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Keiter Appellate Law Wins Again at the California Supreme Court

Posted on January 12, 2019

Keiter Appellate Law Prevails Again at the California Supreme Court

Keiter Appellate Law won its sixth consecutive case at the California Supreme Court, in the case of People v. Soto (2018) 4 Cal.5th 968. The appeal concerned the intersection of two criminal law doctrines, intoxication and imperfect self-defense, and interpreted a 1995 amendment to the Penal Code. Keiter Appellate Law filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of former Senator Ray Haynes, who represented a district to the Southeast of Los Angeles in the California Senate, and was an influential proponent of the amendment, along with Mitchell Keiter.

Juaquin Soto broke into Israel Ramirez’s home and stabbed him to death while Ramirez’ family hid in the bedroom. Soto asked the California Supreme Court to find he could not be guilty of murder if he was so high on methamphetamine and other intoxicants that he actually (albeit unreasonably) believed Ramirez was attacking him, and he needed to use deadly force to protect himself. Keiter Appellate Law urged the Supreme Court to reject Soto’s request. By a 5-2 vote, it did.


The effect of intoxication evidence on homicide liability has varied over time, in both California and around the nation, based on shifting public conceptions of crime generally, and alcohol specifically. (Mitchell Keiter, How Evolving Social Values Have Shaped (and Reshaped) California Criminal Law (2014) 9 California Legal History 393. In the state’s early years, it was completely inadmissible as a defense, and intoxicated killers were guilty of first degree murder. By the late 1800’s, defendants could present evidence of intoxication to show they did not act with a specific intent to kill (express malice), but could not present it to show they acted without “implied malice,” which exists when offenders willfully commit an act that is gravely dangerous to human life, with conscious or wanton disregard for that consequence. (People v. Knoller (2007) 41 Cal.4th 139.) Practically speaking, defendants who presented evidence of adequately severe intoxication could evade conviction for first degree murder, and be guilty of only second degree murder.

By the early 20th century, however, the “scientific school” of criminology was ascendant. It questioned whether drinking, or even crime in general, was truly “voluntary,” or instead the product of forces beyond individual control, like heredity or environment. (Mitchell Keiter, Balancing a “Right to be Forgotten” With a Right to Remember (2018) 13 California Legal History 421, 432-433 Mitchell Keiter, Just Say No Excuse: The Rise and Fall of the Intoxication Defense (1997) 87 Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 482, 486-490.) The California Supreme Court responded, and in 1959 altered the law so that voluntary intoxication was admissible as a defense to first degree murder, second degree murder — and voluntary manslaughter. (People v. Gorshen (1959) 51 Cal.2d 710.) Someone who intentionally decapitated his wife because his drug intoxication convinced him that her head was a grapefruit was thus guilty of only involuntary manslaughter, with an effective sentence of just 12 to 24 months. The Supreme Court made other changes which made it easier for defendants to classify their homicides as manslaughter rather than murder. (Keiter, Evolving Social Values, 9 California Legal History 393, 407-420.)

The Legislature shrank the scope of the intoxication defense in the 1990’s, in response to People v. Whitfield, supra, 7 Cal.4th 437. Whitfield drove with a blood alcohol count of .024, and was unconscious when his car swerved into oncoming traffic and killed another driver. (Whitfield, supra, at pp. 442-443.) A four-justice majority of the California Supreme Court reaffirmed People v. Gorshen and held that if Whitfield did not subjectively appreciate the risk he created, he was guilty of only involuntary manslaughter. (Id. at p. 453.) Three dissenting justices advocated for the older rule that held a defendant’s failure to perceive the risk was immaterial if caused by his own, self-induced intoxication: “[E]vidence of voluntary intoxication followed by reckless behavior allows a trier of fact to conclude that the actor held a conscious and antisocial disregard for human life.” (Id. at p. 476, dis. opn. of Mosk. J.) Under this rule, defendant’s intoxication was not a defense to implied malice murder.

Soon after, the United States Supreme Court resolved another appeal very differently. Montana law barred defendants from ever introducing intoxication evidence to show they lacked the requisite mental state (as California had done at its inception), though it could show they lacked the physical ability to commit the crime. The United States Supreme Court affirmed the rule did not violate the defendant’s due process right to present a exculpatory evidence, as the Montana Legislature had decided intoxication was not exculpatory. (Montana v. Egelhoff (1995) 518 U.S. 37.)

Later that year, California amended its Penal Code. There had been some support for a complete exclusion like Montana’s, but the Legislature settled on a compromise that resembled the pre-Gorshen rule, and permitted intoxication evidence as a defense against express malice but not implied malice.


It is justifiable homicide when a person kills another in the reasonable belief such killing is necessary for his self-preservation – even if that belief if incorrect. But for more than a century, California law has held that individuals who kill in the unreasonable belief that such killing is necessary to protect themselves from death or greivous bodily harm are guilty of an offense less than murder: voluntary manslaughter. The “heat of passion” doctrine, which mitigates homicides to voluntary manslaughter, encompasses homicides committed unreasonably out of anger, or fear. (People v. Logan (1917) 175 Cal.45, 49.) In 1979, the Supreme Court appeared to separate these two grounds for mitigation in characterizing the latter as “imperfect self-defense,” which applied when the defendant killed due to his actual belief that the killing was necessary for self-defense, but the belief was unreasonable. (People v. Flannel (1979) 25 Cal.3d 668, 682.) The doctrine derived from the premise that individuals who misjudged their circumstances, while dangerous, were not so culpable as those who committed a wrongful killing with either the intent to inflict such wrongful death or with conscious disregard of that consequence.

The California Supreme Court has described intoxicated killers as less culpable than intentional ones, though sufficiently (and possibly more) dangerous.

In the forum of conscience, there is no doubt considerable difference between a murder deliberately planned and executed by a person of unclouded intellect, and the reckless taking of life by one infuriated by intoxication; but human laws are based upon considerations of policy, and look rather to the maintenance of personal security and social order, than to an accurate discrimination as to the moral qualities of individual conduct.

(People v. Blake (1884) 65 Cal.275, 277.)

People v. Soto’s Holding

The Soto appellant contended his consumption of methamphetamine, marijuana, and alcohol led him to unreasonably perceive a need for self-defense, and thus the court should have instructed the jury to consider a Flannel voluntary manslaughter verdict. Soto contended the 1995 amendment, excluding intoxication as a defense to implied malice murder, did not affect the rule that imperfect self-defense was available to anyone who subjectively perceived a need for self-defense. The Court of Appeal had agreed with his contention.

Keiter Appellate Law countered that the 1995 amendment effected the policy advocated by Justice Mosk’s dissenting opinion in Whitfield; defendants could not use their own recklessness in becoming stuperous to reduce their liability from murder to manslaughter. The amicus brief recalled Justice Brown’s concurring opinion:

Intoxication can affect a person in two opposing ways. It can cause a person not to perceive a risk that is real, as is common in the case of alcohol abuse (see, e.g., People v. Whitfield (1994) 7 Cal.4th 437, 442–444 [parallel citations]), and it can cause a person to perceive a risk that is not real, as is common in the case of cocaine or methamphetamine abuse.

(People v. Wright (2005) 35 Cal.4th 964, 985 (conc. opn. of Brown, J.).)

In other words, if an inebriate who shot at a child believing her to be a tree stump (not perceiving a real risk) did not have a defense to murder, neither did an inebriate who shot at a child because he thought she was an armed terrorist (perceiving an unreal risk). Anyone who intentionally clouded his own judgment was not entitled to mitigation.

Keiter Appellate Law’s amicus brief further canvassed the law of all 50 states and observed not a single one treated homicides more leniently when defendants asserted intoxication caused an unreasonable belief in the need for self-defense (perceiving an unreal risk) than when they asserted they failed to perceive an actual risk. Keiter Appellate Law urged California not to become the first.

The Supreme Court majority agreed that the Legislature’s decision to exclude intoxication evidence as a defense to implied malice murder precluded its availability to reduce murders to manslaughter through the imperfect self-defense doctrine.

Intoxication can distort a person’s perception of the unfolding circumstances, and thereby impair the sound judgment that is needed when deciding to use lethal force in self-defense. . . . [¶.] By prohibiting evidence of voluntary intoxication to negate implied malice, the Legislature apparently agreed with Justice Mosk that a defendant who acts with conscious disregard for life should be punished for murder regardless of whether voluntary intoxication impaired his or her judgment.

(People v. Soto (2018) 4 Cal.5th 968, 977-978.)

An Alternate Ground

The California Supreme Court’s decision barring defendants from introducing evidence of their own intoxication was the optimal outcome. But Keiter Appellate Law offered the Supreme Court an alternate ground for affirming Soto’s conviction: Imperfect (unreasonable) self-defense is available as a defense only where reasonable self-defense would be an available self-defense. (People v. Valencia (2008) 43 Cal.4th 268, 288.) As it was Soto’s own wrongful conduct (breaking into Ramirez’ apartment and attacking him with a knife) that initiated the violent altercation, Soto was not legally entitled to use deadly force to protect himself from Ramirez’ counterattack. (See People v. Rangel (2016) 62 Cal.4th 1192, 1216; In re Christian S. (1994) 7 Cal.4th 768, 773, fn. 1.) Because he could not assert perfect (reasonable) self-defense, he could not assert imperfect (unreasonable) self-defense.

The Dissent

Justice Liu (joined by Justice pro tem Thompson) dissented from this holding. The dissent questioned whether the California Supreme Court should construe the California Constitution just as the United States Supreme Court construed the United States Constitution in Montana v. Egelhoff, supra, 518 U.S. 37. Five justices in that case held Montana enacted a law “rendering evidence of voluntary intoxication logically irrelevant to proof of the requisite mental state,” and this policy complied with the constitutional requirement of due process. (Egelhoff, supra, 518 U.S. 37, 58-59 [conc. opn. of Ginsburg J.].) Justice Liu contended the other four justices deemed the policy unconstitutional, and he questioned why the California Supreme Court should so uncritically disregard the policy arguments of what he characterized as a “four-justice dissent.” (Soto, supra, 4 Cal.5th at p. 987 (conc. & dis. opn. of Liu, J.).)

Justice Liu described these dissenting justices in Egelhoff as insisting that a “state rule barring intoxication evidence denies a criminal defendant a fair opportunity to present a defense and relieves the prosecution of its burden to prove every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.” (Soto, supra, 4 Cal.5th at p. 987 (conc. & dis. opn. of Liu, J.).) That was not their position. The four justices agreed with the other five that Montana could have constitutionally barred intoxication evidence as supporting a defense to any mental state, and any degree of homicide; they simply doubted Montana had actually done that. Justice O’Connor was joined by the other three justices in expressing that conclusion.

A state legislature certainly possesses the authority to define the offenses it wishes to punish. If the Montana Legislature chose to redefine this offense so as to alter the requisite mental-state element, the due process problem presented in this case would not be at issue. [¶] There is, however, no indication that such a “redefinition” occurred.

(Egelhoff, supra, 518 U.S. 37, 71 (dis. opn. of O’Connor, J.) (emphasis added).

Justice Souter was even more direct.

I have no doubt that a State may so define the mental element of an offense that evidence of a defendant’s voluntary intoxication at the time of commission does not have exculpatory relevance and, to that extent, may be excluded without raising any issue of due process. I would have thought the statute at issue here (Mont.Code Ann. § 45–2–203 (1995)) had implicitly accomplished such a redefinition, but I read the opinion of the Supreme Court of Montana as indicating that it had no such effect, and I am bound by the state court’s statement of its domestic law.

(Id. at p. 73 (dis. opn. of Souter, J.) (emphasis added).)

Contrary to the dissenting opinion, there were not four United States Supreme Court justices, or even one, who doubted a state could constitutionally exclude evidence of voluntary intoxication as a mental state defense to any charge.

People v. Soto was a tremendous victory for the People of the State of California. It rejected the formerly operative “compromise between the conflicting feelings of sympathy and reprobation or the intoxicated offender.” (People v. Hood (1969) 1 Cal.3d 444, 456.) When a man consumes enormous amounts of methamphetamine, breaks into another man’s home and stabs home to death before his terrified family, there is no room for “compromise.” Our sympathy must lie exclusively with the victim.”

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