Thursday, February 14, 2013

Withdrawal from offending at common law – evidential and legal burdens

The burden and standard of proof of the affirmative defence of limitation, and some aspects of the affirmative defence of withdrawal, were considered in Smith v United States, USSC No 11-8976, 9 January 2013.

Subject to any statutory definition to the contrary, an affirmative defence is one that affirms that even though the actus reus and the mens rea may have been proved, nevertheless the defendant is not guilty.

Examples of affirmative defences are infancy, insanity, self-defence, coercion, and limitation.
This last one, limitation, amounts to the defendant saying, "Yes, I committed the offence, but that was so long ago that the law prevents me being charged." Not all offences are limited in this way, and limitation periods are established by legislation. Terminology can be a bit confusing, so when I say the offence was inside the limitation period that means the defendant can be prosecuted, and when I say it was outside the limitation period that means the defendant cannot be prosecuted.

In Smith the relevant offences were conspiracies to commit various serious offences. A limitation period applied. The defendant relied on the limitation period, saying his participation in the conspiracies had ceased outside that period because he had withdrawn his participation. At trial the issue of withdrawal only arose as a result of a question from the jury, and the judge gave a direction that the defendant had to prove withdrawal to the standard of the balance of probabilities. The Supreme Court held that this did not violate the Due Process clause.

Placing the burden of proof of withdrawal on the defendant did not violate the right to be presumed innocent because, as the Court had said in Patterson v New York, 432 U.S. 197 (1977),

"This was the rule when the Fifth Amendment was adopted, and it was the American rule when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified. Commonwealth v. York, 50 Mass. 93 (1845)."

Of course legislatures could change that rule, as indeed most have, so that it is now usual for defences, whether they be affirmative or not, to be for the defendant to raise but for the prosecutor to disprove. The defendant under this usual approach has only the "evidential burden" of pointing to some evidence sufficient to put the existence of the defence into issue.

But in the eighteenth century, as Blackstone described in his Commentaries, the defendant had to prove the defence. In Smith the Court, in its unanimous opinion delivered by Scalia J (who did not on this occasion have the opportunity to indulge his appetite for the purple prose of vigorous dissent), pointed out that the burden on the defence to establish withdrawal on the balance of probabilities was justified because it was the defendant who would have the relevant evidence on the issue. The prosecutor could not be expected to prove a negative. The defence here did not seek to negative any element of the offence that the prosecutor had to prove.

To negative his participation in the conspiracies the defendant had to prove that he took steps "to dissociate from his confederates". The conspiracy was a continuing offence, and the prosecutor had proved that it continued inside the limitation period, but the prosecutor could not be expected to prove that the defendant did not withdraw before then. Participation in the conspiracy continues even if the defendant is inactive after joining it, until he withdraws or until the conspiracy terminates.

I should emphasise that the law is not necessarily the same outside the United States. The common law has developed since the eighteenth century and legislation usually reflects those developments: a defence carries an evidential burden for the defendant and then a legal burden of disproof on the prosecutor. The usual exception is insanity, where the legal burden is on the defendant to the standard of the balance of probabilities. But where the defence of withdrawal is still a common law defence the policy of placing the legal burden on the defendant, on the issue of the taking of sufficient steps to withdraw, may need some consideration.

Withdrawal cannot be effective if the offending cannot be undone. A conspiracy is complete upon agreement, and it continues while that agreement exists even if the parties to it change. Once the defendant has entered the conspiracy it is too late for him to withdraw. And in relation to attempts, it is too late to withdraw once a sufficiently proximate act has been committed. And incitement is committed when the incitement occurs – it is too late to withdraw after then. But liability can arise from assistance or encouragement, and it may be possible for the defendant to withdraw his assistance and encouragement. Liability can also arise from participation in a common purpose, and a defendant may be able to withdraw by negativing his participation. More than verbal withdrawal may be required, for example where the defendant has provided others with equipment needed to commit an offence. Even verbal withdrawal may require more than mere dissociation, and the defendant may have to try to persuade the principal offender not to continue.

In Ngawaka v R [2004] NZCA 249 (6 October 2004) the Court of Appeal approved a statement of the law on withdrawal by Hammond J in R v Pink [2001] 2 NZLR 860:

"As a matter of legal doctrine, it seems to me that the following conditions must be met:
• First, there must in fact be a notice of withdrawal, whether by words or actions.
• Secondly, that withdrawal must be unequivocal.
• Thirdly, that withdrawal must be communicated to the principal offenders. There is some debate as to whether the communication must be to all the principal offenders, but here all were told.
• Fourthly, the withdrawal may only be effected by taking all reasonable steps to undo the effect of the party's previous actions. (See R v Menniti [1985] 1 Qd R 520.) As with any test of "reasonableness", it is impossible to divorce that consideration from the facts of a given case. The accused's actions may have been so overt and influential that positive steps must be taken by him to intercede, and prevent the crime occurring. There is at least one authority (R v Grundy [1977] Crim LR 534 (CA)) which suggests that where the accused's participation was in the form of counselling, attempts by the accused to dissuade the principal offenders from proceeding with the crime are sufficient."

Hammond J continued:

"[15] That is the law, as I understand it, in all the British Commonwealth jurisdictions. It follows that because the onus is on the Crown, where "withdrawal" is raised by a party the onus is on the Crown to negative any such "defence". The difficulty which has arisen in the cases appears to be as to the precise conditions of withdrawal which have to be in place for this doctrine to apply.
[16] A classic statement of the defence is that by Plowden in his commentary on R v Saunders and Archer (1576) 2 Plowd 473, 476; (1576) 75 ER 706, 710:
"If I command one to kill JS and before the fact done I go to him and tell him that I have repented, and expressly charge him not to kill JS and he afterwards kills him, there I shall not be accessory to this murder, because I have countermanded my first command, which in all reason shall discharge me, for the malicious mind of the accessory ought to continue to do ill until the time of the act done, or else he shall not be charged; but if he had killed JS before the time of my discharge or countermand given, I should have been accessory to the death, notwithstanding my private repentance."
[17] A more modern statement of the doctrine is to be found in the judgment of Slane JA in the Canadian appellate decision of R v Whitehouse [1941] 1 DLR 683, 685: the doctrine of withdrawal only obtains on the footing that, "where practicable and reasonable, there must be timely communication of the intention to abandon the common purpose".
[18] That decision gave rise to some debate as to what is meant by "timely" and "effective"? What, for instance, is the position to be where timely communication is not practicable? Some jurists suggested that withdrawal by means of countermand would not then be available to the accomplice at all. On that point, the High Court of Australia in White v Ridley (1978) 52 ALJR 724 has held that the withdrawal must be sufficiently timely to be capable of being effective.
[19] That there is a doctrine of withdrawal in New Zealand law is at least implicitly accepted by the Court of Appeal in a decision cited to me by Mr Ellis – R v Wilcox [1982] 1 NZLR 191. In that case, at p.196, Sir Owen Woodhouse accepted that there was a material misdirection on the part of the trial Judge in that case, insofar as the jury had been left under the misapprehension "that any subsequent change of mind following the first step taken (the purchase of the weapons) could not be used by Wilcox as a defence".
[20] It is not possible in a trial ruling of this kind to consider at length, even if it were appropriate, the very considerable academic literature and interest which has been generated on this difficult topic. The literature includes Lanham "Accomplices and Withdrawal" (1981) 97 LQR 575; Smith, "Withdrawal from Criminal Liability for Complicity and Inchoate Offences" (1984) 12 Anglo-American Law Review 200; O'Regan, "Complicity and the Defence of Timely Counterman or Withdrawal Under the Griffith Code" (1986) 10 Criminal Law Journal 236; Marcus, "Joint Criminal Participation: Establishing Responsibility, Abandonment" (1986) 34 American Journal of Comparative Law 479. See also in New Zealand, Simester and Brookbanks, Principles of Criminal Law (1998) at para, and R v Malcolm [1951] NZLR 470 (CA).
[21] Without attempting to resolve the jurisprudential debate as to the basis of this "defence" (if a defence it be, properly so called) it seems to me that, as a matter of public policy, there should be a plea of this kind which is open to an accused. It is surely in the public interest that somebody who has contemplated criminal endeavour and changed their mind, should be able to do so. At the same time, attempting to withdraw from a crime about to happen may not in itself be sufficient, since the accomplice's prior act may have some very distinct impact on what in fact occurs. It may be that the law should look for some kind of abrogation of the influence of that act."
The question of who should have to prove this abrogation is also a policy matter. Hammond J has, naturally, assumed at [15] that where withdrawal is raised it is for the prosecutor to negative it, and this was applied in Pink in reaching the conclusion that the prosecutor could not establish beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant had not withdrawn. But, especially where there are technical questions about whether withdrawal is really a defence, it is not inevitable that the common law must put the legal burden of negativing it on the prosecutor.

Update: the New Zealand Supreme Court has held that withdrawal is a common law defence and that Hammond J's points in Pink need modification: Ahsin v R [2014] NZSC 153, especially at [134] per McGrath, Glazebrook and Tipping JJ.