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BURGLARY: PRIOR ACTS TO PROVE INTENT TO COMMIT A CRIME

A conviction of first-degree burglary requires evidence that the defendant entered certain structures with the intent to commit a theft or a felony. The structure must be one for which the purpose is habitation, even if not currently occupied, for example, a house, an RV, or a houseboat. Sometimes the element of intent to commit the underlying crime is easily proved because after the defendant entered the structure, he or she did commit the requisite theft or other felony. However, the underlying theft or other felony need not actually to occur to prove the burglary charge. If the prosecution can prove that the defendant intended to commit the underlying crime, that can be enough.

Recently, the California Court of Appeals considered a case where the defendant was charged with burglary when he entered the home occupied by his mother and brother. (People v. Mani, 3DCA, #C088716, 2022 Cal. App. Lexis 66, January 2022.) The prosecution alleged—as the underlying crime to the charge of burglary— that the defendant intended to steal from the home. Although the defendant did forcibly enter the structure and he was holding a kitchen knife, no theft occurred.

The defendant had previously threatened and harassed both mother and brother and both had active domestic violencerestraining orders against the defendant. These prior acts were put into evidence for proof of the defendant’s intent to steal from the home.  The defendant challenged the prosecutions “prior acts” evidence as inadmissible evidence that the defendant had the intent to steal. In other words, previous domestic violence did not prove that the defendant intended to commit a theft.

The appellate court disagreed. The court held that these prior acts were admissible to prove that the defendant had the requisite intent to commit an underlying felony (theft) needed to charge burglary. The court’s decision was narrow in that the prior acts of domestic violence were sufficiently similar and therefore admissible because breaking into a home with the intent to steal disturbed the peace of the victims, just as the defendant’s prior acts of domestic abuse against the victims. Although this is narrowly construed in the context of prior domestic abuse acts, it opens the way for other prior acts to be admissible as evidence of intent to commit an underlying crime on a burglary charge. Furthermore, it opens the door for the prosecution to offer any prior domestic or civil harassment as evidence of intent on a burglary charge.

Jumping ahead a bit, we might imagine this scenario:

Becky and Jordan had a bad breakup. Becky won’t leave Jordan alone. She keeps calling him and even shows up at his home to harass him. Jordan, in exasperation, turns to the court and requests a restraining order against Becky. The court grants the order. Becky ignores the order by showing up at Jordan’s home several weeks later.  She bangs on the door, but Jordan doesn’t answer. She checks to see if the door is unlocked; it is. She lets herself inside. What is she planning? Maybe to take something from Jordan’s house as Jordan alleges, but we will never know because she doesn’t get very far down the hallway before Jordan appears and grabs her. He calls the police. Now Becky has surely violated the restraining order but was she planning on stealing something from Jordan’s house as Jordan contends? Following the Mani case discussed above, the prosecution is now free to introduce Becky’s prior acts of harassment as evidence Becky intended to commit a theft form Jordan’s house. She can’t be charged with theft, but if a jury believes the prior acts evidence shows her intent to commit the theft, she can be convicted of burglary.

This case illustrates the importance of having a skilled and experienced criminal defense attorney. The law is often intricate and complex. Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg has been defending individuals charged with burglary for over 25 years. He keeps abreast of the latest changes in the law and changing court interpretations to ensure he continues to provide his client’s with the best available defense.

Attorney Weinberg offers a free consultation. He will review your case and advise you of your options. You may reach him at his Irvine office by calling 949-474-8008 or by emailing him at bill@williamweinberg.com.