Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in California Courts of Appeal
by
After a client fired her attorney and his firm, the firm placed a lien on the client's further recovery and filed suit against the client's daughter for defamation. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's grant of the daughter's motion under the anti-SLAPP law. The court held that Bel Air Internet, LLC v. Morales (2018) 20 Cal.App.5th 924, 929, foreclosed the firm's argument that, because the daughter denied making the posts, plaintiffs' cause of action was not arising from any act of the daughter. The court agreed with the trial court's conclusion that plaintiffs did not make a prima facie showing that the daughter was legally responsible for the Yelp review postings that underly their defamation claim. In this case, the posts themselves did not establish that the daughter was the author or poster, because none of the posts were in her name and their content suggested that the author was the client, the one represented by the attorney and law firm. The court rejected plaintiffs' remaining arguments and held that the daughter was entitled to her costs on appeal. View "Abir Cohen Treyzon Salo, LLP v. Lahiji" on Justia Law

by
Following a traffic stop, officers searched Brandon Lee's car without a warrant and discovered 56 grams of cocaine, a firearm, and other items associated with selling narcotics. After Lee was charged with various drug and weapons offenses, he filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the warrantless vehicle search. The trial court granted Lee's motion, rejecting the State's contentions that the search was proper under the automobile exception as supported by probable cause or, alternatively, as an inventory search of a vehicle following an impound. The Court of Appeal determined the trial court properly concluded that Lee's possession of a small amount of marijuana was of little relevance in assessing probable cause. Because the other factors relied on by the State were also of minimal significance, the Court concluded that even considering the totality of circumstances known to the officer, there did not exist " ' "a fair probability that contraband or evidence of a crime will be found." ' " The Court likewise found no error in the trial court's conclusion that the search was not valid as an inventory search. The Court therefore affirmed the order granting Lee's motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the unlawful search of his car. View "California v. Lee" on Justia Law

by
Junior Tejeda was twice found incompetent to stand trial for murder and robbery charges due to his persistent belief that his actions were controlled by a "mind control project" run by the federal government. He was later found competent after the trial court determined he could compartmentalize any lingering delusion and separate it from his defense. But at trial Tejeda took the stand against his counsel's wishes, admitted guilt for the murder and robbery, and explained that "the project" controlled his actions. The trial court did not declare a doubt as to Tejeda's competency, and he was convicted and sentenced to multiple life terms. The California Supreme Court's recent decision in California v. Rodas, 6 Cal.5th 219 (2018) compelled the Court of Appeal to conclude that the trial court should have declared a doubt as to Tejeda's competency once it became clear he could no longer separate his delusion from his defense, as that was the entire basis for his prior competency finding. On this record, the trial court's failure to do so required reversal for retrial "if and when Tejeda is found competent." View "California v. Tejeda" on Justia Law

by
In the November 2014 election, a majority of the City of Rialto’s (the City) voters approved Measure U, a ballot measure adopted by the City which imposed an “annual business license tax” of “up to One Dollar [($1.00)] per year for each One (1) cubic foot of liquid storage capacity” on “[a]ny person engaged in the business of owning[,] operating, leasing, supplying[,] or providing a wholesale liquid fuel storage facility” in the City. The four plaintiffs-appellants in these actions, Tesoro Logistic Operations, LLC (Tesoro), Equilon Enterprises, LLC (Equilon), SFPP, L.P. (SFPP), and Phillips 66 Company (P66), owned all of the wholesale liquid fuel storage facilities, also known as tank farms or terminals, in the City. Plaintiffs were engaged in the business of “refining and marketing fuel nationwide.” Gasoline and other fuels were transported from refineries to plaintiffs’ facilities in the City, where the fuels were placed in large storage tanks and mixed with additives before they were are transported to gasoline stations or other purchasers for retail sale. Beginning in 2015, the City assessed Measure U taxes on plaintiffs based on the liquid fuel storage capacity of plaintiffs’ wholesale liquid fuel storage tanks in the City. Plaintiffs paid the taxes under protest and filed these actions challenging Measure U’s validity on statutory and constitutional grounds. Plaintiffs moved for judgments on the pleadings, and for summary judgment or summary adjudication, then the City filed its own motions for judgments on the pleadings. Following a hearing, the trial court concluded there were no disputed issues of fact, that all of the motions presented the same questions of law, and that the Measure U tax was a valid business license tax. The court thus denied plaintiffs’ motions, granted the City’s motions, and entered judgments in favor of the City. In these appeals, plaintiffs renewed their legal challenges to Measure U. After review, the Court of Appeal concluded the Measure U tax was an invalid real property tax. Thus, the Court reversed judgments in favor of the City, and remanded to the trial court with directions to grant plaintiffs’ motions for judgments on the pleadings and to enter judgments in favor of plaintiffs on plaintiffs’ complaints. View "Tesoro Logistic Operations, LLC v. City of Rialto" on Justia Law

by
This case centered on the validity of a a changed law that raised the minimum age at which a juvenile could be tried in criminal court. The new law amended a provision of the “Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act” (Proposition 57), which the voters approved in 2016 with the express goals of reducing prison spending, emphasizing rehabilitation for youth offenders, and limiting prosecutorial authority over the decision to try a minor as an adult. To advance these goals, Proposition 57 eliminated prosecutors’ ability to directly file charges against minors ages 14 to 17 in criminal court, requiring them instead to seek the juvenile court’s permission by way of a transfer hearing. In 2018, the Legislature enacted the law at issue here, Senate Bill Number 1391 (2017-2018 Reg. Sess., "SB 1391"), which eliminated prosecutors’ ability to seek transfer hearings for 14 and 15 year olds, effectively raising the minimum age a child can be tried as an adult from 14 to 16. The change affected B.M.’s prosecution for murder. SB 1391 became effective after the Riverside County District Attorney had filed a wardship petition against the then 15-year-old, and had moved to transfer her to criminal court. While the transfer motion was pending, the juvenile court (respondent Riverside County Superior Court) ruled the new law was invalid because it did not further what it identified as Proposition 57’s goal of giving judges the authority to transfer 14 to 17 year olds to criminal court. B.M. sought mandamus relief, arguing the trial court misinterpreted Proposition 57's purpose in declaring SB 1391 invalid. The Court of Appeal agreed, finding SB 1391 furthered each of Proposition 57’s express purposes, including the one concerned with limiting prosecutorial discretion. The Court therefore granted B.M.’s petition for a writ of mandate and directed the juvenile court to vacate its order declaring SB 1391 invalid. View "B.M. v. Superior Court" 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. The court sentenced Gastelum to consecutive indeterminate terms of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and life imprisonment with the possibility of parole, plus three years. On appeal, Gastelum contended: He contends (1) the 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. The Court of Appeal was unpersuaded by these contentions. With regard to his first contention, the Court determined Chiu held that a defendant could not be convicted of first degree premeditated murder as an aider and abettor based on the natural and probable consequences doctrine, and because the Chiu court did not consider the lying-in-wait murder at issue here, no persuasive argument was made as to why Chiu should have been extended to this type of murder "particularly where, as here, the defendant and perpetrator are equally culpable. With regard to Gastelum's second contention, the Court concluded 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 did not show prejudice based on his counsel's failure to do so. View "California v. Gastelum" on Justia Law

by
The Teamsters Union represents skilled crafts employees at UCLA and UCSD and was campaigning to unionize University of California Davis (UCD) employees. Teamsters distributed a flyer making statements about the impact that unionizing had upon the skilled crafts employees at UCLA and UCSD. In response, Regents distributed an “HR Bulletin,” stating: “the University is neutral on the issue of unionization” and that UCLA and UCSD employees had been in extensive contract negotiations, which had the effect of freezing salaries for several years. The flier included favorable statements about UCD salaries, benefits, and grievance procedures. Teamsters filed suit, citing Government Code 16645.6, which prohibits a public employer from using state funds to “assist, promote, or deter union organizing.” Regents filed an "anti-SLAPP" special motion to strike (Code of Civil Procedure 425.16) arguing that the complaint arose from protected conduct: a statement made in a place open to the public in connection with an issue of public interest; that Teamsters could not demonstrate a probability of prevailing on its claim because the action was preempted by the exclusive jurisdiction of the Public Employment Relations’ Board (PERB); and that nothing in section 11645.6 prohibited noncoercive speech. The court of appeal affirmed the denial of the anti-SLAPP motion. PERB had exclusive jurisdiction over unfair labor practices. The bulletin was not alleged to be an unfair labor practice. The bulletin could be construed as an attempt to influence the employees, so Teamsters had a reasonable probability of prevailing on its section 16645.6 claim. View "Teamsters Local 2010 v. Regents of the University of California" on Justia Law

by
At the time of the crimes, petitioner D’Arsey Bolton was 16. He accosted two young girls, aged 10 and 12, while they were at school, forcing each at knifepoint into a bathroom, where he threatened them and raped them. Petitioner was convicted in Contra Costa County of five counts of rape, two counts of unlawful penetration with a foreign object, two counts of forcible lewd and lascivious conduct on a child, two counts of false imprisonment, one count of attempted rape, and one count of assault with a deadly weapon, along with multiple enhancements for being armed with and using a knife and pellet pistol. He was sentenced to 92 years in state prison, which was modified to 91 years on appeal. Over a decade later (when petitioner was 30), a correctional officer discovered a metal object wrapped in cloth in petitioner’s cell. Petitioner claimed he needed the weapon for protection while in jail. He would later be conviction of possessing a sharp instrument in prison. He admitted 11 strike allegations and was sentenced to 25 years to life under the three strikes law. In this habeas proceeding, petitioner claimed his sentence violated the cruel and unusual punishment prohibition of the Eighth Amendment and asked the Court of Appeal to order Superior Court to resentence him on all of his convictions consistent with the possibility of release in his lifetime, or to find he was not ineligible for youth offender parole. The Court of Appeal found resentencing on the juvenile offenses was necessary, but petitioner’s adult sentence did not violate the Eighth Amendment. The Court therefore vacated the 91-year term for the crimes committed as a juvenile, and remanded for resentencing. View "In re Bolton" on Justia Law

by
After the City filed suit against plaintiffs from their jobs as hearing examiners at the Department of Transportation, they filed suit alleging violations of the Bane Act and a claim for whistleblower retaliation. The jury found for plaintiffs and the trial court assessed a penalty under the Private Attorney General Act (PAGA), awarding them attorney fees. The court held that plaintiffs have established a prima facie case of retaliation; assumed that the City established legitimate, nonretaliatory reasons for firing plaintiffs; and held that there was evidence to support the jury's finding that the City's proffered reasons for firing plaintiffs were pretextual. In this case, there was evidence plaintiffs were not fired because of how they conducted hearings or for behavioral problems. Rather, a jury could have reasonably inferred that the City was punishing plaintiffs for their prior complaints. The court rejected the City's contention that the penalty award must be reversed based on plaintiffs' failure to comply with prefiling notice requirements, and held that attorney fees were appropriately awarded under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5. Finally, the court held that it need not reach the Bane Act issues. View "Hawkins v. City of Los Angeles" on Justia Law

by
Two appeals of two jury trials of defendant Adolfo Rodriguez Bermudez came before the Court of Appeal. The first trial involved the possession of a concealed dirk; the second involved an assault with a deadly weapon with a vehicle done to benefit a gang. Defendant was sentenced to a 21-year four-month aggregate term. On appeal, defendant argued: (1) the statute defining a dirk was unconstitutionally vague; (2) the trial court erred in allowing two officers to testify to the legal definition of a dirk; (3) a gang expert provided improper opinion testimony that defendant committed a crime to benefit a gang; and (4) insufficient evidence established the existence of a criminal street gang under Penal Code section 186.22 because testimony concerning the predicate felonies was admitted in violation of California v. Sanchez, 63 Cal.4th 665 (2016). In supplemental briefing, defendant further contended: (5) remand was required so the trial court may consider exercising its discretion under Senate Bill No. 1393 (Stats. 2018, ch. 1013, §§ 1-2) (SB 1393); and (6) the imposition of fines and fees violated his right to due process and freedom from excessive fines under California v. Duenas, 30 Cal.App.5th 1157 (2019). In the published portion of its opinion, the Court held the dirk statute was not unconstitutionally vague. The Court also held that a gang expert’s testimony about gang enhancement predicate offenses did not violate Sanchez, so long as the predicate offenses did not involve defendant or individuals involved in the defendant’s case. “Such predicate offenses are chapters in a gang’s biography and constitute historical background information, not case-specific information.” The Court remanded the case to allow the trial court to consider exercising its discretion under SB 1393. During that remand, as the State conceded, defendant may request a hearing on his ability to pay. View "California v. Bermudez" on Justia Law