January 19, 2017

Divided Supreme Court overrules 1941 opinion in rape case

In People v. White, a 5-2 Supreme Court today holds that the same act can lead to a conviction of — but not punishment for — both rape of an intoxicated person and rape of an unconscious person.  The court’s opinion by Justice Ming Chin relies on a 2014 decision — People v. Gonzalez (2014) 60 Cal.4th 533 — where the court concluded that a defendant could be convicted under a different statute for both oral copulation of an intoxicated person and oral copulation of an unconscious person based on one act.

The Gonzalez court distinguished a 75-year-old decision — People v. Craig (1941) 17 Cal.2d 453, which held that “one punishable offense of rape results from a single act of intercourse” — because Gonzalez concerned oral copulation and Craig dealt with rape.  Today, in White, the court acknowledges that it cannot avoid deciding whether Craig is still good law, and it overrules that opinion, but it does so gently, stating that, although it has “no reason to question whether Craig was correct when decided, subsequent events have made it no longer authoritative regarding today’s” rape statute.

Justice Goodwin Liu, who concurred in Gonzalez, finds the majority’s treatment of Craig not gentle enough.  Joined by Justice Leondra Kruger, Justice Liu dissents, finding that “the court ascribes to Craig a rationale that Craig did not adopt.”  Believing that the rape statute “is relevantly different” from the oral copulation statute, the dissent concludes, “A straightforward reading of [the rape statute] and application of Gonzalez lead to the conclusion that the rape statute defines a single offense.”

The court reverses a 2-1 decision of the Fourth District, Division One, Court of Appeal.  This was the second time the case was in the Supreme Court.  After the Court of Appeal’s first opinion, the case was a grant-and-hold for Gonzalez and the case was remanded for reconsideration in light of Gonzalez.

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