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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. Shirley, 89 P.3d 649 (Kan. 2004). 

This case addresses the following issue:

What happens if the complaint fails to have all the elements of the crime listed?

This case explores what happens if the complaint fails to have all of the elements of the crime listed. In the present case, the court found that a complaint which omits one or more essential elements of the crimes it attempts to charge is jurisdictionally and fatally defective, and a conviction based on such a complaint must be reversed. Id. at 652.

The defendant was charged with a host of offenses, the most important being conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine. Id. at 651. Prior to being arrested, the defendant had picked up a girl from jail and drove her to her mother’s house. Id. at 650. On the way to the mother’s house, the defendant stopped at several convenience stores and picked up plastic jugs, lithium batteries, gas, and Sudafed. Id. After picking up all of the materials, the defendant discussed manufacturing methamphetamine with the girl. Id. After reaching the mother’s house, the defendant refused to leave and the girl called the sheriff. Id. The sheriff arrived on site and arrested the defendant for possessing a firearm with a criminal record. Id. Additionally, after receiving consent, the sheriff found the methamphetamine items. Id. In the end, the jury found the defendant guilty of conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine. Id.

The defendant argued that the complaint charging him with conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine was jurisdictionally defective and, therefore, his conviction should have been reversed. Id. at 651. Further, the defendant’s specific argument was that the complaint failed to allege specific facts that amounted to an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy. Id.

The court looked to State v. Hall, 793 P.2d 737 (1990) to determine what standard would be used in examining the complaint. Id at 652. Hall determined that a challenge that was raised before the district court would use the pre-Hall standard and would focus on the technical considerations of the complaint and whether the complaint set out the essential elements of the crime. Id. If the complaint did not set out the essential elements, it was considered fatally defective and the conviction would be reversed. Id. On the other hand, if the challenge were raised for the first time on appeal, the post-Hall­ standard would be used. Id. The post-Hall­ standard outlined that the defendant must show that the claimed defect in the complaint (1) prejudiced the defendant’s preparation of a defense, (2) impaired the defendant’s ability to plead the conviction in any subsequent prosecution, or (3) limited the defendant’s substantial rights to a fair trial. Id.

The court determined that the pre-Hall standard would be used because the defendant initially challenged the complaint at the district court level. Id. Thereafter, the court looked to the State’s definition of conspiracy and found that it included, “. . . no person may be convicted of a conspiracy unless an overt act in furtherance of such conspiracy is alleged and prove to have been committed by such person or by a conspirator.” Id. With this said, the court had to determine whether the State’s complaint alleged an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy. Id. The complaint in question stated that the defendant committed “an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy” but did not articulate what that overt act actually was. Id. at 654.

In order to determine whether the complaint met the pre-Hall standard, the court looked to old case law and a Kansas statute. Id. at 652-53. Both cases the court examined mirrored the defendant’s case and both cases resulted in defective complaints. Id. In addition, the Kansas statute explained that the purpose for requiring a recital of the essential facts in a complaint was to ensure that the accused was informed of the charges against him or her so that he or she may prepare a defense. Id. at 653-54. Further, the court noted that the test for sufficiency ought to be whether it was fair to require the defendant to defend on the basis of the charge as stated in the particular complaint. Id. at 654. In sum, the court found that the complaint was fatally defective because it did not set out all of the essential elements of the crime. Id.

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