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Right to Jury Trial for an SVP Civil Commitment

If the reader of this article is familiar with the U.S. Constitution, he or she knows that a jury trial is a guaranteed in all criminal matters where life or liberty is in jeopardy, which has been interpreted to include all misdemeanors and felonies because jail or prison time is a possible punishment.

However, a jury trial is not a right in a civil case; it must be demanded.  The question then becomes whether a jury trial is a right for a Sexually Violent Predator facing a civil trial that may result in an order of commitment to a state hospital?

On December 16, 2010, William Joseph Cannon was convicted in Mendocino County Superior Court by plea of assault with intent to commit rape and dissuading a witness.  He was then sentenced to seven years. 

According to the stipulated basis for the plea, Cannon, wearing a mask, grabbed the victim and attempted to drag her off the street to sexually assault her.  As the victim struggled, Cannon warned her he would “fucking kill her” if she called the police.  She later escaped with the help of two bystanders and Cannon ran away.  During his interview with police, he admitted that he was out that day “hunting females to sexually assault.”

On August 30, 2016, prior to his release from prison, the district attorney filed a petition to commit Cannon under the Sexually Violent Predators Act (SVPA).

On October 3, 2016, after the parties submitted expert reports to the judge, the judge made a finding of probable cause to hold a trial on Cannon’s commitment under the SVPA.

Cannon’s SVPA trial date was continued several times and as a result, the judge ordered new expert evaluation reports.  Eventually, in February, 2018, at a pretrial conference unattended by Cannon, but attended by his attorney, his counsel waived his right to a jury trial.

Following several more continuances, Cannon’s bench trial started on October 8, 2020.  On December 15, 2020, the trial court issued a written order finding that the prosecution met its burden to prove that Mr. Cannon qualified as an SVP. 

Accordingly, Cannon was then committed to the State Department of State Hospitals – Coalinga for an indefinite term.

Cannon then appealed to the First Appellate District the trial court’s ruling on several grounds, but this article will only summarize his argument that his constitutional right to equal protection was violated by the judge’s failure to advise him of his right to a jury trial or to elicit his waiver of this right in person.

Cannon was correct in noting that there is no requirement in the SVPA that the defendant personally waive his or her right to a jury trial after being advised by the court of the implications of doing so.  People v. Washington (2021) 72 Cal. 
App. 5th 453, 463 (“The SVPA does not contain language requiring the jury trial advisement or a personal waiver of that right, evincing a legislative intent not to provide these procedural protections.”).

Cannon’s argument was that he was similarly situated to defendants facing involuntary civil commitment a mentally disordered offender (MDO, Penal Code § 2960, et seq.) and those who plead not guilty by reason of insanity (NGI, Penal Code § 1026.5), who both have the right to be advised of the jury trial right and personally waive it, yet he is treated less favorably than those groups because commitment under the SVPA does not require the personal waiver of a jury trial (Penal Code § 6603(a)).

Thus, “the Legislature intentionally established a different framework for a defendant’s exercise of his or her right to a jury trial in an SVP proceeding, creating a presumption that the trial would be by the court unless demanded by the defendant.”  Washington, supra, 72 Cal. App. 5th at p. 468. 

The question then becomes whether the legislative distinction violates an SVP defendant’s equal protection rights.  This assumes that an SVP, MDO and NGI are similarly situated because each face civil commitment, which the People conceded in Cannon’s case.

The Constitutional analysis that then follows is: “Where classes of persons are similarly situated, ‘[t]he extent of justification required to survive equal protection scrutiny in a specific context depends on the nature or effect of the classification at issue.”  People v. Magana (2022) 76 Cal. App. 5th 310, 321.

The First Appellate District noted that there was a split between other appellate districts in what level of scrutiny was applied.  Some applied rational basis and other applied strict scrutiny.  The First Appellate District then evaluated the varying levels in the other courts and held that rational basis was the correct standard.

Finding this, the court remanded the case back to the trial court to let Cannon raises his equal protection challenge to the SVPA’s jury trial provisions.  The appellate court instructed that if the trial court finds the SVPA violates equal protection in this regard, the judge shall vacate the order finding Cannon an SVP and set the matter for jury trial unless he waives the right to have a jury.

For more information about SVP civil commitment trials, please click on the following articles:
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