Example of Harmless Erroneous Jury Instruction In California

In People v. Williams (2001) 26 Cal.4th 779, the court addressed the difficult issue of the mental state required for a conviction of assault. It concluded "assault . . . requires an intentional act and actual knowledge of those facts sufficient to establish that the act by its nature will probably and directly result the in application of physical force against another." ( Id. at p. 790.) Williams found that instruction wanting since it might permit a conviction premised on facts defendant should have known but did not actually know. "Thus, under the instruction given, a jury could conceivably convict a defendant for assault even it he did not actually know the facts sufficient to establish that his act by it nature would probably and directly result in a battery." ( People v. Williams, supra, 26 Cal.4th at p. 790.) The court, however, found the error in giving the erroneous instruction harmless. It noted that the instructional error was largely technical and unlikely to affect the outcome of most assault cases since "a defendant's knowledge of the relevant factual circumstances is rarely in dispute." ( People v. Williams, supra, 26 Cal.4th at p. 790.) In Williams the defendant admittedly fired a warning shot from a shotgun at a truck he knew the victim was hiding behind. The court in Williams concluded: "In light of these admissions, defendant undoubtedly knew those facts establishing that his act by its nature would directly, naturally and probably result in a battery. " (Ibid.)