Anthony Sculimbrene, Esq.
People v. Rubalcava
23 Cal. 4th 322 (2000)
The prohibited weapons statute is a general intent crime and does not require an intent to harm.
NOTE: Rubalcava was decided under the old prohibited weapons statute Cal. Penal Code section 12020 which has been superseded by CPC sec 16590. Rubalcava’s holding, however, was applied to 16590 by People v. Mitchell.
The Defendant was arrested by police for an outstanding warrant. When the first arresting officer searched him, he discovered a knife in the Defendant’s “right coin pocket.” The knife was a fixed blade with one side that was completely unsharpened and a broken tip. The other edge of the object appeared to have been sharpened at one time but was, at the time of arrest, dull. The knife was concealed by the Defendant’s untucked and extra-long white shirt that hung down to his thighs. The Defendant was charged with a violation of California’s prohibited weapons statute found at CPC sec. 12020 which prohibited the concealed carry of a dirk knife or dagger.
At trial, the Defendant argued that the object was a letter opener. Two officers testified, including the initial arresting officer. The arresting officer testified that the knife appeared to have been sharpened on one side. Another officer testified that knives of this design could be used as weapons. The Defendant was convicted and sentenced to prison.
On appeal the Defendant claimed one error – that the trial court, on its own, failed to give an instruction to the jury regarding the fact that the jury could consider the context in which the knife was found to determine if it was a weapon in violation of the statute. He made three arguments to support this claim. First, he claimed that the Prohibited Weapons statute was vague. Second, he claimed that the statute was overly broad. Third, he claimed that prior case law had imported a specific intent mental state into the statute.
The California Supreme Court found that the Prohibited Weapons statute was very lacking, but nonetheless passed constitutional muster. It was not vague because the terms were sufficiently defined. Second it was not overbroad because even though innocent behavior could be impacted by the statute, such behavior, in light of jury instructions, would not necessarily be criminal. Third, even though the statute lacked a mental state, the two cases that imported a specific intent mental state into the statute were in conflict with the legislative history of the statute and thus could not control. As such, the statute, though poorly constructed, was constitutional and did not require the court, on its own, to issue the “context” jury instruction. The conviction was affirmed.
Notes for Knife Owners
This case shows just how scary knives can be to non-knife people. This knife was in a state of disrepair that rendered it almost useless. It also didn’t seem to be particularly sinister even if it were in its original state given that it sounded like it was at least partially similar to a letter opener. Nonetheless, as a knife-shaped object, it engendered a surprising amount of fear on the part of the police and court. Additionally, this case shows just how easy it is to violate the “concealed carry” prohibition in California. There was no evidence whatsoever that the Defendant intended to hide his knife (an issue that would come up in a case after Rubalcava, People v. Mitchell), but his long draping shirt covered the knife enough to make the knife illegal. Nor was there evidence that the Defendant intended to use his knife to do harm, but, as this case makes clear, that is not something the State must prove.
- Point 1: Always be mindful of how non-knife folks will view your knives, even dull, broken knives can scare people.
- Point 2: Be careful how you dress and carry a knife, as concealment is easy to prove.
Notes for Attorneys
This is another case that has a result that could have been different if the trial lawyer had made contemporaneous objections/arguments about the law. The standard for fixing a flaw in a trial that was not objected to or brought to the court’s attention for consideration at the trial level is very high. The logic here is simple- – how could a court have corrected the alleged mistake if it never knew about it? Here the Defendant is claiming that the court should have, on its own, given a jury instruction about the context in which the knife possession occurred. Generally, courts will accept requests for jury instructions prior to the actual jury charge. Think ahead and map out which instructions you would like the jury to be given and have a running list at trial of those that should be given because a new issue arose at trial. Between this case and Mitchell, the California concealed carry prohibition on dirk knives and daggers is relatively easy to trigger – this case holds there is no intent to use component and Mitchell held there is no intent to conceal component. Note the court gave a list of examples of conduct that would violate the law here, but be considered “innocent” in light of the jury instruction on context. Finally, the court and the Defendant both failed to note the inherent tension between the fact that the court found the statute sufficiently ambiguous to examine its legislative history yet not vague enough to find it unconstitutional. These two standards are, of course, different and the legal concepts themselves are different, but they seem to be interrelated enough that it is worth mentioning when arguing knife cases in California, with the caveat that the statute in Rubalcava has been replaced. Finally, this is yet another example of the state of flux in California knife laws. Things are changing.
- Point 1: Make contemporaneous objections.
- Point 2: Have a list of jury instructions ready for the court and make it expansive.
- Point 3: The concealed carry prohibition is relatively easy for the state to prove.
- Point 4: Analogize any carry to the “innocent” behaviors listed in this case.
- Point 5: The employment of legislative history to explain a law’s meaning should be seen as an open door to make vagueness arguments, even though the two legal concepts are different.
- Point 6: California’s knife laws in a state of change, even years after this case was argued.