Court: Superior County: Los Angeles Judge: Robert Leventer, Juvenile Court Referee Super. Ct. No. GJ25585 Super. Ct. No. GJ25587; Ct. App. 2/1 B212416; Ct. App. 2/8 B212635
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chin, J.
In this case, V.V. and J.H., minors, set off a firecracker on a brush-covered hillside in Pasadena, causing a fire that burned five acres of forest land. At a combined adjudicatory hearing, the juvenile court determined that V.V. and J.H. had committed arson. The court found that, although they did not intend to set the hillside on fire, the evidence satisfied the mental state required for arson.
In V.V.'s case, the Court of Appeal affirmed the juvenile court's order, finding that the evidence sufficiently established the requisite mental state of malice because V.V. deliberately and intentionally set off a firecracker on a brush-covered hill. In J.H.'s case, a different division of the Court of Appeal found that the intentional act of setting off a firecracker on a brush-covered hill without intent to do harm is insufficient to establish the element of malice.
We conclude that under the circumstances of this case, V.V.'s and J.H.'s acts of intentionally igniting and throwing a firecracker amidst dry brush on a hillside, although done without intent to cause a fire or other harm, were sufficient to establish the requisite malice for arson.
I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
On the afternoon of July 18, 2008, V.V. and J.H. (both 17-year-olds) joined a friend to climb a steep hill located behind a residential street in Pasadena. V.V. lit a large firecracker, which J.H. threw onto the brush-covered hillside. The firecracker exploded and caused a five-acre brush fire.
Abel Ramirez, a Pasadena resident, heard a "very loud explosion" from his backyard patio. He immediately saw smoke rising from the hillside and saw flames several minutes later. Shortly thereafter, Ramirez saw three young men running down the hill from the fire's point of origin. The fire was rapidly spreading, coming within 60 to 75 feet of a residence. Ramirez called 911 to report the fire and described the three young men. At a field show-up that day and at the adjudicatory hearing, Ramirez identified V.V. and J.H. as two of the three young men running down the hill.
Ara Moujoukian, Ramirez's neighbor, heard kids laughing, yelling, and "having a good time" outside his house. He heard them exclaiming "Wow," "Look," "Did you see that," and "Fire." Moujoukian went outside and saw three boys laughing and "high-fiving" each other. When Moujoukian asked, "What are you guys doing?" they immediately ran away. One of the three boys "smacked" Moujoukian's car as he ran off. Moujoukian turned around and saw a fire on the hill behind his house. He called 911 to report the fire and gave descriptions of the three boys. At a field show-up that day and at the adjudicatory hearing, Moujoukian identified V.V. and J.H. as two of the three boys.
Pasadena police officers responded to the 911 calls. About one-quarter mile from the scene of the fire, they saw three people matching the description of the suspects and detained them. Officer Brian Bozarth patted down V.V. and found a lighter and "a large firecracker that would be described as a cherry bomb," which was about the size of a golf ball and had a fuse coming out of the top. When Officer Bozarth discovered the firecracker, V.V. declared, "That's what caused the fire." V.V. admitted that he had caused the brush fire by setting off a firecracker on the hillside. Officer Bozarth saw a gray substance on J.H.'s fingers that appeared to be gunpowder from fireworks.
Firetrucks arrived and climbed three-fourths of the way up the hill. The fire burned five acres of brush-covered hillside behind a housing development.
At the police station, Detective Jesse Carrillo read V.V. and J.H. their Miranda rights (Miranda v. Arizona (1966) 384 U.S. 436) and interviewed them separately. During the interviews, V.V. and J.H. admitted that they had been playing with firecrackers and had set the hillside on fire. They stated they had gone to the hill with the intention of climbing it. J.H. admitted that he had brought six firecrackers "because we wanted to blow them up." V.V. and the third minor knew J.H. had the firecrackers with him. But the third minor did not want to participate in lighting the firecrackers because he feared that someone might get injured.
V.V. acknowledged that, although J.H. brought the firecrackers to the hill, they both had the idea of lighting one. The minors stated that J.H. held the firecracker, V.V. lit it with J.H.'s lighter, and J.H. threw it. V.V. stated that they tried to throw the firecracker onto a green area on the hillside. On the other hand, J.H. said he told V.V. he was going to throw the firecracker onto a concrete area. V.V. claimed that he lit the firecracker "[j]ust to make a lot of noise," and that he did not think the green areas on the hillside would ignite. After the fire started, they "got kind of scared" because the fire could have reached them. They then discarded the other fireworks into a sewer. The three minors ran down the hill without stopping to report the fire to anyone.
Detective Carrillo testified that the brush fire's point of origin was below the minors' position on the hillside. He stated that the concrete area J.H. said he was aiming for was even further down the hillside, about 150 yards from the fire's point of origin.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney filed petitions under Welfare and Institutions Code section 602 alleging that V.V. and J.H. committed the crimes of arson of a forest land (Pen. Code, § 451, subd. (c))*fn1 and recklessly causing a fire (§ 452, subd. (c)). The juvenile court found that V.V. and J.H. understood what they were doing and that they knew "the natural consequence could be setting the hill on fire because they're trying to throw the thing into a patch of green or into a cement area. So they're trying to avoid setting the hill on fire." The court further found that V.V. and J.H. did not intend to set the hill on fire, but concluded that because they intentionally ignited and threw the firecracker that caused the fire, the requisite mental state for arson was met, as construed in People v. Atkins (2001) 25 Cal.4th 76 (Atkins). The court found the arson allegation to be true, dismissed the lesser offense of unlawfully causing a fire, declared V.V. and J.H. wards of the state, and placed them on home probation.
In affirming V.V.'s wardship order, Division One of the Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, in an unpublished opinion, concluded that arson's malice requirement was met under Atkins. The court reasoned that "[u]ndisputed evidence established that V.V. intentionally ignited the firecracker with the knowledge and intent that his companion would throw the firecracker onto the hillside and it would explode amidst dry brush. This was not an accidental ignition, but a deliberate and intentional act of igniting and exploding the firecracker 'under such circumstances that the direct, natural, and highly probable consequences would be the burning of' dry brush on the hill when the firecracker exploded. (People v. Atkins, supra, 25 Cal.4th at p. 89.)"
In setting aside the arson finding in J.H.'s case, Division Eight of the Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, in a published opinion, concluded that, under Atkins, the act of lighting and throwing a firecracker without the intent to do harm was not malicious conduct because it was not done with "an intent to do a wrongful act." The court struck the arson finding as to J.H. and modified the judgment to reflect a finding that J.H. committed the lesser offense of recklessly causing a fire.
We granted review in both cases to determine the correct application of Atkins.*fn2
V.V. and J.H. argue that there is insufficient evidence of malice, as defined in the arson statutes (§§ 450, 451), because they lit and threw the firecracker without intent to cause a fire or any other harm. As explained below, the evidence supports the juvenile court's finding that V.V. and J.H. acted with malice.
Our review of the minors' substantial evidence claim is governed by the same standard applicable to adult criminal cases. (In re Muhammed C. (2002) 95 Cal.App.4th 1325, 1328.) "In reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence, we must determine 'whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.' [Citation.]" (People v. Davis (1995) 10 Cal.4th 463, 509.) " '[O]ur role on appeal is a limited one.' [Citation.] Under the substantial evidence rule, we must presume in support of the judgment the existence of every fact that the trier of fact could reasonably have deduced from the evidence. [Citation.] Thus, if the circumstances reasonably justify the trier of fact's findings, the opinion of ...