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AB 624: Challenging a Juvenile Fitness Hearing

As most understand if one has ever been to juvenile court, a juvenile court judge and the district attorney assigned have the primary goal of rehabilitation.  The proceedings and case resolutions are not punitive in nature, although some juveniles and families of juveniles may nonetheless feel punished by having to perform community service and attend anger management classes, for example.

Even some serious cases receive such gentle treatment.  Many years ago, we represented a young man who was “adjudicated” (there are no convictions in juvenile court; only “adjudications”) in juvenile court to have committed murder and he was sentenced to five years in a juvenile offender camp.  Such a sentence was known as “juvenile life.”

However, generally speaking, a juvenile over age 15 facing murder, attempted murder, mayhem and other very violent crimes, particularly if a gang enhancement is alleged, can have their case transferred out of juvenile court following a fitness hearing to adult court.  Our client’s case was lucky to stay in juvenile court.
The Gist of this Article: Assembly Bill (AB) 624, allowing a direct appeal of a juvenile fitness hearing ruling that the matter was appropriate for adult court, is not retroactive because the bill itself does not directly or necessarily ameliorate or decrease punishment.  The bill only permits an immediate appeal.    
On January 1, 2022, Assembly Bill (AB) 624 took effect.  Prior to this new law, a defendant certified by a juvenile court judge as fit to be tried in adult court could challenge that determination in the court of appeal through a petition for writ relief.  See generally People v. Superior Court (Rodrigo O.) (1994) 22 Cal. App. 4th 1297, 1302. 

Now, after the enactment of AB 624, which is codified at Welfare & Institutions Code § 801, a defendant is entitled to immediately appeal from a juvenile court fitness determination.  Section 801 states that “[A]n order transferring a minor from the juvenile court to a court of criminal jurisdiction shall be subject to immediate appellate review if a notice of appeal is filed within 30 days of the order transferring the minor to a court of criminal jurisdiction.  An order transferring the minor from the juvenile court to a court of criminal jurisdiction may not be heard on appeal from the judgment of conviction.”

In June 2014, Armando Pineda, Jr., age 17, shot Rogelio Islas and killed him.  The murder culminated approximately two years of fisticuffs between the Pineda and the Islas family over arguments the two neighbors had in the Compton neighborhood where they lived side by side.

On the day at issue, in the afternoon, Pineda was putting his child in a car seat in his SUV parked outside the house, partially in front of the Islas house.  Rogelio Islas insulted Armando Pineda, Jr., and the two began arguing.  According to witnesses, Pineda then pulled out a gun and shot Islas five times, including one shot to the head.

Pineda then got in the SUV and “burned rubber,” leaving the scene at high speed.  He was later caught by police.

At the time of Rogelio’s murder, California law allowed prosecutors to file murder charges against a defendant over age 16 directly in a court of criminal jurisdiction (“adult court”).  Using this “direct file” procedure, the Los Angeles County District Attorney in October 2014 charged defendant with Rogelio’s murder in a court of criminal jurisdiction. 

After trial, a jury found Pineda guilty of second degree murder.  The jury also found true personal use of a firearm enhancements (Penal Code §§ 12022.53(b) – (d)) alleged in connection with the murder charge.  The trial court judge sentenced Pineda to an aggregate term of 40 years to life in prison, consisting of 15 years to life for the second degree murder and a consecutive 25 years to life pursuant to Penal Code § 12022.53(d) for personally discharging a firearm causing Rogelio’s death. 

On appeal to the Second Appellate District court, the appellate court conditionally reversed the judgment because a provision of Proposition 57 eliminated a prosecutor’s ability to directly file charges against certain defendants in a court of criminal jurisdiction.  Instead, the juvenile court would have to conduct a “fitness hearing” to decide if the defendant was fit for juvenile court proceedings or should be transferred to adult court.

On remand, the juvenile court determined defendant was an appropriate subject of a transfer to a court of criminal jurisdiction.  When the fitness hearing was taking place, Senate Bill 620 had taken effect and gave a trial court jurisdiction under Penal Code § 1385 to strike a § 12022.53 firearm enhancement when in the interest of justice to do so. 

When this took place, Pineda filed a request for the judge to apply SB 620 to resentence him and strike the firearm enhancement in light of his “violent and unhealthy” youth, his history of trauma, the significant progress he made in prison and the length of the sentence imposed by the trial court.  The judge denied the motion, noting that Pineda’s crime was not committed by a “sweet kid who did something totally out of character,” but was a culmination of many violent acts. 

While he was appealing the judge’s SB 620 decision, AB 624 was passed.  Pineda had never filed a petition for writ relief from the transfer order earlier.  He instead went directly to the SB 620 issue.

On appeal, he then added in, under AB 624, an appeal of the transfer decision, arguing that it was retroactive under In re Estrada (1965) 63 Cal. 2d 740.  The Second Appellate District rejected this argument, stating that AB 624 was silent on retroactive effect and since it did not directly ameliorate or mitigate punishment, it was not retroactive under Estrada.  The appellate procedure was no more favorable to Pineda than the writ procedure for decreasing punishment, which he waived anyways after the fitness hearing by not then petitioning for writ review.

We present this summary because it is the first reported decision, being filed on May 10, 2022, we have seen on AB 624 and its retroactivity is no doubt the primary issue for anyone in prison for a crime adjudicated for a crime committed as a juvenile and later sentenced in adult court.

The citation for the Second Appellate District Court ruling discussed above is People v. Armando Pineda, Jr. (2nd App. Dist., 2022) B304140.

For more information about juvenile court fitness hearings, please click on the following articles:
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