U.S. Supreme Court
Carella v. California, 491 U.S. 263 (1989)
Carella v. California
Argued April 26, 1989
Decided June 15, 1989
491 U.S. 263
Appellant Carella was convicted by a California jury of grand theft for failure to return a rented car. At his trial, the judge instructed the jury that a person "shall be presumed to have embezzled" a vehicle if it is not returned within 5 days of the rental agreement's expiration date, and that "intent to commit theft by fraud is presumed" from failure to return the property within 20 days of demand. The Appellate Department held these presumptions valid, even though the prosecution acknowledged that the instructions imposed conclusive presumptions as to core elements of the crime in violation of the Due Process Clause.
Held: The jury instructions violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The instructions were mandatory, since they could have been understood by reasonable jurors to require them to find the presumed facts if the State proved certain predicate facts. Thus, they directly foreclosed independent jury consideration of whether the facts proved established certain elements of the offenses with which Carella was charged, and relieved the State of its burden, under In re Winship, 397 U. S. 358, of proving by evidence every essential element of Carella's crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The determination whether the error was harmless is for the lower court to make in the first instance.
Reversed and remanded.