Owens v. United States: The Standard for Defining State-of-Mind in an RSP Case is a Subjective One

Jamison KoehlerOpinions/Cases, Theft/Fraud

In law school, we learned the difference between a subjective standard in defining a mental state and an objective one. The subjective standard focuses on the defendant’s actual state of mind. With the objective standard, it is how a reasonable person in the same position would feel.

Most criminal statutes seem to use the objective standard. This simplifies things for both the government and the finder of fact, be that a judge or a jury. You don’t need to worry about a defendant with really strange perceptions of the world. Nor do you need to read his mind. You look instead at how a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would perceive the situation. You then make some common sense conclusions with that in mind.

One exception to this trend in D.C. would be the criminal statute dealing with receiving stolen property (RSP). As the D.C. Court of Appeals has just made clear in Alphonso Owens v. United States, 90 A.3d 118 (D.C. 2014), that statute uses a subjective standard in determining whether the defendant either knew or should have known that a piece of property in his possession was stolen.

The defendant in Owens was found behind the wheel of a stolen car. The steering column of the car was damaged and held together by duct tape. The metal around the passenger-side door lock had been pulled back and had a jagged edge.  And a broken side vent window was covered with duct tape.  Although the defendant told police that he had been test-driving the vehicle, he later conceded that he “should have used better judgment.”

The issue in this case was whether guidance provided by the trial judge to the jury on the required state of mind for RSP could have been interpreted as suggesting they use an objective standard, thereby “impermissibly” diminishing  the government’s burden of proof and allowing the jury to use a negligence standard in convicting the defendant.  The court concluded that, although Judge Heidi Pasichow’s response “was not an ideal explanation of the subjective knowledge required for RSP,” the defendant’s trial counsel twice consented to the instructions ultimately given to the jury and the defendant was not able to demonstrate “plain error” on appeal.

In order to prevent this type of problem from occurring again in the future, the D.C. Court of Appeals set out the following recommended jury instruction for RSP:

Element No. 3 [of the D.C. jury instruction for RSP] requires that the defendant either knew or had reason to believe that the property was stolen.  This state of mind is a subjective one, focusing on the defendant’s actual state of mind, and not simply on what a reasonable person might have thought.  In determining whether the government has met its burden of proving the defendant’s subjective state of mind, you may consider what a reasonable person would have believed under the facts and circumstances as you find them.  But guilty knowledge cannot be established by demonstrating mere negligence or even foolishness on the part of the defendant.  It may, nonetheless, be satisfied by proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant deliberately closed his eyes to what otherwise would have been obvious to him.