Carella v. California

RESPONDENT: California
LOCATION: Kino Community Hospital

DOCKET NO.: 87-6997
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: State appellate court

CITATION: 491 US 263 (1989)
ARGUED: Apr 26, 1989
DECIDED: Jun 15, 1989

Arnold T. Guminski - on behalf of the Appellee
Christopher D. Cerf - on behalf of the Appellant

Facts of the case


Media for Carella v. California

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 26, 1989 in Carella v. California

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next on in 87-6997, Eugene John Carella v. California.

Christopher D. Cerf:

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

Appellant was convicted of grand theft after failing to return a rental car by the date set out in the rental agreement.

The question presented is whether two California statutes pursuant to which the jury was instructed to presume commission of the offense from proof of certain predicate facts deprived him of due process of law.

It is our position, as the State of California now concedes, that these instructions violated the bedrock due process principal that the prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

The facts of the case can be summarized very briefly.

Appellant rented a car from a Los Angeles rental agency on March 25th, 1985, left a substantial deposit and agreed to return it by May 3rd of that year.

When the car was not returned by that date, the rental agency made several efforts to contact him and eventually reported the car as stolen.

Appellant was arrested on June 27th, 1985, and the car was found that same day in the parking lot adjoining the business address he had provided at the time he rented the car.

He was charged with two offenses under the California code.

He was charged with grand theft and a related offense under the vehicle code.

At the close of the evidence, the jury was instructed that grand theft required an intent to deprive the owner of permanent possession; that a conviction under the lesser offense would be authorized even if temporary deprivation was intended; and that embezzlement was a form of grand theft.

In addition, over appellant's objection, the trial court instructed the jury on two statutory presumptions at issue in this appeal.

The jury was told first that whenever a person intentionally and wilfully keeps a rental car more than five days beyond the expiration of the rental agreement, he shall be presumed to have embezzled it, embezzlement, again, being a species of grand theft in California.

In addition, the jury was told that intent to commit theft by fraud is presumed from failure to return rental property within 20 days of the mailing of a demand letter.

After seeking further clarification on the meaning of these presumptions, the jury deliberated for an additional nine minutes and then returned a verdict of guilty on the grand theft charge and acquitted him of the lesser offense under the vehicle code.

One of the most basic safeguards against the wrongful deprivation of liberty is the requirement that the prosecution prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

It is our submission today that the instructions to appellant's jury violated that rather simple but fundamental principle.

In clear, unmistakable, unqualified language, the jury was told that if it concluded that appellant had wilfully kept a car more than five extra days, it was to find that he was a thief.

As a consequence of that instruction, the jury was authorized to return a verdict of guilty, even though the prosecution had not proven him guilty.

We think that that instruction is plainly unconstitutional under the decisions of this Court.

Indeed, as the state of California now concedes, in that respect, this case is indistinguishable from this Court's decisions in Francis v. Franklin and Sandstrom v. Montana.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Cerf, I take it the State now says, though, that the error in the case might be harmless.

Christopher D. Cerf:

It does suggest that, uh, and indeed, I believe that is the only remaining issue in the case, unless, and let me turn my attention to that, if I may.

I, we, seriously question whether a violation of this particular nature is even subject to harmless error but I--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Oh, I thought Sandstrom applied a harmless error analysis, didn't it?

Christopher D. Cerf:

--Sandstrom, I believe, did not.

Rose v. Clark--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Rose v. Clark did.

In any event, I, I think, uh, it was certainly open to that.