When a General Intent Crime Really Isn’t a General Intent Crime
by Richard Layon
A man should keep his little brain attic stocked with all the furniture that he is likely to use, and the rest he can put away in the lumber room of his library, where he can get it if he wants it. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Five Orange Pips
One of the more deeply etched principles of law which criminal defense practitioners have come to rely upon, though not necessarily agree with, is the premise that voluntary intoxication is never a defense to a general intent crime. Though certain general intent crimes mandate the proscribed conduct occur concurrent with a particular mental state, trial courts have ritualistically proclaimed offenses to be either general intent or specific intent crimes. If your client was charged with a general intent crime, you had as much chance of getting a voluntary intoxication jury instruction as you would getting an honest golf score out of Herb Weston. While the recent opinion of the Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division One, in People v. Ramiro Reyes, (1997) ____ Cal.App.4th ____, 97 DAR 1475 (2/13/97) has blurred the distinction between general and specific intent conduct, it has, understandably, done nothing about the number of mulligans which Mr. Weston takes at any given hole.
In People v. Reyes, the appellate court wrestled with the role voluntary intoxication could have in the defense of an individual charged with a general intent crime, to wit: receiving stolen property2. The Court concluded that evidence of voluntary intoxication was admissible, even though the crime charged required only general criminal intent, to rebut the presence of the requisite mental state.
In Reyes, the defendant was initially charged with automobile burglary and receiving stolen property2. Prior to trial, Count One of the Information, automobile burglary, was dismissed based upon the fact that the truck which he was to alleged to have broken into was not locked. Mr. Reyes, thereafter, went to trial on a one count Information charged with receiving stolen property. Mr. Reyes’ dilemma was exacerbated inasmuch as it was also alleged that he had previously been convicted of two serious or violent felonies within the meaning of Penal Code §§ 667(b)-(i).
The evidence at trial unfolded as follows: Reyes took the stand and testified that he had been using illicit drugs since 1978, including marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD and heroin. In fact, a few days prior to his arrest on the underlying charge, he began smoking methamphetamine and cocaine. On the day of his arrest, he smoked two grams of methamphetamine and one gram of cocaine. Late in the evening–presumably because he had nothing else to smoke–Mr. Reyes decided to go out and purchase some cigarettes and beer. When queried as to which store he patronized when he purchased the aforementioned items, Mr. Reyes unwittingly waxed prophetic when he stated “I have trouble when I use a lot of drugs remembering things of that nature.” On the way home from the store, Reyes stopped and picked-up a red toolbox and other items which he spotted on a street curb. When questioned why he stopped to pick-up the items–which had, unfortunately, only moments earlier been inside a pick-up truck parked nearby–Mr. Reyes indicated that when he uses drugs he likes to go “[dempsey] dumpster diving”; Mr. Reyes likened such conduct to treasure hunting. Ibid at pp. 1475-1476.
Additionally, and more importantly, trial counsel sought to introduce testimony of Dr. Ray Murphy to show that at the time the criminal conduct was alleged to have been committed, Reyes did not possess the requisite mental state necessary to sustain a conviction, to wit: knowledge that the goods were stolen. During the course of a hearing pursuant to Evidence Code § 402, Dr. Murphy testified that Mr. Reyes was an individual who possessed a cornucopia of mental disorders which included, but were not limited to, schizophrenia and a paranoid, antisocial personality disorder. In addition to his psychological shortcomings, Mr. Reyes had a serious enduring history of poly-substance dependence. According to Dr. Murphy, an individual which possessed the attributes described above:
“could be functioning in a manner that was highly disorganized, distracted from reality, could be manifesting issues of delusion or hallucination, and at times severe disruption in the manner in which [he]…[made] decision about how [he] did things.”
Dr. Murphy concluded that it would be possible for such a person to lack knowledge of his acts; essentially, Dr. Murphy concluded that Reyes could well have been an automaton, based upon his inherent psychological foibles coupled with his significant ingestion of drugs on the evening in which the criminal conduct was alleged to have occurred.
Nevertheless, the trial court refused to allow Dr. Murphy’s testimony to be presented to the jury. Mr. Reyes was convicted of receiving stolen property and, ultimately, sentenced to the indeterminate term of 25 years to life pursuant to Penal Code § 667(e)(1).
On appeal, Reyes argued, inter alia, that the trial court erred when it disallowed evidence which was to be introduced to directly rebut an element of the crime charged which, in this case, was “knowledge” that the property which he possessed was stolen. As noted below, Division One of the Fourth District Court of Appeal agreed with Reyes’ and reversed.
At the outset, the Reyes Court focused on the tenets of Penal Code §§ 22, 25 and 28. The Court initially noted the general rule annunciated in Penal Code § 25(a) which provides:
“The defense of diminished capacity in hereby abolished. In a criminal action, as well as any juvenile court proceeding, evidence concerning an accused person’s intoxication, trauma, mental illness, disease or defect shall not be admissible to show or negate capacity to form the particular purpose, intent, motive, aforethought, knowledge or other mental state required for the commission of the crime charged.” [Emphasis added.]
The Court then discussed the two primary exceptions to the general rule contained in Penal Code § 22 and 28. Penal Code § 22(b), at the time of Mr. Reyes’ trial2, provided in pertinent part:
“Evidence of voluntary intoxication is admissible solely on the issue of whether or not the defendant actually formed a required specific intent … when a specific intent crime is charged.” [Emphasis added.]
Similarly, the Court noted, Penal Code § 28(a) makes evidence of mental disorders admissible solely on the issue of whether the defendant actually formed a required specific intent, when a specific intent crime has been charged. Since Penal Code § 496 was a general intent crime, the deputy district attorney argued, and the trial court agreed, for exclusion of Dr. Murphy’s proffered evidence.
The Reyes court acknowledged that a general intent crime may involve a specific mental state, such as knowledge; the Court defined “knowledge” as: (1) the fact or condition of being cognizant, conscious or aware of something; (2) the scope of one’s awareness; (3) extent of one’s understanding; (4) the fact or condition of apprehending truth, fact or reality immediately with the mind or senses. [Even the neophyte practitioner can appreciate the import these definitions have on a frightening number of your clients.] The court concluded, what we have known for years, that intoxication has obvious relevance to the question of awareness, familiarity, understanding and ability to recognize and comprehend. Ibid at p. 1477.
In applying the aforementioned rational to Mr. Reyes, the appellate court explained that if a crime requires a particular mental state, the Legislature cannot deny a defendant the opportunity to prove he did not entertain that state. Though Reyes’ evidence of intoxication can not be offered as a defense to a crime, inasmuch as the charged conduct constitutes a general intent crime, it can be proffered in an attempt to raise a doubt on an element of a crime which the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt. In holding that preclusion of Mr. Reyes’ mental disorders and drug abuse unfairly denied him the ability to rebut an element of the crime charged, the court stated “[a]ccordingly, we hold that with regard to the element of knowledge, receiving stolen property is a `specific intent crime’ as that term is used in [Penal Code] section 22, subdivision (b) and [Penal Code] section 28, subdivision (a).” Ibid at p. 1478.
The Reyes decision appears to create a hybrid classification which exists somewhere between general and specific intent crimes. It gives those who practice criminal defense another arrow in the quiver of defenses or, said another way, an additional piece of furniture to place in our little brain attics. As to Herbie’s golf score, we’ll leave that discussion for another day …
- Rick Layon received his Bachelor of Science Degree in Biology from San Diego State University in 1986, and his Juris Doctor from Willamette University in 1990. Mr. Layon is co-chair of the Criminal Section of the North County Bar Association. He is a partner in the firm of Layon & Holck, A.P.L.C. and limits his practice to the area of criminal defense.
- Penal Code § 496(a) which provides, in pertinent part, as follows:
“Every person who … receives any property that has been stolen … knowing the property to be so stolen is punishable by imprisonment in a state prison, or in a county jail for not more than one year.”
- Penal Code § 22(b) has since been amended and now permits the admission of evidence of voluntary intoxication on the issue of whether the defendant actually formed a required specific intent irrespective of whether the charged conduct is the basis for a specific or general intent crime.