Law School Case Brief
In re Ryan D. - 100 Cal. App. 4th 854, 123 Cal. Rptr. 2d 193 (2002)
As an expression of an idea or intention, a painting -- even a graphically violent painting -- is necessarily ambiguous because it may use symbolism, exaggeration, and make-believe. The ambiguity may be resolved by the circumstances surrounding its presentation. However, to be punishable as a criminal threat, a painting that constitutes a "writing" within the meaning of the statutory scheme must fall into a narrow class of expression, i.e., it must constitute a threat to commit a crime that will result in death or great bodily injury; it must be made with the specific intent that it be taken as a threat; it must be so unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, and specific as to convey to the person threatened such a gravity of purpose and an immediate prospect of execution of the threat that it would cause a reasonable person to be in sustained fear for his or her safety or the safety of the person's immediate family; and it must cause the victim to experience such fear.
Angry that an officer had cited him for possessing marijuana, Ryan D., a minor, painted a picture of the officer and turned it in as a high school art class project a month later. The painting depicted Ryan shooting the officer in the back of the head, blowing away pieces of the officer’s flesh and face. Finding it "scary," the instructor took it to the assistant principal's office. When the painting was shown to the officer, she became concerned about her safety. The juvenile court found that Ryan had made a criminal threat in violation of Cal. Penal Code § 422, and that Ryan had admitted possessing more than 28.5 grams of marijuana, pursuant to Cal. Health & Safety Code § 11357(b). On appeal, Ryan contended the painting did not constitute a criminal threat.
Was a minor's painting of a violent act a criminal threat?
The court of appeal held that, although Ryan's painting was intemperate and demonstrated extremely poor judgment, the evidence failed to establish that the minor intended to convey a threat to the officer. Moreover, under the circumstances in which it was presented, the painting did not convey a gravity of purpose and immediate prospect of the execution of a threat to commit a crime that would result in death or great bodily injury to the officer.
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