Sunday, August 20, 2017

Case o' The Week: A Touch of Evil on Ninth's Mind - Hernandez and Mens Rea + Actus Reus Match

 Bad mind, wrong crime?
 No time.
 United States v. Lucio Hernandez, 859 F.3d 817(9th Cir. June 15, 2017), decision available here.

Players: Per curiam decision with Judges Shroeder and Bybee, and Chief D.J. William Smith. 
  Admirable win for Deputy Federal Public Defender Alexandra Yates, Central District of California.

Facts: Hernandez drove from Arizona to California to transfer title on a car. Id. at 819. In Arizona, he (legally) purchased multiple weapons at a gun show, without any waiting period (things prohibited in California). Id. He listed Arizona as his current residence on the ATF form, though he lived in California. Id. 
  When the guns were later found by California cops in the possession of others, the ATF got a search warrant. Id. No Arizona guns were found in the search: some had been stolen, Hernandez explained, others buried in the desert. Id. 
  He was indicted with illegal transportation of firearms into his state of residence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(3). Id. at 820. 
  At the government’s urging, the court gave an instruction based on Bryan, 524 U.S. 184 (1998) that may have permitted the jury to find Hernandez guilty “even if he did not know that his act of transporting guns into California was illegal.” Id. “The court rejected an instruction that would have connected the required willfulness to the act of transporting the guns into California.” Id. 
  During trial, the government introduced evidence about “straw purchasers,” and revealed several of the guns were recovered from others by police. Id. The government argued this evidence showed Hernandez’s “bad purpose;”the jury found Hernandez guilty.

Issue(s): “In order to convict Hernandez of this crime, the government was required to prove that his violation was ‘willful,’ i.e., that the defendant acted with knowledge that the charged conduct (transporting the firearms into his state of residence) was unlawful. Hernandez argues on appeal that the evidence was insufficient to prove that the specifically charged conduct was done ‘willfully.’ Moreover, Hernandez contends that because the district court allowed the government to introduce evidence of other (uncharged) criminal acts allegedly committed by Hernandez in connection with the firearms at issue, combined with a broad interpretation of the willfulness instruction contemplated by Bryan . . . ., the jury may have convicted him without finding the requisite level of culpability.” Id. at 819.

Held: “[W]e agree. We . . . reverse and remand for a new trial.” Id. at 819. “We conclude that, given the district court's broad jury instruction and the government’s theory of the case, it is not clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury actually found that Hernandez had willfully committed the charged conduct.” Id. at 821. “We hold that the broad jury instruction, combined with the evidence of the commission of later crimes and the government's argument to the jury, resulted in significant prejudice to Hernandez.Id. at 824.

Of Note: This prosecution went awry when the district court rejected a defense instruction that would have required Hernandez to know his conduct was unlawful, and that he intended to disobey the law when he transported firearms purchased in Arizona to California. Id. at 823. Without that “concurrence of an evil-meaning mind with an evil-doing hand”, id. at 823, the jury could have convicted Hernandez for being an arms trafficker. As Hernandez helpfully observes, “It is a longstanding precept of the common law that a person cannot be convicted of one crime on the basis of an intent to commit another.” Id. at 823. 
  A rare and welcome mens rea win – particularly involving the comparatively low “willfulness” mental state.  

How to Use: Remember back in CrimLaw when we were taught that a crime required a match between the mens rea and charged actus reus? 
  Sometimes it feels AUSAs skipped that class. 
  Hernandez is a clean and emphatic endorsement of the proposition that the government has to prove more than intent to commit some crime or another -- there has to be intent to commit the crime chargedId. at 823. Fair to assume Hernandez was up to various unlawful shenanigans with guns, which makes the Ninth's strict focus on the charged offense particularly potent (and per curiam to boot!). 
For Further Reading: After almost eighteen years on the Ninth, the Honorable Judge Richard Tallman is taking senior status. See Press Release here. 
  Judge Tallman replaced Judge Betty Fletcher, and will himself be replaced by one of the (now-five) Trump nominees for the Ninth.
  When will those shoes drop? Depends if Dem Senators are feeling blue (slips).  See article on nominations here 

Steven Kalar, Federal Public Defender N.D. Cal. Website at


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