In State v. Level, the WA Court of Appeals held that the term “Knowledge” cannot be inferred from the use of the term “Unlawfully” in the context of a Possession of Stolen Motor Vehicle charge.
A police officer stopped Mr. Level for driving a moped without wearing a helmet. The condition of the moped led the officer to suspect it was stolen. A review of the moped’s VIN confirmed this suspicion. The State charged Mr. Level with possession of a stolen motor vehicle. The Prosecutor’s charging documents, in pertinent part, said the following:
“The crime of Possession of a Stolen Motor Vehicle, Count 5, the maximum penalty for which is 10 yrs. imprisonment and/or $20,000 fine, plus restitution, assessments and court costs, in that the said Jacob Daniel Level in the County of Stevens, State of Washington, on or about July 22, 2019, did unlawfully possess a stolen motor vehicle, to-wit: a Taotao Scooter, the property of (victim’s name omitted); Contrary to RCW 9A.56.068(1), and against the peace and dignity of the State of Washington.”
A jury convicted Mr. Level of the stolen vehicle charge. He timely appealed on arguments that the charge failed to apprise him of any component of knowledge. Consequently, this violated his constitutional right to notice and required reversal of his conviction.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The Court of Appeals agreed with Mr. Level.
“The crime of possession of a stolen motor vehicle includes an element of knowledge,” said the Court. “The type of knowledge required has two components: the defendant must both knowingly possess the motor vehicle and also act with knowledge that the motor vehicle had been stolen.”
The Court raised and dismissed the State’s arguments that allegations of “‘unlawful and felonious’” conduct sufficient imply guilty knowledge in the context of drug and firearm offenses. “But none of our decisions have held that knowledge can be inferred from the use of “unlawfully” in the context of a possession of stolen property charge,” said the Court. Furthermore, the court reasoned that proof of knowledge is multifaceted. The State must not only prove knowing possession, but also that the defendant knew of the object was stolen.
“Given the state of the law, an information’s allegation that the defendant acted unlawfully is insufficient to convey an inference that the conduct was done with a mental state of knowledge.” ~WA Court of Appeals
Thus, reasoned the Court, the inclusion of the adverb “unlawfully” in the charges does not satisfy the requirements of sufficient notice.
Next, the Court held that the remaining language in the State’s charges was insufficient to fill in the gaps. Although the State tried to salvage its charges by pointing to the allegation that the moped was the property of someone other than Mr. Level, that contention was inadequate. “It says nothing about Mr. Level’s knowledge. It merely confirms that the moped was stolen,” said the Court. With that, the Court reversed Mr. Level’s conviction.
My opinion? Good decision. In criminal law, the defendant must have both the Mens Rea and Actus Reus to commit the crime. Mens Rea refers to criminal intent. The literal translation from Latin is “guilty mind.” A mens rea refers to the state of mind statutorily required in order to convict a particular defendant of a particular crime. Actus Reus refers to the act or omission that comprise the physical elements of a crime as required by statute.
The only exception is if the charged crime is a Strict Liability crime. Strict liability exists when a defendant is liable for committing an action, regardless of what his/her intent or mental state was when committing the action. Crimes like DUI, possession crimes and statutory rape are all examples of strict liability offenses.
Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.