Friday, January 14, 2005
S.C. Takes Broad View of Jurisdiction Over Interstate Crimes
Justices Uphold Conviction of Long-Haul Trucker for Molesting Girls During Trips
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A defendant whose criminal intent was formed in California may be prosecuted here even if the criminal acts occurred in another state, especially if the victims were Californians, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a unanimous decision, the justices affirmed the conviction of a long-haul trucker who drew a 21-year prison term for molesting his wife’s granddaughters when they accompanied the couple—the defendant’s spouse was also a trucker—on several trips.
The court also ruled that a judge, rather than a jury, must decide whether there is a sufficient connection between the case and California to support jurisdiction.
A Riverside Superior Court jury convicted John Paul Betts of four counts of committing a lewd act upon a child. Three of the four counts involved his wife’s granddaughter Breanna, nine years old at the time, and the other involved Breanna’s 11-year-old sister Nichole.
Prosecutors presented evidence that the girls were molested during three trips—the first of which occurred shortly after Betts and the girls’ grandmother were married. Each of the trips began in Hemet.
On the first trip, Betts, his wife, and Nichole traveled to North Carolina and back. There was testimony at trial that while on several occasions while her grandmother was driving, Betts entered Nichole’s bunk and pressed up against her in a lewd manner.
The second trip was to Oregon, and there was testimony that after Nichole and her grandmother left the truck at a rest stop, Betts laid down in the bed with the sleeping Breanna, grabbing her leg and causing her to fall as she tried to avoid him.
On the last trip, an overnight haul from Hemet to Los Angeles, Betts allegedly tried to remove Breanna’s pants, and later pressed against her while she slept and touched her lewdly.
Prosecutors also presented evidence that Betts had molested two young girls—his then-girlfriend’s daughter and the daughter of a friend of Betts—in the early 1980s.
In denying Betts’ motion to set aside the information under Penal Code Sec. 995, based upon the fact that no criminal act had occurred in Riverside County—Judge William Bailey Jr. reasoned that in each instance, the molestation was the result of a plan formed by Betts by the time he picked the girls up at their mother’s residence in Hemet.
Bailey later told the jury that if they found the lewd acts occurred, they could find the defendant guilty regardless of whether they occurred in another county or another state.
The trial judge was correct, Chief Justice Ronald M. George wrote yesterday for the high court.
At common law, the chief justice acknowledged, territorial jurisdiction was defined narrowly, as in the 1894 North Carolina Supreme Court decision overturning the conviction of a man who shot and killed his victim by firing across the border into Tennessee.
But the trend since the early 20th Century, George noted, has been to go beyond narrow territorial limits to permit a state to punish those whose criminal acts outside the state have intentionally caused harm within it. Thus, he pointed out, Penal Code Sec. 27, consistent with the Model Penal Code, generally permits prosecution for any crime committed “in whole or in part” in the state.
More specifically, he wrote, the prosecution of Betts was authorized under Sec. 778a(a), which provides that if a person “with intent to commit a crime, does any act within this state in execution or part execution of that intent, which culminates in the commission of a crime, either within or without this state, the person is punishable for that crime in this state in the same manner as if the crime had been committed entirely within this state.”
There was ample evidence of Betts having formed the intent to molest the girls while he was in California before the trips began, George said, beginning with Linda Betts’ testimony that her husband suggested bringing Nichole on the first trip, even though she expected the trip would be a honeymoon for the two of them.
Given that testimony, the opportunities for Betts to be alone with the girl, and the defendant’s past, George said, the jury could reasonably infer that the idea of molesting Nichole did not come to him after he left the state, and that the subsequent molestations were the product of the same intent as to both girls.
The chief justice went on to say:
“Defendant’s acts of driving the girls across the state in his truck constitute sufficient conduct to establish California’s jurisdiction over his crimes. These acts were not merely de minimus; they furthered the completion of the charged offenses by removing the girls from the protection of their mother and providing defendant with opportunities to be alone with each of them. Both of the victims were California residents, and California has a legitimate interest in protecting its residents from criminal conduct.
The case is People v. Betts, 05 S.O.S. 161.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company