People v. Navarro

160 Cal. Rptr. 692 (1979)

Quick Summary

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Waldo Navarro (defendant) was convicted of petty theft after taking wood beams from a construction site. It focused on whether his belief that he had a right to take the beams, even if unreasonable, negated the specific intent required for theft.

The appellate court reversed his conviction, ruling that a defendant’s genuine belief negates criminal intent for theft regardless of its reasonableness.

Therefore, Navarro’s conviction was overturned due to improper jury instructions that required his belief to be reasonable.

Facts of the Case

Facts of the case Icon

Waldo Navarro (defendant) was accused of taking four wooden beams from a construction site, a charge that led to his conviction for petty theft. It hinges upon Navarro’s belief during the theft—whether he thought the beams were either abandoned or that he had permission to take them.

During the trial, Navarro requested the jury be instructed that a good faith belief in the right to take the beams, even if unreasonable, would negate the criminal intent necessary for theft.

The trial court rejected Navarro’s proposed instructions, instead charging the jury that such a belief must also be reasonable. The resulting conviction is what Navarro challenges on appeal, contending that the jury instructions were incorrect and thus impacted the verdict.

Procedural Posture and History

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  1. Navarro was initially charged with grand theft but was convicted of petty theft, a lesser included offense.
  2. Navarro proposed specific jury instructions regarding his good faith belief which were denied by the trial court.
  3. The trial court provided modified instructions that included a reasonableness standard.
  4. Navarro appealed his conviction based on the jury instruction issue.

I.R.A.C. Format


Issue Icon

Whether a defendant’s good faith belief that property was abandoned or that they had permission to take it negates criminal intent for theft, even if the belief is unreasonable.

Rule of Law

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In crimes requiring specific intent, a genuine belief held by the defendant, even if unreasonable, can negate the criminal intent necessary for conviction.

Reasoning and Analysis

Reasoning Icon

The appellate court scrutinized previous cases and legal doctrines to determine the validity of Navarro’s appeal. They considered the essence of theft as requiring specific criminal intent—namely, the intent permanently to deprive an owner of property. The court referenced the California Supreme Court’s decision in People v. Wetmore, which acknowledged evidence of mental illness could negate specific intent in certain crimes.

Referencing earlier cases, the court emphasized that an honest but mistaken belief about one’s right to property, regardless of how unreasonable it may be, does not constitute larceny if the belief is genuine. The appellate court found that instructing the jury to consider only a ‘reasonable’ good faith belief imposed an incorrect objective standard on what is inherently a subjective element of the crime—specific intent.


Conclusion Icon

The appellate court reversed Navarro’s conviction, finding that the trial court erred in its instructions to the jury by including a reasonableness requirement for Navarro’s good faith belief.

Key Takeaways

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  1. A defendant’s genuine belief in their right to property negates the specific intent necessary for a theft charge, irrespective of whether this belief is considered reasonable by objective standards.
  2. Jury instructions must accurately reflect the subjective nature of specific intent in theft cases and not impose an objective reasonableness standard.
  3. The appellate court has the authority to reverse convictions if it finds that incorrect jury instructions have potentially influenced the outcome of a trial.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What role does a defendant's belief play in establishing criminal intent?

In criminal law, a defendant’s belief can be pivotal in determining whether they had the required mens rea, or criminal intent, for the charge. If a defendant genuinely believes their actions are not criminal, this belief can negate the intent element necessary for conviction. The subjective nature of the belief, rather than its reasonableness, is what is often crucial.

  • For example: A person who takes an umbrella from a restaurant genuinely believing it is theirs, despite it not being so, may lack the intent to commit theft.

How does unreasonable but genuine belief affect liability in specific intent crimes?

In specific intent crimes, if a defendant holds an unreasonable but sincere belief that justifies their actions, they may not be found liable as the requisite specific intent is absent. Specific intent requires the purposeful intention to perform an unlawful act, which may be negated by a genuine belief in having lawful authority or right.

  • For example: A person who breaks into a house genuinely but mistakenly thinking they are permitted to enter to retrieve their own property may not be held liable for burglary.

Is the standard of 'reasonableness' relevant when assessing a defendant's belief in their legal right to property?

The reasonableness of a defendant’s belief is not typically relevant when determining the specific intent in theft cases. The focal point is whether the belief was genuinely held. A belief that negates intent does not need to align with what a reasonable person would have thought under similar circumstances.

  • For example: If someone takes items from a curbside display believing they are free or discarded when they are actually not, their unreasonable but genuine belief may preclude theft liability.


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