Lesson 11 of 10
In Progress

4.4: Practice with a New Case

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Background: People v Owusu

You will practice reading a case and identifying its important sections.

This will be a new case for you and it called People v. Owusu. You will probably find it helpful to download the entire case from the “Materials” link above.

By way of background, this is a criminal case, unlike Lefkowitz, which was a civil case. The defendant’s name is Mr. Owusu and he was arrested for committing a burglary and also biting his victim. The Court is the Court of Appeals of New York.

It will be helpful to remember that the Court of Appeals is the highest level appellate court in New York. The trial court in New York has an unusual name – – it is called the Supreme Court! Normally the Supreme Court is the highest appellate-level court, but not in New York. In New York the trial level court is the Supreme Court, then there is an intermediate level appellate court called the Appellate Division, and the highest court is the Court of Appeals.

Im this case, the Court must interpret a statute to determine whether the defendant can be charged with “using a dangerous instrument” while committing a crime. The dangerous instrument here is the defendant’s teeth!

 Goals

  1. Apply the skills that you learned reading the Lefkowitz case to identify the parts of a much different case.
  2. Prepare for a multiple choice assessment in the next lesson.

Instructions

  1. Read the text of each part of the case on the left.
  2. Decide what part of the case you are reading (e.g., facts, procedural history, holding, etc.)
  3. Check your answer by hovering over the section on the right.

 

 

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People v. Owusu

Court of Appeals of the State of New York
May 13, 1999
93 N.Y.2d 398 (N.Y. 1999)
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The Court of Appeals is the highest appellate court in New York (or the court of last resort). In most states the highest court is called the Supreme Court of that state, however, New York is different.

We also know that this cannot be a federal court because “United States” is not in the court’s name.

The case name, People v. Owusu, tells us that this is a criminal case. New York State prosecutors have brought this criminal case against Mr. Owusu on behalf of the people of the State of New York.

Just by looking at this citation, we know that this is an appellate-level state court criminal case.

 

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In this case we are called upon to decide whether an individual’s teeth can constitute a “dangerous instrument” within the meaning of  Penal Law Section 10.00(13).

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This section provides us with the name of the judge who wrote the decision, Judge Wesley. Judge is usually abbreviated “J”.

The first sentence Judge Wesley wrote identifies the issue in this appeal. The legal question, or issue, was whether teeth should be considered “dangerous instruments” under New York Law.

“We are called upon to decide whether….” is a fairly typical way judges introduce an issue in the case.

A few other ways to write “We are called upon to decide whether…” would be:

“We must decide whether…”
“Today we decide whether…”

The word “whether” is often a signal that we are about to read the issue that the court must resolve,

 

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While the use of an object to produce injury is an appropriate analytical vehicle to determine whether an object is dangerous, the statute’s ordinary meaning, its legislative history and our jurisprudence persuade us that an individual’s body part does not constitute an instrument under the statute.
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The Court is providing us with the holding immediately after the issue. Remember, the question or issue is whether teeth should be considered “dangerous instruments” under New York criminal law. If teeth are “dangerous instruments” then the defendant is guilty of a more serious crime. If teeth are not “dangerous instruments” then the defendant cannot be charged with the more serious crime.

The Court is answering the question in the negative. Although teeth can be “used” in a way that is dangerous, the Court is creating a bright-line rule that body parts are not dangerous instruments.

A “bright-line” rule is a clear rule that leaves no ambiguity. According to this decision, body parts are never “dangerous instruments” even if they can cause serious harm.

But this paragraph does not only contain the holding, it also provides us with the court’s reasoning as to its statutory interpretation.

To interpret a statute, courts must look at the (i) plain meaning of the words in the statute, (ii) the legislative history of the statute, and principles of jurisprudence (here jurisprudence refers to case law interpreting similar statutes as well as policy considerations).

As you read this case, keep in mind that every time the court analyzes the plain meaning of a statute, the legislative history of the statute, its own prior decisions interpreting the statute, and policy considerations, we know the court is applying rules of statutory interpretation to resolve the issue.

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We therefore reverse the order of the Appellate Division.
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The Court of Appeals disagrees with the intermediate-level appellate court’s decision and, therefore, is reversing that decision. If the Court had agreed with the lower court’s decision, it would have affirmed the decision.

We can call this the disposition or judgment of the case.

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Defendant Maxwell Owusu is charged in a 13- count indictment with burglary in the first degree (Penal Law § 140.30 [use or threatened use of a dangerous instrument during the burglary of a dwelling]); four counts of burglary in the second degree (Penal Law § 140.25[b] [causing physical injury during burglary]; § 140.25[c] [use or threatened use of a dangerous instrument during burglary]; § 140.25 [burglary of a dwelling]); assault in the first degree (Penal Law § 120.10); [causing serious physical injury with a dangerous instrument]); two counts of assault in the second degree (Penal Law § 120.05 [intentionally causing serious physical injury]; § 120.10 [intentionally causing physical injury with a dangerous instrument]); and two counts of
assault in the third degree (Penal Law § 120.00 [intentionally causing physical injury]; § 120.00 [injury with a dangerous instrument through criminal negligence]). Four counts of the indictment contain the aggravating factor that defendant used or threatened to use a dangerous instrument. These charges stem from an incident in which defendant forced his way into his estranged wife’s apartment and became embroiled in a fight with another man. During the fight, defendant bit the victim’s finger so severely that nerves were severed.  
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This section includes the facts of the case because we learn what happened outside of court, before the defendant was charged with a crime.

Among other things, defendant committed a burglary and bit someone, causing a serious injury with his teeth. These are the most important facts of this case.

We also learn that defendant was charged with several crimes based on these facts.

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Supreme Court dismissed three of the counts (burglary first [dangerous weapon used or threatened in a dwelling], assault first [intentional serious physical injury caused by a dangerous instrument] and assault second [physical injury caused by a dangerous instrument]), and reduced one count of burglary second (threat or use of a dangerous instrument) to burglary third. The court reasoned that defendant’s teeth could not constitute a dangerous instrument. The Appellate Division, with one Justice dissenting, reversed. Citing People v. Carter ( 53 N.Y.2d 113), the Appellate Division applied a “use-oriented approach” and determined that teeth can be a dangerous instrument. A Judge of this Court granted defendant leave to appeal.

 

 

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This is the procedural history of the case because it tells us how this case came to New York’s highest court.

New York Supreme (which is actually New York’s trial court) ruled, among other things, that defendant could not be charged with using a dangerous instrument.  According to the trial court, teeth were not “dangerous instruments”.

The intermediate-level appellate court disagreed and reversed the trial court. The intermediate level appellate court reasoned that because defendant used his teeth in a dangerous way, he could be convicted of using a dangerous instrument.

Now, New York’s highest court must decide whether teeth (like guns and knives) should be considered dangerous instruments.

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In People v. Carter ( 53 N.Y.2d 113), we stated that “`any instrument, article or substance,’ no matter how innocuous it may appear to be when used for its legitimate purpose, becomes a dangerous instrument when it is used in a manner which renders it readily capable of causing serious physical injury.”

 

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This is case law that the Court is introducing from a prior case called People v. Carter (People v. Carter was a criminal case, brought on behalf of the people of the State of New York against a defendant named Carter). Because this Court is introducing case law, it is a rule.  You will see that the Court will eventually explain that the lower court applied the rule incorrectly.

Briefly, the rule from People v. Carter is that a dangerous instrument is an object that is used in a dangerous manner.

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The People point to Carter and the recodification of the Penal Law in 1967 as clear indications that the meaning of “dangerous instrument” should be subject to case- by-case functional inquiries into the use of instruments, articles or substances (see, Penal Law § 10.00)

 

 

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The Court is summarizing the prosecutor’s argument before explaining why this Court disagrees that teeth are dangerous instruments.

This is application or reasoning. The State of New York argued that anything used dangerously, including teeth, should be considered dangerous instruments. The intermediate-level appellate court agreed with this argument.

The Court is explaining why the lower court should not have relied on People v. Carter to hold that body parts can be dangerous instruments. First, the Court is summarizing the argument with which it disagrees.

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It is readily apparent, and the People do not argue to the contrary, that a part of one’s body is not encompassed by the terms “article” or “substance” as used in the statute.
 
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The statute refers to dangerous “articles”, “substances”, and “instruments”. The Court reasons that it is obvious that teeth are not dangerous “articles” or “substances”. The prosecutor does not dispute this interpretation.  

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But what of the term “instrument?”
 
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Although it is obvious that teeth are not dangerous “articles” or “substances”, the legal question confronting the Court is whether teeth are dangerous “instruments”. Here, the court is repeating the issue before explaining why the intermediate-level appellate court reached the wrong decision.

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The starting point of statutory interpretation is, of course, plain meaning (Council of the City of New York v. Giuliani, 93 N.Y.2d 60, 68-69, 1999 WL 02634, *3).
 
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This case law provides us with the general rule on how to interpret a statute.

The first step is to examine the ordinary meaning of the words in the statute. Because this is a rule of statutory interpretation it is a rule or law on which the court is relying.

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In our view, the plain meaning of instrument in this context is a device or object which is capable of causing harm as defined by the statute. One’s hands, teeth and other body parts are not, in common parlance, “instruments.”

 

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Here, New York’s Court of Appeals applies the rule that statutory interpretation begins with the ‘plain meaning’ of the words in the statute. The Court analyzes what people normally mean when they use the word ‘instrument’. People normally don’t refer to parts of a body as ‘instruments’. Because the Court is applying a rule of statutory interpretation, this is the reasoning of the Court, or application of law by the Court.

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The Penal Law and our jurisprudence have long recognized that how an object is used determines if it is “dangerous.” Neither the Legislature nor the courts, however, have classified a person’s hands, teeth or other body part as a weapon or instrument. Contrary to the People’s position, the definition of a dangerous weapon under former law parallels the current definition of a dangerous instrument. The prior statute included any “other instrument or thing likely to produce grievous bodily harm * * *” (former Penal Law § 242[4]; see also, former Penal Law § 1897). The 1937 Law Revision Commission Report noted that killing “with bare fists cannot be said to be effecting death with a `dangerous weapon,’ and * * *, a fatal shooting * * * may be termed killing with a `dangerous instrument’ as a matter of law” (1937 Report of N.Y. Law Revision Commission, p. 728). The Commission noted that “[b]eyond this statement there is no absolute certainty,” but the extreme positions, at least, were considered well defined (id.).

 

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In addition to looking at the “plain meaning” of the words in a statute, courts look at the history of the statute to determine the meaning of the statute.

After concluding that the plain meaning of “dangerous instrument” does not include body parts, the Court begins reviewing the history of the statute. Because the Court is applying the rule that it must look at the history of the statute to interpret the statute, this is the application or reasoning of the Court.

The Court analyzes historical statutes and case law interpreting whether body parts can be “dangerous instruments”. The Court rejects the prosecution’s argument that if a body part is used dangerously it should be considered a dangerous instrument. The Court cites legislative history to show that, in fact, New York law has consistently held that body parts are not dangerous instruments.

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In working on the recodification of the Penal Law, the Law Revision Commission noted that the proposed “dangerous instrument” provision was meant to “* * * includ[e] assaults committed with knives, crowbars, etc. as well as those committed with firearms, blackjack, metal knuckles, etc. [i.e, the enumerated devices]” (Commission Staff Comments on Changes in the New Penal Law Since the 1964 Study Bill, McKinney’s Revised Penal Law Special Pamphlet, p. 272). There is no indication that the purpose was to expand the definition of dangerous instrument, as it was then understood, to include the human body itself, and indeed the specific reference to obviously dangerous objects such as “knives” and “crowbars” suggests that such an expansive reading was not at all intended. Thus, our analysis is not premised on placing an exclusion in the statute’s definition; rather, it is founded on the well-documented legislative history that a body part was never considered a dangerous weapon or instrument.

 

 

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The Court is refuting the prosecution’s argument that if a body part is used dangerously it should be considered a dangerous instrument. The Court cites legislative history to show that, in fact, New York law has consistently held that body parts are not dangerous instruments.

 

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A recent amendment to the second degree assault statute signals that the Legislature has not embraced the all encompassing interpretation of the statute offered by the People. The amended section imposes criminal liability on an adult for intentionally causing physical injury to a child under seven (Penal Law § 120.05). If a body part such as a hand were within the sweep of the Penal Law definition of a dangerous instrument, however, there would have been no need for the legislation. A jury would be free to conclude that, under the “use oriented” approach, an adult’s hands could constitute a dangerous instrument when used against a child for assault in the second degree (intentionally causing physical injury with a dangerous instrument [Penal Law § 120.05(2)]).

Because the Legislature did not consider hands or other body parts to constitute dangerous instruments, the new provision was necessary.

 

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The Court is refuting the prosecution’s argument that if a body part is used dangerously it should be considered a dangerous instrument. The Court cites legislative history to show that, in fact, New York law has consistently held that body parts are not dangerous instruments.

In this example of legislative history, the Court explains that a law was enacted to impose more serious penalties on adults who intentionally harm children. But if hands were considered “dangerous instruments” there would have been no need to enact this new law because any adult who used his hands to harm a child would have been subject to more severe penalties. The new law was necessary because hands were not considered “dangerous instruments”. And if hands are not dangerous instruments, then teeth should not be dangerous instruments, either.

 

 

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[/et_pb_text][/et_pb_column][/et_pb_row][et_pb_row _builder_version=”4.16″ _module_preset=”default” global_colors_info=”{}”][et_pb_column type=”4_4″ _builder_version=”4.16″ _module_preset=”default” global_colors_info=”{}”][et_pb_text _builder_version=”4.16″ _module_preset=”default” global_colors_info=”{}”]We are going to skip to the last two paragraphs of the case, which can be found on page 5 of the attached pdf. The paragraphs we skip are interesting, and you should read the case at your convenience. In those paragraphs that we skipped the Court cites prior case law and treatises to support its conclusion that body parts are never “dangerous instruments”.[/et_pb_text][/et_pb_column][/et_pb_row][et_pb_row column_structure=”1_2,1_2″ _builder_version=”4.16″ _module_preset=”default” min_height=”850px” custom_margin=”-15px|auto||6px||” custom_padding=”36px|||||” global_colors_info=”{}”][et_pb_column type=”1_2″ _builder_version=”4.16″ _module_preset=”default” global_colors_info=”{}”][et_pb_text _builder_version=”4.16″ _module_preset=”default” custom_padding=”||0px|||” global_colors_info=”{}”]
Our decision does not plow new ground — the interpretation and application of the statute is firmly rooted both in the efforts of the Legislature and in our jurisprudence. Indeed, the dissenter concedes that in 1949 this Court unanimously ruled that a man’s hands — even though they killed another — were not dangerous instruments.
Did the Vollmer Court overlook this purported long standing, “all encompassing meaning?” We think not. The Court then (and now) did not engage in judicial legislation, it simply tried to make sense of a statutory term whose meaning was the focus of the case. The Court looked to its precedents and the legislative history of the statute, as we have done. To now change the statute’s sweep will unsettle the careful statutory scheme of increased criminal liability arising from the use, or threatened use, of a dangerous instrument, and will result in applications that are without common sense.
Because the Legislature did not consider hands or other body parts to constitute dangerous instruments, the new provision was necessary.
 
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The Court is addressing the dissenting judge directly, arguing that case law and sound policy arguments favor a bright-line rule that teeth and other body parts are not dangerous instruments.

When the Court writes that it is not “plowing new ground”, it means that this decision is not novel or unusual. Rather, it is consistent with prior case law and statutes.

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Accordingly, the order of the Appellate Division should be reversed and the order of Supreme Court reinstated.
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The Court disagrees with the intermediate appellate court, therefore, that court’s decision is reversed. Because the trial court reached the same decision as the Court of Appeals, the trial court’s decision is reinstated. 

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