Tagged: mens rea

NYCA Addresses Interesting Mens Rea Question

Earlier this month, the New York Court of Appeals issued its decision in People v. Elliot Parrilla, in which the defendant was convicted of possession of a gravity knife under NY Penal Law § 265.02(1). That provision states that a person is guilty of criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree when

…[s]uch person commits the crime of criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree as defined in subdivision one…of section 265.01 and has been previously convicted of any crime.

NY Penal Law § 265.01 defines Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Fourth Degree as follows:

A person is guilty of criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree when: (1) he or she possesses any firearm, electronic dart gun, electronic stun gun, gravity knife, switchblade knife, pilum ballistic knife, metal knuckle knife, cane sword, billy, blackjack, bludgeon, plastic knuckles, metal knuckles, chuka stick, sand bag, sandclub, wrist-brace type slingshot or slungshot, shirken or “Kung Fu star”; …

Both sides agreed that, to be convicted, the defendant had to knowingly possess a knife. The defense argued that the defendant also had to know that the knife he possessed was capable of being a “gravity knife.” The Court of Appeals held that he did not, and affirmed the conviction.

Interestingly, when the defendant was arrested he possessed a knife that he had bought at a large retail store in the Bronx  for use in his work as a contractor/ carpenter to cut sheet rock. He testified that on the day of his arrest, he had used the knife to cut tiles, but that he opened it with two hands and had never opened it with one hand by flicking his wrist, which is what makes a knife a gravity knife. The court charged the jury that it could convict the defendant if it found he knowingly possessed a knife, did not have to find that he knew it fit the “legal description of a gravity knife,” but had to find that it did in fact fit that description. Under NY Penal Law § 265.01(5) a gravity knife is

any knife which has a blade which is released from the handle or sheath thereof by the force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force which, when released, is locked in place by means of a button, spring, lever or other device.

The Court did not engage in any extended analysis: it relied on the plain language of the statute to find an intent to criminalize possession of weapons that are per se particularly dangerous. It supported this holding by pointing out that knowledge of a firearm’s operability is not an element of criminal possession of a weapon.

Arguably, under the Model Penal Law, the result would be different. Since no mens rea is specified in the statute, the MPC would require that a conviction be based on evidence that the defendant intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly possessed a gravity knife, and it would apply not only to the possession element but to the attendant circumstance that what is possessed is a gravity knife.

Interestingly, again, this was one of the cases argued at Elisabeth Haub School of Law, when the Court of Appeals heard cases at the Judicial Institute. It was a fascinating argument, partly because of the fact that the knives had been legally sold by a major store chain until that chain agreed with the office of the NY County District Attorney to stop selling that item; partly because the defendant apparently did use the knife in his work, and partly because he was only arrested and charged with the weapon after he caused a ruckus with the police. Of course, those are the kinds of facts that you can learn from an oral argument or a trial, but that rarely make it into a written decision on a question of law.

Related Readings:

NY Court of Appeals Ducks a Decision on a Troubling Mens Rea Issue

POST WRITTEN BY: Professors Peter Widulski and Bennett L. Gershman

In April 2011, a man exited a subway train at a station in Manhattan and encountered a police sergeant and two other police officers. The officers reported that the man shouted obscenities and gesticulated at them and accused them of blocking his access to a stairway to an upper platform. They further reported that the man continued to swear at them as the sergeant followed him up the stairs. The sergeant reported that his intention in following the man – subsequently identified as Richard Gonzalez – was to issue Gonzalez a summons for disorderly conduct. While following Gonzalez, the sergeant noticed the handle of what appeared to him to be a knife in Gonzalez’s back pocket. After detaining Gonzalez on suspicion of disorderly conduct, the sergeant seized the item in Gonzalez’s back pocket and determined that it was a “gravity knife” because the blade in the handle snapped and locked into place upon flicking the wrist holding the handle. Under New York’s Penal Law it is a crime to possess a “gravity knife.”

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office indicted Mr. Gonzalez for criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree, pursuant to Penal Law § 265.02 (1), which, in conjunction with Penal Law § 265.01 (1), subjects a defendant to third degree criminal possession of a gravity knife, a felony, if the defendant was previously convicted of a crime. Prior to trial, the defendant moved to suppress evidence of his possession of the knife on the ground that his detention for disorderly conduct was unlawful, and therefore the seizure of the knife was the fruit of the unlawful arrest. The defendant’s motion was denied, and a jury subsequently convicted him of third degree criminal possession of a weapon. He was sentenced to 3 ½ to 7 years in state prison.

On appeal, a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division, First Department, unanimously held that the facts supported probable cause to arrest the defendant for disorderly conduct. People v. Gonzalez, 112 A.D.3d 440 (1st Dep’t 2013). The court further unanimously held that the only mens rea element the prosecution had to prove regarding possession of a gravity knife was that the defendant knew he possessed a knife “in general,” rejecting defendant’s argument that the prosecution needed to prove that he knew the knife he possessed had the characteristics of a gravity knife.

Leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals was granted, and on April 28, 2015, the Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the Gonzalez case at the Judicial Institute on the campus of Pace Law School. Although the parties argued both the probable cause issue and the mens rea issue, it appeared to us that the Court’s questions focused primarily on the issue of whether the prosecution needed to prove that the defendant knew that he possessed a knife with the characteristics of the prohibited “gravity knife.” And to observers, it appeared that the Court was clearly troubled by this issue. Gonzalez’s appellate counsel informed the Court of the undisputed facts that Gonzalez had purchased the knife – a “Husky” brand utility knife which he used in his long-time work as an independent contractor – at a Home Depot store some five years earlier. Counsel argued forcefully, and several of the judges appeared to accept the argument – that fairness required the prosecution to prove that Gonzalez knew that the knife he lawfully purchased for his work had the characteristics of a gravity knife. Indeed, in watching the back and forth, we were reminded of the famous Supreme Court decision, Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246 (1952), taught in every first-year law school class, in which Justice Robert Jackson wrote: “A relation between some mental element and punishment for a harmful act is almost as instinctive as the child’s familiar exculpatory ‘But I didn’t mean to,’ and has afforded the rational basis for a tardy and unfinished substitution of deterrence and reformation in place of retaliation and vengeance as the motivation for public prosecution.”

In the face of the persistent and probing questions put to her by several of the judges, the prosecutor argued that the Legislature intended only that a person know simply that he possessed a knife, not whether the knife had the characteristics of a prohibited weapon. When Judge Eugene Pigott pressed her with hypothetical situations in which someone might possess quite innocently a lawfully purchased gravity knife, counsel stated that prosecutorial discretion might be used to avoid unfair prosecutions. Judge Pigott responded by noting that such discretion could lead to discriminatory results, based perhaps on a prosecutor’s consideration of the defendant’s race, or other improper considerations.

In a decision issued on June 15, 2015, the New York Court of Appeals unanimously reversed. But the Court reversed the Appellate Division not on the weapon possession issue but on the ground that “there is no record support for the motion court’s determination that defendant’s rant against the police officers constituted the crime of disorderly conduct.” Thus, the Court was able to avoid addressing the troubling issue regarding whether there is any mental culpability requirement for possession of a weapon, besides the requirement that the person know he possesses an object, which turns out to be a prohibited item.

Why courts avoid decisions on some issues really goes to the heart of the judicial process. Courts typically do not reach out to decide difficult-to-resolve questions if they do not have to. This is especially true when a court confronts issues relating to the legitimacy of a statute, or an interpretation of a statute that may break new ground. Clearly, the weapons issue in Gonzalez was a broader and much more difficult question than the detention issue, a purely legal question. The Court ducked the weapons issue knowingly, and probably with the knowledge that it would confront a similar issue again, and on a record making a resolution more likely.

New York Court of Appeals Issues a Divided Ruling on a Statutory Presumption of Unlawful Intent

POST WRITTEN BY: Prof. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.

In a June 26, 2014 decision, the New York Court of Appeals unanimously held that the evidence at trial supported Appellant Oliverio Galindo’s conviction for possession of a loaded firearm outside his home or place of business, pursuant to Penal Law § 265.03(3). But the Court was divided, 5-2, on whether his conviction pursuant to Penal Law § 265.03(1)(b) for possession of a loaded firearm with the intent to use it unlawfully against another person was in accordance with law.

Critical to this issue was Penal Law § 265.15(4), which states that “[t]he possession by any person of any … weapon … is presumptive evidence of intent to use the same unlawfully against another.” This presumption is permissive, not mandatory. But if the prosecution establishes the predicate fact (weapon possession), the presumed fact (unlawful intent) becomes part of the prosecution’s prima facie case, which the jury may rely on, with consideration of any rebuttal by the defense.

It was undisputed that on a public street Galindo shot his cousin in the leg. But the evidence regarding Galindo’s intent in regard to this shooting was much less clear. The defense did not present evidence, but argued that the statutory presumption of unlawful intent was rebutted through testimony presented by a prosecution witness who reported that Galindo told him that Galindo shot his cousin accidentally (i.e., not with unlawful intent).

Because Galindo challenged his intent-related conviction as insufficiently supported by the evidence (and not as violating due process), the Court reviewed the evidence in a light most favorable to the People. The majority interpreted the statutes as not requiring the People “to prove that defendant specifically intended to use the gun unlawfully against [his cousin] or any particular person.” The majority thus held that even if the evidence “may have suggested that defendant did not intend to use the gun unlawfully against [his cousin], it was not inconsistent with the inference that he intended to use the gun unlawfully against someone other than his cousin.” (emphasis in original). Therefore, the evidence relating to Galindo’s shooting of his cousin (whether unlawful or accidental) was essentially immaterial, except that it established the predicate fact of weapon possession, which then permitted the jury to presume Galindo’s intent to use the gun unlawfully against anyone, whether identified at trial or not.

Judge Pigott, in a dissenting opinion joined by Chief Judge Lippman, concluded that “[g]iven the lack of any evidence, direct or circumstantial, concerning defendant’s intent to use the weapon unlawfully against another, the jury could not have rationally concluded that the defendant’s mere possession of a loaded firearm established his intent to unlawfully use it against another.” (emphasis in original).

Responding to this, the majority said, “[b]ut that is exactly what the Legislature intended Penal Law § 265.15(4) to permit a jury to do: find that a defendant intended to use a weapon unlawfully merely because he or she possessed that weapon.” (emphasis added)

The Galindo majority did not fully address the constitutionality of Penal Law  § 265.15(4) because defendant did not raise this issue on appeal. Nevertheless, both the majority and dissent referenced County Court of Ulster County v. Allen, 442 U.S. 140 (1979), a habeas case in which a sharply divided Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of another New York statutory presumption. In Allen, the element statutorily permitted to be presumed was possession of a firearm attributed to any and all persons based on the predicate fact that they were occupants of an automobile when a firearm was found in the vehicle.

The Allen majority held that the proper constitutional test requires consideration of whether the fact to be presumed is “more likely than not to flow from” the statutory predicate facts. The majority stated that this standard (lower than beyond a reasonable doubt) is appropriate for permissive presumptions “[a]s long as it is clear that the presumption is not the sole and sufficient basis for a finding of guilt.”

The four Allen dissenters found the statutory presumption unconstitutional and stated that “an individual’s mere presence in an automobile where there is a handgun does not even make it ‘more likely than not’ that the individual possesses the weapon.”

In Galindo, the fact permitted to be presumed was intent to use a weapon unlawfully. The Court of Appeals interpreted section 265.15(4) to support a finding of this mens rea element even in cases in which there was no evidence supporting a finding of intent other than the predicate fact of possession.

In light of the above, the Court of Appeals may need to address the constitutionality of Penal Law  § 265.15(4) in a future case.


Caveat Chatter: Digital Communication and Mens Rea in United States v. Valle

POST WRITTEN BY: Jake B. Sher (’16), Pace Law School

JSher_valle imageIn a recent post, we discussed issues of mens rea as they related to internet search history. Digital communications, however, have also recently come under scrutiny. In the hands of an adroit prosecutor, they are equally as revealing and equally powerful evidence as an individual’s internet search history.  Yet, when the prosecution relies exclusively on online communications to prove a defendant’s mens rea beyond a reasonable doubt, a skilled defense team may be able to raise issues surrounding the actual context of the communications that may preclude a conviction.

In an opinion and order issued on June 30, 2014 Judge Paul Gardephe of the Southern District of New York conditionally granted former NYPD Officer Gilberto Valle’s motion for a new trial on his conviction for conspiracy to commit kidnapping. The prosecution relied heavily on a mountain’s worth of digital communications between Valle and his alleged co-conspirators. Unfortunately, none of the evidence against Valle had any corroboration outside of the electronic world, and Valle never finalized any of his alleged “plans.” As a result, Valle’s defense counsel contended that his online activities constituted morbid fantasy role-playing, not conspiracy. The government conceded that some of Valle’s communications were fantastical, but argued that some were manifestations of Valle’s specific intent to commit the alleged crime of kidnapping.

Judge Gardephe observed that “Valle’s depraved, misogynistic … fantasies about his wife, former college classmates, and acquaintances undoubtedly reflect a mind diseased.” United States v. Valle, No. 12 Cr. 847 (PGG), 2014 WL 2980256, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89650 (S.D.N.Y. June 30, 2014). His observation notwithstanding, however, the judge granted Valle’s motion for a new trial. He did so based on the theory that the government neither demonstrated proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Valle’s chats reflected true criminal intent as opposed to fantasy role-play, and that the government’s evidence was insufficient to distinguish the real communications from the conceded fantasy communications. (emphasis added). In Valle, the Court wrote:

Valle’s visits to Internet sites devoted to death, violence, and kidnapping; his possession of images depicting acts of sexual violence against women; his computer searches regarding kidnapping methods; and his 89 computer folders containing Facebook images of women he knew, all graphically illustrate his depraved interests.  The Government did not, however, meet its burden … the Government offered no evidence that would have permitted a reasonable juror to determine whether someone who is truly interested in kidnapping a woman would be more likely to engage in these activities than someone who is merely interested in fantasizing about kidnapping and committing acts of sexual violence against women.

Even digital communications that may appear damningly unassailable require corroboration or further investigation. As Learned Hand once ruminated, “it does not follow, because a jury might have found [the defendant] guilty of the substantive offence, that they were justified in finding him guilty of a conspiracy to commit it.” United States v. Crimmins, 123 F.2d 271, 273 (2d Cir. 1941).

Proof of mens rea may require something more than digital evidence alone, even if a jury is convinced of a defendant’s guilt. As a result, the prosecution in Valle fell short of building their case for a conviction as a matter of law, a fact that Valle’s attorneys managed to exploit in floating an argument sufficient to warrant a re-trial.

Cases and Related Readings:

The Electronic Footprints of the Mind: Justin Ross Harris, Search History, and Mens Rea

POST WRITTEN BY: Jake B. Sher (’16), Pace Law School

ImageThe District Attorneys of the Information Age have a new tool at their disposal: the internet search histories of their defendants. Used correctly, this tool can grant unprecedented insight into an individual’s mental state regarding an alleged crime. The most recent debate on the issue involves Justin Ross Harris, whose high-profile case about his son’s death by exposure initially suggested a negligent mens rea at best. Investigators got a hold of the internet search history and cell phone data, finding evidence that Harris was communicating with several women while his son was still alive in the vehicle, and allegedly had looked at websites that advocated against having children. Harris’ acts have subjected him to murder charges.

The use of internet search history to secure a conviction is undoubtedly a powerful tool, and its use is nothing new. For instance, Melanie McGuire’s searches for “how to purchase guns?” and “how to commit murder;” Steven Zirko’s extensive search history, or Jared Lee Loughner’s “assassin” research.

Taken in context, internet searches can give important insights into the mind of the individual conducting the search. Taken out of context, however, a person’s internet search history may result in a wrongful conviction. The Eastern District of Wisconsin granted a prisoner’s habeas corpus petition, releasing him from a life sentence for his wife’s murder where his alleged internet search history for “ethelyne glycol poisoning” occurred on the morning of his wife’s death.  The District Court cast doubt on the reliability of the search history for purposes of determining intent, particularly in the context of letters and reports to police suggesting Mrs. Jensen’s concerns about his internet search history. The District Court determined that the admission of such evidence to the exclusion of evidence suggesting Mrs. Jensen was suicidal and had access to Mr. Jensen’s computer at the time that the internet search occurred constituted a violation of the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights:

… viewed in isolation, the State’s computer evidence against Jensen was quite convincing. But that was not the only evidence the jury heard about the computer. The jury also heard Jensen’s statement to one of the investigators in which he denied any knowledge of the searches for poison and claimed that Julie also used the computer and accessed the internet, information that was confirmed by one of Julie’s friends … Jensen told the investigator that the computer was not password protected and that Julie entered information on a financial program called Quicken and was interested in medical information. … The defense pointed out evidence in the internet history of a search for “suicide” on November 10, 2008, which was also the first day on which the word ethylene glycol appears in the internet history.

Jensen v. Schwochert, No. 11-C-00803, 2013 WL 6708767, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 177420  (E.D. Wis. Dec. 18, 2013). (Court’s Official Copy)

Searches by individuals online create inadvertent communication between the searching individual and the corporation owning and operating the search engine. It is important to note that the evidence unearthed from internet data may provide just enough information to obfuscate the truth. As Orin S. Kerr stated with regards to digital evidence,

communications normally will not indicate who or what sent or received them, or the context in which they were sent or received.

While internet search histories are helpful tools for obtaining circumstantial evidence regarding the individual’s state of mind conducting the search, they are imperfect vehicles in that process; courts must balance their admission against the Constitutional Rights of the individual conducting the search. In our continued pursuit of the equitable administration of justice in the Internet Age, the words of Justice Cardozo remain resonant:

When the risk of confusion is so great as to upset the balance of advantage, the evidence goes out.

Shepard v. United States, 290 U.S. 96, 104 (1933).

Related Readings: