Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in California Courts of Appeal
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Defendant was convicted of attempted murder as well as various gang-related offenses. The court sentenced Defendant to 15 years to life with a minimum parole eligibility date of 7 years plus 10 years for vicarious “use of the firearm." However, while the case was pending appeal, the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill No. 333 ("AB 333").Defendant raised various challenges, including some under AB 333. Largely the Fifth Appellate District denied relief. However, the Fifth Appellate District reversed defendant's convictions for two gang-related convictions the court failed to instruct the jury on the elements of carrying a loaded firearm in public as an active participant in a criminal street gang. The court also found that Defendant was improperly convicted of both carrying a loaded firearm in public as an active gang participant and the necessarily included offense of active participation in a criminal street gang. View "P. v. Velez" on Justia Law

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Police arrested 18-year-old high school student Ismael Avalos on a murder charge and questioned him in an interrogation room at a police station. During the interview, a forensic technician removed his shirt, pants, socks, and shoes. The technician gave him a paper gown to wear. After about five hours of questioning by police, Avalos said, “I wanna talk to a lawyer.” After some further dialog, a detective said, “I respect your decision that you wanna talk to a lawyer, but if for some reason you want to change your mind and you wanna talk to me, you can, just ask for me. I don’t care if it’s 2:00, 3:00 in the morning I’ll come back. Okay? Because I care about you getting your story the right way out. Okay?” After spending the night in a holding cell, Avalos told one of the jailers he wanted to speak to the detectives again. Avalos was brought back to the same interrogation room for a second interview, still apparently wearing the same paper gown from the day before. Avalos asked, “Whatever I tell my lawyer, he’s going to tell you the same thing, right?” After waiving his Miranda rights, Avalos admitted shooting the murder victim, stating: “I, I self-defended myself, you know?” Avalos was convicted of murder with a firearm enhancement and a substantive gang crime. On appeal, Avalos contends the trial court erred by admitting the second interview into evidence over his objection. Avalos also argues that due to a recent change in the law, his substantive gang conviction must be reversed. The Court of Appeal concluded after review of the trial court record that Avalos did not make a voluntary, knowing, and intelligent Miranda waiver prior to the second interview. The Court further found the admission of the interview into evidence was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The Attorney General conceded Avalos’ substantive gang conviction should have been reversed and the Court of Appeal agreed. Thus, it reversed the judgment. View "California v. Avalos" on Justia Law

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In 2014, Braggs pleaded no contest to second-degree robbery and second-degree burglary. He admitted two prior strike convictions and one prior serious felony conviction; he had served two prior prison terms. He was sentenced to 13 years. In 2020, the Secretary of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation recommended that his sentence be recalled and that he be resentenced, based on a change in the law, giving a trial court the discretion to strike a prior serious felony enhancement. The resentencing hearing was held on January 10, 2022. Due to another change in the law, the prior prison term enhancements were no longer applicable. The court did not impose those enhancements, but imposed the same sentence as the original sentence, including the five-year prior serious felony enhancement, which resulted in a total term of 11 years. At the time of the hearing, there was a new presumption in favor of recall and resentencing.The court of appeal reversed and remanded for resentencing on the limited issues of whether Bragg has excess custody time and to what extent he is entitled to credits against his restitution fines and parole period. Bragg failed to demonstrate prejudicial error by the trial court’s purported failure to properly apply the presumption in favor of recall and resentencing under Penal Code 1170.03 (renumbered as 1172.1(b)(2)). View "People v. Braggs" on Justia Law

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In 2010, Cannon pled guilty to assault with intent to commit rape and dissuading a witness. Cannon was sentenced to a term of seven years. In 2016, the district attorney filed a petition to commit Cannon under the Sexually Violent Predator Act (SVPA) (Welf. & Inst. Code, 6600). Cannon’s SVPA trial was continued several times. Updated evaluations were prepared in 2018, revealing a split in opinion among the experts as to whether Cannon qualified as an SVP. At a pretrial conference unattended by Cannon, his counsel waived his right to a jury trial. Cannon’s bench trial began in 2020. There was testimony that Cannon suffered a traumatic injury to the prefrontal lobes of his brain and subsequently became obsessed with sex and began consuming large amounts of pornography. He was aggressive toward teenage girls. Family members became overwhelmed with Cannon’s sexual disinhibition.The court of appeal remanded the resulting commitment order for a determination of whether Cannon’s constitutional right to equal protection was violated by the court’s failure to advise him of his right to a jury trial and to obtain his personal waiver of that right. The court otherwise affirmed, rejecting challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence and to expert witness testimony that included case-specific hearsay. View "People v. Cannon" on Justia Law

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Defendant was charged in a felony complaint with attempting to dissuade a witness. At the conclusion of the preliminary hearing, the magistrate denied Defendant's request to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor. The District Attorney timely filed an information alleging dissuading a witness. The case languished for 21 months. Defendant then moved to have the charge reduced to a misdemeanor. His motion was granted. The case, however, had yet to be tried. The District Attorney appealed.The Second Appellate District dismissed the District Attorney's appeal, finding that it was not authorized by law. Dissuading a witness pursuant to section 136.1, subdivision (a), may be punished as either a felony or a misdemeanor. Section 17, subdivision (b), specifies the limited circumstances in which a trial court may designate a wobbler to be a misdemeanor. Further, the Penal Code strictly limits the rulings the People may appeal.Appeal of an order “modifying the offense to a lesser offense” pursuant to section 1238, subdivision (a)(6), includes “a trial court’s order reducing a wobbler to a misdemeanor.” (People v. Statum (2002) 28 Cal.4th 682, 692.) In this case, however, guilt had not been adjudicated. Consequently, the order was not “[a]n order modifying the verdict” pursuant to subdivision (a)(6). View "P. v. Bartholomew" on Justia Law

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Kowalczyk was charged with felony vandalism, three felony counts of identity theft, misdemeanor petty theft of lost property, and one misdemeanor count of identity theft. The court set bail at $75,000 and denied a motion seeking release on his own recognizance with drug conditions and electronic monitoring. Kowalczyk was on probation and had 64 prior offenses, across several states. The court viewed Kowalczyk’s property crimes as a significant public safety issue. He received the maximum score of 14 on the Virginia Pretrial Risk Assessment Instrument, and the pretrial services report indicated he failed to abide by conditions of supervision in the last five years. Kowalczyk was unhoused and unemployed. Different judges later denied additional motions to reduce bail.Kowalczyk filed a habeas petition. On remand from the California Supreme Court, the court of appeal addressed the state constitutional provisions governing bail in noncapital cases—Article I, section 12(b), (c); Article I, section 28(f)(3) and concluded that the provisions can be reconciled. Section 12’s general right to bail in noncapital cases remains intact, while full effect must be given to section 28(f)(3)’s mandate that the rights of crime victims be respected in bail and release determinations. Section 12 does not guarantee an unqualified right to pretrial release or necessarily require courts to set bail at an amount a defendant can afford. View "In re Kowalczyk" on Justia Law

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Police tried to conduct a traffic stop. Zarazua failed to yield. Driving with a suspended license, he led officers on a 15-minute pursuit, committing numerous traffic violations. Zarazua crashed, got out of the SUV, and ran. Officers arrested him. At the time, Zarazua identified as female. During jury selection, defense counsel advised prospective jurors that prosecution witnesses would “refer to Mr. Zarazua as she. And Mr. Zarazua . . . no longer identifies as she. Mr. Zarazua identifies [as male] and prefers the pronoun he.” Each juror disclaimed feelings of sympathy toward, or bias against, Zarazua based on his gender transition. The prosecutor repeatedly referred to Zarazua using masculine pronouns, prompting Zarazua's counsel to object. Outside the jury’s presence, defense counsel unsuccessfully moved for a mistrial based on prosecutorial misconduct. The court gave CALCRIM No. 200, which directed jurors not to let sympathy, prejudice, or bias — including bias based on Zarazua’s gender identity — affect their decision. During closing arguments, the prosecutor misgendered Zarazua several times.The jury convicted Zarazua. The court suspended the imposition of sentence, placed Zarazua on probation, and ordered him to serve jail time. The court of appeal affirmed. . "Parties are to be treated with respect, courtesy, and dignity, including the use of preferred pronouns." Failure to do so offends the administration of justice, however on this record, any misconduct was not prejudicial. View "People v. Zarazua" on Justia Law

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Based on a stabbing death at a party in 2007, O’Day was charged with murder and assault with a deadly weapon. The magistrate dismissed the charges at the conclusion of a preliminary hearing, citing a lack of credible evidence. More than 12 years later, O’Day sought a finding of factual innocence. (Pen. Code 851.8)The trial court denied the petition both because it was untimely without good cause and O’Day failed to satisfy his stringent burden of establishing his factual innocence. The court of appeal affirmed. Failure to comply with the two-year deadline was not excused by O’Day’s lack of awareness of the availability of a remedy. The court acknowledged the challenges O’Day faced as a result of his pretrial incarceration, his laudable educational and employment achievements, and the fact that trial counsel did not advise him of the possibility of filing a petition for factual innocence. The record permits a reasonable inference that his delay in seeking relief was attributable, at least in part, to his desire to avoid calling undue attention to his case lest the prosecutor refile the murder charge. View "People v. O'Day" on Justia Law

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In 2005, based on convictions for residential robbery and false imprisonment by violence, Monroe was sentenced to a 376-month prison term, which included three firearm enhancements totaling 152 months, three one-year prior prison term enhancements, and a five-year prior serious felony enhancement. In 2020, Monroe sought relief under 2017 legislation (S.B. 620, Stats. 2017, ch. 682, 1 & 2) granting the trial court discretion to strike the firearm enhancements. When 2021 legislation (S.B. 483 (Stats. 2021, ch. 728, 3), provided for resentencing to strike the one-year prior term enhancements, Monroe filed a second petition seeking relief under that statute as well. The trial court resentenced Monroe, striking the three one-year enhancements, but concluded it was without jurisdiction to strike the firearm enhancements.The court of appeal reversed. The Attorney General conceded that Monroe is eligible for relief with respect to the firearm enhancements, but not with respect to the five-year prior serious felony enhancement. S.B. 1393 (Stats. 2018, ch. 1013, 1–2), which took effect in 2019, granted trial courts discretion to strike five-year serious felony enhancements The court concluded that Monroe is eligible for relief with respect to both the firearm enhancements and the prior serious felony enhancement. View "People v. Monroe" on Justia Law

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Eight years after defendant-appellant Raymond Griffin was convicted on two murder counts, he petitioned the trial court for resentencing pursuant to California Penal Code section 1172.6. The court summarily denied his petition, and defendant appealed. The Court of Appeal found defendant’s appointed appellate counsel filed an opening brief that did not raise any issues. Counsel acknowledged this was not defendant’s first appeal of right so the Court of Appeal was not required to conduct an independent review of the record to determine if it contained any arguable issues, but he requested the Court exercise its discretion to do so. The Court granted that request and found no issue. Accordingly, the trial court’s denial of defendant’s petition was affirmed. View "California v. Griffin" on Justia Law