Regina v. Cunningham
2 Q.B. 396 (1957)

  • Cunningham broke into a house and stole the gas meter out of the basement.
    • In the process, he broke the pipes releasing methane gas. The gas escaped into another apartment and almost poisoned someone next door.
      • There was a cut off valve right next to the main, but Cunningham didn’t turn it.
    • Btw, the meter contained coins because back then if you wanted gas, they didn’t send you a bill, you just put money in the meter.
  • Cunningham was arrested and charged with burglary and attempted murder.
    • Cunningham pled guilty to the burglary charge, but argued that he didn’t realize that gas was leaking.
  • The Trial Court convicted Cunningham of attempted murder. He appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that Cunningham was ‘acting wickedly’ when he stole the gas meter. Therefore he met the requirement of having ‘malicious intent’ to be convicted of attempted murder under British law.
    • The specific Statute said, “whosoever shall unlawfully and maliciously administer…poison…so as thereby to endanger the life of a person shall be guilty of a felony.”
  • The Appellate Court reversed and remanded for a new trial.
    • The Appellate Court found that there was no mens rea in Cunningham’s act.
      • Mens rea means that the defendant intended, expected, or should have expected that their actions would produce a particular consequence.
      • Since Cunningham didn’t realize that gas was escaping, he had no intent to poison the neighbor.
    • The Court acknowledged that Cunninham ‘acted wickedly’ in stealing the gas main. However, that is not enough to establish mens rea. The question to ask is whether Cunningham foresaw that the removal of the gas meter might cause injury to someone but nevertheless removed it.
      • The Court found that the word maliciously in the British law should be taken to mean ‘with foresight of consequences’ and not ‘wicked’.
  • You wouldn’t consider it a crime if a person was digging in their backyard and accidentally hit a gas line. In this case, Cunningham was stealing something and accidentally hit a gas line. It’s kind of the same thing in a way.
    • Should it matter what the initial activity was? Especially since the person will be punished separately for the initial crime?
  • The Model Penal Code gives very specific definitions for certain terms to make it easier for courts to interpret Statutes.
    • The decision in this case about the level of culpability would probably be the equivalent of reckless under the Model Penal Code.