People v. Vogel

Decision Date28 June 1956
Docket NumberCr. 5778
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
PartiesThe PEOPLE of the State of California, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Robert S. VOGEL (Robert S. Neilsen), Defendant and Appellant.

Buttermore & Lightner and Wesley B. Buttermore, Jr., San Diego, for appellant.

Edmund G. Brown, Atty. Gen., Clarence A. Linn, Chief Asst. Atty. Gen., John S. McInerny and William E. James, Deputy Attys. Gen., for respondent.

TRAYNORE, Justice.

Defendant appeals from a judgment of conviction entered on a jury verdict finding him guilty of bigamy and from an order denying his motion for a new trial.

On September 17, 1944, defendant married Peggy Lambert in a civil ceremony in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was in the Coast Guard and was sent overseas six days after the marriage. Upon his discharge in December, 1945, he returned to Peggy. In 1947 they were remarried in a religious ceremony in New Orleans. They had two children. Peggy testified that they separated several times, and defendant also testified that the marriage was an unhappy one.

In September, 1950, defendant was called to active duty for the Korean War. Peggy received an allotment as his wife until November 13, 1951, when he was released from active duty. Upon his release he did not return to Peggy.

In December, 1951, Peggy and the children moved to St. Louis, Missouri. On April 15, 1952, she was seriously injured in an automobile accident. Defendant learned of her injury on May 19, 1952, went to St. Louis, and took her and the children to New Orleans, where he remained until August, 1952.

On March 6, 1953, defendant married Stelma Roberts, the prosecuting witness, in San Diego County, California. Stelma was granted a final decree of divorce on July 1, 1954.

At the trial Peggy testified that she had never divorced defendant. She admitted that she had obtained a driver's license in her maiden name in 1951. Defendant admitted that he had not divorced Peggy and conceded that he could not prove by record or other direct evidence that she had divorced him. He sought to testify that in 1950, before his call to active duty, Peggy told him that she was going to divorce him in a jurisdiction unknown to him so that he could not contest the custody of their children. The court rejected such testimony as immaterial. He offered other evidence tending to show that during his absence Peggy had married an Earl Heck, namely, testimony of Mr. and Mrs. Lucas, owners of an apartment in St. Louis, Missouri, that Peggy and the children lived in one of their apartments with Heck during the first four months of 1952, that she received mail, telephone calls, and visitors as Mrs. Earl Heck, and that when she was injured in the automobile accident she was identified as Mrs. Heck. The court rejected the evidence on the ground that it would show merely a 'barnyard romance' and that under People v. Kelly, 32 Cal.App.2d 624, 90 P.2d 605, defendant's good faith belief that she had divorced him and married Heck was immaterial.

We have concluded that defendant is not guilty of bigamy, if he had a bona fide and reasonable belief that facts existed that left him free to remarry. As in other crimes, there must be a union of act and wrongful intent. 1 So basic is this requirement that it is an invariable element of every crime unless excluded expressly or by necessary implication. 2 Sections 281 and 282 3 do not expressly exclude it nor can its exclusion therefrom be reasonably implied.

Certainly its exclusion cannot be implied from the mere omission of any reference to intent in the definition of bigamy, for the commissioners' annotation to section 20 makes it clear that such an omission was not meant to exclude intent as an element of the crime but to shift to defendant the burden of proving that he did not have the requisite intent. The commissioners' quote at length from People v. Harris, 29 Cal. 678, 681-682. That case involved a conviction for twice voting at the same election. The defendant sought to defend upon the ground that he was so drunk at the time he voted the second time that he did not know what he was doing and that he therefore had no criminal intent. The court held that the trial court erred in excluding from the jury any consideration of the mental state of the defendant by reason of his intoxicated condition, stating: 'It is laid down in the books on the subject, that it is a universal doctrine that to constitute what the law deems a crime there must concur both an evil act and an evil intent. Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea. 1 Bish. on Cr.Law, Secs. 227, 229; 3 Greenl.Ev., Sec. 13. Therefore the intent with which the unlawful act was done must be proved as well as the other material facts stated in the indictment; which may be by evidence either direct or indirect, tending to establish the fact, or by inference of law from other facts proved. When the act is proved to have been done by the accused, if it be an act in itself unlawful, the law in the first instance presumes it to have been intended, and the proof of justification or excuse lies on the defendant to overcome this legal and natural presumption. 3 Greenleaf's Ev., Secs. 13, 14, 18. Now, when the statute declares the act of voting more than once at the same election by the same person to be a felony, it must be understood as implying that the interdicted act must be done with a criminal intention, or under circumstances from which such intention may be inferred. The defendant's counsel, at the trial, seems to have apprehended the true rule of law on the subject, and to have regarded the burden as on the defendant to show by evidence that the act of his voting the second time was not criminal, * * *.' The commissioners go on to state: 'The opinion of the Court in People v. Harris is given at length because it is a correct and authoritative exposition of Sec. 20; * * *.'

The 'correct and authoritative exposition of Sec. 20' as applied in People v. Harris to the crime of twice voting in the same election applies with even greater force to the crime of bigamy and compels the conclusion that guilty knowledge, which was formerly a part of the definition of bigamy 4 was omitted from section 281 to reallocate the burden of proof on that issue in a bigamy trial. Thus, the prosecution makes a prima facie case upon proof that the second marriage was entered into while the first spouse was still living (see, People v. Priestly, 17 Cal.App. 171, 173-174, 118 P. 965; People v. Huntley, 93 Cal.App. 504, 506, 269 P. 750, and his bona fide and reasonable belief that facts existed that left the defendant free to remarry is a defense to be proved by the defendant.

Nor must the exclusion of wrongful intent be implied from the two exceptions set forth in section 282. Obviously they are not all inclusive, for it cannot be seriously contended that an insane person or a person who married for the second time while unconscious, Pen.Code, § 26, subds. 3, 5, could be convicted of bigamy. Moreover, the mere enumeration of specific defenses appropriate to particular crimes does not exclude general defenses based on sections 20 and 26 (see, 2 Lewis' Sutherland, Statutory Construction, § 495, p. 924; 23 Cal.Jur., Statutes, § 118, p. 742), for the enumerated defenses in no way conflict with such general defenses.

It is significant that the commissioners did not list among the precedents of sections 281 and 282 the case of Commonwealth v. Mash, 7 Metc. 472, 48 Mass. 472, decided in 1844, which construed a similar statute to preclude a bona fide and reasonable belief in the death of the prior spouse as a defense to bigamy. Nor do any of the precedents listed refer to that case or to the principle for which it stands. (See, California Penal Code of 1872, annotations to sections 281 and 282; see also, 1 Bishop's Crim.Law, 9th ed., § 303(a), note 6, pp. 206-214.)

It is also significant that under section 61, subd. 2, of the Civil Code a subsequent marriage contracted by a person when the former husband or wife of such person 'is generally reputed or believed by such person to be dead * * * is valid until its nullity is adjudged by a competent tribunal', even if the former husband or wife has not been absent for five years and the general repute or belief proves to be erroneous. It would be anomalous to hold that although in the Civil Code the Legislature sanctions such a marrige and makes it valid until it is annulled (it may never be annulled and may therefore always be valid), in the Penal Code the Legislature makes such a person guilty of bigamy. (See Armstrong, California Family Law, 39-41.) Nor would it be reasonable to hold that a person is guilty of bigamy who remarries in good faith in reliance on a judgment of divorce or annulment that is subsequently found not to be the 'judgment of a competent Court' Pen.Code, § 282, particularly when such a judgment is obtained by the former husband or wife of such person in any one of the numerous jurisdictions in which such judgments can be obtained. Since it is often difficult for laymen to know when a judgment is not that of a competent court, we cannot reasonably expect them always to have such knowledge and make them criminals if their bona fide belief proves to be erroneous.

The foregoing construction of sections 281 and 282 is consistent with good sense and justice. (See, dissenting opinion of McComb, J., in People v. Kelly, 32 Cal.App.2d 624, 628, 90 P.2d 605.) The severe penalty imposed for bigamy, 5 the serious loss of reputation conviction entails, the infrequency of the offense, and the fact that it has been regarded for centuries as a crime involving moral turpitude, make it extremely unlikely that the Legislature meant to include the morally innocent to make sure the guilty did not escape.

People v. Hartman, 130 Cal. 487, 62 P. 823, is contrary to our opinion herein, but the basis of...

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