7.10 – Actual Answer 4 – Issue Spotter
Actual Answer 4
12 ounces of methamphetamine were found in Defendant Harold Gunton’s truck. He had agreed to transport a closed briefcase in exchange for $800. Albert “Sharky” Jones had arranged the payment and is a well-known illegal firearms dealer. Gunton did not know what was in the briefcase and had no interest in opening it. Sharky also told Gunton not to open it. Gunton was surprised to discover after the fact that the briefcase contained methamphetamine, as he was unaware that Sharky was involved with drugs. Gunton should be found not guilty on Count 1 a violation of Southlandia Code § 716, which provides that “whoever knowingly possesses any quantity of methamphetamine is guilty of a first-degree felony” and on Count 2 a violation of Southlandia Code § 731(b), which provides that “whoever possesses more than one ounce of methamphetamine is guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor.”
Did Defendant Harold Gunton knowingly possess methamphetamine through willful blindness?
As established in United States v. Jewell, contriving lack of positive knowledge or willful blindness can be treated as having actual knowledge. Jewell drove into the United States from Mexico with 110 pounds of marijuana and said he did not know marijuana was in the car. There was evidence that Jewell was telling the truth about not knowing but only because had taken deliberate steps to avoid confirming the fact that marijuana was in the car so he would not be said to have positive knowledge. He said he saw a void in the trunk where the marijuana was found hidden but did not know what the void was and did not investigate further. The court reasoned that based on the Model Penal Code, if a person is aware of the high probability of the existence of a specific fact, that person is said to have established such knowledge, unless the person actually believes it does not exist. The court ruled that to act knowingly is not limited to only acting with positive knowledge but also includes acting with awareness of a high probability of the existence of the fact.
At first glance, Defendant Gunton’s case seems similar to Jewell’s, and Gunton may seem to have violated Southlandia Code § 716, which provides that “whoever knowingly possesses any quantity of methamphetamine is guilty of a first-degree felony.” However, there is a key difference that makes willful blindness an unsuitable approach to Guntons’ case. Gunton actually did not know what was in the briefcase and was surprised to learn it contained methamphetamine. The same reason given in the dissent of United States v. Jewell applies here as well. Gunton’s subjective belief of whether or not there was a high probability of the existence of narcotics in the briefcase matters in determining willful blindness. Willful blindness does not apply to the defendant here because of his mistake of fact under both common law and the Model Penal Code.
Using the common law approach, Count 1 is a specific intent crime requiring a mental state of knowledge. A mistake of fact only needs to be honest in order to act as a defense, regardless of whether or not the mistake is reasonable. Gunton’s mistake of fact was honest. He was entirely unaware of Sharky being involved in drug dealing. Sharky is described as a “well-known illegal firearms dealer” and not a “well-known drug dealer.” Gunton’s mistake was honest because there is no alternative and reasonable explanation for how Gunton could have known the briefcase contained methamphetamine or any narcotic for that matter and then act deceptively or dishonestly.
According to the Model Penal Code, if there is a high probability something is true even if you don’t have confirmation, that is enough to prove that you knew you had knowledge. This is willful blindness. However, a mistake of fact, reasonable or not, offsets the requirement of knowledge. It might be argued that Gunton thought there was a high probability of something illegal being in the briefcase such as unlicensed firearms, given the fact that Sharky is a well- known unlicensed firearms dealer and under the Model Penal Code, the defendant may be the exception to the aforementioned rule on mistake of fact if the defendant had a mistaken understanding and thought he was committing a different crime (possessing or transporting illegal firearms) than the one he was seemingly committing (knowingly possessing methamphetamine). In that case, the Model Penal Code would punish him according to the crime he thought was committing. However, this would be reverting to an issue of whether or not the defendant should have known there was something illegal in the briefcase rather than stating what the defendant actually knew. Regardless, the defendant could not have “known” something that turns out to be false. The briefcase ultimately did not contain illegal firearms and even if it had, the defendant’s subjective belief could have resulted in thinking there was a low probability of the briefcase containing illegal firearms. Gunton, a 76-year-old farmer, was merely on his way to deliver some of his crops to a distributor when Sharky took advantage of Gunton's route.
Additionally, the requirement of high probability for willful blindness is specific to the element of the offense in question. In this case, the defendant did not think there was a high probability of the briefcase containing methamphetamine, as he did not have the baseline knowledge of Sharky’s involvement with drug dealing. It could be argued that Gunton meets the requirement that deliberate steps be taken to avoid learning of a fact for willful blindness. But just as the dissent in United States v. Jewell states, without the subjective awareness of a high probability of the truth, a guilty mental state is not present. The deliberate steps taken then to avoid learning the truth cannot be said to have been taken with a guilty mind . The act of possessing and transporting a briefcase with an innocent mental state cannot be punishable under a statute that requires a mental state of knowledge if the defendant did not know or did not have a high probability of thinking the briefcase contained methamphetamine.
Gunton should be not found guilty, using both the common law approach and the Model Penal Code, as he did not have the mental state of knowledge required by Southlandia Code § 716 either through actual knowledge or willful blindness.
Can it be said Gunton possessed methamphetamine when he was entirely unaware of the presence of methamphetamine in the briefcase in his vehicle?
Southlandia Code § 731(b) states “whoever possesses more than one ounce of methamphetamine is guilty of a first-degree misdemeanor.” The Model Penal Code states that statutes that do not mention which specific mental state is required defaults to requiring the minimum level mental state of recklessness.
Using the common law approach, Count 2 is a general intent crime where the defendant’s mistake of fact must be both honest and reasonable to be a defense. The result of this case hinges on “reasonable.” Would this same mistake be made by someone reasonable? If the facts showed Sharky had hinted or implied the briefcase’s contents, then it would not be considered a reasonable mistake as it would show either Gunton acquiring knowledge about the illegal nature of the briefcase or would create additional steps that a reasonable person would have taken that Gunton chose not to take. It could be argued that Gunton, like a reasonable person, should have either opened the briefcase or refused to transport it. However, in the situation presented in the dissent of United States v. Jewell, a child given a wrapped birthday gift from their mother could be told not to open it and later discover it contained drugs. In this same sense, Gunton was told not to open the briefcase and he did choose to respect Sharky’s wishes and not open it. It could have contained something of a personal nature and not necessarily of an illegal nature such as methamphetamine. Without any further facts or intent on Sharky’s end to truthfully present the nature of the briefcase’s contents, Gunton could have reasonably thought the briefcase would have a higher chance of containing something of a personal nature that was not narcotics than narcotics. In this line of reasoning, Gunton made a reasonable mistake of fact when he thought the briefcase did not contain methamphetamine. The real mistake Gunton made was in trusting Sharky. The other option that could be argued is that Gunton should just have outright refused to transport the briefcase if he did not know its contents. However, as stated before, Gunton was merely planning on driving his route to deliver crops when Sharky approached him with his own deceptive plan. Gunton should not be punished for another’s intent of wrongdoing. The defendant did not have the intent to possess any amount of methamphetamine.
The Model Penal Code defines recklessness as acting with conscious disregard of a risk which results in acting in a way that largely deviates from the ordinary standard of care. The result of this case hinges on “conscious disregard,” which refers to the defendant recognizing a risk that what they are about to is illegal and then disregarding that risk and following through with the act anyway. Gunton did not consciously disregard the risk of the briefcase containing 12 ounces or any amount over an ounce of methamphetamine. This would necessarily imply that Gunton was conscious of the risk of narcotics being present in the briefcase and subsequently in his truck. The defendant was entirely unaware of the risk of narcotics as he held no level of knowledge of Sharky’s involvement with drugs.
Given the nature of recklessness as a subjective standard, Gunton’s testimony that he was unaware of Sharky’s involvement with drugs and his subsequent unawareness of the presence of methamphetamine in the briefcase must be considered when deciding the defendant’s culpability. It is possible that Gunton should have been aware of the risk and was negligent, but factually, the defendant was not and therefore, cannot be said to have recklessly possessed methamphetamine as a violation of Southlandia Code § 731(b).
I urge the court to find Gunton not guilty, using his specific situation to read “reasonable” under common law mistake of fact and recognizing how he did not act with “conscious disregard” under the Model Penal Code.
Actual Answer 4
Then let's finally look at answer number 4. I think you're going to see, first of all this one, just when you first look at it, is maybe going to look a little bit different in a couple of ways. First of all, it is longer than the others, I think, by a little bit in that it's hard to know what that reflects. This author may just be a faster typist, something like that. You don't necessarily need to write the most in order to get the most points but there probably is a rough correlation between how much you are able to write and how many points you get.
I think, actually, the most important thing that I see here is this author was working with a little bit of structure. Author has this overarching paragraph at the beginning and then actually divides the essay up with these signposts that say count one and count two. That's impressive and it's surprising how few exams do that because right there, first of all, the author is helping him or herself by saying, "Look, I'm going to divide these things up and I'm going to make sure I don't accidentally just skip over the entire second count, but I'm also going to help the reader by saying here's what I am addressing."
Here, we have a kind of really sophisticated analysis where the author really just digs in to questions about Jewell, the common law, clearly differentiates between the common law and Model Penal Code approach and then sums everything up with a little subconclusion for that issue and then moves on to count two. Begins count two with just the same way that count one began, with a question. It's like, here's the thing that this little thing is going to be about. States it, addresses the common law approach.
Again, this answer is not totally perfectly here with respect to the common law because I think there could have been a little bit more analysis of actually whether this is a strict liability statute. If this is a strict liability statute, we actually don't even need to get into all this stuff about mistake of fact and whether this mistake is honest and reasonable because if it's a true strict liability statute, even a reasonable mistake does not provide a defense.
Nonetheless, given the amount of time that people taking this had actually studied the material, this is a really, really good answer and certainly in line with the kind of things that an actual law student would produce, and then goes on and addresses the Model Penal Code answer, talks about the question of recklessness and so forth. It could have been a little clearer here that why you're addressing recklessness, it turns out you have to, with a little lost in structure, have to go back up a paragraph and a half by looking at the rule.
It says that the Model Penal Code states that the statutes do not mention which specific mental state is required. Defaults require the minimum level of mental state of recklessness. Would have been helpful just to say, "Here, there is no statute, there is no language, so that's why I am doing that," but clear enough, would have gotten full points for this. That's a really excellent answer, would have probably gotten very high A, A+ on real exam conditions if you can generalize this to a real law school exam.
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