People v. Belton, Cr. 19877

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (California)
Writing for the CourtBIRD; JEFFERSON; CLARK
Citation23 Cal.3d 516,153 Cal.Rptr. 195
Parties, 591 P.2d 485 The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Robert Charles BELTON, Defendant and Appellant.
Decision Date28 February 1979
Docket NumberCr. 19877

Page 195

153 Cal.Rptr. 195
23 Cal.3d 516, 591 P.2d 485
The PEOPLE, Plaintiff and Respondent,
v.
Robert Charles BELTON, Defendant and Appellant.
Cr. 19877.
Supreme Court of California.
Feb. 28, 1979.

[23 Cal.3d 518] [591 P.2d 486]

Page 196

Herbert F. Blanck, Encino, under appointment by the Supreme Court, for defendant and appellant.

Evelle J. Younger, Atty. Gen., Jack R. Winkler, Chief Asst. Atty. Gen., S. Clark Moore, Asst. Atty. Gen., Edward T. Fogel, Jr., and Carol Wendelin Pollack, Deputy Attys. Gen., for plaintiff and respondent.

BIRD, Chief Justice.

Appellant, Robert Charles Belton, was found guilty in a court trial of violating Penal Code section 246 (discharging a firearm at an inhabited dwelling house). 1 Appellant[591 P.2d 487]

Page 197

contends that his motion for a judgment of acquittal pursuant to section 1118 2 should have been granted.
23 Cal.3d 519

I

By an information filed May 5, 1975, appellant was charged with a violation of section 246. He was arraigned and pleaded not guilty. Appellant waived his right to a jury trial and was tried by a judge sitting without a jury. On October 24, 1975, the trial court found him guilty as charged.

In its case-in-chief, the prosecution produced testimony which showed that a shotgun had been fired at the residence of Sophronia Johnson on February 11, 1975. In addition, the prosecution called Wardell Fouse, the 16-year-old stepson of appellant. Fouse testified that neither he nor his stepfather had anything to do with the shooting. The minor acknowledged being questioned by Deputy Sheriff Michael Lugos on February 12, 1975, but denied having admitted to Lugos that he had fired a shotgun at the Johnson house from a car driven by appellant.

To contradict Fouse's testimony, the prosecution called Lugos. Asked about his interview with Fouse on February 12th, Lugos testified that Fouse first denied but later admitted firing a weapon at the Johnson house. According to Lugos, Fouse stated that after losing a fight to one of Sophronia Johnson's sons, he obtained a shotgun, had his stepfather drive him by the Johnson residence, and discharged the weapon in the direction of the home. This testimony by Lugos constituted the only evidence presented during the case-in-chief connecting appellant with the crime.

Following this testimony, the prosecution rested. Appellant then moved for a judgment of acquittal pursuant to section 1118. The trial court summarily denied the motion. The trial proceeded, and appellant was found guilty.

II

On appeal, appellant contends that the trial court should have granted the motion to acquit because the evidence before the court at the time the motion was made was insufficient to convict. When the prosecution rested, the only evidence linking appellant to the crime was the [23 Cal.3d 520] extrajudicial statement of Fouse to Deputy Lugos. Appellant asserts that this statement was the testimony of an accomplice and that section 1111 requires corroboration of accomplice testimony before a conviction may result. 3 Since there was no corroborating evidence presented during the prosecution's case-in-chief, appellant argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion to acquit pursuant to section 1118. In assessing this contention, it is necessary to review the fundamental concepts underlying the acquittal provisions of that section.

Two of the most basic premises of our criminal justice system the presumption of innocence and the duty of the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt are embodied in section 1096 of the Penal Code: "A defendant in a criminal action is presumed to be innocent until the contrary is proved, and in case of a reasonable doubt whether his guilt is satisfactorily shown, he is entitled to an acquittal. . . ." "These significant words express a cardinal rule of Anglo-American criminal jurisprudence. [591 P.2d 488]

Page 198

The presumption, intended originally to ameliorate the severity of the early English common law (5 A.L.R. 3rd 76), serves not to protect the guilty but to prevent conviction of the innocent. (People v. Hill, 77 Cal.App.2d 287, 293, 175 P.2d 45, and cases cited; Witkin, Cal. Criminal Procedure (1963) § 339, p. 332; 14 Cal.Jur.2d 405.) It has been described as a fundamental right and an essential element of due process of law. (Citation.) It is the capstone in the protective arch of a citizen's rights when accused of crime." (People v. Morris (1968) 260 Cal.App.2d 848, 850, 67 Cal.Rptr. 566, 567.)

Implicit in these principles is the duty of the prosecution to prove each element of the crime charged. "One of the greatest safeguards for the individual under our system of criminal justice is the requirement that The prosecution must establish a prima facie case by its own evidence before the defendant may be put to his defense." (Cephus v. United States (1963) 117 U.S.App.D.C. 15, 17, 324 F.2d 893, 895, emphasis added; see also United States v. Sutton (1969) 138 U.S.App.D.C. 208, 216-217, 426 F.2d 1202, 1210-1211.)

Prior to the passage of present sections 1118 and 1118.1, 4 California had no procedural method by which the defendant could move for acquittal on the ground that the prosecution had failed to prove a prima facie case at the close of the prosecution's case-in-chief. Limited [23 Cal.3d 521] protection for the defendant was provided by section 1385 which permitted the court on its own motion or on the motion of the prosecution to dismiss an action in the furtherance of justice. However, this section did not "confer upon the Defendant the privilege of moving to dismiss . . . ." (People v. Shaffer (1960) 182 Cal.App.2d 39, 44, 5 Cal.Rptr. 844, 847, emphasis added.)

In enacting present sections 1118 and 1118.1, the Legislature provided the defendant with the benefit of a procedure by which to move for acquittal when the prosecution fails to prove a prima facie case. The bill digest prepared by the Senate Judiciary Committee on the legislation proposing these sections recognized the dilemma a defendant faced without a procedure by which to test the sufficiency of the prosecution's evidence in its case-in-chief. The bill digest stated in pertinent part, "Under present California law, a defendant is not permitted to argue that the prosecution has not made a prima facie case. His alternatives are (1) to rest at the close of the prosecution's case, gambling that the court shares his opinion, or (2) to proceed with presenting his defense. Proponents acknowledge that there will be very few cases wherein the prosecution will not present a triable issue, however state that It is in these cases that defendant should have the right to terminate the matter at the close of the prosecution's evidence." 5 (Emphasis added.)

In giving substance to this right, the Legislature provided that a motion to acquit could be made by either the defendant or the trial court, without any requirement that the motion be made in a particular form. The Attorney General nevertheless contends that appellant's motion to acquit made pursuant to section 1118 should have included a statement of specific grounds. 6 However, to so construe this section would force a defendant to face the same kind of dilemma from which the Legislature sought to extricate defendants. In effect, a defendant would be forced to choose between: (1) specifying the defects in the prosecution's case, thereby affording the prosecutor an opportunity to seek to reopen the case in order to cure such defects; (2) making no motion and resting, thereby sacrificing his right to present a defense for fear that later evidence might cure the defects in the

Page 199

[591 P.2d 489] prosecution's case; or (3) making no motion, thereby waiving the right to challenge the prosecution's case-in-chief, and proceeding to present a defense. Forcing a defendant [23 Cal.3d 522] to elect among these alternatives would deny him the intended protection of the section. Further, to require a defendant to state specific grounds in support of the motion for acquittal would place the burden upon him to point out to the prosecutor, as well as to the court, the gaps in the prosecution's case. Such a requirement would come perilously close to compelling a defendant to aid in his own prosecution and would lessen the prosecutor's burden to prove each and every element of the case beyond a reasonable doubt. 7

The Attorney General's analogy to cases interpreting Code of Civil Procedure section 581c 8 is inapposite. Those cases require a defendant in a civil action to specify the particular grounds upon which he is relying in making a motion for nonsuit. (Timmsen v. Forest E. Olson, Inc. (1970) 6 Cal.App.3d 860, 868, 86 Cal.Rptr. 359; Inderbitzen v. Lane Hospital (1932) 124 Cal.App. 462, 465, 12 P.2d 744, 13 P.2d 905.) However, such an analogy fails to give proper weight to the distinctions between civil and criminal actions distinctions which the Legislature recognized by utilizing different language in providing for motions for acquittal and motions for nonsuit. Most notably, section 1118 authorizes the trial court to order a judgment of acquittal On its own motion in a criminal case, whereas a nonsuit cannot be had in a civil case unless the defendant initiates the motion (4 Witkin, Cal. Procedure (2d ed. 1971) Trial, § 358, p. 3156). The fundamental rights at stake in a criminal action are deemed so important that the Legislature has chosen to give the trial court the authority, independent of any action by the defendant, to acquit should the prosecution fail to meet its burden during the case-in-chief.

To decide the proper interpretation of a rule of criminal procedure by reliance upon rules of civil procedure would be to ignore the underlying rights of the presumption of innocence and proof beyond a reasonable doubt which the Legislature sought to protect in enacting section 1118. Nothing in the history of this section supports the contention that the...

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218 practice notes
  • Michael W. v. Superior Court of Orange County
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • October 24, 1983
    ...117 Cal.Rptr. 437, 528 P.2d 45; see also People v. Fries (1979) 24 Cal.3d 222, 155 Cal.Rptr. 194, 594 P.2d 19 and People v. Belton (1979) 23 Cal.3d 516, 153 Cal.Rptr. 195, 591 P.2d 485.) He reasons the prosecution's minimal burden, coupled with the statutory presumption of unfitness, requir......
  • People v. Smith
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • May 17, 1984
    ...that the preponderance of the evidence points to a different conclusion than that drawn by the trial court (e.g., People v. Belton (1979) 23 Cal.3d 516, 523-527, 153 Cal.Rptr. 195, 591 P.2d 485). We are not disabled from examining the evidence because the trial court may have weighed it imp......
  • People v. Jurado, Cr. 3936
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • January 9, 1981
    ...Discussion in the recent case of People v. Pic'l & Martin (1981) 114 Cal.App.3d 824, 171 Cal.Rptr. 106 shows why People v. Belton (1979) 23 Cal.3d 516, 526, 153 Cal.Rptr. 195, 591 P.2d 485, does not bring about a different...
  • People v. Eroshevich, B231411
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • July 10, 2013
    ...for evidentiary insufficiency. ( People v. Hatch (2000) 22 Cal.4th 260, 273, 92 Cal.Rptr.2d 80, 991 P.2d 165; People v. Belton (1979) 23 Cal.3d 516, 520–521, 153 Cal.Rptr. 195, 591 P.2d 485.) In double jeopardy jurisprudence, evidentiary insufficiency means the evidence is insufficient as a......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
218 cases
  • Michael W. v. Superior Court of Orange County
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • October 24, 1983
    ...117 Cal.Rptr. 437, 528 P.2d 45; see also People v. Fries (1979) 24 Cal.3d 222, 155 Cal.Rptr. 194, 594 P.2d 19 and People v. Belton (1979) 23 Cal.3d 516, 153 Cal.Rptr. 195, 591 P.2d 485.) He reasons the prosecution's minimal burden, coupled with the statutory presumption of unfitness, requir......
  • People v. Smith
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • May 17, 1984
    ...that the preponderance of the evidence points to a different conclusion than that drawn by the trial court (e.g., People v. Belton (1979) 23 Cal.3d 516, 523-527, 153 Cal.Rptr. 195, 591 P.2d 485). We are not disabled from examining the evidence because the trial court may have weighed it imp......
  • People v. Jurado, Cr. 3936
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • January 9, 1981
    ...Discussion in the recent case of People v. Pic'l & Martin (1981) 114 Cal.App.3d 824, 171 Cal.Rptr. 106 shows why People v. Belton (1979) 23 Cal.3d 516, 526, 153 Cal.Rptr. 195, 591 P.2d 485, does not bring about a different...
  • People v. Eroshevich, B231411
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • July 10, 2013
    ...for evidentiary insufficiency. ( People v. Hatch (2000) 22 Cal.4th 260, 273, 92 Cal.Rptr.2d 80, 991 P.2d 165; People v. Belton (1979) 23 Cal.3d 516, 520–521, 153 Cal.Rptr. 195, 591 P.2d 485.) In double jeopardy jurisprudence, evidentiary insufficiency means the evidence is insufficient as a......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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