People v. Navarro

Appellate Department, Los Angeles County Superior Court, 1979.

99 Cal.App.3d Supp. 1, 160 Cal.Rptr. 692.

Dressler, pp. 172-175


Facts: Navarro stole some wooden beams.  At trial, he requested jury instructions which would have excused his behavior based on his belief that either the property he stole had been discarded or that he had permission to take it, even if such a belief was not reasonable.  The court gave instructions that suggested such belief was only a defense if the jury finds it to be reasonable.


Issue: Should the defendant be acquitted if he had a belief in good faith, though it was not necessarily reasonable, that the beams had been abandoned or that he had the permission of the owner to take the property?


Rule: A good faith mistake is a defense when it negates a required mens rea of the crime.


Analysis: The court says that the trial court erred in instructing the jury that only reasonable belief could negate specific intent.  Specific intent is negated by mere good faith mistake, and reasonableness is not needed.


Conclusion: The court overturned the conviction.


Notes and Questions


1.     If he was acting in a morally culpable manner that only means that he had intent in the “culpability” sense.  This court judges his intent in the “elemental” and specific sense.  He might have been fully intending to go and smack old ladies around with wooden beams that he mistakenly thought were abandoned.  In that case, he’s morally culpable, but he lacks the necessary specific intent.

2.     Perkins says that mistakes of fact are not defenses to general intent crimes unless they are reasonable, while mistakes of fact are defenses to specific intent crimes even if they are unreasonable.  With general intent crimes, you must merely be morally culpable, while with specific intent crimes, you must satisfy particular requirements.  LaFave and Scott don’t seem to mention reasonableness, but their statement is in harmony with the second part of Perkins’ statement.

3.     Model Penal Code § 2.04 would allow a defense as to mistake of fact in so far as it would show that the defendant didn’t intend to steal the beams.

4.     The evidence in this case tends to show that R made a mistake, and such a mistake only negates a finding of recklessness.  R consciously acted to unload the gun, at which point we can infer that he was no longer conscious of a substantial risk, but rather believed that he had consciously eliminated that risk.  Since the offense requires the defendant to be reckless in his act, I would vote to acquit based on the law.

5.     That which is legal is codified.  It is available for everyone to see and study.  Everyone is, or should be, on fair notice of what is legal and what is illegal.  That which is moral is not uniformly codified.  There is, at minimum, disagreement as to what is immoral, at least on the razor’s edge between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.  Furthermore, that which would not be a crime under the set of facts the defendant believes to be true is, in fact, a crime under a different set of facts that actually is true.  Either both acts should be crimes or neither act should be a crime.

6.     The problem with this doctrine is the ever-growing range of the criminal law and continually expanding penal codes.  Virtually anything can be found to be illegal, and so this doctrine would basically create a back-door to punishing acts without mens rea.  If the criminal law were more limited, it would be reasonable for someone who knowingly breaks the law to take the risk of breaking an even more serious law by mistake and suffering the consequences.

7.     By Model Penal Code § 2.04(2), the defendant would be guilty of fornication though not guilty of statutory rape.  This subsection mandates that mistake with regard to one crime doesn’t get you off of other crimes or degrees of crimes if you weren’t mistaken about them.


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