CBJ - September 2012 #02. California Supreme Court: Defining the boundaries.

Author:By J. Clark Kelso

California Bar Journal


CBJ - September 2012 #02.

California Supreme Court: Defining the boundaries

The California LawyerSeptember 2012California Supreme Court: Defining the boundariesBy J. Clark KelsoThe law is full of fine distinctions, and being able to recognize those distinctions - to grasp where the boundaries are - is the common law lawyer's stock in trade. This year's decisions from the California Supreme Court involved an unusually large number of cases where the issue could fairly be framed as "A" or "B," with the court's opinion defining the boundary between those two choices.

Boundaries between crimes

There were four criminal law cases where the justices displayed their ability to draw fine distinctions that defined the boundaries of different crimes.

Consider first Magness v. Superior Court (2012) 54 Cal.4th 270, where the defendant had been charged with burglary because he used a remote control to open a motorized garage door. A burglary occurs when a person "enters any house with intent to commit larceny or any felony" (Penal Code Section 459), and it has long been settled that the slightest entry by any part of the body or an instrument is sufficient. But in Magness, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that since no part of the body and no instrument entered the house, there was no burglary. Electromagnetic waves from the remote clearly entered the house, but that was not good enough for the court's members, who were looking for something physical to go from the outside to the inside of the house. So the defendant could be charged at most with an attempted burglary, not a completed burglary.

An example of something physical going from the outside to the inside was evident in People v. Yarbrough (2012) 54 Cal.4th 889, where the defendant climbed onto a second-story apartment's private balcony, an open balcony surrounded by a metal railing some four feet in height and normally accessible only through the single bedroom's sliding glass door. The defendant's body is certainly something physical, but the question was whether climbing onto a balcony on the outside of the house actually involved going from the outside to the inside. The Court of Appeal had reversed the defendant's conviction, concluding that an unenclosed balcony is not within a dwelling's outer boundary. The Supreme Court saw the boundaries differently and unanimously reversed. The court concluded that a second-story balcony surrounded by a four-foot high railing is intended to be an extension of the living space and within the apartment's outer boundary, since a reasonable person would believe that a member of the general public could not pass over the railing without authorization.

Burglary involves cases where something from the outside crosses over to the inside. But there are some crimes that exist only if the defendant is on the outside instead of being on the inside. The court faced that problem in People v. Manzo (2012) 53 Cal.4th 880, where the defendant was charged with violating Section 246 of the Penal Code, which makes it unlawful for "any person [to] maliciously and willfully discharge a firearm at an occupied vehicle." The defendant was standing outside a vehicle but had thrust a gun into the vehicle at the time he fired the weapon, which killed someone inside the vehicle. The question here was whether the defendant was shooting "at" the vehicle, given that the firearm had already crossed the plane of the vehicle and was thus actually inside the vehicle at the time it was fired. Was the defendant shooting "at" the vehicle or shooting "within" the vehicle? Once again, the Court of Appeal had sided with the defendant, citing the rule of lenity and the ambiguity inherent in the word "at." The Supreme Court unanimously reversed, noting that the evident focus of the...

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