Supreme Court of California Justia
Citation 43 Cal. 4th 1132, 184 P.3d 732, 77 Cal. Rptr. 3d 605

People v. Najera


Filed 6/5/08

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF CALIFORNIA

THE PEOPLE,
Plaintiff and Respondent,
S141654
v.
Ct.App.
4/1
D046044
MICHAEL JESSE NAJERA,
San
Diego
County
Defendant and Appellant.
Super. Ct. No. SCN181843

Defendant was spotted driving a stolen car less than a day after the owner
had reported it missing. Defendant was using a shaved key—a key whose teeth
have been shaved down to bypass the pins in the ignition cylinder—and the
ignition system was, in the words of the arresting officer, “very loose.” Personal
property belonging to the car’s owner was found in possession of the passenger,
defendant’s sister. Defendant was convicted of the unlawful taking of a vehicle
and possession of burglary tools. On appeal, he asserted that the trial court had
erred in failing to instruct the jury on its own motion that possession of recently
stolen property was insufficient by itself to establish guilt of the charged offenses.
(See CALJIC No. 2.15.) We agree with the Court of Appeal that the trial court
had no sua sponte duty to provide such an instruction and therefore affirm.
1



BACKGROUND
Around 8:00 p.m. on July 21, 2004, Joseph Donato parked his white 1991
Acura Integra in the parking lot of his apartment complex in Escondido. When he
returned to the lot around 6:00 a.m. the next morning, the car was gone. Donato
promptly filed a report of the stolen car with the police.
Escondido Police Officer Tim Reiley spotted a white Integra driving
unusually slowly in downtown Escondido around 12:30 a.m. on July 23 and
recalled that a vehicle matching that description had been reported stolen the
previous day. He ran a computer check on the license plate, verified that this was
the stolen car, and ordered a stop. Defendant was driving; his sister, Erica Najera,
was the passenger.
The key in the ignition had been “shaved.” Officer Reiley explained that a
shaved key is a standard vehicle key that has been shaved down with a metal file
or other hard object to make it much slimmer than a regular key. A shaved key
enables the user to bypass the pins in the ignition cylinder, so that the key may be
used to start cars other than the one for which the key was designed, and to enter
such cars as well. A second key on the same key ring also showed signs of
alteration. Officer Reiley inserted a flathead screwdriver into the ignition to see
whether it had been damaged. He found that the ignition system was “sloppy” and
“very loose” and that he could start the car with the screwdriver. In his opinion, a
person trying to start the car would have noticed that the ignition had been altered.
From Erica Najera’s person or purse, police recovered three additional
shaved keys as well as Donato’s watch, pepper spray, and “player card” from
Valley View Casino.
A jury convicted defendant of unlawfully driving or taking a vehicle (Veh.
Code, § 10851, subd. (a)) and unlawful possession of burglary tools (Pen. Code,
§ 466). Defendant then admitted previous convictions of unlawfully driving a
2

vehicle (Pen. Code, § 666.5, subd. (a)) and two prior prison term enhancements
(id., § 667.5, subd. (b)). The trial court sentenced defendant to four years in
prison, awarded credits of 264 days, and ordered defendant to pay restitution.
On appeal, defendant raised only one issue—i.e., that the trial court
prejudicially erred in failing to instruct the jury sua sponte, in accordance with
CALJIC No. 2.15, that recent possession of stolen property alone is insufficient to
establish his guilt of theft-related offenses. The Court of Appeal, in a published
opinion, held that CALJIC No. 2.15 was not the type of instruction that must be
given sua sponte in every theft-related case.
DISCUSSION
“It is settled that in criminal cases, even in the absence of a request, the trial
court must instruct on the general principles of law relevant to the issues raised by
the evidence. [Citations.] The general principles of law governing the case are
those principles closely and openly connected with the facts before the court, and
which are necessary for the jury’s understanding of the case.” (People v. St.
Martin (1970) 1 Cal.3d 524, 531.) Defendant Najera claims that CALJIC No. 2.15
satisfies this standard, in that it directs the jury not to convict a defendant of a
theft-related offense based solely on the defendant’s possession of recently stolen
property, and thus ought to have been given to the jury on the court’s own motion
in this case.1

1 CALJIC No. 2.15 (Spring 2008 ed.) provides:
“If you find that a defendant was in [conscious] possession of recently [stolen]
[extorted] property, the fact of that possession is not by itself sufficient to permit
an inference that the defendant _____ is guilty of the crime of _____. Before guilt
may be inferred, there must be corroborating evidence tending to prove
defendant’s guilt. However, this corroborating evidence need only be slight, and
need not by itself be sufficient to warrant an inference of guilt. [¶] As
corroboration, you may consider [the attributes of possession—time, place, and

(footnote continued on next page)
3



Defendant relies in particular on our previous recognition of a similar sua
sponte duty to instruct the jury concerning the requirement that accomplice
testimony be corroborated. (People v. Warren (1940) 16 Cal.2d 103, 117-119.)
He points to CALJIC No. 3.11 (Fall 2006 rev.), which informs the jury that a
defendant may not be found guilty based upon the testimony of an accomplice
“unless that testimony is corroborated by other evidence which tends to connect
[the] . . . defendant with the commission of the offense.” For the reasons set forth
below, we do not agree with defendant that the corroboration requirement for
accomplices is sufficiently analogous to the corroboration requirement for the
possession of recently stolen property for purposes of defining the scope of a trial
court’s duty to instruct on its own motion in this case.
As we have previously explained, accomplice testimony requires
corroboration not because such evidence is factually insufficient to permit a
reasonable trier of fact to find the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but
because “[t]he Legislature has determined that because of the reliability questions
posed by certain categories of evidence, evidence in those categories by itself is
insufficient as a matter of law to support a conviction.” (People v. Cuevas (1995)
12 Cal.4th 252, 261; see Pen. Code, § 1111.) That is, even though accomplice
testimony would qualify as “substantial evidence” to sustain a conviction within
the meaning of People v. Johnson (1980) 26 Cal.3d 557, 578, the Legislature has

(footnote continued from previous page)

manner,] [that the defendant had an opportunity to commit the crime charged,]
[the defendant’s conduct,] [[his] [her] false or contradictory statements, if any,]
[and] [or] [other statements [he] [she] may have made with reference to the
property] [a false account of how [he] [she] acquired possession of the stolen
property] [any other evidence which tends to connect the defendant with the crime
charged].”
4



for policy reasons created an “exception[]” to the substantial evidence test and
requires accomplice testimony to be corroborated. (Cuevas, supra, 12 Cal.4th at
p. 261.) In the absence of an instruction on the legal requirement that an
accomplice be corroborated, there is a risk that a jury—especially a jury instructed
in accordance with CALJIC No. 2.27 that the testimony of a single witness whose
testimony is believed is sufficient for proof of any fact—might convict the
defendant without finding the corroboration Penal Code section 1111 requires.
(See People v. Williams (1988) 45 Cal.3d 1268, 1312-1313.) The corroboration
requirement for accomplices thus qualifies as a general principle of law vital to the
jury’s consideration of the evidence, and the jury must be so instructed even in the
absence of a request. (People v. Warren, supra, 16 Cal.2d at p. 117 [the
accomplice instructions “deal with the vital question of the sufficiency of the
evidence to sustain the conviction under the salutary rule laid down in section
1111 of the Penal Code”].)
We have similarly required that trial courts instruct, sua sponte, on the
corpus delicti rule, which provides that the corpus delicti or body of the crime
cannot be proved exclusively by the defendant’s extrajudicial statements. (People
v. Alvarez (2002) 27 Cal.4th 1161, 1165; see CALJIC No. 2.72.) Because the
defendant’s extrajudicial admissions of guilt, in the absence of the corpus delicti
rule, would otherwise qualify as substantial evidence to support a conviction (see
People v. Vertrees (1915) 169 Cal. 404, 409), the trial court is obligated to instruct
the jury on the requirement of corroboration, which is a general principle of law
“vital to a proper consideration of the evidence.” (People v. Holbrook (1942) 45
Cal.2d 228, 233; see also People v. Starr (1970) 11 Cal.App.3d 574, 579.)2

2
The Court of Appeal has imposed a sua sponte duty to instruct that the
testimony of a single witness is not sufficient to establish falsity in a perjury

(footnote continued on next page)
5



Although possession of recently stolen property, if uncorroborated, is
likewise insufficient to establish the accused’s guilt of a theft-related offense, the
insufficiency does not derive from an extrinsic legal rule but, rather, is apparent
from the general rule governing the jury’s consideration of circumstantial
evidence. As we long ago observed, there may be an innocent explanation for the
circumstance of possession. “ ‘The real criminal . . . may have artfully placed the
article in the possession or on the premises of an innocent person, the better to
conceal his own guilt; or it may have been thrown away by the felon in his flight,
and found by the possessor, or have been taken from him in order to restore it to
the true owner, or otherwise have come lawfully into his possession.’ ” (People v.
Chambers (1861) 18 Cal. 382, 383, overruled on other grounds in People v.
McFarland (1962) 58 Cal.2d 748, 758; see also People v. Holt (1997) 15 Cal.4th
619, 677 [an inference of guilt based solely on possession of recently stolen
property would be “unwarranted”].)

(footnote continued from previous page)

prosecution (People v. Di Giacomo (1961) 193 Cal.App.2d 688, 698; see CALJIC
No. 7.23) and that uncorroborated evidence of dog tracking is not sufficient to
establish the guilt of the accused (People v. Malgren (1983) 139 Cal.App.3d 234,
241; see CALJIC No. 2.16). The theory underlying the sua sponte duty in both
instances mirrors that discussed in the text above—i.e., not that the jury needs
assistance in performing its assigned role of evaluating the sufficiency of the
evidence under the legal rules provided elsewhere in the instructions, but that an
extrinsic legal rule renders insufficient what would otherwise be evidence
sufficient to sustain a verdict of guilt. (See People v. Cuevas, supra, 12 Cal.4th at
p. 261 [the rule requiring corroboration of a single witness’s testimony concerning
the falsity of a perjurious statement is an “exception[]” to the substantial evidence
test]; People v. Gonzales (1990) 218 Cal.App.3d 403, 412-413 [uncorroborated
dog tracking evidence is insufficient to establish identity because of concerns
about reliability and the inability to subject the dog to cross-examination].)
6



In this case, defendant’s possession of the recently stolen vehicle, while
circumstantial evidence that he intended to deprive the owner of the vehicle, did
not, in itself, eliminate the possibility of an innocent explanation for defendant’s
presence behind the wheel of a car he did not own. However, the trial court had
no sua sponte duty to instruct the jury on how to weigh this particular piece of
circumstantial evidence, inasmuch as the jury had been instructed generally how to
weigh circumstantial evidence in accordance with CALJIC No. 2.02: “The
specific intent with which an act is done may be shown by the circumstances
surrounding the commission of the act. However you may not find the defendant
guilty of the crime charged in Counts 1 and 2, the crimes of Unlawful Vehicle
Taking and Possession of Burglar Tools, unless the proved circumstances are not
only (1) consistent with the theory that the defendant had the required specific
intent but (2) cannot be reconciled with any other rational conclusion.” Indeed,
defense counsel identified this instruction as “probably the most important
[instruction] in this type of case” and emphasized that “if the circumstances can be
reasonably be interpreted in two ways, the law requires you to adopt the
interpretation pointing to innocence.” Because the portion of CALJIC No. 2.15
that defendant claims ought to have been given was merely a specific application
of the general instruction governing circumstantial evidence, the omitted
instruction was not “ ‘vital to a proper consideration of the evidence by the jury’ ”
(People v. McClellan (1969) 71 Cal.2d 793, 806), and the trial court therefore had
no duty to give CALJIC No. 2.15 on its own motion. (Cf. People v. Silva (2001)
25 Cal.4th 345, 371-372.)
Where, as here, an instruction simply informs the jury that a fact or cluster
of facts is not, without more, substantial evidence of guilt under the ordinary legal
rules set forth elsewhere in the instructions, we have not imposed a duty on trial
courts to provide such an instruction sua sponte. For example, the instructions
7

concerning consciousness of guilt (CALJIC Nos. 2.03, 2.04, 2.05, and 2.06) recite
that such evidence is not sufficient by itself to prove guilt, yet we have never held
that the trial court has a sua sponte duty to instruct the jury accordingly. (See
Judicial Council of Cal. Crim. Jury Instns. (Fall 2007) Bench Notes to CALCRIM
No. 371 [“No authority imposes a duty to give this instruction sua sponte”].)3
Similarly, the instructions concerning evidence of other sexual offenses (CALJIC
No. 2.50.01) and other acts of domestic violence (CALJIC No. 2.50.02), elder
abuse (CALJIC No. 2.50.03), and child abuse (CALJIC No. 2.50.04) provide that
such evidence is not sufficient to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the
accused committed the charged crime or crimes, but such instructions are given to
the jury only at the defendant’s request. (People v. Falsetta (1999) 21 Cal.4th
903, 920; People v. Jennings (2000) 81 Cal.App.4th 1301, 1316-1318.) And we
have likewise held that there is no sua sponte duty to instruct that evidence of
motive alone is insufficient to prove guilt. (People v. Jurado (2006) 38 Cal.4th
72, 124-125; People v. Cleveland (2004) 32 Cal.4th 704, 750.) As the Court of
Appeal pointed out below, “an instruction that tells the jury what kinds of rational
inferences may be drawn from the evidence does not provide any insight jurors are
not already expected to possess.” (See People v. Guiton (1993) 4 Cal.4th 1116,
1127.) Such instructions, while helpful in various circumstances, are not vital to

3
People v. Atwood (1963) 223 Cal.App.2d 316 found that the trial court had
a sua sponte duty to instruct on adoptive admissions and false statements
indicating a consciousness of guilt “under the particular evidentiary circumstances
of the case,” which included error in giving instructions concerning the
instructions on oral admissions that “would have a tendency to mislead the jury.”
(Id. at p. 334). We do not read Atwood as imposing a categorical duty on trial
courts to instruct on these issues. (See People v. Carter (2003) 30 Cal.4th 1166,
1197-1198.)
8



the jury’s ability to analyze the evidence and therefore are not instructions that
must be given to the jury even in the absence of a request.4
Defendant argues next that the trial court had a sua sponte duty to give
CALJIC No. 2.15 because of Evidence Code section 502, which directs the trial
court “on all proper occasions [to] instruct the jury as to which party bears the
burden of proof on each issue and as to whether that burden requires that a party
. . . establish the existence or nonexistence of a fact . . . by proof beyond a
reasonable doubt.” We disagree. The jury here was instructed on the People’s
burden of proof as well as the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Evidence Code section 502 did not require the jury be further instructed with
CALJIC No. 2.15; “CALJIC No. 2.15 did not directly or indirectly address the
burden of proof,” nor did it affect the prosecution’s “burden of establishing guilt
beyond a reasonable doubt.” (People v. Prieto (2003) 30 Cal.4th 226, 248.)
Defendant’s remaining argument for a sua sponte duty rests entirely on two
Court of Appeal cases: People v. Clark (1953) 122 Cal.App.2d 342 (Clark), and
People v. Smith (1950) 98 Cal.App.2d 723 (Smith). Neither offers persuasive
support for his proposed rule.
In Smith, the defendant was in a tavern attempting to sell a typewriter that
had recently been stolen from a county office. He was charged with burglary. A
portion of the jury instructions provided that the defendant was not being charged
“ ‘with stealing this typewriter, but with entering the office of the Santa Clara

4
Trial courts do have a sua sponte duty to instruct that flight alone is
insufficient to establish guilt, but that duty is imposed by statute. (Pen. Code,
§ 1127c.) “The Legislature’s purpose in enacting section 1127c was to abolish the
rule stated in many early cases that the jury could not be instructed to consider
flight as evidence of guilt unless it had been proved that the fleeing suspect had
previously learned that he was accused of commission of a particular crime.”
(People v. Hill (1967) 67 Cal.2d 105, 120-121.)
9



County Building Inspector, . . . with the intent to commit theft. And the basis, the
method by which the People undertake to prove it is by showing from their
testimony that this typewriter was in that building at a certain time, and that
thereafter was in the defendant’s possession, was sold by him, at least disposed of,
and under the various circumstances shown in the evidence of this case. It is up to
the jury to determine whether or not the defendant entered this building with the
intent of stealing, committing larceny.’ ” (Smith, supra, 98 Cal.App.2d at p. 729.)
The defendant claimed that this instruction “erroneously told the jury that proof of
possession of the stolen property . . . was sufficient evidence that he entered the
building with intent to commit theft.” (Id. at p. 728.) The Court of Appeal agreed
that the instruction was “uncertain and inadequate concerning possession of stolen
property by a defendant” (id. at p. 729) and declared, in the context of that
particular case, that the jury ought to have been instructed that possession of
recently stolen property “ ‘is a circumstance which may be considered by the jury
in connection with other evidence’ ” but is not alone sufficient to establish guilt of
the burglary. (Id. at p. 730.)
Like the Court of Appeal below, we believe that Smith “did not involve the
trial court’s failure to instruct on applicable legal principles that were necessary
for the jury’s proper consideration of the case” but, rather, “concerned an
instruction that improperly suggested the jury could rely on circumstantial
evidence of possession in a manner contrary to existing law.” (See generally
People v. Castillo (1997) 16 Cal.4th 1009, 1015 [“Even if the court has no sua
sponte duty to instruct on a particular legal point, when it does choose to instruct,
it must do so correctly”].)
Clark, an opinion from the same panel that decided Smith, offered no
independent analysis to support its conclusion that the trial court had a sua sponte
duty to instruct the jury that the possession of recently stolen property would not
10

alone establish the accused’s guilt of burglary. Clark relied solely on the Attorney
General’s concession that the failure to so instruct was error and on its own
assertion that Smith “undoubtedly” required such an instruction be given sua
sponte. (Clark, supra, 122 Cal.App.2d at p. 346.) Notably, Clark did not mention
what other instructions on circumstantial evidence had been given.
Neither Smith nor Clark offers a justification for imposing a duty on trial
courts to supply an instruction on their own motion about the possession of
recently stolen property in all theft-related cases. Indeed, neither even mentions
the basic principles governing a trial court’s duty to instruct on its own motion.
To the extent these two opinions can be read to impose such a duty in all theft-
related prosecutions, they are disapproved.
Finally, we note that our sister states have similarly declined to impose on
trial courts a sua sponte duty to instruct on the limited significance of possession
of recently stolen property in theft-related prosecutions. (People v. Huynh
(Colo.Ct.App. 2004) 98 P.3d 907, 914 [“Because no instruction emphasized that
the jury could draw an inference of guilt from defendant’s unexplained possession
of the stolen credit cards, there was no corresponding need to emphasize any
precautionary principles”]; Foust v. State (Ind. 1981) 428 N.E.2d 776, 779 [issue
was adequately covered by instructions on the burden and standard of proof];
Com. v. Lutz (Mass.App.Ct. 1980) 401 N.E.2d 148, 152; State v. Price (Mo. 1941)
153 S.W.2d 353, 354-355; State v. Pastore (N.J.Super.Ct.App.Div. 1975) 336
A.2d 4, 6 [“the principle is nothing more nor less than a statement of elementary
logic which anyone, judge or juror, would apply as a matter of common sense in
evaluating this single piece of circumstantial evidence in the setting of all the other
evidence in the case”]; McDoulett v. State (Okla.Crim.App. 1971) 486 P.2d 654,
656; State v. Kirkman (Utah 1967) 432 P.2d 638, 638-639; Benson v. State (Wyo.
1977) 571 P.2d 595, 598-600.)
11

DISPOSITION
The judgment of the Court of Appeal is affirmed.
BAXTER, J.
WE CONCUR:

GEORGE, C. J.
KENNARD, J.
WERDEGAR, J.
CHIN, J.
MORENO, J.
CORRIGAN, J.

12



See next page for addresses and telephone numbers for counsel who argued in Supreme Court.

Name of Opinion People v. Najera
__________________________________________________________________________________

Unpublished Opinion


Original Appeal
Original Proceeding
Review Granted
XXX 135 Cal.App.4th 1125
Rehearing Granted

__________________________________________________________________________________

Opinion No.

S141654
Date Filed: June 5, 2008
__________________________________________________________________________________

Court:

Superior
County: San Diego
Judge: Harry Mark Elias

__________________________________________________________________________________

Attorneys for Appellant:

Laura G. Schaefer, under appointment by the Supreme Court, for Defendant and Appellant.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Attorneys for Respondent:

Bill Lockyer and Edmund G. Brown, Jr., Attorneys General, Robert R. Anderson and Mary Jo Graves,
Chief Assistant Attorneys General, Gary W. Schons, Assistant Attorney General, Raquel M. Gonzalez,
Steve Oetting and Lynne G. McGinnis, Deputy Attorneys General, for Plaintiff and Respondent.



Counsel who argued in Supreme Court (not intended for publication with opinion):

Laura G. Schaefer
Boyce & Schaefer
934 23rd Street
San Diego, CA 92102-1914
(619) 232-3320

Lynne G. McGinnis
Deputy Attorney General
110 West A Street, Suite 1100
San Diego, CA 92101
(619) 645-2205


Petition for review after the Court of Appeal affirmed a judgment of conviction of criminal offenses. This case presents the following issue: In a theft-related case, does the trial court have a duty to instruct the jury, without a request by any party, with CALJIC No. 2.15 concerning the significance of the defendant's possession of recently stolen property? (See also CALCRIM No. 376 [Possession of Recently Stolen Property as Evidence of a Crime].)

Opinion Information
Date:Citation:Docket Number:Category:Status:
Thu, 06/05/200843 Cal. 4th 1132, 184 P.3d 732, 77 Cal. Rptr. 3d 605S141654Review - Criminal Appealclosed; remittitur issued

Parties
1Najera, Michael Jesse (Defendant and Appellant)
P.O. Box 1621
Boulevard, CA 91905

Represented by Laura G. Schaefer
Boyce & Schaefer
934 - 23rd Street
San Diego, CA

2The People (Plaintiff and Respondent)
Represented by Lynne G. Mcginnis
Office of the Attorney General
110 West "A" Street, Suite 1100
P.O. Box 85266
San Diego, CA


Opinion Authors
OpinionJustice Marvin R. Baxter

Disposition
Jun 5 2008Opinion: Affirmed

Dockets
Mar 3 2006Petition for review filed
  Michael Najera, defendant and appellant Laura Schaefer, counsel
Mar 8 2006Received Court of Appeal record
  one volume
Apr 26 2006Petition for review granted (criminal case)
  Votes: George, C.J., Kennard, Baxter, Werdegar, Chin, Moreno, and Corrigan, JJ.
May 3 2006Change of contact information filed for:
  Michael Jesse Najera, appellant
May 16 2006Counsel appointment order filed
  Laura G. Schaefer is hereby appointed to represent appellant on the appeal now pending in this court. Appellant's brief on the merits must be served and filed on or before thirty (30) days from the date of this order.
Jun 14 2006Request for extension of time filed
  to July 15, 2006, to flie appellant's opening brief.
Jun 19 2006Extension of time granted
  to July 15, 2006, to flie appellant's opening brief.
Jul 13 2006Request for extension of time filed
  to August 14, 2006, to flie appellant's opening brief.
Jul 18 2006Extension of time granted
  to August 14, 2006, to flie appellant's opening brief. No further extension of of time will be contemplated.
Aug 14 2006Opening brief on the merits filed
  Michael Najera, defendant and appellant Laura Schaefer, counsel (filed in S.D.)
Sep 7 2006Request for extension of time filed
  to October 13, 2006, to file answer brief on the merits. Lynne G. McGinnis, Deputy Attorney General
Sep 13 2006Extension of time granted
  to October 13, 2006, to file answer brief on the merits. Lynne G. McGinnis, Deputy Attorney General
Oct 10 2006Answer brief on the merits filed
  Respondent's answer brief on the merits. Lynne G. McGinnis, Deputy Attorney General
Oct 31 2006Reply brief filed (case fully briefed)
  Michael Najera, appellant Laura Schaefer, counsel (CRC 40.1b)
Apr 9 2008Case ordered on calendar
  to be argued on Thursday, May 8, 2008, at 9:00 a.m. in San Francisco
May 8 2008Cause argued and submitted
 
Jun 4 2008Notice of forthcoming opinion posted
 
Jun 5 2008Opinion filed: Judgment affirmed in full
  Majority opinion by Baxter, J. -----joined by George, C.J., Kennard, Werdegar, Chin, Moreno, and Corrigan, JJ.
Jul 10 2008Remittitur issued (criminal case)
 
Aug 14 2008Compensation awarded counsel
  Atty Schaefer

Briefs
Aug 14 2006Opening brief on the merits filed
 
Oct 10 2006Answer brief on the merits filed
 
Oct 31 2006Reply brief filed (case fully briefed)
 
Brief Downloads
application/pdf icon
Najera MichaelRespondentBrief.pdf (232515 bytes) - Respondent's Answer Brief on the Merits
If you'd like to submit a brief document to be included for this opinion, please submit an e-mail to the SCOCAL website
May 22, 2011
Annotated by julia glick

OPINION BY: Baxter, J. (unanimous)

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SEARCH TAGS:
Theft, car theft, sua sponte, jury instruction, circumstantial evidence, CALJIC No. 2.15, People v. St. Martin, Evidence Code 502, St. Martin, stolen, stolen property, shaved key

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ISSUE

In a trial for theft-related offenses, when the defense attorney has not made such a motion, is a judge required to instruct the jury sua sponte that possession of recently stolen property in itself is insufficient evidence to establish the defendant’s guilt?

HOLDING

No. The California Supreme Court held that, in theft-related cases, trial courts have no general duty to supply a jury instruction, on their own motion, about the limited significance of evidence of possession of recently stolen property. In this case, the trial court did not err by not instructing the jury sua sponte with CALJIC 2.15.

FACTS

On July 21, 2004, Escondido police stopped defendant Michael Jesse Najera driving a stolen car less than a day after the owner had reported it missing. Najera was using a shaved key. A shaved key is a standard key that has been filed down so that it might be used to unlock and start cars other than the one for which it was designed. Police found another altered key on the same keychain as well as three additional shaved keys in the possession of Najera’s sister and passenger, Erica Najera. Officers also recovered from the defendant’s sister property belonging to the car’s owner including a watch and a casino card.

PROCEDURAL POSTURE

A jury convicted Michael Jesse Najera of unlawfully driving or taking a vehicle (Veh. Code, § 10851(a)) and unlawful possession of burglary tools (Pen. Code, § 466). After the verdict, Najera admitted to previous convictions for unlawfully driving a vehicle and to two prior prison-term enhancements. The trial court sentenced the defendant to four years in prison, awarded him credits of 264 days and ordered him to pay restitution.
Najera appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by failing to instruct the jury in accordance with California Jury Instruction No. 2.15. CALJIC No. 2.15 states that recent possession of stolen property alone is insufficient in itself to establish the defendant’s guilt on theft-related charges. Najera’s attorney had not requested such an instruction. Najera argued that the trial court was required to give the instruction sua sponte , and the court’s failure to do so unfairly prejudiced his case. The Court of Appeal rejected this argument, holding that the court had no such duty. It upheld Najera’s conviction.

DISPOSITION

The California Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeal.

RATIONALE

1. The Court applies to this case the standard from People v. St. Martin. 1 Cal. 3d 524, 531 (1970). In that case, the California Supreme Court held that in criminal cases, trial courts must, even in the absence of a request, instruct the jury on “the general principles of law relevant to the issues raised by the evidence” and “necessary for the jury’s understanding of the case.” Here, the Court finds that the jury instruction on recently stolen property is not required under the St. Martin standard.
2. The trial court in this case had already instructed the jury generally on how to weigh circumstantial evidence in accordance with California Jury Instruction No. 2.02. The Supreme Court finds the instruction regarding possession of recently stolen property is merely a specific application of instruction No. 2.02. As such, the disputed instruction does not rise to the level of an instruction so vital and necessary to the consideration of evidence that, under St. Martin, the court must give the instruction sua sponte to the jury.
3. The Supreme Court agrees with the Court of Appeal that “an instruction that tells the jury what kinds of rational inferences may be drawn from the evidence does not provide any insight jurors are not already expected to possess.” The disputed instruction here is analogous to instructions concerning evidence of prior sexual offenses, past domestic violence or previous child abuse. Such evidence alone does not constitute proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but courts are not required sua sponte to provide juries with that instruction.
4. California Evidence Code Section 502 sets requirements for courts to instruct jurors on which party bears the burden of proof on issues and facts. However, section 502 does not require courts to instruct the jury with California Jury Instruction No. 2.15.
5. Other states—including Colorado, Indiana, New Jersey, Utah, Massachusetts and Oklahoma— have declined to impose on trial courts a sua sponte duty to instruct juries on the limitations of evidence of possession recently stolen property in theft-related prosecutions.

ANNOTATION BY: Julia Glick

Mar 13, 2009
Annotated by diana teasland

Written by Andre LaRoche.

BACKGROUND

The defendant, Najera, was pulled over for driving a stolen vehicle and arrested. The officer’s search also revealed that Najera had started the car with a “shaved key” –a key modified to bypass the pins in the ignition cylinder. Defendant was convicted of unlawful taking of a vehicle and possession of burglary tools. At trial, the court failed to instruct the jury sua sponte that the possession of stolen property was insufficient alone to establish guilt.

FULL TEXT OF OPINION

Defendant was spotted driving a stolen car less than a day after the owner had reported it missing. Defendant was using a shaved key—a key whose teeth have been shaved down to bypass the pins in the ignition cylinder—and the ignition system was, in the words of the arresting officer, “very loose.” Personal property belonging to the car’s owner was found in possession of the passenger, defendant’s sister. Defendant was convicted of the unlawful taking of a vehicle and possession of burglary tools. On appeal, he asserted that the trial court had erred in failing to instruct the jury on its own motion that possession of recently stolen property was insufficient by itself to establish guilt of the charged offenses. (See CALJIC No. 2.15.) We agree with the Court of Appeal that the trial court had no sua sponte duty to provide such an instruction and therefore affirm.

BACKGROUND
Around 8:00 p.m. on July 21, 2004, Joseph Donato parked his white 1991 Acura Integra in the parking lot of his apartment complex in Escondido. When he returned to the lot around 6:00 a.m. the next morning, the car was gone. Donato promptly filed a report of the stolen car with the police.

Escondido Police Officer Tim Reiley spotted a white Integra driving unusually slowly in downtown Escondido around 12:30 a.m. on July 23 and recalled that a vehicle matching that description had been reported stolen the previous day. He ran a computer check on the license plate, verified that this was the stolen car, and ordered a stop. Defendant was driving; his sister, Erica Najera, was the passenger.

The key in the ignition had been “shaved.” Officer Reiley explained that a shaved key is a standard vehicle key that has been shaved down with a metal file or other hard object to make it much slimmer than a regular key. A shaved key enables the user to bypass the pins in the ignition cylinder, so that the key may be used to start cars other than the one for which the key was designed, and to enter such cars as well. A second key on the same key ring also showed signs of alteration. Officer Reiley inserted a flathead screwdriver into the ignition to see whether it had been damaged. He found that the ignition system was “sloppy” and “very loose” and that he could start the car with the screwdriver. In his opinion, a person trying to start the car would have noticed that the ignition had been altered.

From Erica Najera’s person or purse, police recovered three additional shaved keys as well as Donato’s watch, pepper spray, and “player card” from Valley View Casino.

A jury convicted defendant of unlawfully driving or taking a vehicle (Veh. Code, § 10851, subd. (a)) and unlawful possession of burglary tools (Pen. Code, § 466). Defendant then admitted previous convictions of unlawfully driving a vehicle (Pen. Code, § 666.5, subd. (a)) and two prior prison term enhancements (id., § 667.5, subd. (b)). The trial court sentenced defendant to four years in prison, awarded credits of 264 days, and ordered defendant to pay restitution.

On appeal, defendant raised only one issue—i.e., that the trial court prejudicially erred in failing to instruct the jury sua sponte, in accordance with CALJIC No. 2.15, that recent possession of stolen property alone is insufficient to establish his guilt of theft-related offenses. The Court of Appeal, in a published opinion, held that CALJIC No. 2.15 was not the type of instruction that must be given sua sponte in every theft-related case.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Defendant appealed on the basis that the superior court prejudicially erred when it didn’t instruct the jury that mere possession of stolen property was insufficient to establish guilt. He appealed to the California Court of Appeal which held that the trial court’s lack of sua sponte instruction was not prejudicial. The California Supreme Court affirmed again.

Appealed to California Court of Appeal. CALJIC No. 2.15.