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Discovery for California Racial Justice Act Case

In Solano County, police pulled over Clemon Young, a black man, and found him in possession of Ecstasy for sale.  He was then arrested.

In response, after being charged with a felony for possession of a controlled substance for sale, Mr. Young argued that the traffic stop that led to his arrest was racially motivated and filed a motion to “compel disclosure of relevant data” under the California Racial Justice Act of 2020 (the “Racial Justice Act”).  He cited to publicly available statistics showing that, statewide, blacks are more likely to be searched during the course of traffic stops than other citizens.

He sought the names and case numbers spanning the prior five years of others who were charged who were charged with or could have been charged with possession of Ecstasy for sale; the same information for a broad range of related drug offenses, the police reports relating to the suspects involved and their criminal histories and the dispositions of all the cases.

The trial court denied the motion, stating that Young’s articulated reason for good cause seemed to rest on nothing more than his race.

Young then filed a petition for writ of mandate with the California Court of Appeals for the First District, which began its analysis by noting this was a case of first impression: what are the discovery provisions of the statute?
The appellate court then set forth the legal background for the case, which this article summarizes. 

Under the Racial Justice Act, which became effective January 1, 2021, “[t]he state shall not seek or obtain a criminal conviction or seek, obtain, or impose a sentence on the basis of race, ethnicity, or national origin” (Penal Code § 745(a)).  It seeks to codify and outlaw race-based selective prosecution and sentencing as an analogue to equal protection violations (see Murgia v. Municipal Court (1975) 15 Cal. 3d 286 (“Murgia Motion”)).  The Racial Justice Act is codified in a series of interrelated Penal Code sections, including 745, but also 1473(f) and 1473.7(a)(3)).

The Racial Justice Act sets forth four categories, any of which, if proven, is sufficient to establish a violation of Penal Code § 745(a).  They are:
  1. Exhibiting Bias Generally. This conduct takes place when “[t]he judge, an attorney in the case, a law enforcement officer involved in the case, an expert witness, or juror exhibited bias or animus towards the defendant because of the defendant’s race, ethnicity or national origin” (Penal Code § 745(a)(1));
  2. Using Racially Discriminatory Language in Court.  This conduct takes  place when “During defendant’s trial, in court and during the proceedings, the judge, an attorney in the case, a law enforcement officer involved in the case, an expert witness, or juror, used racially discriminatory language about the defendant’s race, ethnicity, or national origin, or otherwise exhibited bias or animus toward the defendant because of defendant’s race, ethnicity or national origin, whether or not it was purposeful” (Penal Code § 745(a)(2));
  3. Disparate Charges or Convictions Based on Race.  This conduct takes place when “[t]he defendant was charged or convicted of a more serious offense than defendants of other races, ethnicities, or national origin who commit similar offenses and are similarly situated, and the evidence establishes that the prosecution more frequently sought or obtained convictions for more serious offenses against people who share the defendant’s race, ethnicity, or national origin in the county where the convictions were sought or obtained” (Penal Code § 745(a)(3); and
  4. Longer or More Severe Sentences Based on Race.  This conduct takes place when “A longer or more severe sentence was imposed on the defendant than was imposed on other similarly situated individuals convicted of the same offense, and longer or 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 origins in the county where the sentence was imposed.” (Penal Code § 745(a)(4)
It merits mention for the reader who may not be familiar with this new law that if one establishes such a violation, the judge can declare a mistrial, discharge the jury and empanel a new jury.  The judge can also dismiss sentence enhancements or special circumstance allegations or reduce one or more charges.  Dismissal is not a stated remedy.

A motion bringing such discrimination to the court’s attention can be brought prejudgment, post judgement, or by petition for writ of habeas corpus under Penal Code § 1473(f) or by a motion to vacate an allegedly invalid conviction under Penal Code § 1473.7.

The First Appellate District reversed the trial court and remanded the case.  In describing its reasons, it “borrow[ed] from the minimal threshold showing that is required to trigger an obligation to provide so-called Pitchess discovery (Evid. Code § 1043(b); see Pitchess v. Superior Court (1974) 11 Cal.3d 531).”  The appellate court held that “Young may claim entitlement to discovery under section 745, subdivision (d) if he makes a plausible case, based on specific facts, that any of the four enumerated violations of section 745(a) could or might have occurred.” 

This was a threshold consideration that the trial court must make by balancing a number of factors as identified under City of Alhambra v. Superior Court (1988) 205 Cal. App. 3d 1118, 1134 (a case involving discovery from Facebook), “[s]pecificially . . .
  1. whether the material requested is adequately described;
  2. whether the requested material is reasonably available to the governmental entity from which it is sought (and not readily available to the defendant from other sources);
  3. whether production of the records containing the requested information would violate (i) third party confidentiality or privacy rights or (ii) any protected governmental interest;
  4. whether defendant has acted in a timely manner;
  5. whether the time required to produce the requested information will necessitate an unreasonable delay of defendant’s trial; and
  6. whether the production of the records containing the requested information would place an unreasonable burden on the governmental entity involved.”
We present this article because, as the court noted, it is the first such published decision on this issue and certainly provides guidance for others seeking to enforce similar rights.

For more information about discriminatory prosecution, please click on the following articles:
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