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For certain types of penal laws, often referred to as public welfare offenses, the legislature does not intend that any proof of scienter or wrongful intent be necessary to conviction. "Such offenses generally are based upon the violation of statutes which are purely regulatory in nature and involve widespread injury to the public. Under many statutes enacted for the protection of the public health and safety, traffic and food and drug regulations, criminal sanctions are relied upon even if there is no wrongful intent. These offenses usually involve light penalties and no moral obloquy or damage to reputation. Although criminal sanctions are relied upon, the primary purpose of the statutes is regulation rather than punishment or correction. The offenses are not crimes in the orthodox sense, and wrongful intent is not required in the interest of enforcement.
Defendant Jorge M., a minor, was charged with possessing an assault weapon in violation of § 12280(b) of the Assault Weapons Control Act (AWCA), Cal. Penal Code §§12275- 12290. Police found an SKS-45 semiautomatic rifle with a detachable "banana clip" magazine in defendant's living quarters. That weapon was listed in a separate AWCA statutory section that identified the prohibited weapons. The defendant was adjudicated a ward of the juvenile court. The appellate court reversed, finding that the record contained insufficient evidence that the defendant knew the weapon had the characteristics bringing it within the definition of an assault weapon under the AWCA. The State appealed.
Did the offense of possession of an unregistered assault weapon in violation of Pen. Code, § 12280, subd. (b) require actual knowledge regarding the firearm's prohibited characteristics?
The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeal. The Court held that the offense of possession of an unregistered assault weapon in violation of Pen. Code, § 12280, subd. (b), did not require actual knowledge regarding the firearm's prohibited characteristics. The Court held that the State had to prove, and did prove that defendant knew or should have known the characteristics of the assault weapon violated the statute. The Court held the legislature did not intend for possession to be a strict liability crime, because assault weapons had some legitimate uses, but also did not contemplate a harsh scienter requirement such as actual knowledge because the statute was meant to protect public safety.