Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in California Courts of Appeal
by
A jury convicted Rene Quintanilla, Jr., of one count of first degree murder, one count of possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, and one count of child abuse likely to produce great bodily harm or death.1 For murder, the jury further found that Quintanilla intentionally and personally discharged a firearm causing great bodily injury or death. The trial court sentenced Quintanilla to prison for an indeterminate term of 50 years to life, consecutive to a determinate term of six years. On appeal, Quintanilla contended the trial court made several prejudicial errors in the admission of evidence during trial. In addition to his evidentiary challenges, Quintanilla argued for reversal based on the prosecutor's alleged misconduct in adducing testimony regarding the witnesses' opinions regarding Quintanilla's relationship with the victim that the trial court excluded from evidence during an in limine hearing. The Court of Appeal concluded the trial court prejudicially erred in admitting the victim's out-of- court statements pursuant to Evidence Code section 1390. Accordingly, although this case involved a horrific and tragic killing, the Court concluded the trial court's erroneous evidentiary rulings required reversal and remand for further proceedings. View "California v. Quintanilla" on Justia Law

by
Surveillance video from a neighbor’s house showed two individuals walking from a truck to a burglarized house and then walking away, carrying sacks. Deputy Willett contacted Delrio and told him that a vehicle registered to him had been involved in a burglary. Delrio completed paperwork to report the vehicle stolen. Willett viewed the video and concluded that one of the individuals resembled Delrio, who was on parole. Sergeant Acosta went to Delrio’s house to conduct a parole search; officers located Delrio's cell phone. Acosta believed Delrio’s parole obligations required him to surrender his password; he stated, “you’re on parole. I need the passcode,” Delrio complied. A detective downloaded the contents of the phone before returning it. Minutes after the officers left his house, Delrio called and asked Acosta to return to the house, where Delrio showed Acosta a photograph from his cell phone in which Delrio was holding $100 bills and said the money was the proceeds from selling the stolen jewelry. Delrio told Acosta about his involvement in the burglary. Delrio unsuccessfully moved to suppress the evidence. The court of appeal affirmed. Any expectation of privacy he may have had did not outweigh the government’s interest in conducting the search because the officers had specific reasons to suspect he was involved in a residential burglary. View "People v. Delrio" on Justia Law

by
E.B. has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. The Contra Costa County public guardian sought the appointment of a conservator. The court denied E.B.’s objection to compelled testimony. At a trial, E.B. was called as one of three witnesses. He appealed from an order appointing the Public Guardian as his conservator and determining that his current placement in a mental health rehabilitation facility was the least restrictive and most appropriate placement. (Welf. & Inst. Code 5350, 5358(c)(1)). E.B. argued that he had a right to refuse to testify under the equal protection clause, because that right has been statutorily granted in proceedings to extend the commitment of persons found not guilty by reason of insanity, and he is entitled to the same protection. The court of appeal affirmed. LPS conservatees are similarly situated with NGI’s and with individuals subject to other involuntary civil commitments for purposes of the right against compelled testimony but the error was harmless. Even if the jurors had not observed E.B.’s demeanor on the stand, they would have known his diagnosis; that he was on three medications for his mental illness, one of which required white blood cell count monitoring; that he had been recently hospitalized for his mental illness; that when living on his own he had engaged in aberrant behavior; and that he resisted treatment and had limited insight into his mental health condition. View "Conservatorship of E.B." on Justia Law

by
Fernando Cota pled guilty to felony carrying a concealed dirk or dagger in exchange for three years of probation and the possibility that the charge might be reduced to a misdemeanor at the end of one year. The trial court imposed various probation conditions that Cota objected to in the trial court and challenged on appeal. Based on the California Supreme Court's recent decision in In re Ricardo P., 7 Cal.5th 1113 (2019), the Court of Appeal concluded that an electronics search condition that the court imposed was unreasonable, but remanded for further consideration of a potentially appropriate electronics search condition. The Court upheld the remaining challenged conditions. Cota also challenged the trial court's imposition of various fees and a restitution fine, arguing that due process required a finding of ability to pay before such charges may be imposed. He requested a remand to the trial court for a hearing to consider his ability to pay the fines and fees assessed at sentencing. To this, the Court of Appeal concluded due process did not bar the imposition of the assessments and fine that Cota challenged and that remand on this issue was therefore not required. In all other respects, judgment was affirmed. View "California v. Cota" on Justia Law

by
McDowell and Hutchison planned and executed a burglary and an attempted armed robbery of a drug dealer. Hutchison shot and killed the drug dealer. Although he was not the actual killer, McDowell was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole after a jury convicted him of, among other things, first-degree murder (Pen. Code 187(a)) and found true robbery-murder and burglary-murder special circumstances (190.2(a)(17)(A), (G)). After the California Supreme Court’s Banks (2015) and Clark (2016) decision, McDowell sought habeas corpus relief, challenging the special circumstance findings. The court of appeal denied relief, holding that the “major participant” and “reckless indifference to human life” findings are adequately supported. McDowell’s decision to arm himself with a palm knife should be viewed in combination with the particularly risky crime that he planned and led—a home invasion robbery of a methamphetamine dealer. McDowell’s proximity to the crime and opportunity to restrain Hutchison also increased his culpability. View "In re McDowell" on Justia Law

by
The State appealed a trial court's orders granting respondent Brandon Brown’s (defendant) petition for writ of habeas corpus, vacating his sentence, and resentencing him to 16 years eight months in prison, which was eight years shorter than his original sentence. The trial court granted his writ petition because his strike for carjacking as a juvenile did not qualify as a strike under Welfare and Institutions Code section 707(b) and Penal Code section 667(d)(3). The trial court also concluded that defendant’s trial counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) by not objecting to the strike during sentencing. The State contended on appeal that the trial court erred in granting defendant’s writ petition because: (1) defendant’s juvenile carjacking adjudication qualified as a strike under the 2006 law; (2) the trial court erred in applying California v. Gallardo, 4 Cal.5th 120 (2017), retroactively; (3) the trial court exceeded its jurisdiction by vacating the carjacking strike entered in Los Angeles (case No. VA 076709) and Orange County (case No. 03NF1824) cases; (4) defendant’s trial counsel was not ineffective, because the record of conviction established defendant’s carjacking adjudication qualified as a strike; and (5) defendant’s delay in filing his writ petition prejudiced the People’s ability to oppose it. The Court of Appeal determined the trial court did not err in applying Gallardo retroactively and granting defendant’s writ petition on the ground defendant’s juvenile carjacking adjudication did not qualify as a strike. Therefore, the Court concluded it did not need to address the State's additional IAC challenge. Furthermore, the Court rejected the State’s other objections and affirmed the writ petition order and judgment. View "In re Brown" on Justia Law

by
Victor Gastelum was convicted by jury of the first degree murder of Terrance Rodgers with the special circumstance of lying-in-wait, and the premeditated attempted murder of J.W. As to both offenses, the jury found that Gastelum participated with the knowledge that another principal in the offense was armed with a firearm. In bifurcated proceedings, the trial court found that Gastelum had suffered a prior prison term and had not remained free of custody or subsequent offense for five years thereafter, therefore sentencing him to consecutive indeterminate terms of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and life imprisonment with the possibility of parole, plus three years. Gastelum appealed, contending: (1) the trial court erred under California v. Chiu, 59 Cal.4th 155 (2014) by instructing the jury that he could be convicted of first degree lying-in-wait murder under the natural and probable consequences doctrine; and (2) the court erred by instructing the jury that it could find true the lying-in-wait special circumstance if it found Gastelum acted with "intent to kill," without specifying whom Gastelum must have intended to kill. In its original opinion, the Court of Appeal found Gastelum's contentions unpersuasive and affirmed the judgment. Gastelum then petitioned for review by the California Supreme Court. He reiterated these contentions and additionally argued that a newly enacted statute, Senate Bill No. 136 (Stats. 2019, ch. 590, sec. 1), should have applied to him. The Supreme Court granted review and transferred the matter back to the Court of Appeals court with directions "to vacate [our] decision and reconsider the cause in light of Senate Bill No. 136[.]" After that reconsideration, the appellate court concluded Senate Bill No. 136 applied here because the judgment against Gastelum was not yet final. Because Gastelum's prior prison term was for spousal abuse, not a sexually violent offense, the one-year prior prison term enhancement could no longer be imposed on him. The Court therefore modified the judgment to strike the one-year prior prison term enhancement and affirmed the judgment as modified. Analysis of Gastelum's original contentions remained unchanged: (1) Chiu did not consider the first degree lying-in-wait murder at issue here, and Gastelum provided no persuasive argument why Chiu should have been extended to this type of murder "particularly where, as here, the defendant and perpetrator are equally culpable, having committed all the same actions that gave rise to the lying-in-wait murder;" and (2) Gastelum forfeited any claim of error by failing to object at trial to the allegedly deficient instruction, and, "assuming that competent counsel would have objected, Gastelum has not shown prejudice based on his counsel's failure to do so." View "California v. Gastelum" on Justia Law

by
Mark’s grandfather, McKie, created a trust in his will for the benefit of his wife, Yvonne. during her life and granted her a testamentary power of appointment over the remainder. If Yvonne did not exercise her appointment power, McKie’s children from a prior marriage and Yvonne’s son from a prior marriage would each take a one-quarter share of the remainder; if a child did not survive Yvonne, that child’s surviving issue would take that child’s share. The issue of each of the children had a contingent remainder interest in the trust, subject to divestment by Yvonne’s exercise of her appointment power. McKie died in 1988. His adult children settled claims against the estate unrelated to the trust, disclaiming any interest in the trust. In 1991, the probate court issued a distribution decree, specifying that the trust's remainder was to be distributed solely to Yvonne’s son or his issue. McKie’s grandchildren were not given notice; the Decree eliminated their contingent interests. Yvonne died without having exercised her power of appointment. Mark’s father predeceased Yvonne. Mark unsuccessfully petitioned to be recognized as a trust beneficiary under the will's default distribution provision. The court of appeal reversed. Mark had a property interest in the trust in 1991 and the Decree adversely affected his interest. Mark’s existence and address were reasonably ascertainable; due process required that Mark be given notice of the proceeding that resulted in the Decree and an opportunity to object. View "Roth v. Jelley" on Justia Law

by
In June 2018, the superior court determined that Alvin Quarles, who had been committed as a sexually violent predator (SVP) since 2014, should have been conditionally released. The State unsuccessfully brought a motion for reconsideration of that order. Seeking a writ of mandate, the State petitioned the Court of Appeal to prohibit Quarles' conditional release. To this end, the State contended: (1) the superior court misinterpreted the law and thus erred in ordering Quarles' conditional release; (2) substantial evidence supported Quarles' continued confinement because he remained dangerous and was likely to reoffend; (3) exclusion of certain polygraph evidence was error; and (4) all proceedings relating to Quarles' petition to be conditionally released should have been open to the public. On the record before it, the Court of Appeal expressed concern over whether the superior court applied the correct legal standard in granting Quarles's petition to be conditionally released. "Because of the significance of conditionally releasing an SVP back into the community (especially one with a criminal history like Quarles's)," the Court granted some of the requested relief and ordered the superior court to hold a new trial to determine whether Quarles should have been conditionally released under the correct legal standard. The Court determined the other issues the State raised in its petition were without merit and denied the requested relief as to those issues accordingly. View "California v. Superior Court (Quarles)" on Justia Law

by
Defendant Fidel Mora-Duran waived preliminary hearing and pleaded no contest to felony marijuana cultivation. After his plea, but before sentencing, Proposition 64 was passed, which amended Health & Saf. Code section 11358 narrowing the scope of conduct constituting felony marijuana cultivation. Defendant asked the trial court to sentence him and redesignate his conviction as a misdemeanor. The trial court refused, explaining the parties had not agreed to that. The court then rejected the plea agreement and reinstated charges. After the prosecution filed an amended information, defendant pleaded no contest to felony marijuana cultivation under section 11358(d)(3)(C), a new provision enacted as part of Proposition 64 requiring proof of additional elements. Thereafter, defendant was placed on probation for two years on the condition that he serve a period in jail that amounted to time served. On appeal, defendant contended: (1) the trial court abused its discretion in rejecting the plea agreement; (2) his conviction should have been reversed because charges were added to the amended information after a preliminary hearing was waived in violation of Penal Code section 1009; and (3) his sentence violated the prohibition on ex post facto punishment. The Court of Appeal concluded defendant’s second contention had merit: the amendment to the information, though ostensibly filed pursuant to the same statute, constituted a significant variance from the original charges. Defendant's conviction under section 11358(d)(3)(C) was reversed, and the attendant sentence was vacated. The matter was remanded for further proceedings on the other charges. View "California v. Mora-Duran" on Justia Law