Friday, December 19, 2014

Dog Bites and Strict Liability in California

We all love dogs. Well, most of us anyways. There is scientific evidence that supports that dogs are great mental health companions. Socially, they are important to a lot of dog owners' lives. Despite all of the love, dogs can also cause harm to individuals. Indeed, when I was young, and in Tennessee, a dog bit me. There were medical bills, and trauma that followed (even to this day at times).

Like other injury accidents, an owner of a dog can be sued for a dog bite. Under the common law, or laws developed through a number of cases, dog owners were routinely sued under a "strict liability" theory because their dog caused an injury to another. "Strict liability" means that the injured party did not need to prove negligence. It was much easier to prevail.

Dog bite lawsuits pursuant to strict liability under the common law required that the "domestic animal" exhibit dangerous propensities. Typically, dangerous propensities were proven by previous incidents when the dog harmed someone else. But, a dangerous propensity was also shown when the owner knew or should have known that the domestic animal could have caused injury to another person. Domestic animals also included cats, snakes, horses, and other pets. It's important to note that there was a distinction -- with wild animals.

If an owner of an exotic pet injured someone else, they could be held strictly liable without the dangerous propensity element. Thus, if a Las Vegas magician's tiger mauled someone, the magician could be held strictly liable even if the tiger never exhibited signs of having a dangerous nature before the incident. Contrast with the domestic animal lawsuit, a defendant could prevail if he could show that the domestic animal never exhibit dangerous propensities.

Fast forward to today. California enacted statutory law, which provides for strict liability in dog bite cases. There is no need to prove "dangerous propensities." California Civil Code 3342(a) states, in part that:

"The owner of any dog is liable for the damages suffered by any person who is bitten by the dog while in a public place or lawfully in a private place, including the property of the owner of the dog, regardless of the former viciousness of the dog or the owner' s knowledge of such viciousness."

Does this statute prevent defenses? What if the dog was provoked by the actions of the injured party before the dog bite? Nothing in the Civil Code prevents a defendant from raising "comparative fault" or "assumption of risk" defenses. Therefore, if the plaintiff was a bad apple who hit the dog, the defendant dog owner may have a good case against the mean injured plaintiff.

In the event that you, or someone you know, was injured by a dog bite, it is wise to retain an experienced persona injury attorney. A lot of dog bites are serious. In some instances, plastic surgery is required. Experienced counsel can pursue a claim, most often with a homeowner's insurance policy, after a dog bite. Dogs are important to our lives but medical bills and pain and suffering should be addressed, if you, or someone you know, was a victim of a dog bite. We welcome your calls and questions. 

Friday, December 5, 2014

'Constructive Possession' in Drug Possession Crimes

Both federal and state governments are changing the way drug crimes are prosecuted. Sentencing guidelines that require strict prison terms are being discarded for more court discretion. States are also implementing drug courts, or diversion programs, that allow defendants to enter into drug treatment programs in lieu of jail.  There seems to be an understanding that drug offenders need treatment rather than punishment.

Even with positive changes in California, with respect to drug crimes, because of Proposition 47, which mandated that certain crimes be prosecuted as misdemeanors instead of felonies, there are still situations in which an accused may be wrongfully charged. For example, an individual may not even know that illicit drugs were near or by him/her at the time of his/her arrest.

Health and Safety Code sections 11350, et al prohibits the possession of certain controlled substances. "Possession" is not limited to drugs on a person, like in his pockets, wallet, or belongings. Possession can also be "constructive" or "joint."

"Constructive" possession has been defined in a number of cases on appeal in California. People v. Showers (1968) 68 Cal.2d 639 defined constructive possession as follows:

"The accused has constructive possession when he maintains control or a right to control the contraband. Possession may be imputed when the contraband is found in a location which is immediately and exclusively accessible to the accused and subject to his dominion and control."

"The accused is also deemed to have the same possession as any person actually possessing the narcotic pursuant to his direction or permission where he retains the right to exercise dominion or control over the property. People v. Mardian (1975) 47 Cal.App.3d 1. However, merely being near a drug, or being in association with someone in possession of a drug, in of itself, was insufficient to establish possession under the law. Exercise or control of an area still requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Let's give a hypothetical, when"constructive" possession may be in dispute. Roommate A is living with Roommate B to save money. Roommate A does not abuse drugs. Roommate A is a student with a steady job. Roommate B smokes methamphetamine, but does so privately. Roommate A is unaware of Roommate B's personal habits. The police, on a tip from an informant, execute a search warrant in Roommate A and Roommate B's shared room. Roommate B is on vacation. Roommate A is studying. The police find methamphetamine in Roommate B's drawer, which is near Roommate A's bed. The police arrest Roommate A.

In the hypothetical above, Roommate A may be able to get the case dismissed because he was not in possession of the methamphetamine, including "constructive possession." In spite of the fact that he was near the drawer, and could possibly open the drawer, under California law, Roommate A probably did not exercise dominion or control over the property in the drawer. He didn't have the requisite intent, nor did he exercise control of Roommate B's drawer.

Substance abuse is most often caused by disease and studies have shown that mental health services, not prison, is the best way to combat drug crimes. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to retain a criminal defense attorney if you, or someone you care about, has been charged with a drug crime. Experienced attorneys can see if alternatives to jail are available. Further, if there are facts of the case that suggest an accused may prevail at a preliminary hearing or P.C. 1538 hearing, a criminal defense attorney could aggressively advocate on your behalf. Our office welcomes your calls and questions.