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Name: People v. Stutelberg
Case #: D073266
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 4 DCA
Division: 1
Opinion Date: 11/21/2018

Erroneous jury instructions allowing jury to conclude that a box cutter is an inherently deadly weapon constituted legal error, requiring reversal of one count. During an altercation outside a bar, Stutelberg jabbed a box cutter at Michelle and Chris, cutting Michelle’s head but not injuring Chris. Stutelberg was convicted of mayhem with a deadly weapon enhancement (Pen. Code, §§ 203, 12022, subd. (b)(1)) as to Michelle, and assault with a deadly weapon (Pen. Code, § 245, subd. (a)(1)) as to Chris. As to both deadly weapon allegations, the jury was instructed that a box cutter could be considered an inherently dangerous weapon. On appeal, Stutelberg argued the instructional error required reversal of the deadly weapon enhancement and assault with a deadly weapon conviction. Held: Reversed in part. The trial court instructed the jury that a deadly weapon is a weapon that is inherently deadly, or capable of or likely to cause death or great bodily injury. Inclusion of the “inherently deadly weapon” language was error because the only weapon involved in the case was a box cutter, and a box cutter is not inherently dangerous as a matter of law. (People v. McCoy (1944) 25 Cal.2d 177, 188.) Agreeing with People v. Aldemat (2018) 20 Cal.App.5th 1149, the court concluded this was legal, not factual, error. An inherently deadly or dangerous weapon is a term of art describing objects that have no practical nondeadly purpose. The jurors were not provided with this definition, and could reasonably classify a box cutter as inherently dangerous based on the common understanding of the term. This was legal instructional error, because it was an incorrect statement of the law, as opposed to a factual error, which is an otherwise valid legal theory not supported by the evidence.

Under the traditional Chapman standard of review, the instructional error was harmless as to Michelle but required reversal as to Chris. A legal instructional error is evaluated under the Chapman standard of review, requiring reversal unless it appears beyond a reasonable doubt that the error did not contribute to the verdict. Relying on Aledamat, supra, 20 Cal.App.5th 1149, Stutelberg argued that a heightened Chapman inquiry, requiring reversal absent an affirmative showing that no juror relied on the invalid legal theory, should be applied. The court disagreed. To require an affirmative showing of how the jury reached its verdict, “would erect a nearly insurmountable barrier, creating in effect a rule of per se reversal” because evidence regarding statements or evidence on a juror’s mental process is inadmissible to impeach a verdict. (See Evid. Code, § 1150, subd. (a).) Applying the traditional Chapman standard, the court affirmed the deadly weapon enhancement as to Michelle and reversed the assault with a deadly weapon conviction as to Chris. [Editor’s Note: People v. Aldemat (2018) 20 Cal.App.5th 1149, review granted 7/5/2018 (S248105/B282911), is currently pending before the California Supreme Court, and presents the following issues: (1) Is error in instructing the jury on both a legally correct theory of guilt and a legally incorrect one harmless if an examination of the record permits a reviewing court to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury based its verdict on the valid theory, or is the error harmless only if the record affirmatively demonstrates that the jury actually rested its verdict on the legally correct theory? (2) Could the jury in this case have concluded that defendant used an inherently deadly weapon in committing the assault without also concluding that defendant used a weapon in a manner that presents a risk of death or great bodily injury?].

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: