People v. Jaffe
185 N.Y. 497, 78 N.E. 169 (1906)

  • Someone stole some cloth from Goddard, but the police recovered it. Goddard allowed the police to use the cloth in a sting operation.
  • Undercover police went to Jaffe and asked if he would be interested in buying the ‘stolen’ cloth. He was interested. The police arrested Jaffe for attempting to receive stolen property.
  • The Trial Court found Jaffe guilty of attempting to receive stolen property. He appealed.
    • Jaffe argued that the cloth was not actually stolen, so if he received it, there would be no actual crime. Therefore, he could not have be convicted of attempt because commission of the underlying crime was an impossibility.
    • The prosecutor argued that if the cloth had actually been stolen, then Jaffe would have been guilty of receiving stolen property. Since the cloth was not actually stolen, but Jaffe thought it was, he should be guilty of attempting to receive stolen property.
  • The Appellate Court upheld the conviction.
  • The New York Supreme Court reversed and overturned the conviction.
    • The New York Supreme Court found that if a person intends to commit an act that would not be a crime if it were consummated, the person cannot be convicted of an attempt.
    • The Court found that an essential element in the crime is that the defendant must have knowledge that the goods were stolen. But since the goods were not stolen, by definition Jaffe could not have knowledge of something that was untrue.
    • The Court compared this to a man who sleeps with a girl he believes is under the age of consent. If she is actually older than he thinks, he cannot be guilty of statutory rape, even if he intended to commit the offense.
  • This case defined when impossibility can be used as a defense against an attempted crime. In general, if there is a legal impossibility (like in this case), then there is a defense, but if there is only a factual impossibility, then there is no defense.
    • An example of a legal impossibility would be for hunters to shoot at an artificial deer without a license. Since it is not a crime to kill a stuffed animal, it is no crime to attempt to do what is legal.
    • An example of a factual impossibility is when you put your hand in someone’s pocket to rob them, but they have no money. While it is factually impossible to rob someone with no money, if you had been successful you would be guilty of robbery, so being unsuccessful still makes you guilty of attempted robbery.