State in the Interest of M.T.S., 129 N.J. 422 (1992)

Case Name: State in the Interest of M.T.S.
Citation: 129 N.J. 422 (1992)

Facts: A 17 year old boy was convicted of second-degree sexual assault of a 15 year old girl. The statute  stated “a person who commits an act of sexual penetration using physical force or coercion is guilty of second-degree sexual assault.” There was discrepancy between the testimonies.

Issue: Whether the element of “physical force” is met simply by an act of non-consensual penetration involving no more force than necessary to accomplish that result.

Defendant’s argument: Physical force means force used to overcome lack of consent. Requires the application of some amount of force in addition to the act of penetration.

State’s argument: Physical force entails any amount of sexual touching brought about involuntarily. Sexual penetration coupled with a lack of consent satisfies the elements of the statute.

Holding: Appellate court reversed and conviction reinstated.

Reasoning: The court discussed that the legislature’s concept of sexual assault was parallel to the law of assault and battery – “any unauthorized touching of another.” In other words, the court reads “nonconsent” into the statute. The defendant has to have consent, “freely given.” The physical force requirement acts only to “qualify the nature and character of the sexual penetration.”

State v. Rusk, 289 Md. 230 (1981)

Case Name: State v. Rusk
Citation: 289 Md. 230 (1981)

Facts: Rusk was convicted of second degree rape. The prosecuting witness’ testimony and the defendant’s testimony were quite different. The jury convicted Rusk but the conviction was reversed by the Court of Special Appeals which concluded that there was insufficient evidence of Rusk’s guilt to permit the case to go to the jury.

Issue: Whether the defendant had the requisite “force or threat of force.”

Defendant’s argument: The sex was consensual and Rusk did not do anything to “force” the girl to have sex with him. The prosecuting witness’ testimony stating, “The way he looked;” is not enough to show force.

State’s argument: The girl feared Rusk and although it may have been unreasonable, there was enough evidence (with particular focus on the actual force placed on the girl’s neck) to convict the defendant. Furthermore, the jury believed the girl not Rusk and the appellate court cannot substitute its own judgment.

Holding: Convicted reinstated. The Court of Special Appeals substituted its own view of the evidence for that of the judge and jury. (However, the CSA actually reversed on the basis that the case should not have gone to the jury.)

Reasoning: The vast majority of jurisdictions have required that the victim’s fear be reasonably grounded in order to obviate the need for either proof of actual force on the part of the assailant or physical resistance on the part of the victim.

Dissent: A fact finder can only look to see if the victim’s fear is reasonably grounded after the court determines that the defendant’s conduct under the circumstances was reasonably calculated to give rise to a fear on her part to the extent that she was unable to resist. The actual force on the girl’s neck (if it did occur) came after they were already lying naked in bed. It is hard to tell this from just seduction, she never resisted and never described what “the look” was that the defendant gave her. Also, the defendant made no response to the girl’s question “If I do what you want, will you let me go without killing me?” (The dissent did not seem to believe the girl’s testimony.)



Cheek v. United States, 498 U.S. 192 (1991)

Case Name: Cheek v. United States
Citation: 498 U.S. 192 (1991)

Facts: Cheek was convicted of willfully failing to file a federal income tax return for a number of years. His defense was that he sincerely believed that under the tax laws he owed no taxes and that the tax laws were unconstitutional. Cheek received this information from seminars and his own study. The jury could not decide because they were divided on whether Cheek honestly and reasonably believed that he was not required to pay income tax. The trial judge responded that “an honest but unreasonable belief is not a defense and does not negate willfulness” and that the information Cheek received was “not objectively reasonable.” The jury then convicted Cheek.

Defendant’s argument: The trial judge erred in instructing the jury that only an “objectively reasonable” misunderstanding of the law negates the statutory willfulness requirement.

State’s argument: Mistake about the law is not a defense to criminal liability.

Holding: It was not error for the judge to instruct the jury not to consider Cheek’s claims that the tax laws were unconstitutional; however, it was error for the court to instruct the jury that Cheek’s beliefs should not be considered by the jury in determining whether Cheek acted willfully.

Reasoning: Because of the complexity of the tax laws, the Court has interpreted the term “willfully” as carving out an exception to the traditional rule and requires specific intent.

People v. Marrero, 69 N.Y. 2d 382

Case Name: People v. Marrero
Citation: 69 N.Y. 2d 382

Facts: Marrero, a federal corrections officer, was arrested for unlicensed possession of a loaded handgun. The statute exempted “peace officers” which included “corrections officers of any state correctional facility or of any penal correctional institution.” After a successful pretrial motion to dismiss, the Appellate Division reinstated the indictment, holding that Marrero was not a “peace officer.” Marrero was then tried and convicted before a jury after the trial court rejected his request for a jury instruction that it would be a good defense if he reasonably believed that the statutory exemption for peace officers applied to him as a federal correctional officer.

Issue: Whether the defendant’s personal misreading or misunderstanding of a statute may excuse criminal conduct in the circumstances of this case.

Defendant’s argument:  The jury should have received an instruction about his reasonable belief that the statutory exemption applied to him was a good defense.

State’s argument: The common law has clearly established that “mistake of law” does not relieve a defendant of criminal liability.

Holding: Conviction upheld.

Reasoning: In addition to the common law view, if Marrero’s argument was accepted, “the exception would swallow the rule. Mistakes about the law would be encouraged…there would be an infinite number of mistake of law defenses.” The crime only required general intent.

Dissent: The majority adopts an Utilitarian view. The criminal justice system is supposed to punish blameworthiness or “choosing freely to do wrong.” The defendant acted innocently and with any intent to do wrong and should not be punished. Furthermore, the dissent disagreed with the majority’s construction of the penal statute.

Regina v. Prince, L.R. 2 Cr. Cas. Res. 154 (1875)

Case Name: Regina v. Prince
Citation: L.R. 2 Cr. Cas. Res. 154 (1875)

Facts: Defendant was convicted of taking an unmarried girl under 16 years out of the possession and against the will of her father (a misdemeanor). The jury found that the girl had told the defendant she was 18, the defendant honestly believed the statement, and his belief was reasonable.

Defendant’s argument: The statute has a requirement read into it that the prosecution must prove that the defendant believed the girl he had taken was over 16.

State’s argument: The statute does not require this proof. The act of taking a girl out is wrong in and of itself – that is the mens rea. It does not matter that he thought the girl was older. Just like it would not matter whether he knew or did not know whether she is under 16. However, it would have mattered if he did not know the girl was in the custody of her father.

Holding: Conviction affirmed.

Reasoning: The court interpreted the statute to require a strict liability application. The Common Law does not allow defenses to strict liability.

Dissent: The defendant had reasonable ground for believing what the girl told him and had what she said been true, he would not have done the act (no mens rea). “a mistake of facts, on reasonable grounds…is an excuse” (if, had the facts been true, he would not have been guilty) that is implied in every criminal charge and enactment in England.

United States v. Jewell, 532 F.2d 697 (1976)

Case Name: United States v. Jewell
Citation: 532 F.2d 697 (1976)

Facts: Jewell was convicted of knowingly transporting marijuana in his car from Mexico. The pot was hidden in a secret compartment behind the rear seat. There was evidence that Jewell deliberately avoided positive knowledge in order to avoid responsibility  (“Willful Blindness”). The trial court judge gave a jury instruction that defendant is guilty if the government shows, beyond a reasonable doubt, that (even though he was not actually aware) his ignorance was solely because he made a conscious purpose to disregard what was in the vehicle to avoid learning the truth.

Defendant’s argument: The state needs to prove that Jewell knowingly brought and possessed the marijuana into the US. The MPC requires the state to prove that the defendant is “aware of a high probability of its existence.”

State’s argument: Jewell interprets “knowingly” to narrow and is not consistent with the purpose of the Drug Control Act. A narrow interpretation would allow deliberate ignorance as a defense.

Holding: Upheld the judge’s instruction and the defendant’s conviction.

Dissent: Three errors in the jury instruction:

  1. The MPC gives a definition of knowledge not an alternative for it (mentions a gift to child)
  2. Did not alert the jury that he could not be convicted if he “actually believed” there was no controlled substance in the car
  3. The instruction clearly stated that the defendant could have been convicted even if found ignorant or “not actually aware” that the car contained a controlled substance

Regina v. Cunningham, 2 QB. 396 (1957)

Case Name: Regina v. Cunningham
Citation: 2 QB. 396 (1957)

Facts: Regina stole a gas meter from the gas pipes of a home and the gas leaked into the house and partially asphyxiated his future mother-in-law who was sleeping. He served six months for stealing the gas meter and was convicted for “unlawfully and maliciously” endangering another by exposing them to a noxious substance.

Defendant’s argument: No mens rea existed. Also, Regina must have intended to do the harm or that he must foresee the harm and recklessly act. Finally, the judge stated that “malicious” means the same as “wicked” and he found this fact for the jury.

State’s argument: Malice either requires (1) an actual intention to do the particular kind of harm that in fact was done; or (2) recklessness as to whether such harm should occur or not. Malice does not require any ill will towards the person injured. Malice postulates “foresight of consequence.”

Holding: Conviction quashed. It should have been left to the jury to decide whether the defendant foresaw that his action might cause injury to someone.

Reasoning: The trial court judge equated malicious with wicked. He implied that if the jury found the Regina’s act of stealing the gas meter “wicked” then the jury should find Regina maliciously caused that harm.

Pope v. State, 284 Md. 309 (1979)

Case Name: Pope v. State
Citation: 284 Md. 309 (1979)

Facts: Pope was convicted after standing by while a mother beat her child to death in the defendant’s home. The mother had claimed she was God and that Satan had hidden himself inside the body of her child.

Defendant’s argument:  Pope did not have a legal duty (as opposed to a moral one). Also, because the mother was present, Pope could not have assumed responsibility for the supervision of the child.

State’s argument: Pope invited the woman and child into her home and fed them. This is assuming responsibility for both of them, especially after the child was in need of medical attention. In the alternative, there is a common law charge for “misprision of felony.”

Holding: Pope did not have a legal duty and should not be punished for not fulfilling a moral obligation. Also, the common law charge is too broad, has not been used for a long time, and is incompatible with our current laws.

Jones v. United States, 308 F.2d 307 (1962)

Case Name: Jones v. United States
Citation: 308 F.2d 307 (1962)

Facts: Jones was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for failing to provide for a 10 month old child of her friend.

Defendant’s argument: There must be a finding that the defendant had a legal duty (not just a moral one) in order to be charged with involuntary manslaughter.

State’s argument: Jones assumed a contractual duty to care for the baby or voluntarily assumed the care of another and secluded the baby to prevent others from rendering aid.

Holding: Jones did not have a duty for the baby.

Reasoning: There was conflicting evidence as to whether or not the defendant was paid which would have made a contractual duty.

Ewing v. California, 538 U.S. 11 (2003)

Case Name: Ewing v. California
Citation: 538 U.S. 11 (2003)

Facts: The goal of the “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law was to protect public safety by providing lengthy prison terms for habitual offers. Ewing had a record (mostly theft and battery – at least two serious or violent crimes) and was being sentenced for stealing about $1,200 worth of golf clubs. The judge had some discretion whether or not to sentence under Three Strikes but refused and sentenced Ewing to 25 years to life.

Issue: Whether the 8th Amendment prohibits the State of California from sentencing a repeat felon to a prison term of 25 years to life under the State’s “Three Strikes and You’re Out.”

Defendant’s argument: Ewing’s 25 years to life sentence is disproportionate and is cruel and unusual punishment for theft charges. It does not match up with “the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty.”

State’s argument: This law targets the class of offenders who pose the greatest threat to public safety: career criminals. Also, statistics showed that the new law seemed to deter crime because the recidivism rate went down.

Holding: The sentence was affirmed.

Reasoning: Deference to the legislature – it is a legislative judgment that offenders who continue to commit violent or serious crimes be incapacitated. Spoke about the cruel and unusual clause contains a “Narrow proportionality principle” that “applies to noncapital sentences.”

Scalia’s concurrence in judgment: Proportionality should only be tied to capital offenses. The plurality is evaluating policy (making it more difficult than it has to be).

Thomas’ concurrence in the judgment: 8th Amendment contains no proportionality principle

Dissent: Proportionality is required by the 8th Amendment.