Justia California Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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The Court of Appeal denied a petition for writ of habeas corpus to petitioner who was convicted of murdering her three young children by setting a house fire that killed them. Petitioner argues that the current scientific understanding of burn patterns and how fire behaves under certain conditions fatally undermines expert testimony offered by the prosecution at trial regarding the cause and origin of the fire at petitioner's home, as well as the fire scene investigation on which the experts based those opinions.The court concluded that petitioner failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that she is entitled to relief under Penal Code section 1473, subdivision (b). Although petitioner has identified real advances in fire investigation science, the court explained that section 1473, subdivisions (b) and (e)(1) condition the availability of habeas relief on the effect such advancements likely would have had on the particular expert testimony at issue in the particular proceedings at issue. In this case, given the extent to which the same criticisms of the prosecution's expert testimony were litigated at the original trial, the continuing expert debate on these topics reflected at the evidentiary hearing, the lack of any authority rejecting some aspect of the original investigation as improper or incorrect by current standards, and the other evidence of guilt offered against petitioner at trial, petitioner has failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that she is entitled to relief.The court also concluded, for largely the same reasons, that petitioner failed to establish that the state of fire investigation science at the time of trial rendered her trial so fundamentally unfair as to violate federal due process. The court stated that, although additional scientific support for the defense's expert testimony at trial would have been helpful to the defense in rebutting the prosecution expert's opinions, the absence of such additional support did not necessarily prevent a fair trial. View "In re Parks" on Justia Law

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A juvenile wardship petition charged Noah with several crimes, such as motor vehicle burglaries and vandalism; he entered a plea admitting one felony motor vehicle burglary count. While Noah’s wardship was ongoing, a supplemental juvenile wardship petition alleged Noah, then 14 years old, committed attempted robbery and caused or permitted an elder or dependent adult to suffer. A video showed Jacqueline, the 88-year-old victim, leaving a restaurant. As she opens the car door, a young man runs up. Her husband, Philippe, got into the driver’s seat. When Jacqueline steps aside to let the young man pass, he grabs her purse and starts to run, dragging Jacqueline behind the car, where she falls, slams into the ground, and rolls, still holding the purse. A police officer took fingerprints from where the young man touched the car; they matched Noah’s. Jacqueline was still on the ground when the officer arrived; she was confused and bleeding.The juvenile court sustained the allegations and found the attempted robbery adjudication qualified as an offense under Welfare and Institutions Code section 707(b) and committed Noah to a ranch facility for 12 months with a 180 day “aftercare period.” The court of appeal affirmed. Noah’s adjudication for attempted robbery is an offense described in Penal Code section 1203.09 and falls within Welfare and Institutions Code section 707(b). Substantial evidence showed Noah’s intent to rob Jacqueline and that he inflicted great bodily injury. View "In re Noah S." on Justia Law

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Morales fired six shots toward a parked car, resulting in the death of his pregnant acquaintance who stood near the car. The jury convicted Morales of two counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted murder, one count of shooting at an occupied vehicle, and one count of possession of a firearm by a felon, finding true four firearm use enhancements under Penal Code 12022.53(d) and a multiple murder special circumstance allegation (section 190.2(a)(3)).The court of appeal affirmed, modifying the sentence. The court rejected Morales’s arguments that the prosecutor committed prejudicial misconduct in closing argument and that counsel was ineffective for failing to object; that there was insufficient evidence to support a kill zone jury instruction; and with respect to the firearm use enhancement on count 1, that Morales was deprived of due process by the court’s failure to instruct that the requisite great bodily injury or death under section 12022.53(d) must be to a person other than an accomplice. The judgment was modified by striking the sentences of 25 years to life on counts 1 and 2, and the term of life without the possibility of parole imposed for the multiple-murder special circumstance finding. The superior court is to impose a term of life without the possibility of parole on counts 1 and 2. For count 1, the jury’s true finding under section 12022.53(d) was reversed; the 25-years-to-life enhancement imposed upon that finding was vacated. View "People v. Morales" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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San Mateo County Deputy Tapia was dispatched to a Millbrae apartment about 2:00 a.m. on September 21, 2020, based on a 911 call. Tapia learned that Ayala had accused his stepfather, Abner, of molesting Ayala’s daughter and had made threats. After arresting Ayala for criminal threats and reading him his Miranda rights Tapia interviewed Ayala, who acknowledged having said “some violent shit.” Tapia believed that Ayala may have been under the influence of drugs.A magistrate held Ayala to answer to count 1 (Abner) but not to count 2 (Ayala’s mother, Clarisa), finding a “failure of proof of a threat that would result in death and great bodily injury to Clarisa.” The charge nonetheless included two counts, with two prior strike convictions and two prior felony convictions. Ayala moved to dismiss count 2 on the ground that Clarisa was not threatened within the meaning of Penal Code 422 because the alleged threat was to kill or inflict physical harm on Abner. The trial court denied Ayala’s motion. Following a remand, the court of appeal denied Ayala’s petition for peremptory writ of prohibition. Section 422 is focused on mental distress and does not require a threat of violence against the victim. View "Ayala v. Superior Court" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Clark, a felon with multiple priors, was approached by a police officer and fled the scene, disposed of a loaded handgun by throwing it over a fence, and then resisted arrest, ultimately injuring the officer. Clark pleaded no contest possession of a firearm by a felon and to threatening a police officer; the prosecutor dismissed the additional counts. The San Mateo County Superior Court imposed a 42-month prison sentence, suspended execution of the sentence, and placed Clark on probation for five years, with standard conditions of one year in county jail, modifiable to residential treatment. Clark left residential treatment without permission. The court found that Clark violated the terms of his probation and ordered the original prison sentence into execution and orally pronounced that “[a] $300 probation revocation fine is imposed and all outstanding fines and fees.” In the abstract of judgment, the court listed: $300 fine, $300 suspended parole revocation fine, $300 probation revocation fine, $40 court operations assessment, and $30 conviction assessment. … Total Fine/Fees $570."While his appeal was pending, Assembly Bill 1869 repealed the statute authorizing the probation supervision fee, Penal Code 1203.1b. The court of appeal held that Assembly Bill 1869 applies, so the $100 fee must be stricken; the $470 “Criminal Violation Distribution” fine did not accurately reflect the oral pronouncement of judgment. The court vacated the sentencing order, subject to reinstatement on remand with an amended abstract of judgment View "People v. Clark" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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California has two statutory mechanisms for detaining, evaluating, and treating persons who have been declared incompetent to stand trial for a felony that entailed a threat of bodily harm, and who continue to pose a danger to others. When the reason is a "developmental disability," the applicable mechanism is civil commitment under Welfare and Institutions Code section 6500; when the reason is a "mental disease, defect, or disorder," the applicable mechanism is a so-called Murphy conservatorship under the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act (LPS Act) (section 5000 et seq.), section 5008, subdivision (h)(1)(B). Under section 6500, the one-year recommitment period ends on the anniversary of the date of the recommitment order; for a Murphy conservatorship, the one-year period ends on the anniversary of the date of the initial commitment order. Because, as is common, recommitment orders under section 6500 are not fully litigated (and hence not issued) until after the anniversary of the date of the initial commitment order, the end dates for section 6500 recommitments typically get pushed out further and further with each recommitment.The Court of Appeal held that this "creep" of the end date under section 6500 does not violate equal protection in regard to Murphy conservatorships. The court explained that individuals civilly committed under section 6500 and Murphy conservatorships are not similarly situated for purposes of fixing the end date for a recommitment. Even assuming that persons civilly committed under section 6500 and in a Murphy conservatorship are similarly situated for purposes of the timetable for terminating a one-year period for a recommitment, the court concluded that there is a sufficient justification for that differential treatment that withstands rational basis scrutiny. Accordingly, the court affirmed the end date for the section 6500 recommitment in this case. View "People v. Nolasco" on Justia Law

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Before defendant was charged with ordering the kidnapping, rape, and killing of a 13-year-old girl, defendant made inconsistent statements to law enforcement—at first denying he ever saw the victim, but later admitting that he saw her just before she went missing and in the company of the gang members who kidnapped, raped, and killed her. Defendant made these statements pursuant to a proffer agreement with prosecutors, wherein they agreed not to use "any statements made" during the proffer session in any future case-in-chief as long as defendant was "completely truthful and candid" during the proffer session.In the published portion of the opinion, the Court of Appeal held that the prosecutorial agency that seeks to use these internally inconsistent (and hence untruthful) statements is not required to first demonstrate that it has standing to enforce the proffer agreement. The court explained that standing is necessary when a party seeks affirmative relief from a contract, but here it is defendant—not the prosecutors—who is seeking specific performance of the proffer agreement's promise of inadmissibility, and hence defendant who must establish that he met the agreement's condition precedent of truthfulness. The court noted that this holding differs in some respects from prior cases that have seemingly treated a defendant's untruthfulness as a breach of contract to be established by prosecutors. In this case, the court agreed with the trial court that defendant's statements were properly admitted because he failed to establish the truthfulness of his proffered statements. View "People v. Palacios" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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When part of a criminal sentence is ordered stricken by an appellate court, the trial court on remand "has jurisdiction to modify every aspect of the sentence" when resentencing. The Court of Appeal held that a trial court conducting such a resentencing is required to exercise that jurisdiction in order to correct a different part of the sentence that has become incorrect by the time of resentencing. In this case, the trial court conducted a resentencing to correct one sentencing enhancement while letting stand another enhancement that had become incorrect. Accordingly, the court reversed and remanded for plenary resentencing. View "People v. Walker" on Justia Law

Posted in: Criminal Law
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Defendant Johnny Lapenias committed multiple sex offenses against his stepdaughter. However, the stepdaughter did not disclose Lapenias’ sexual abuse to the police until years later, when she was 14 years old. At a jury trial, the trial court admitted expert testimony regarding Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome (CSAAS), a theory that identified typical behaviors of sexually abused children, including delayed disclosures. During the CSAAS expert’s testimony, a juror asked: “Is it common for children to make up a story that abuse occurred, when, in fact it did not?” Over Lapenias’ objection, the CSAAS expert testified: “No, that’s rare.” The jury later found Lapenias guilty of the charged sex offenses and the trial court imposed a life sentence. On appeal, Lapenias challenged the admission of the CSAAS evidence, the related jury instruction, the CSAAS expert’s testimony, and statutory fines and fees. The Court of Appeal found the trial court erred by allowing the CSAAS expert to testify that it is “rare” for children to make up stories about sexual abuse, but the Court did not find the error to be prejudicial. Finding no other errors, the Court affirmed the trial court's judgment. View "California v. Lapenias" on Justia Law

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A mother of four young children was found guilty by jury of first degree murder and assault on a child resulting in death, after she killed her youngest child and only daughter. There was no dispute defendant Ka Yang, while alone with her baby Mirabelle, placed the baby in a microwave oven and turned it on. These actions killed the baby. Defendant told her family and first responders that she did not know how the baby was injured, but she consistently spoke of having suffered a seizure, and guessed that the baby had been injured when dropped on a nearby heater while defendant was incapacitated. Defendant's defense at trial, supported in part by expert testimony, was that she killed her daughter while unconscious due to an epileptic seizure. The prosecution countered defendant’s claim of unconsciousness with expert testimony of its own (and medical records), after an inadvertent disclosure by the trial court allowed the prosecutor to discern these records’ contents midtrial and secure their admission on that basis. Although defendant had not been diagnosed with any postpartum mental disorder, and Mirabelle’s pediatrician testified defendant had screened negative for any such disorder, the prosecution relied on this evidence to theorize that defendant was motivated to kill her daughter by hallucinations related to undiagnosed postpartum psychosis. The Court of Appeal concluded the trial court abused its discretion by allowing expert testimony regarding postpartum mental disorders without sufficient factual basis and by subsequently admitting into evidence defendant’s psychological records not directly related to any mental condition she had put at issue. The Court could not conclude these errors were harmless when considered together, thus it reversed the judgment in its entirety. View "California v. Yang" on Justia Law