State v. Geeslin (3/4/10)

The Supreme Court issues this short and clear opinion to change, or at least to clarify, a point of appellate law.

Accused of car theft, Geeslin requested a jury instruction on “unlawful use” of the car. She claimed that that’s a lesser included offense. The trial judge concluded on the record that it isn’t and refused the instruction. The Court of Appeals, though clearly signaling its disagreement with the trial court, held that it couldn’t consider the issue because the instruction was not in the record on appeal.

That has generally been considered the law – you can’t review an instruction not in the record. The point of this opinion is that although that may be a good rule of thumb, if the record provides “everything necessary to determine whether the evidence warranted the requested instruction” then the appellate court can review it.

Here, the issue was simply whether unlawful use is a lesser included offense. The issue wasn’t whether the instruction properly stated the law, so not having it in the record wasn’t fatal.

This makes sense. But we hope it won’t lead to endless argument about whether a particular record had “everything necessary.” As the Court of Appeals pointed out, Geeslin had several opportunities to supplement the record. Bright-line rules have benefits, among them fewer controversies and better professional discipline.