IS A TRIAL COURT REQUIRED TO INSTRUCT ON ANY LESSER CRIMES (SUCH AS MISDEMEANOR CRIMINAL DAMAGE TO PROPERTY) WHEN THERE IS EVIDENCE INTRODUCED UNDER WHICH THE DEFENDANT MIGHT BE REASONABLY CONVICTED OF THE LESSER OFFENSE?
Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.
State v. Tunstall, 651 P.2d 19 (Kan. Ct. App. 1982).
This case addresses the following issue:
Is a trial court required to instruct on any lesser crimes (such as misdemeanor criminal damage to property) when there is evidence introduced under which the defendant might be reasonably convicted of the lesser offense?
This case explored the issue of whether a trial court is required to instruct on any lesser crimes when there is evidence introduced under which the defendant might be reasonably convicted of the lesser offense. In exploring this case, the court held that a trial court was required to instruct on any lesser crime when there was evidence introduced under which the defendant might be reasonably convicted of the lesser offense. Id.at 25.
In this case, the defendant was found guilty of felony criminal damage to property. Id. at 21. In response to the conviction by the trial court, the defendant appealed to the Court of Appeals of Kansas and argued: (1) the evidence was insufficient to sustain a finding that the damage done exceeded $100 (At the time of this case, damage exceeding $100 was considered a felony. Currently, damage must be at least $1,000 to be considered a felony); and (2) the trial court was wrong in failing to instruct properly on the lesser included offense of misdemeanor criminal damage to property. Id. at 24.
With regard to the defendant’s first argument, the Court of Appeals stated that the trial court should instruct the jury on each offense of which the jury could reasonably convict the defendant on the basis of the evidence. Id. Additionally, the court noted that if the evidence in the case could reasonably support a finding that the damage caused by the break-in exceeded $100 in value, then the giving of the instruction on felony criminal damage to property was not error. Id. In this case, the evidence showed that the possible range of damage was $92.50 to $145.00. Id. Therefore, the defendant’s first argument had no merit because evidence showed that the damages could have exceeded $100. Id.
With regard to the defendant’s second argument, the Court of Appeals noted that the evidence showing the damages could have been $92.50 indicated that the trial court should have instructed the jury of the lesser crime of misdemeanor criminal damage to property (any damage under $100 was considered a misdemeanor). Id. at 25. According to the court, “In some cases where the crime charged may include some lesser crime, it is the duty of the trial court to instruct the jury, not only as to the crime charged but as to all lesser crimes of which the accused might be found guilty under the information or indictment and upon the evidence determined, even though such instructions have not been requested or have been objected to.” Id. In short, if it was reasonable that the defendant could be convicted of the lesser crime, the trial court needed to instruct the jury on such lesser crime. Id.
In conclusion, since the possible range of damages could have been reasonably calculated as below $100 (the felony/misdemeanor line in 1982), the trial court should have instructed the jury of the lesser crime of misdemeanor criminal damage to property. Id.