Justia Constitutional Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of California
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In the Supreme Court of California, the defendant, Glen Taylor Helzer, pleaded guilty to five counts of murder and multiple other charges, including robbery, kidnapping, and conspiracy. After a penalty trial, the jury sentenced him to death for the five counts of murder. The murders were particularly gruesome, involving kidnapping, robbery, and dismemberment of the bodies. The defendant argued that he was under the influence of methamphetamine and suffering from a mental or emotional disturbance at the time of the crimes. On appeal, the defendant raised several issues, including the exclusion of a potential juror due to their views on the death penalty, the denial of a proposed question during jury selection, and the admission of graphic evidence including photographs of the dismembered bodies and the sound of a power saw used in the dismemberment during the prosecution's closing argument. The court affirmed the judgment, finding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in its rulings and that any error was harmless. The court held that the photographs and the sound of the saw were relevant to the circumstances of the crimes and did not unduly prejudice the jury. The court also held that the removal of a potential juror due to their views on the death penalty did not violate the defendant's right to a representative jury. View "People v. Helzer" on Justia Law

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In the case of The People v. Fernando Rojas, the Supreme Court of California addressed the issue of whether the application of Assembly Bill 333 to the gang-murder special circumstance in section 190.2(a)(22) of the California Penal Code constituted an unlawful amendment of Proposition 21, which had previously defined the term "criminal street gang".The defendant, Fernando Rojas, was convicted of first degree murder and was found to have committed the crime while being an active participant in a criminal street gang, which made him subject to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole under section 190.2(a)(22). While Rojas's appeal was pending, the state legislature passed Assembly Bill 333, which substantially narrowed the definition of "criminal street gang" for the purposes of section 190.2(a)(22).The lower courts disagreed on whether the application of Assembly Bill 333 would constitute an unlawful amendment of Proposition 21, which had been passed by the voters and was therefore protected from legislative amendment without a two-thirds majority vote of each house of the legislature or approval by the voters.The Supreme Court of California concluded that the application of Assembly Bill 333 to the gang-murder special circumstance did not violate the limitation on legislative amendment in Proposition 21. The Court reasoned that the voters who enacted Proposition 21 intended to impose a specific punishment for gang-related murder while relying on an existing statutory provision to define "criminal street gang". The Court found no indication that the voters intended to adopt a fixed definition of "criminal street gang" and held that applying Assembly Bill 333's narrower definition did not change the punishment for those convicted of the gang-murder special circumstance. Therefore, the Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeal and remanded the case for further proceedings. View "P. v. Rojas" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the court of appeals reversing the judgment of the trial court denying Petitioner's petition for relief and resentencing under the new procedure set forth in Senate Bill No. 1437 (former Cal. Penal Code 1170.95, subd. (a); now Cal. Penal Code 1172.6, subd. (a)), holding that the trial court erred.Petitioner was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Twelve years later, the Legislature enacted Senate Bill 1437 narrowing or eliminating certain forms of accomplice liability for murder. Petitioner petitioned for relief and resentencing under the new procedure, but the trial court denied the petition for failure to state a prima facie case. The court of appeals reversed. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the trial court erred in rejecting Petitioner's prima facie showing and should have proceeded to an evidence hearing on Petitioner's resentencing petition. View "People v. Curiel" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeal that a Department of Insurance regulation prohibiting bail bond agents from entering into agreements with jail inmates to be notified when individuals have recently been arrested and thus may be in need of bail bond services was facially invalid under the First Amendment, holding that the court of appeal erred in holding that the regulation was unconstitutional on its face.In declaring the regulation constitutionally invalid the court of appeal concluded that the regulation imposed burdens on the free speech rights of bail bond agents that were not adequately justified by the State's interests in deterring abusive bail solicitation practices. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the regulation burdened a protected speech right, that intermediate scrutiny applied, and that the regulation passed constitutional muster. View "People v. Martinez" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeal reversing the trial court's judgment concluding that the at-large method of electing city council members in the City of Santa Monica diluted Latino voters' ability to elect their preferred candidates and their ability to influence the outcome of council elections, holding that the court of appeals misconstrued the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, Cal. Elec. Code 14025 et seq. (CVRA).The superior court ruled in favor of Plaintiffs on their claims that the racially polarized voting in the City violated the CVRA. The superior court ruled in favor of Plaintiffs and ordered the City to conduct a special election using a seven-district map drafted by an expert who testified at trial. The court of appeal reversed, concluding that there had been no dilution of Latino voters' ability to elect their preferred candidates or their ability to influence the outcome of the election. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) a court presented with a dilution claim should undertake a searching evaluation of the totality of the facts and circumstances; and (2) because the court of appeal did not evaluate the dilution element of the CVRA under the proper standard, remand was required. View "Pico Neighborhood Ass'n v. City of Santa Monica" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the court of appeal affirming Defendant's conviction of first-degree murder, holding that when the record contains substantial evidence of imperfect self defense, the trial court's failure to instruct on that theory amounts to constitutional error and is subject to review under the federal Chapman standard. See Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967).On appeal, Defendant argued that the trial court committed harmful error in denying his request for an instruction on imperfect self-defense. The court of appeals affirmed, concluding that the trial court erred but that the error was subject to the "reasonable probability" standard for evaluating prejudice set forth in People v. Watson, 46 Cal.2d 818 (1956) and that Defendant suffered no prejudice. The Supreme Court reversed, holding (1) the form of misconstruction in this case precluded the jury from making a finding on a factual issue necessary to establish the element of malice, thus qualifying as a federal error; and (2) the court of appeal's harmless error analysis did not comport with the standards for evaluating prejudice under Chapman. View "People v. Schuller" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed Defendant's sentence of death, following resentencing, in connection with his convictions of first degree murder, two counts of forcible rape, and enhancements for personal use of a firearm, holding that any error in the resentencing was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.When Defendant was convicted in 2000 the jury found true special circumstances for committing murder during a kidnapping and intentional infliction of torture and set the penalty at death. The Supreme Court upheld the guilt judgment but reversed the penalty verdict on the grounds that the trial court erroneously dismissed a juror during penalty phase deliberations. After a retrial, Defendant was again sentenced to death. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding (1) double jeopardy principles did not bar Defendant's penalty retrial; (2) the penalty retrial did not violate due process; (3) Defendant's challenges to the constitutionality of California's death penalty statute were unavailing; and (4) any error brought about by retroactive application of Senate Bill 1437 was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. View "People v. Wilson" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court held that Cal. Penal Code 667.6(d), which requires that a sentencing court impose "full, separate, and consecutive" terms for certain sex crimes if it finds certain facts, complies with the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution.Defendant was convicted of six counts of forcible lewd acts on a child under the age of fourteen and one lesser-included offense of attempt and sentenced to full, consecutive terms for each of his convictions. On appeal, Defendant argued that the trial court violated his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial by sentencing him under section 667.6(d) without submitting to the jury the question of whether each of his offenses was committed on a separate occasion. The court of appeal denied relief. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the operation of section 667.6(d) does not violate the rule of Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), and Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. 99 (2013). View "People v. Catarino" on Justia Law

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A gambling dispute incited a fistfight between gang subsets. Witnesses later testified that after they thought the fight was over, they saw Ferrell shoot a gun, then saw Rawlings, lying on the ground, bloodied. Ferrell dropped the gun and fled. Ferrell later claimed he had only shot once, into the air. The juvenile court transferred Ferrell, age 17, to a court of criminal jurisdiction, where he was charged with murder, with alleged sentencing enhancements for use of a firearm.The Court of Appeal affirmed Ferrell’s second-degree murder conviction and 40-year sentence. The California Supreme Court granted Ferrell habeas relief. The jury instructions erroneously permitted the conviction based on a felony-murder theory invalidated in 2009. The unadorned guilty verdict does not show that the jury avoided that theory. The court rejected an argument that the jury’s additional finding — that Ferrell intentionally discharged a firearm and caused death in committing his offense — along with other evidence, establish that any rational jury would have found Ferrell guilty under a valid theory of second-degree murder, implied malice. Even in light of the entire record, the jury’s additional finding fails to establish the mental component of implied malice, which requires a defendant to act with a conscious disregard for life, knowing his act endangers another’s life. The jury could have, consistent with its finding, concluded Ferrell shot Rawlings while trying to stop a fight without believing he was shooting toward any person. View "In re Ferrell" on Justia Law

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In 2005, a jury convicted Lopez and three others of Gomez’s first-degree premeditated murder and found true the gang-murder special circumstance and the criminal street gang sentencing enhancement. Lopez was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The Court of Appeal affirmed. Lopez sought habeas relief, alleging his jury had been instructed on the natural and probable consequences theory of aiding and abetting first-degree murder, found invalid in the California Supreme Court's 2014 "Chiu" decision. In 2019, the Court of Appeal held that the Chiu error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt based on the gang-murder special circumstance, which required the jury to find that an aider and abettor acted with intent to kill, and the “overwhelming” evidence against Lopez generally. The court discounted the prosecutor’s discussion of the natural and probable consequences theory in his closing argument and found a jury note referencing that theory inconsequential under the circumstances.The California Supreme Court reversed. The gang-murder special circumstance here does not necessarily render the Chiu error harmless beyond a reasonable doubt but indications that the jury may have relied on an invalid theory, such as a prosecutor’s closing argument or a jury note, do not preclude a finding of harmlessness. The court must rigorously review the evidence to determine whether any rational juror who found the defendant guilty based on an invalid theory and made the factual findings reflected in the verdict, would necessarily have found the defendant guilty based on a valid theory. View "In re Lopez" on Justia Law