Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in California Courts of Appeal
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Sixty-nine year old Pamelia Powell had been prescribed multiple central nervous system depressants, with additive effects. In April 2016 and again in May 2016, she had to be hospitalized for overdoses. In between the two hospital stays, petitioner Marilyn Zemek, who was already Powell’s friend, agreed to become her paid caretaker. She acknowledged at the time that Powell needed “constant companionship,” including help with “properly taking her medication.” Later in May 2016, petitioner took Powell to petitioner’s former attorney. He prepared new estate planning documents for Powell that left everything to petitioner. In June 2016, petitioner left Powell home alone for at least two days and perhaps as much as four days. During that time, Powell died of an overdose of her prescription medications. After Powell’s death, petitioner bought items using Powell’s credit card and emptied Powell’s bank accounts. Based on this evidence, a magistrate held petitioner to answer for crimes including murder, elder abuse, and grand theft. The trial court denied petitioner’s motion to set aside the information. Petitioner appealed to the Court of Appeals, arguing there was insufficient evidence: (1) of malice; (2) that she was the legal cause of Powell’s death; and (3) that the money she took did not belong to her. The Court rejected these contentions and affirmed the magistrate court’s decision. View "Zemek v. Super. Ct." on Justia Law

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The State appealed an order that vacated defendant Jeffrey Duval's five-year jail sentence for a conviction to which he pled guilty to the possession for sale and transportation of methamphetamine, receiving stolen property, and unlawful possession of a stun gun. Defendant entered a Cruz1 waiver, agreeing that if he failed to appear at his sentencing hearing the trial court would not be bound by the negotiated two-year term and could sentence him up to the maximum term in his absence. Defendant failed to appear for his sentencing. In absentia, the court imposed a prison sentence of nine years, eight months. Defendant’s trial counsel did not object to the sentence, did not ask for a hearing on whether defendant’s violation of the Cruz waiver was willful, and did not present any evidence for why defendant failed to appear. The following court day defendant appeared and was taken into custody. The next day, at the request of defense counsel, the court recalled and vacated defendant’s prison sentence, and instead imposed a five-year county jail term. Defendant then filed a habeas corpus petition contending he received ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorney failed to argue or present evidence he did not willfully violate his Cruz agreement. The Court of Appeal summarily denied that petition. But then the California Supreme Court directed the Court of Appeal to vacate its summary dismissal, and remand to the trial court for a hearing on why defendant wasn't entitled to habeas relief. Back in the superior court, a hearing was held on the 83rd day after the appeals court order. In the interim, the State did not file a return—or any other response—to to the appellate court's order to show cause. Notwithstanding the State's objections, the trial court ultimately granted relief by vacating the five-year sentence and reduced it to four. After review, the Court of Appeal concluded the trial court had no need to hold an evidentiary hearing when the State failed to file a return to defendant’s writ petition after being ordered to show cause why habeas corpus relief should not have been granted. In addition, the Court of Appeal found the court did not exceed its authority by vacating defendant’s previously imposed sentence and resentencing him in the manner it did. As such, the court did not err and the sentence was therefore affirmed. View "In re Duval" on Justia Law

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Defendant Wesley Robins was alleged to have aided and abetted in what started out as a shoplifting, but turned into an "Estes" robbery, recklessly evading authorities. He was convicted of attempted second-degree robbery (count 1) and felony reckless evading (count 2). Defendant admitted a prior strike, a prior prison term, and a prior serious felony. The court sentenced defendant to 32 months in prison on count 1, which was double the low term because of the prior strike. It sentenced defendant to a concurrent 32 months in prison on count 2, which was also double the low term. The court imposed but immediately struck a five-year enhancement for the prior serious felony and a one-year enhancement for the prior prison term. The result was a total prison sentence of 32 months. On appeal, defendant argued: (1) he could not be convicted of an attempted Estes robbery because there was no such crime; and (2) and (3) both the attempted robbery conviction and the reckless evading conviction were on the theory that these were natural and probable consequences of aiding and abetting the theft. Defendant was neither the thief, nor the getaway driver. Defendant contended there was insufficient evidence to support the theory in either case. The Court of Appeal determined that the gist of defendant’s argument was that the concept of an attempted Estes robbery was incoherent: when someone takes clothes from a retail store and uses force to get away, it does not matter if a store employee successfully retrieves the property; the instant force is used, the Estes robbery is complete. There is no possibility of a mere attempt, according to defendant. "While this is a clever argument," the Court of Appeal rejected it. The Court disagreed the evidence was insufficient to support the robbery and evading convictions, and affirmed all convictions. View "California v. Robins" on Justia Law

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In 2015, Gilbert Lopez died from gunshot wounds following a verbal argument with defendant-appellant, Salvador Yanez IV. Defendant was charged and convicted by a jury of the second degree murder of Lopez and being a felon in possession of a firearm. The jury also found true special allegations that defendant discharged a firearm and caused great bodily injury or death in the commission of the murder. In a bifurcated proceeding, the trial court found defendant had suffered a prior conviction for a serious or violent felony pursuant to Penal Code section 667(a) and a prior strike conviction pursuant to section 667(b)-(i). Defendant was sentenced to a total of 60 years to life in state prison: 30 years to life for the murder conviction, an additional 25 years to life for the firearm enhancement, and an additional consecutive five years for the prior serious felony conviction. On appeal, defendant contended: (1) the trial court abused its discretion in admitting expert gang testimony which should have been excluded as unduly prejudicial under Evidence Code section 352; (2) the prosecutor engaged in misconduct warranting reversal by referencing jury deliberations during argument on defendant’s motion to strike his firearm enhancement conviction; (3) defendant was not given constitutionally adequate advisement when waiving his right to a jury trial on his prior conviction and prior strike allegations; (4) the matter should be remanded to allow the trial court to exercise discretion to impose a lesser, uncharged firearm enhancement pursuant to Penal Code section 12022.53(h); and (5) the matter should have been remanded to allow the trial court to exercise its discretion to strike a five-year enhancement pursuant to recent amendments made to Penal Code sections 667 and 1385. The Court of Appeal remanded the matter for resentencing pursuant to amended Pena Code sections 667 and 1385. In all other respects, it affirmed the judgment. View "California v. Yanez" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal held that sufficient evidence supported defendant's conviction for mayhem where the victim's scarring from the stabbing attack constituted sufficient evidence to support defendant's conviction. The court also held that the abstract of judgment must be corrected to reflect a conviction for mayhem; the trial court did not infringe on defendant's constitutional rights by finding that his prior juvenile adjudication constituted a strike; and remand was necessary for the trial court to impose a sentence on the count 3 great bodily injury enhancement. View "People v. Romero" on Justia Law

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Defendant appealed from the trial court's order imposing a $100 fine under Penal Code section 29810 for failure to complete a firearms disclosure form. The Court of Appeal reversed the order, holding that the statutory procedures for prosecuting an infraction were not followed. In this case, the trial court essentially charged defendant with an infraction, conducted a trial, found him guilty, and imposed the $100 fine on him for violating section 29810—all in the presence of the district attorney. However, the district attorney did not charge or approve the charging of an infraction. Therefore, the trial court had no authority to impose punishment for committing an infraction in these circumstances. View "People v. Villatoro" on Justia Law

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In 2011, Dominick Humphrey pled guilty to four counts of robbery (counts 2, 3, 4 and 24). For three of these counts (counts 2, 3, and 4), Humphrey admitted that he used a deadly weapon (a knife) during the commission of the offenses, and used a firearm during the commission of one of the counts (count 24). Humphrey also admitted that he was 16 years old when he committed the crimes within the meaning of Welfare and Institutions Code section 707. The trial court sentenced Humphrey to prison for 19 years. Five years into Humphrey's sentence, an employee of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) wrote a letter to the superior court, stating that the abstract of judgment "may be in error, or incomplete[.]" In 2018, the trial court clarified that Humphrey was sentenced to 15 years for count 24 and the associated firearm enhancement and consecutive 16-month terms for counts 2, 3, and 4 (including their deadly weapon enhancements). An amended abstract of judgment was issued showing a sentence of 19 years in state prison. Thereafter, Humphrey moved to strike the firearm enhancement under Senate Bill No. 620. The trial court denied the motion because Humphrey's conviction became final before the enactment of Senate Bill No. 620. Appellate counsel filed a "Wende" brief, indicating that he had not been able to identify any arguable issue for reversal on appeal, but asked the Court of Appeal to review the record for error as Wende mandated. In reviewing the record, the Court discovered an issue to be briefed, and the parties were requested to brief whether the trial court erred in finding Humphrey ineligible for relief under Senate Bill 620 after the trial court acted to correct the abstract of judgment. Find that the trial court only made plain how the original sentence should have appeared on the amended abstract of judgment, the Court of Appeal determined Humphrey did not file a notice of appeal following the original 2011 sentence. His case became final in 2011. Senate Bill 620 took effect January 1, 2018, and Humphrey's was not entitled to retroactive application of the law to his sentence. Therefore the trial court did not err in denying his motion for resentencing. View "California v. Humphrey" on Justia Law

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The Court of Appeal rejected defendant's argument that the superior court lacked jurisdiction to deny his Penal Code section 1170.95 petition on the merits without first appointing counsel and allowing the prosecutor and appointed counsel to brief the issue of his entitlement to relief and affirmed the trial court's summary denial of defendant's petition, which was properly based on its ruling that defendant was ineligible for relief as a matter of law. The court held that the relevant statutory language, viewed in context, makes plain the Legislature's intent to permit the sentencing court, before counsel must be appointed, to examine readily available portions of the record of conviction to determine whether a prima facie showing has been made that the petitioner falls within the provisions of section 1170.95. The court explained that petitioner must make a prima facie showing that petitioner may be eligible for relief because he or she could not be convicted of first or second degree murder following the changes made by SB 1437 to the definition of murder in sections 188 and 189. View "People v. Verdugo" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Hipolito Morales was charged with two counts of oral copulation or sexual penetration of a child under 10, and seven counts of committing a lewd or lascivious act on a child under 14. During his trial, the trial court admitted into evidence, after jury deliberations began and without any limiting instructions, a video and transcript of Morales’s police interrogation. In a pre-Miranda portion of that interrogation, an officer made statements to the effect that children had informed law enforcement that Morales had molested them; the officer knew Morales was lying; the officer could tell Morales was lying from his experience as an investigator; and Morales committed the crimes. Although the officer testified at trial, the parties had agreed to limit questioning to the post-Miranda portion of the interrogation only. The jury found Morales guilty, and he was sentenced to 175 years to life. Morales appealed, contending that because the full interrogation was admitted only after the officer was excused and the jury began its deliberations, he was deprived of the right to confront the officer about the pre-Miranda statements described above, none of which were repeated after Morales was read his Miranda rights. The Court of Appeal found no confrontation clause violation. "In order to implicate the confrontation clause, a statement must be testimonial, meaning that it must be made with sufficient formality and with the primary purpose of creating a substitute for trial testimony. Accusatory statements made by law enforcement in an interrogation will, absent unusual circumstances, satisfy neither of these requirements." The Court addressed Morales’s other contentions in the unpublished portion of its opinion, found them without merit and therefore affirmed conviction and sentencing. View "California v. Morales" on Justia Law

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The treatment during an extension of a prisoner's custodial time to complete a psychiatrist's evaluation may be included in the required 90 days of treatment under the Mentally Disordered Offender Act (MDO Act). In this case, the Attorney General appealed from the trial court's order finding that defendant did not meet the criteria to be treated as an MDO because he did not receive 90 days of treatment before his scheduled parole date. The Court of Appeal agreed with the Attorney General's contention that treatment during the additional 45-day custody period authorized by the Board of Parole Hearings under Penal Code 2963 should have counted toward the 90 days of treatment required by section 2962, subdivisions (c) and (d)(1). Therefore, the court reversed the trial court's order vacating the Board's MDO determination. View "People v. Parker" on Justia Law