Does SB 1437 Apply to Voluntary Manslaughter if a Plea?
Indeed, Penal Code § 1170.95(a)(2) (codifying 1437) states that it applies when “The petitioner was convicted of first degree or second-degree murder following a trial or accepted a plea offer in lieu of a trial at which the petitioner could be convicted for first degree or second-degree murder.” Such a plea may be to voluntary manslaughter, so the argument goes.
If Senate Bill 1437 does not apply to a plea to, for example, voluntary manslaughter, would that be a violation of one’s constitutional rights to equal protection and substantive due process?
This very argument arose in the Second Appellate District Court in the case of People v. Daniel Cervantes (2020 DJDAR 793), decided on January 30, 2020.
In 2012, the District Attorney’s Office for Santa Barbara County charged Cervantes with murder.
He eventually negotiated a plea bargain to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to thirteen years in state prison.
In 2019, following the passage of Senate Bill 1437, Cervantes filed a Petition for Resentencing under Penal Code § 1170.95 in the Santa Barbara Superior Court. Judge Brian E. Hill denied the petition, ruling that Cervantes simply was not eligible for relief under 1170.95 because he was not convicted of murder.
Cervantes appealed to the Second Appellate District Court in Ventura, arguing that 1170.95 is not limited to murder convictions, as described above under 1170.95(a)(2) when there is a plea after a charge of murder “in lieu of trial.” He also argued that the failure of the Legislature to include voluntary manslaughter in the new law violates his rights to equal protection and substantive due process.
The Second Appellate District began its review by beginning with statutory analysis. It looked to the words the Legislature used and noted, “If the statutory language is not ambiguous, then . . . the plain meaning of the language governs.” People v. Colbert (2019) 6 Cal.5th 596, 603. The appellate court then quoted (a) of 1170.95, which states, “A person convicted of felony murder or murder under a natural and probable consequences theory may file a petition with the court that sentenced petitioner to have petitioner’s murder conviction vacated and then be resentenced on any remaining counts when all of the following apply . . .” Pointing to this, the appellate court observed at 1170.95 can only apply to people who were convicted of murder. “There is no reference to the crime of voluntary manslaughter.”
Moreover, the court pointed out that “the bill was enacted to correct the unfairness of the felony murder rule so that murder convictions could by vacated . . .” People v. Anthony (2019) 32 Cal.App. 5th 1102, 1147. Furthermore, the felony murder rule is not applicable to the crime of voluntary manslaughter.
In addressing the equal protection and substantive due process arguments by Cervantes, the appellate court explained that the first step in an equal protection analysis is to determine whether defendant is similarly situated with those who are entitled to the statutory benefit. People v. Barrera (1993) 14 Cal.App.4th 1555, 1565. Here, the court pointed out that Cervantes was not similarly situated to those convicted of murder because voluntary manslaughter carries with it a different punishment than murder. Indeed, normally “offenders who commit different crimes are not similarly situated “for equal protection purposes. People v. Morales (2019) 33 Cal.App.5th 800, 808.
“Only those who are similarly situated are protected from individually disparate treatment” (under an equal protection violation claim). Barrera, supra, at 1565.
The decision not to include manslaughter in section 1170.95 falls within the Legislature’s “line-drawing” authority as a rational choice that is not constitutionally prohibited.
Lastly, the Second Appellate District rejected Cervantes’ claim that he was denied substantive due process. The court reminded the reader that “[s]ubstantive due process requires a rational relationship between the objectives of a legislative enactment and the methods chosen to achieve those objectives.” California Rifle & Pistol Ass’n v. City of West Hollywood (1988) 66 Cal.App.4th 1302, 1330. Here, the court found such a relationship, so there was no substantive due process violation either.