It was the squirt of lotion heard ’round the world.
Or at least heard ’round the Washington state Supreme Court chambers.
On July 28, 2010, Vianney Vasquez walked into a Safeway store in Yakima, took down a bottle of lotion and pumped a bit into his hands. He then walked to the front of the store to browse through the movies. Upon leaving the store, he was grabbed by a security guard – nabbed for shoplifting that squirt.
In any case, Vasquez was detained, and as a security guard checked his ID, he discovered a couple of problems: Vasquez had a forged Social Security card and a forged permanent residency card. He was arrested and charged with two felony counts of forgery. He was convicted at trial. His conviction was upheld on appeal.
On Thursday, the state Supreme Court undid his conviction, ruling unanimously that the mere possession of a forged document does not prove the intention to commit forgery.
It’s a fine point. It’s the kind of distinction that makes some people tear out their hair over accused criminals going free over “technicalities.” But it is also, in both fascinating and frustrating ways, a deep dive into the crucial realm of “reasonable doubt.”
How much doubt is reasonable?
Reasonable doubt is an important standard in criminal cases, of course, a standard that has been an important part of Western systems of justice for hundreds of years. It produces some cases where seemingly guilty parties – probably guilty, likely guilty, apparently guilty, but not guilty beyond any reasonable doubt – go free.
How do you prove an intention? Vasquez clearly possessed forged documents, which could be used in any number of fraudulent ways. He told the security guard, after he was popped for the lotion theft, that he had bought the forged cards for $50 each from friends in California.
The state Court of Appeals, in upholding Vasquez’s conviction, argued that it is sufficient to know that he had illegal documents that misrepresented his immigration status. Its ruling said, “And here why else would Mr. Vasquez have them,” noting that “the only value of the cards would be to falsely represent Mr. Vasquez’s right to legally be in the country.”
Why, indeed? It is the clearest, most obvious conclusion to draw. But the Supreme Court held that drawing obvious conclusions is not the same as proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The Court of Appeals’ holding assumes that the only reason a person possesses forged documents is because he or she intends to injure or defraud someone,” Justice Charles Wiggins wrote in the decision. “But by requiring proof of intent to injure or defraud, the legislature has determined that mere possession of forged documents is not enough to sustain a forgery conviction. Rather, as courts both in- and outside Washington have held, the State must prove intent to injure or defraud beyond a reasonable doubt. The evidence that the State presented to demonstrate intent to injure or defraud was not sufficient because it either was patently equivocal or based on rank speculation.”
The state must prove, the court ruled, “every element of the charged offense beyond a reasonable doubt.” This level of proof can indeed be a burden, though it’s one I’d wager most of us would embrace if we were accused of something. In this case, the charge of forgery requires proof that someone intended to “defraud or injure” someone.
Did Vasquez, by having those fake records in his wallet, intend to do so? The Supreme Court ruled that there was no proof he intended to defraud the security guard, given that he admitted they were forgeries. Beyond that, there was no evidence that Vasquez had used the cards in any way, to defraud anyone else.
The justices argued that possession alone does not prove intent, though possession plus even “slight” corroborating evidence might. It cited an example from a previous ruling: A man who removed cold tablets from their packaging and put them in his pocket and left a store was guilty of shoplifting, but not of intent to manufacture meth, the justices ruled.
In another example, they noted that simply possessing a lot of drugs – more than one person might use – is not sufficient to prove an intention to sell the drugs. A Court of Appeals ruling held that “at least one additional fact must exist, such as large amount of cash or sale paraphernalia, suggesting an intent to deliver.”
These are narrow distinctions. But they serve as a reminder that there is a broad distinction between not guilty and innocent.