Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in California Court of Appeal

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Stephen Lucero was shot to death several hours after he and fellow gang members, defendants Alberto Lara, Issiah Flores, and Aurelio Espinoza, III burglarized a house in Stockton, taking an assortment of electronics and firearms from the house. Each defendant was charged with Lucero’s murder, residential burglary, and gang participation; defendants Flores and Espinoza were also charged with possession of a firearm by a minor and possession of ammunition by a minor; Flores was further charged with additional counts of possession of a firearm by a minor and possession of ammunition by a minor and receiving stolen property. Defendants were tried together before two separate juries; each defendant was convicted of murder (first degree as to Lara, second degree as to Flores and Espinoza), residential burglary, and gang participation. Flores was also convicted of the remaining counts charged against him; Espinoza was not convicted of the remaining counts charged against him. Lara was sentenced to serve an indeterminate prison term of 25 years to life for the murder plus a consecutive determinate term of 12 years. Flores was sentenced to serve an indeterminate prison term of 15 years to life for the murder plus a consecutive determinate term of 12 years. Espinoza was sentenced to serve an indeterminate prison term of 15 years to life for the murder plus a consecutive determinate term of 10 years. On appeal, defendants: (1) challenged the sufficiency of the evidence to support their murder convictions; and (2) challenged the sufficiency of the evidence to support their gang participation convictions and the gang enhancement findings. After review, the Court of Appeal concluded there was insufficient substantial evidence to support Lara’s first degree murder conviction, requiring reduction of that conviction to second degree murder. The evidence was also insufficient to support second degree murder convictions as to Flores and Espinoza, requiring reversal of their murder convictions. With respect to the gang evidence, the Court concluded the evidence admitted against defendants was sufficient to support the gang convictions and enhancement findings notwithstanding an additional “associational or organizational connection” requirement. Because evidence establishing that required connection, as well as gang membership on the part of Flores and Espinoza, was admitted in violation of the controlling caselaw, and because admissions made by defendants during booking interviews were admitted against them in violation of "Elizalde," the Court reversed the gang crime convictions and enhancements for these constitutional errors. View "California v. Lara" on Justia Law

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Defendant Terry Shorts sexually assaulted and murdered 13-year-old Jessica S. in 1996, shooting her in the head and leaving her half-naked body in a park in the middle of the night. Sixteen years later, he was connected to the crime when his DNA was identified in samples taken from Jessica’s body. At trial, defendant conceded that he had sexual relations with Jessica, but claimed he did not kill her. Instead, he argued that Sammy Rodriguez did it. The jury convicted defendant of the murder and sex offenses, and the trial court sentenced him to life without possibility of parole, as well as other terms. On appeal, defendant contends the trial court: (1) improperly admitted evidence of his prior sex offenses against J.P., his ex-girlfriend, over his Evidence Code section 352 objection; (2) improperly excluded evidence of Rodriguez’s propensity for violence; and (3) improperly admitted lay opinion testimony that Rodriguez did not commit the murder. Finding no prejudicial error, the Court of Appeal affirmed. View "California v. Shorts" on Justia Law

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Respondent Angela Vandiver pled guilty in 2012 to a single felony count of receiving stolen property based on her possession of blank checks she knew had been stolen. She later petitioned to have the conviction redesignated a misdemeanor under the new provisions of Proposition 47 on the ground the checks were worth $950 or less. The State opposed, arguing the balance of the victim’s checking account was greater than $950. The trial court found the value of the blank checks to be de minimis and granted the petition. The State contended the court erred by: (1) reaching the merits because Vandiver did not attach evidence of value to her petition; and (2) determining the checks’ value was de minimis. The State contended the trial court should have dismissed the petition as unsupported or found the checks were worth the full amount in the linked checking account and denied the petition on the merits. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court. View "California v. Vandiver" on Justia Law

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Defendant, a homeowner in Rancho Palos Verdes, submitted an application to his HOA, seeking to invoke the HOA's dispute resolution process against a neighbor who refused to trim trees blocking defendant's views. Plaintiff, another neighbor and HOA member, filed suit against defendant and the HOA, alleging that two of the offending trees were actually on his property, that the relevant tree-trimming covenant did not encumber his property, and therefore that defendant and the HOA were wrongfully clouding his title by seeking to apply such an encumbrance. The trial court granted defendant's special motion to strike the claims alleged against him under Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16, the anti-SLAPP statute. The court concluded that defendant made a prima facie showing that plaintiff's complaint arose from defendant's statements made in connection with an issue of public interest. Therefore, defendant's statements were protected under section 425.16. The court also concluded that plaintiff could not show a probability of success on the merits of his claims against defendant, particularly because defendant dismissed his application shortly after the lawsuit was filed and has never sought to invoke the HOA's tree-trimming process against plaintiff. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment. View "Colyear v. Rolling Hills Community Association" on Justia Law

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Felipe Malago appealed certain mandatory supervision conditions related to alcohol consumption, alcohol testing, alcohol treatment, and substance abuse treatment. Malago contended the superior court abused its discretion when it did not rule on his objections to these conditions, but instead, deferred any rulings to the mandatory supervision judge. He also argued that the conditions were unreasonable and invalid because they were unrelated to Malago's current offense or future criminality. The Court of Appeal agreed that the superior court erred in failing to rule on Malago's objections to the mandatory supervision conditions. However, the Court concluded that Malago suffered no prejudice as the conditions are reasonable and valid. Thus, the Court affirmed. View "California v. Malago" on Justia Law

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“The trial judge in this case exercised uncommon common sense” in this case: appellant Michael James Jackson was faced with having to choose between revealing damaging information to the judge about to hear his bench trial, or giving up his chance at a new attorney. Appellant was convicted of multiple counts of sexual misconduct arising from his work as a massage therapist. His sole claim on appeal was that the trial judge erred in transferring his motion for a new attorney (a “Marsden” motion) to another judge for adjudication. Although Marsden motions generally should be heard by the judge who was assigned to a defendant’s case, the transfer here was justified because at the time appellant made his motion, he was facing a bench trial in front of the very judge to whom he would have addressed his complaints. The Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment. View "California v. Jackson" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs filed suit against defendants after he was suspended from his position as a physician at Cedars-Sinai. The suspension stemmed from plaintiff's operation on a young patient, which resulted in complications requiring corrective surgery. The trial court granted the hospital's anti-SLAPP, Code of Civil Procedure 425.16, motion based on its contention that plaintiff's claim arose out of a protected activity—the medical staff's peer review process—and that plaintiff could not show a probability of success on the merits. The court concluded that defendants' acts relating to plaintiff's suspension and peer review process constituted protected activity for purposes of the anti-SLAPP statute and plaintiff's claims arose from that protected activity. Because plaintiffs' claims arose from defendants' protected activity, the burden shifted to plaintiff to submit admissible evidence supporting a prima facie case in his favor. In this case, the court concluded that plaintiff failed to establish a probability of success on the merits of his claims under the Health and Safety Code and he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. Accordingly, the court affirmed the judgment. View "Melamed v. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center" on Justia Law

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A jury found defendant Jorene Nicolas guilty of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence. Defendant was on her phone and texting while driving on the freeway. The victim had been in her car, stalled in a traffic jam. Defendant crashed into the rear of the victim’s car at about 80 miles per hour. In this appeal, defendant claimed: (1) there was insufficient evidence of gross negligence; (2) the trial court committed three separate instructional errors; and (3) the court abused its discretion by imposing an upper term sentence (six years). The Court of Appeal agreed with defendant that the trial court committed three separate instructional errors; one of the errors requires automatic reversal because it had the effect of lowering the prosecution’s burden of proof. View "California v. Nicolas" on Justia Law

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Defendant Percy Camel killed two men in separate criminal incidents. Convicted of two counts of first degree murder and other crimes and sentenced to two consecutive indeterminate terms of life without the possibility of parole and other terms, he appealed. Defendant argued that the trial court erred by determining: (1) he did not have standing to challenge a search of the trunk of a car parked on the front lawn of his residence; and (2) his trial attorney violated his right to effective assistance of counsel by not proffering evidence of standing to the trial court in connection with the motion to suppress. The Court of Appeal concluded: (1) the court employed the correct probable-cause test; (2) the court properly sealed the documents attached to the wiretap request; and (3) there was probable cause to support the wiretap authorization. In the unpublished part of this opinion, the Court addressed defendant’s remaining contentions on appeal and find that some of them required modification of the judgment. The Court therefore modified the judgment and affirmed it as modified. View "California v. Camel" on Justia Law

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Faris Alsafar appealed the extension of his period of commitment to a state mental hospital as a mentally disordered offender (MDO). He argued the trial court violated his constitutional right to equal protection when it compelled him to testify over his objection at the trial to determine whether his commitment should be extended. Alsafar contended that because persons subject to civil commitment after being found not guilty by reason of insanity (NGI) have a statutory right, pursuant to Penal Code section 1026.5 (b)(7) not to be compelled to testify in proceedings to extend their commitments, so should a person facing commitment as a MDO. He pointed out that this right has been extended to commitment proceedings for sexually violent predators (SVP) by application of equal protection principles. The Attorney General argued it was not a denial of equal protection to treat MDO’s differently from NGI’s, and any disparate treatment was related to a legitimate government purpose. Alternatively, she maintained any error was harmless. The Court of Appeal asked the parties to submit supplemental letter briefs discussing a recently decided opinion by Division Two of the Fourth District, which held that MDO’s, SVP’s, and NGI’s were all similarly situated with respect to the testimonial privilege provided for in section 1026.5(b)(7). In addition, it looked as if Alsafar’s one-year commitment order expired while the appeal was pending due to the Court of Appeal’s “pressing caseload.” The Court ordered the parties to notify the Court if there was a new commitment order, and if this ruling rendered the appeal moot. The Court concluded the question of equal protection was a legal issue of continuing public importance that was likely to reoccur in MDO proceedings. “A reviewing court may exercise its inherent discretion to resolve an issue rendered moot by subsequent events if the question to be decided is of continuing public importance and is a question capable of repetition, yet evading review.” Because Alsafar had been recommitted without being required to testify, the issue of equal protection was rendered moot as to him. View "California v. Alsafar" on Justia Law