Erroneous Jury Instruction Cases
In People v. Flood (1998) 18 Cal.4th 470, the California Supreme Court addressed the harmless error standard in an omitted element case.
That case involved an instructional error concerning the charge of evading a pursuing peace officer under Vehicle Code section 2800.3. An element of that crime is that the person driving the pursuing vehicle is a peace officer. (Id. at p. 475.)
The trial court, however, failed to instruct the jury that it should determine this issue; rather, it "informed the jury--in conformity with the uncontradicted evidence that had been presented at trial--that the police officers in that vehicle were peace officers, thus effectively removing this element of the crime from the jury's consideration." (Ibid.)
The California Supreme Court considered whether the error of failing to instruct on this element was subject to harmless error analysis and, if so, whether under the facts presented, the error was harmless.
The Flood court concluded "that an instructional error that improperly describes or omits an element of an offense, or that raises an improper presumption or directs a finding or a partial verdict upon a particular element, generally is not a structural defect in the trial mechanism that defies harmless error review and automatically requires reversal under the federal Constitution." (Flood, supra, 18 Cal.4th at pp. 502-503.)
The court further concluded that the failure to instruct as to the peace officer element of Vehicle Code section 2800.3 was harmless because "the record established beyond a reasonable doubt that the trial court's instructional error on the peripheral peace officer issue did not contribute to the jury's guilty verdict . . . ." (Flood, supra, at p. 505; Chapman v. California (1967) 386 U.S. 18 (Chapman).)
It appears our state Supreme Court in Flood correctly anticipated the United States Supreme Court's ultimate resolution of the identical issue in Neder v. United States (1999) 527 U.S. 1.
There, the high court explained that "unlike such defects as the complete deprivation of counsel or trial before a biased judge, an instruction that omits an element of the offense does not necessarily render a criminal trial fundamentally unfair or an unreliable vehicle for determining guilt or innocence." (Id. at p. 9.)
The court explained that "in typical appellate-court fashion, a reviewing court asks whether the record contains evidence that could rationally lead to a contrary finding with respect to the omitted element. If the answer to that question is 'no,' holding the error harmless does not 'reflect a denigration of the constitutional rights involved.' " (Id. at p. 19.)
Accordingly, "even when jury instructions completely omit an element of a crime, and therefore deprive the jury of the opportunity to make a finding on that element, a conviction may be upheld under Chapman where there is no 'record . . . evidence that could rationally lead to a contrary finding' with respect to that element. " (People v. Davis (2005) 36 Cal.4th 510, 564, quoting Neder, supra, 527 U.S. at p. 19.)