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The People v. Melissa Kay Murphy

July 7, 2011


San Bernardino County Super. Ct. No. FSB060016

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cantil-sakauye, C. J.

Ct.App. 4 E046742

Defendant, Melissa Kay Murphy, submitted a false report to a deputy sheriff, stating that her vehicle had been stolen. We granted review to decide whether defendant's felony conviction under a general statute governing the offering of a false instrument for filing in a public office (Pen. Code, § 115, subd. (a)) is precluded by special statutes in the Vehicle Code that make it a misdemeanor to make or file a false report of vehicle theft (Veh. Code, § 10501, subd. (a)) or to file a false statement with the Department of Motor Vehicles (Veh. Code, § 20). We conclude the Legislature intended that defendant's conduct be prosecuted as a misdemeanor under Vehicle Code section 10501 and not under the more general statute.

I. Facts and Procedure

As relevant to the issues presented here, the facts are as follows: A San Bernardino County sheriff's deputy discovered defendant's Chevrolet Malibu crashed into a hillside. Based on the license plate number, the officer obtained the owner's name and address and went to defendant's home to inquire about the vehicle. Defendant told the officer that the car had been stolen, and the officer completed a stolen vehicle report on California Highway Patrol (CHP) form No. 180. Defendant signed the completed form under penalty of perjury. The information on a form No. 180 is routinely entered into a national stolen vehicle database. Two days after the accident, defendant filed a claim with her insurance company, stating under penalty of perjury that her vehicle had been stolen.

Defendant was charged with three felonies: procuring or offering a false or forged instrument for filing or recording (Pen. Code, § 115, subd. (a)), knowingly presenting a false or fraudulent insurance claim (id., § 550, subd. (a)(4)), and knowingly presenting a false statement in an insurance claim (id., § 550, subd. (b)(1)). Evidence presented at trial established that the car had not been stolen and that defendant had been driving the car herself when the accident occurred. A jury convicted defendant on all three counts, and the trial court sentenced her to three years' formal probation, conditioned upon her service of a 180-day jail term. On appeal, defendant challenged her conviction on the first count, asserting that prosecution under Penal Code section 115 was precluded by either of two more specific statutes applicable to her conduct, Vehicle Code sections 20 or 10501, each of which establishes a misdemeanor offense. The Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment of the trial court, and we granted defendant's petition for review.

II. Discussion

The Legislature has adopted a statute, Vehicle Code section 10501, that specifically and narrowly addresses defendant's conduct of filing a false vehicle theft report, and makes that conduct a misdemeanor. Defendant contends that by enacting that statute, the Legislature intended to preclude prosecution for this conduct under a more general statute that imposes a more severe penalty.

A. The Williamson Rule

Defendant's challenge is premised on a doctrine often referred to as the Williamson rule, based on our decision in In re Williamson (1954) 43 Cal.2d 651, 654 (Williamson). Under the Williamson rule, if a general statute includes the same conduct as a special statute, the court infers that the Legislature intended that conduct to be prosecuted exclusively under the special statute. In effect, the special statute is interpreted as creating an exception to the general statute for conduct that otherwise could be prosecuted under either statute. (Ibid.) "The rule is not one of constitutional or statutory mandate, but serves as an aid to judicial interpretation when two statutes conflict." (People v. Walker (2002) 29 Cal.4th 577, 586.) "The doctrine that a specific statute precludes any prosecution under a general statute is a rule designed to ascertain and carry out legislative intent. The fact that the Legislature has enacted a specific statute covering much the same ground as a more general law is a powerful indication that the Legislature intended the specific provision alone to apply. Indeed, in most instances, an overlap of provisions is determinative of the issue of legislative intent and 'requires us to give effect to the special provision alone in the face of the dual applicability of the general provision . . . and the special provision . . . . ' (People v. Gilbert [(1969)] 1 Cal.3d [475,] 481.)" (People v. Jenkins (1980) 28 Cal.3d 494, 505-506 (Jenkins), fn. omitted.)

Absent some indication of legislative intent to the contrary, the Williamson rule applies when (1) "each element of the general statute corresponds to an element on the face of the special statute" or (2) when "it appears from the statutory context that a violation of the special statute will necessarily or commonly result in a violation of the general statute." (People v. Watson (1981) 30 Cal.3d 290, 295-296 (Watson).) In its clearest application, the rule is triggered when a violation of a provision of the special statute would inevitably constitute a violation of the general statute. In Williamson, for example, the defendant was convicted under the general conspiracy statute, Penal Code section 182, of conspiring to commit the crime of contracting without a license in violation of section 7028 of the Business and Professions Code. A violation of Penal Code section 182 was punishable as either a misdemeanor or a felony. The defendant argued that his conduct was punishable only under a special statute, Business and Professions Code former section 7030 (added by Stats. 1939, ch. 37, p. 384; repealed by Stats. 1963, ch. 1883, § 2, p. 3867), which made it a misdemeanor to "conspire[] with another person to violate any of the provisions of this chapter." This court agreed. We explained, "To conclude that the punishment for the violation of section 7030 of the Business and Professions Code is stated in section 182 of the Penal Code, which deals with conspiracies in general, would be inconsistent with the designation of the particular conspiracy as a misdemeanor." (Williamson, supra, 43 Cal.2d at p. 655; see also People v. Gilbert, supra, 1 Cal.3d at p. 481 [prosecution for theft barred by special statute prohibiting use of false statement to obtain welfare, because "any conduct which violated [the welfare fraud statute] would also constitute a violation of the theft provision of the Penal Code"].)

On the other hand, if the more general statute contains an element that is not contained in the special statute and that element would not commonly occur in the context of a violation of the special statute, we do not assume that the Legislature intended to preclude prosecution under the general statute. In such situations, because the general statute contemplates more culpable conduct, it is reasonable to infer that the Legislature intended to punish such conduct more severely. For example, in Watson, supra, 30 Cal.3d 290, the defendant was charged with second degree implied malice murder based on a fatal automobile collision that occurred when the defendant was intoxicated and had been driving at excessive speeds. On appeal, the defendant argued that he could be convicted only of vehicular manslaughter under Penal Code section 192 because that statute specifically addressed killing while driving a vehicle, whereas the murder statute was a more general statute that addressed a broad range of unlawful killings. We rejected that argument because a murder conviction requires a finding of malice, while vehicular manslaughter requires only gross negligence. Because of the different mental state required, "a violation of the vehicular manslaughter statute would not necessarily or commonly result in a violation of the general murder statute. Thus, the Williamson rule is inapplicable." (Watson, supra, at p. 296.)

However, that the general statute contains an element not within the special statute does not necessarily mean that the Williamson rule does not apply. "It is not correct to assume that the [Williamson] rule is inapplicable whenever the general statute contains an element not found within the four corners of the 'special' law. Rather, the courts must consider the context in which the statutes are placed. If it appears from the entire context that a violation of the 'special' statute will necessarily or commonly result in a violation of the 'general' statute, the Williamson rule may apply even though the elements of the general statute are not mirrored on the face of the special statute." (Jenkins, supra, 28 Cal.3d at p. 502.)

For example, in People v. Ruster (1976) 16 Cal.3d 690 (Ruster), this court compared the general statute prohibiting forgery with the special misdemeanor statute prohibiting unemployment insurance fraud. In Ruster, the defendant filed claims for unemployment benefits using a false name and Social Security number. He was prosecuted under the general forgery statute, Penal Code section 470. The defendant argued that his actions could be prosecuted only under section 2101 of the Unemployment Insurance Code, which made it a misdemeanor to "willfully make a false statement [or] representation or knowingly fail to disclose a material fact . . . to obtain . . . any benefit or payment" for unemployment insurance. (Unemp. Ins. Code, former ยง 2101, subd. (a).) The People argued that because one element of forgery -- the signing of the name of another -- is not an element of Unemployment Insurance Code section 2101, that statute "does not supplant" Penal Code section 470 when unemployment fraud involves forgery. (Ruster, supra, at p. 695.) We rejected the People's argument and applied the Williamson rule to preclude the forgery prosecution. We stated that "the Legislature unquestionably contemplated that ...

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