15 Chap. L. Rev. 719 (No PDF)
Chapman Law Review
DIGEST: PEOPLE V. MURPHY
Melissa A. Newman
Copyright (c) 2012 Chapman Law Review; Melissa A. Newman
Does the enactment of a Vehicle Code section that specifically covers filing a false vehicle theft report preclude the People from charging the same conduct under a more general statute that imposes a more severe penalty?
Melissa Kay Murphy was charged with a felony for filing a false vehicle theft report with the police. A San Bernardino County Sheriff found Murphy’s car wrecked and traced it back to Murphy. She told him it had been stolen. The officer completed a vehicle theft report, which Murphy signed under penalty of perjury. Evidence surfaced that her car had not been stolen, and that Murphy had abandoned it after an accident while driving alone. The People charged Murphy under a general felony statute for offering a false or forged instrument for filing or recording in public office, and a jury convicted Murphy.
Murphy appealed the validity of the felony charge under section 115 of the California Penal Code, which generally covers the act of offering a false instrument for filing in a public office. She alleged filing a stolen vehicle report should be charged instead as a misdemeanor under section 10501 of the California Vehicle Code, which makes it a crime to make or file a false vehicle theft report. She argued the Legislature intended the Vehicle Code section to preclude her prosecution under a more general statute for the same conduct. The court of appeal affirmed the judgment of the trial court, rejecting Murphy’s challenge. The court of appeal held although a specific statute with a lesser sentence covered Murphy’s conduct, it did not preclude her conduct from being charged under the general felony statute. The court of appeal reasoned that the Legislature did not intend the Vehicle Code section to preclude prosecution under a more general statute because it covered more conduct than the general statue. Murphy petitioned the California Supreme Court for review.
The court first looked to the legislative intent behind the specific Vehicle Code section that narrowly covered Murphy’s conduct. Murphy’s appeal hinged on her argument that she should have been charged under that statute, because its passage precluded her charge under the more general and more severe statute. The court agreed that would be true only if the Legislature intended that outcome. The court turned to a specific rule from case law, the Williamson rule, designed to ascertain legislative intent to preclude when there are two statutes covering the same or similar conduct.
The court noted although the Williamson rule is not a constitutional or statutory mandate, it is “a powerful indication” of legislative intent to exclude. Thus, the court stated that if the rule applies, it will find legislative intent to preclude. If, on the other hand, the rule does not fit, then the People retain the option of charging defendant for filing a false vehicle theft report under either statute.
The court defined situations in which the rule applies as follows:
Absent some indication of legislative intent to the contrary, the Williamson rule applies when (1) “each element of the general statute corresponds to an element on the face of the special statute,” or (2) when “it appears from the statutory context that a violation of the special statute will necessarily or commonly result in a violation of the general statute.”
The court then examined the types of cases that fit within these prongs. First, it noted that the rule most clearly applies when a violation of the specific statute inevitably results in a violation of the general statute. In those situations, the court emphasized, the more specific statute precludes prosecution under the general statute. The court noted, on the other hand, the rule does not apply when the general statute contains “an element that is not contained in the special statute and that element would not commonly occur in the context of a violation of the special statute . . . .” The court emphasized that both factors must be met for the rule to not apply. If, for example, the general statute contains an element not contained in the special statute but that element would commonly occur in the context of a violation of the special statute, then the Williamson rule would still apply.
[T]he courts must consider the context in which the statutes are placed. If it appears from the entire context that a violation of the “special” statute will necessarily or commonly result in a violation of the “general” statute, the Williamson rule may apply even though the elements of the general statute are not mirrored on the face of the special statute.
The issue here turned, the court noted, on the statutory context of Murphy’s conduct, and whether the conduct covered by the Vehicle Code statute would “necessarily or commonly” result in a violation of the general statute.
First, the court dismissed the Attorney General’s attempt to distinguish oral and written conduct covered by the Vehicle Code section from the strictly written conduct covered by the general statute. The Attorney General argued that by including both written and oral reports, the Vehicle Code section covers behavior that would not commonly result in a violation of a general statute that covers only written reports. Specifically, the Attorney General focused on the fact that although Murphy filed a written report, which is covered by the general statute, the court must also consider the “making” of oral vehicle theft reports that are “just as common.” The Attorney General reasoned that by covering both types of conduct, the Vehicle Code section commonly covered the making of oral reports, which were not punishable under the general statue. The court dismissed the premises of this line of reasoning. The court did not accept that it had to consider both types of conduct, oral and written, covered by the specific Vehicle Code section. The court emphasized that case law supports including conduct covered by a specific statute within the Williamson rule, even when that statute would cover other conduct that falls outside of it.
[E]ven though the making of a false oral report of vehicle theft would not violate the general statute, our analysis should focus on the question of whether the filing of a false vehicle theft report would necessarily or commonly result in a violation of Penal Code section 115.
The Attorney General then argued that a false vehicle theft report, like the one made by the Murphy, is not commonly or necessarily a false “instrument” as described by the general statute. While conceding that it happened to be so in this case, the Attorney General asserted that was only because Murphy executed the report with certain “formalities,” such as signing under penalty of perjury, that are not done commonly in false vehicle theft reports. The court dismissed this argument, finding these “formalities” were in fact quite common in filing reports with the police.
Finally, the court noted the present case was analogous to another case in which the Williamson rule applied. In People v. Ruster, the court precluded prosecution for forgery because a specific statute made the same conduct, making a false statement or representation to obtain any unemployment insurance payment, a misdemeanor. In that case, the court noted, the provision under the specific statute could also be violated without committing a forgery, but the most common way it was violated would necessarily be a forgery. By analogy, the court reasoned the Williamson rule must apply here. Even if “a false vehicle theft report may on occasion be filed in other, less formal formats,” the court found it safe to assume they were usually written. Thus the court held the same conduct would commonly violate the general statute as well.
The court reversed the court of appeal. The court held the People were precluded from prosecuting Murphy under the general statute, finding a violation of the specific Vehicle Code statute would necessarily and commonly result in a violation of the general statue. A contrary holding would violate legislative intent to create such a bar. Thus the filing of a false vehicle theft report with police is an “exception” to conduct that can be prosecuted as the “filing of false instruments” under section 115 of the California Penal Code.
This decision precludes California prosecutors from charging the filing of false vehicle reports with the police as a felony under section 115 of the California Penal Code. Instead, prosecutors must charge that conduct as a misdemeanor under section 10501 of the California Vehicle Code, since the Legislature intended the more narrow Vehicle Code section to stop prosecution of the same conduct under a more general and more severe statute.