Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in California Courts of Appeal
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Sergio Rojas Arias appealed the summary denial of his petition to vacate his first degree murder conviction under Penal Code section 1170.95. The trial court found Arias was not entitled to relief, as a matter of law, because the jury that found him guilty of murder returned a true finding on a robbery-murder special-circumstance allegation associated with the conviction. Because Arias was not the actual killer, the special-circumstance finding meant the jury necessarily found Arias aided and abetted in the commission of the murder with an intent to kill, or aided and abetted in the commission of the robbery while acting as a major participant and with reckless indifference to human life. The California Courts of Appeal were divided on the question of whether a jury’s true finding on a felony-murder special-circumstance allegation categorically precludes resentencing under section 1170.95 where, as here, the true finding was made prior to California v. Banks, 61 Cal.4th 788 (2015) and California v. Clark, 63 Cal.4th 522 (2016). The Court here found persuasive the logic of those courts that determined a pre- Banks and Clark felony-murder special-circumstance finding did not necessarily preclude resentencing under section 1170.95. Thus, the Court concluded the trial court erred in denying Arias’s petition based solely on the existence of the true robbery-murder special-circumstance finding. "Further, given the limited record of conviction before us, we are unable to conclude the special- circumstance finding satisfied the standards set forth in Banks and Clark." The trial court was reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings on whether Arias made a prima facie showing of entitlement to relief. View "California v. Arias" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Pedro Rodriguez was serving a determinate term of 14 years eight months in prison. This term was the result of two separate proceedings in the trial court, both of which ended with jury trials and judgments of conviction. Following the second proceeding, the trial court announced a single, aggregate term of imprisonment for all of Rodriguez’s felony convictions from both proceedings. In the first proceeding, the trial court imposed a one-year prior prison term enhancement under former Penal Code section 667.5(b). This one-year term was included in the aggregate term of imprisonment imposed following the second proceeding. While Rodriguez’s appeal of the second proceeding was pending, section 667.5 was amended to limit the prior prison term enhancement to sexually violent offenses. Rodriguez contended the amendment applied retroactively to him under In re Estrada, 63 Cal.2d 740 (1965) because his aggregate sentence was not yet final when the amendment became effective. The Attorney General contended that the judgment in the first proceeding, where the enhancement was imposed, was final before the amendment became effective, and its finality was not affected by its inclusion in the aggregate term of imprisonment announced by the court following the second proceeding. The Court of Appeal concluded that, under Estrada, the amendment to section 667.5 did not apply retroactively to eliminate the prior prison term enhancement imposed on Rodriguez in the first proceeding. Rodriguez's petition for habeas relief was thus denied. View "In re Rodriguez" on Justia Law

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Petitioner Taking Offense, an “unincorporated association which includes at least one California citizen and taxpayer who has paid taxes to the state within the last year,” sought a writ of mandate asserting facial challenges to two provisions of Senate Bill No. 219 (2017-2018 Reg. Sess.), which added to the Health and Safety Code the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Long-Term Care Facility Residents’ Bill of Rights. The first, codified in Health and Safety Code section 1439.51 (a)(5), prohibited staff members of long-term care facilities from willfully and repeatedly referring to a facility resident by other than the resident’s preferred name or pronoun when clearly informed of the name and pronoun. The second challenged provision, section 1439.51 (a)(3), makes it unlawful for long-term care facilities or facility staff to assign, reassign, or refuse to assign rooms, where such decisions are based on gender, other than in accordance with a transgender resident’s gender identity, unless at the transgender resident’s request. Taking Offense challenged (a)(5) on the bases that it violated staff members’ rights to free speech, free exercise of religion, and freedoms of thought and belief, and was vague and overbroad. Taking Offense challenged (a)(3) as a violation of non-transgender residents’ right to equal protection under the law, contending non-transgender residents were not afforded the same opportunity to request a roommate who does not conform to the resident’s gender identity. The Court of Appeal agreed with Taking Offense that section 1439.51 (a)(5) was a content-based restriction of speech that did not survive strict scrutiny. The Court disagreed that section 1439.51 (a)(3) created an unconstitutional gender-based classification and concluded Taking Offense’s equal protection argument lacked merit. View "Taking Offense v. California" on Justia Law

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In 1983, Marsha Carter was found dead, in the trunk of her car, from multiple sharp-force injuries. The case went inactive. In 2008, investigators processed evidence, using procedures unavailable in 1983. The DNA analysis of blood found in Carter’s home pointed to Smothers, who was dating Carter in 1983. Scrapings beneath Carter’s fingernails yielded DNA, which was entered into the FBI’s CODIS database of DNA profiles, and matched to Sennett, who had no known connection to California, Carter, or Smothers. In 2016, Smothers was charged with Carter’s murder.Defense counsel never introduced evidence that the DNA evidence was matched to Sennett, although the court had given the green light to do so. The defense presented no witnesses. Smothers did not testify. Smothers's conviction was most consistent with the theory that Smothers conspired with a third party to kill Carter.The court of appeal reversed. Smothers’s attorney was ineffective for not presenting the available Sennett evidence, including his identity, to the jury. The prosecution’s key witness testified that Smothers tried to get him and/or other local friends to help him kill Carter. To convict Smothers of the uncharged conspiracy to commit murder, the prosecution had to prove that Smothers had the specific intent to enter into an agreement with someone to kill Carter. There was no evidence that Smothers entered into an agreement with Sennett. The jury likely concluded that Smothers finally located some local acquaintance to kill Carter; it is unclear whether this jury would have reached the same conclusion if they had been told Sennett’s identity and heard there was no known connection between him and Smothers. View "People v. Smothers" on Justia Law

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Defendant Jesus Rodriguez and his codefendant Ralph Gamboa went on a two-day crime spree in Stockton, California: they robbed and attempted to rob numerous victims, and when met with resistance or perceived noncompliance, they resorted to violence. In separate incidents on the same day, defendant shot Victor D.R. in the head but he survived. Gamboa later shot and killed Luis Z.. And defendant later shot and killed Javier R. A jury found defendant guilty of all 19 counts charged and found true 11 firearm enhancements and two robbery-murder special-circumstances allegations. The trial court sentenced defendant to an aggregate term of 178 years eight months to life plus two consecutive terms of life without the possibility of parole. On appeal, defendant raised five issues. Reviewing each, the Court of Appeal modified the judgment to: (1) stay execution of the sentence imposed on count 8, mayhem, pursuant to Penal Code section 654; and (2) impose the $1,000 collection fee pursuant to Penal Code section 1202.4 (l). As so modified, the Court affirmed in all other respects. View "Defendant v. Rodriguez" on Justia Law

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Three news media organizations made a request under the California Public Records Act to obtain unredacted records from the County of San Diego (County) that show the exact location of disease outbreaks during the COVID-19 pandemic. The County maintained a spreadsheet showing each outbreak of COVID-19 in the County, which included the applicable dates of the outbreak, the city where it occurred, the number of people involved, and whether the outbreak occurred in a community setting, a skilled nursing facility or a non-skilled congregate living facility. When releasing the spreadsheet to the public, the County redacted the columns that would show the specific name and address of each outbreak location. In their petition for an extraordinary writ, Voice of San Diego, KPBS Public Broadcasting (KPBS), and San Diego Union Tribune (collectively, petitioners) contended the trial court improperly concluded that the County was entitled to redact information about the exact location of the outbreaks. The Court of Appeal determined the County properly withheld the specific location of COVID-19 outbreaks under the catchall exemption in the PRA. The County submitted uncontradicted evidence that disclosing the exact name and address of an outbreak location would have a chilling effect on the public’s willingness to cooperate with contact tracing efforts. "Although we do not take lightly the countervailing public interest in obtaining access to public records, and we recognize the vital role that the news media plays in obtaining and disseminating information in a time of crisis, the County has convincingly shown that the value of its ability to conduct effective contact tracing in the midst of a deadly pandemic clearly outweighs the public’s interest in obtaining information about the exact outbreak locations." Accordingly, the petition for an extraordinary writ was denied. View "Voice of San Diego v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

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Defendant Sigifredo Zendejas Lopez (Lopez) brought a motion pursuant to California Penal Code section 1018 to vacate his 2019 guilty plea on three felony counts, one of which would have lead to almost certain deportation under federal law. Lopez, who was a lawful permanent resident of the United States at the time of his conviction, argued his retained trial counsel failed to provide accurate and affirmative advice about the immigration consequences of the proposed plea. Lopez’s trial counsel testified at the hearing on the motion that he was not aware of the specific immigration consequences of the individual charges Lopez was facing. Therefore, he could not have provided accurate and affirmative advice as to the consequences of a guilty plea to any particular count. Moreover, trial counsel testified that he tried to negotiate a plea bargain to one misdemeanor count, which was rejected by the prosecution. Had he known the immigration consequences of the specific felony counts, there was some possibility that he could have negotiated an immigration-neutral plea offer the prosecution was more likely to accept. But as he admitted, he did not know those consequences. The Court of Appeal determined Lopez was prejudiced by this course of events. He submitted evidence that he would have taken his chances at trial if he had known and fully understood the immigration consequences of the plea agreement trial counsel negotiated. Because Lopez was not accurately and affirmatively advised, and because there was not an effort to negotiate an acceptable plea bargain with the relevant immigration consequences in mind, the Court reversed the trial court’s order denying the motion to withdraw Lopez’s guilty plea in the interests of justice. View "California v. Lopez" on Justia Law

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Defendant Robert Potter sexually abused his daughter when she was five years old. He admitted the abuse during an interrogation at the police station. Convicted of one count of oral copulation with a child 10 years of age or younger, defendant was sentenced to serve an indeterminate term of 15 years to life in state prison. On appeal, defendant argued: (1) his confession should have been excluded because it was unlawfully obtained during custodial interrogation without Miranda warnings; (2) defendant’s trial counsel provided constitutionally deficient assistance by failing to object to the daughter's testimony on competency grounds; (3) the trial court prejudicially abused its discretion and violated defendant’s federal constitutional rights by allowing the prosecution to amend the information during trial; and (4) the trial court’s determination that defendant possessed the ability to pay a $5,000 restitution fine, as well as court security and court operations assessments of $30 and $40, respectively, was not supported by substantial evidence and violates his federal constitutional rights. Finding no reversible error, the Court of Appeal affirmed. View "California v. Potter" on Justia Law

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Thyrone Stewart was a veteran, honorably discharged from the Army in 1976. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, which was determined to be related to his military service. In 1986 and again in 1992, he was convicted of first degree burglary. In 2001, after being convicted on two counts of spousal battery (among other things), he was sentenced, as a third-striker, to two consecutive terms of 25 years to life in prison. In 2018, the California Legislature amended section 1170.91 so as to allow a convicted veteran who suffers from a specified disorder as a result of his or her military service to petition for resentencing, so that that disorder may be considered as a mitigating factor when imposing a determinate term. Petitioner sought resentencing under section 1170.91. The trial court denied the petition because petitioner had been sentenced to indeterminate terms. Petitioner contended this was error because, if resentenced, there was a possibility that he could be sentenced to determinate terms. Specifically, he argued he could bring a motion under California v. Superior Court (Romero), 13 Cal.4th 497 (1996) to strike one or more of his strike priors. The Court of Appeal considered whether Stewart would be entitled to be sentenced to determinate terms under Proposition 36, but concluded neither possibility was open to him. The trial court therefore did not err by denying the petition. View "California v. Stewart" on Justia Law

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A juvenile wardship petition (Welfare and Institutions Code section 602(a)) alleged that Matthew had committed assault with a deadly weapon and assault by means likely to produce great bodily injury; that Matthew had personally inflicted great bodily injury on the victim and had caused the victim to suffer great bodily injury resulting in paralysis and had personally used a deadly weapon, a knife. The juvenile court found true all of the allegations except for the paralysis enhancement; dismissed count two and the accompanying enhancement, at the request of the prosecutor; declared Matthew a ward of the court; and placed Matthew on probation with conditions.The court of appeal reversed, finding that Matthew’s pre-arrest statements to police were made during a custodial interrogation without the required Miranda warnings and that the admission of those statements was prejudicial. While Matthew was told at the start of the interrogation that he was not under arrest, and the police officers who were present did not handcuff him or unholster their weapons, the interview was initiated by police, who had just heard from another that Matthew had stabbed the victim. The entire interrogation was an attempt to get Matthew to admit that he stabbed the victim and to provide additional incriminating information. View "In re Matthew W." on Justia Law