March 20, 2017

Divided Supreme Court finds “serious constitutional error” to be harmless

In People v. Merritt, the Supreme Court today affirms a robbery conviction even though the trial court did not instruct the jury on the elements of robbery.  The court’s opinion by Justice Ming Chin — for himself and four other justices — states that “[t]he failure to instruct on the elements of a charged crime is serious constitutional error that impacts a defendant’s fundamental right to a jury trial” and that it is the “kind of error [that] should never occur,” but holds the error was harmless in the case before it.  (The defendant in the case conceded a robbery had taken place, but denied he was the robber.)  The court concludes that one of its 1993 opinions, which had ruled that this type of instructional error is reversible per se, was made “obsolete” by a subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decision.

There are two separate opinions.  Justice Goodwin Liu concurs, stating that “some form of harmless error review is appropriate,” but that “such review is more circumscribed . . . than [the court’s] opinion suggests.”  Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar dissents, contending that, “[w]hen a jury’s deliberation is in no way structured by the facts that the Legislature singled out as necessary for a conviction, jurors might as well have been asked nothing more than, ‘do you think the defendant is guilty of anything?'”  The majority finds “the dissent’s rhetoric” to be unconvincing.

The court reverses the Fourth District, Division Two, Court of Appeal.

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