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California Racial Justice Act Discovery Motion, SB 567

In 2017, Mario Garcia was arrested after a physical altercation with his sister’s boyfriend.  When police arrived, he fired a semiautomatic handgun at one of the officers.

He was charged in San Mateo Superior Court with nine counts, including assault on a peace officer with a semiautomatic firearm (Penal Code § 245(d)(2)) plus firearm use enhancements under Penal Code § 12022.53(b) and 12022.5(a) and (d); exhibiting a deadly weapon to a police officer to resist arrest (Penal Code § 417.8), as well as seven other counts.

After a jury trial wherein the jury found Mr. Garcia guilty of assault with a semiautomatic firearm (Penal Code § 245(b)), assault by means likely to produce great bodily injury (Penal Code § 245(a)(4)), assault a deadly weapon (Penal Code § 245(a)(1)) and possession of an assault weapon (Penal Code § 30605(a)), the judge sentenced Mr. Garcia to 24 years in state prison.

In March 2021, Mr. Garcia filed a motion in pro per under Penal Code § 1385 (which we would comment is not permitted) to strike the ten-year firearm use enhancement the judge imposed in sentencing him.

The judge nonetheless appointed counsel to represent Mr. Garcia and the following day, the attorney filed a motion to continue the sentencing hearing, which was five days away, so that she could prepare a sentencing brief regarding not only the firearm enhancement, but arguments under Penal Code § 745, also known as the California Racial Justice Act (effective in 2021), to show that a longer and more severe sentence was imposed on defendant than was imposed on other similarly situated individuals convicted of the same offense, and longer and more severe sentences were more frequently imposed for that offense on people that share the defendant’s race, ethnicity, or national origin than on defendants of other races, ethnicities or national origin in the county where the sentence was imposed.”  In support of this, several articles and reports were attached that reflected research on racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

The judge denied the motion to continue sentencing, but “in an abundance of caution,” the judge struck the firearm use enhancement.  Taking “into consideration the new racial animus act,” the judge acknowledged that defense counsel did not have “time to really flesh out the statistics” bearing out that “people of color are treated more harshly in the criminal justice system.”  The judge then acknowledged defendant’s good behavior in prison, but found troubling defendant’s lack of remorse, his unwillingness to take responsibility for his actions and the violent nature of the offense, so he denied the 1385 motion to otherwise reduce the sentence.

Mr. Garcia then appealed to the First Appellate District, arguing that he should be resentenced under Penal Code § 1170(b), as amended by Senate Bill 567.

He further argued that the trial court judge abused his discretion in denying his motion for a continuance to enable him to develop facts in support of a motion for discovery under the California Racial Justice Act, also known as the CRJA (Penal Code § 745(a)).

As the reader may be aware, Senate Bill 567, effective January 1, 2022, amended Penal Code § 1170 to provide that a judge may impose a sentence exceeding the middle term only when there are circumstances in aggravation of the crime that justify the imposition of a term of imprisonment exceeding the middle term, and the facts underlying those circumstances have been stipulated to by the defendant or found true beyond a reasonable doubt at trial by the jury or by the judge in a court trial.  Penal Code § 1170(b)(2).

Here, the judge imposed the upper term of nine years on the assault on a peace officer with a semiautomatic firearm (Penal Code § 245(d)(2)) based on the aggravating circumstance that the offense involved a threat of great bodily injury to multiple individuals.

Mr. Garcia argued, and the People did not dispute, that he never stipulated to such a finding and there was no trial in which the circumstances in aggravation were found to be true beyond a reasonable doubt. 

The parties further agreed that because Senate Bill 567 is ameliorative, and because there was no indication from the Legislature that it intended it to apply prospectively only, the new law applied retroactively to cases that were not final.  People v. Flores (2022) 73 Cal. App. 5th 1032, 1039.

The First Appellate District further agreed with Mr. Garcia that the judge abused his discretion in denying a continuance for his counsel to develop facts for a discovery motion under the CRJA, saying that the good cause standard for discovery under the CRJA, like the showing required for disclosure of law enforcement records under Pitchess, requires a defendant “only to advance a plausible factual foundation, based on specific facts, that a violation of the [CRJA] ‘could or might have occurred in his case.”  Young v. Superior Court (2022) 79 Cal. App. 5th 138, at 159.

Therefore, the judgement was reversed and the case remanded for resentencing under Penal Code § 1170(b).  The appellate court further ordered that prior to resentencing, defendant shall be granted a reasonable opportunity to prepare a motion for discovery under the CRJA.

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