously”: Pre-MPC statutes often used the word “malice” to denote a particular mens rea. The term involves intentional conduct and reckless conduct (conduct that disregards the known high-probability of risk). REGINA V. CUNNINGHAM

Regina v. Cunningham: Will a mens rea requirement of “maliciousness” be satisfied by a finding that the actor acted “wickedly” when he performed the acts? No. To satisfy the mens rea requirement of maliciousness, the actor must have either intentionally set out to cause the harm resulted, or he must have been reckless with regard to whether the harm would result.

II.        KNOWINGLY (Willfully): The MPC marks a new tendency to distinguish between acting “purposefully” and merely “knowingly.” A person acts “knowingly” under the MPC if he is “aware” that his action is of a certain nature or that certain illegal circumstances exist. More significantly, if the crime is defined regarding a certain result of the D’s conduct, the D has acted knowingly if he was “aware that it is practically certain that his conduct will cause” that result. MPC, § 2.02(2)(b).

State v. Nations: WILLFUL BLINDNESS: Nations owned a nightclub, hired underage girl, and claimed she didn’t know the girl was under 17. If a statute requires a person to act “knowingly” regarding a certain fact, can she be convicted if she does not have knowledge of that fact? NO. Must have “actual knowledge.”

A. Willful Blindness: if you choose not to know of a crime, then you’re still guilty b/c you knew of the high probability of that crime. 2 approaches to this type of issue: 1) MPC approach (in which person is guilty if he knew of the “high probability” of the fact); 2) State v. Nations approach (used in jurisdictions that define knowledge as “actual knowledge”)