In 2003, Louis Montes was convicted in San Bernardino Superior Court of first degree murder he committed when age 17, with a special circumstance of lying in wait, murder during the commission of a robbery, and murder during the commission of carjacking. In 2004, he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).
In 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama (2012) 567 U.S. 460, 465 that mandatory LWOP sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment and therefore prohibited. It was because juveniles were often still developing maturity and judgment and had a lack of insight, often failed to appreciate the gravity of the circumstances of their actions, were more susceptible to peer pressure, and had more capacity for change later. Therefore, before an LWOP sentence were imposed, the judge had to find strong, specific factors to demonstrate irreparable corruption to warrant an LWOP sentence.
Four years later, in 2016, the California Supreme Court ruled in People v. Franklin (2016) 63 Cal. 4th 261 that juveniles sentenced to LWOP were entitled to a hearing in order to have an opportunity to present information as to juvenile characteristics and circumstances at the time of the offense was committed. In 2017, the California legislature passed Senate Bill 394, amending Penal Code § 3051, establishing parole eligibility for juveniles serving LWOP sentences (and for all practical purposes abolishing LWOP).
In 2019, under Assembly Bill 2942, Montes petitioned the superior court for recall his sentence under Penal Code § 1170(d)(2), which allows juveniles sentenced to LWOP who have been incarcerated for at least 15 years to seek resentencing.
The People opposed resentencing, but argued that if the judge proceeded to resentence Montes, it should impose an LWOP sentence again due to Montes’ insignificant history of rehabilitation. The judge acknowledged the Miller factors about juvenile immaturity and susceptibility to peer pressure, etc. The judge also stated that he understood he had the option to resentence defendant to a term less than LWOP but chose not to do so.
Montes then appealed this decision to the Fourth Appellate District in Riverside, arguing that the trial court erred because it should have transferred his matter to juvenile court for a transfer hearing under Proposition 57.
The Fourth Appellate District agreed and remanded the matter back to the trial court with instructions to transfer the matter back to juvenile court. We cannot help but think the juvenile court judge will immediately order the matter transferred back to adult court.
Regardless, the Fourth Appellate District explained that Prop 57, passed in 2016, requires that certain categories of juveniles be given a transfer hearing before they are tried in criminal court. The Fourth Appellate District held that Prop 57 applies retroactively to defendants whose judgments are not yet final. In re Estrada (1965) 63 Cal. 2d 740, 745.
Indeed, the appellate court observed that “historically, a child could be tried in criminal court only after a judicial determination before jeopardy attached, that he or she was unfit to be dealt with under juvenile court law.” In 1961, the Legislature set 16 years old as the minimum age that a minor could be transferred to criminal court (also known as adult court).
Over the next fifty years, with “tough on crime” legislation passing, prosecutors were able to file against juveniles directly in criminal court. However, in 2016, with the passage of Prop 57, California returned to the historical rule by amending the Welfare and Institutions Code so as to eliminate direct filing by prosecutors.
Certain categories of juveniles can still be tried in adult court, but only after a judge evaluates the juvenile’s maturity, degree of criminal sophistication, prior delinquency record and whether the minor can be rehabilitated. People v. Superior Court (Lara) (2018) 4 Cal. 5th 299, at pp. 305 – 306.
Here, whether Montes was entitled to a transfer hearing depended upon if his Penal Code § 1170(d)(2) resentencing affected his judgment’s finality and it did. Resentencing under this section made his original sentence inoperative because it replaced the original sentence and would allow Montes to request a higher court’s review.
Moreover, a resentencing court is not required to follow and tie itself to any aspect of the previous sentence. People v. Lopez (2020) 56 Cal. App. 5th 835, 845.
If the juvenile court does not transfer the matter to criminal court, Mr. Montes cannot be sentenced as an adult. However, if the matter is transferred from juvenile court to criminal court, he will then be resentenced as an adult.
We believe this “victory” by Montes may be regarded as a Pyrrhic victory insofar as it seems quite likely his case will be transferred back to adult court and sentenced to a similarly long sentence as he originally was, sadly due to the nature of the crime and his apparent lack of remorse, criminal sophistication and low rehabilitation potential, proven by his minimal efforts at rehabilitation in prison according to the case history.
For more information about Prop 57 for juvenile offenders, please click on the following articles: