By Ray Hill
Santa Rosa Junior College
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Here we discuss two unusual cases, one involving flaming whiskey and the other a cruise ship crime.
Case One: Whiskey Through the Cat Door
Alcohol as an Accelerant is a “Device Designed to Accelerate a Fire: (451.1(a)(5) P.C. (Peo. v. Johnson (2022) 2022 WL 17592; 2022 Cal. App. Lexis 10121).
After a failed domestic relationship involving her former partner, defendant started a fire in a Cotati home by pouring whiskey through a “cat door” and lighting the interior on fire. A partially burned polystyrene cup of noodles container was found inside the door. The defendant was seen watching the residence the day prior to the fire. On the day of the fire, a neighbor saw a woman matching the defendant’s physical description exit a vehicle in front of the victim’s residence and walk up to the house with a plastic bag in her hand. Thirty minutes later, the neighbor saw smoke coming out of the back of the house and called 911. When the defendant was arrested the following day, several similar noodle cups, a partially filled bottle of whiskey, and two torch lighters were found in her vehicle. Defendant was convicted of arson of a structure (451(b) P.C.) with an enhancement that she “used an accelerant device” in starting the fire (451.1(a)(5) P.C). Defendant argued on appeal that alcohol is neither a device – instead, it is consumed as a drink – nor designed to start a fire.
Appellate Court Decision
The First District Court of Appeals ruled that alcohol is flammable, as evidenced by its use in flaming drinks, and qualifies as an accelerant for the purposes of enhancing a sentence. Therefore, alcohol, although meant for human consumption, is a “device” under statute. The ruling used the analogy that although the primary use of gasoline is as fuel in motorized machinery, it is also a “device” used to start fires.
Not a case that is likely to come up regularly, but the information is in your databank.
Case Two: Not Exactly the Love Boat
Jurisdiction for a Crime on the High Seas: (Peo. v. Kocantes (2022) Cal. 2022WL 17829309; 2022 Cal.App.Lexis 1038).
A murder occurring on a cruise ship off the coast of Italy was prosecuted in Orange County Superior Court. Defendant, an attorney, and his ex-wife were on a Mediterranean cruise. He reported his wife missing from the ship. A search of the ship did not locate her. Her body was discovered 36 hours later by another boat. Three medical examiners concluded that she did not drown, but was dead before hitting the water, and that the likely cause of death was strangulation. Substantial evidence was presented to show the homicide was for the purpose of financial gain (insurance and remaining co-owned assets) and the defendant was convicted of murder first (187(a) P.C.).
Defendant claimed lack of trial jurisdiction in Orange County. The death happened in Europe, so one might think the judicial system there would assume jurisdiction. Wrong!
See 778(a) P.C. – Local Jurisdiction of Public Offenses: When a plan or acts to commit a crime occur in this state, but the offense ends up being consummated out of state, defendant can be punished as if the crime occurred in California. “Out of state” includes a foreign country.
So, the Orange County Superior Court had jurisdiction over the murder as long as de minimis preparatory acts occurred in Orange County. There was sufficient direct and circumstantial evidence presented during the case to show that planning and intent was present before embarking on the cruise.