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Name: People v. Williams
Case #: C059218
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 3 DCA
Opinion Date: 08/26/2009

A good-faith belief by a defendant, tried as an accomplice, that he was assisting his co-principal to retake the principal’s property, negates the felonious intent element of a theft-based offense, and a claim-of-right instruction must be given where substantial evidence supports such a belief. Appellant accompanied his brother and a third man to the residence of the brother’s former girlfriend and the three pushed their way in. Once inside, appellant pulled a handgun, waved it around, and demanded that the victim return the car and laptop belonging to his brother, which she did. Tried on the theory that he aided and abetted his brother in stealing property belonging to the girlfriend, appellant argued that he was helping his brother take back the brother’s property and requested a claim-of-right instruction. (A good faith belief by defendant that the property taken is his own is a complete defense to theft-related crimes.) The prosecution opposed the instruction, citing a depublished case, and the court denied the request. Appellant was convicted of burglary but acquitted of robbery. The appellate court agreed with appellant that he was entitled to the claim-of-right instruction. To be liable as a principal on an aiding and abetting theory, the accused must share the specific intent with the perpetrator. If substantial evidence is presented that the principal did not have the mental state for the crime of theft because he believed he was retaking his property, the same applies to the aider and abettor. Accordingly, the trial court erred in denying appellant’s request for instruction on claim-of-right. But, the error was harmless. The jury was instructed that the burglary could be based on entry to commit larceny or entry to commit false imprisonment. With the acquittal on the robbery count, it was obvious that the jury agreed with the defense theory that because appellant was assisting his brother in the retaking of the brother’s property, he had no intent to commit larceny and the only remaining basis for the burglary conviction was the false imprisonment, for which there was no legal defense. (As an aside, the court chastised the prosecution for referring to a depublished case, reminding counsel that unacceptably citing a depublished case could result in sanctions.)