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The Legislative Intent Applied in Assembly Bill 1950

The Gist of this Article: Assembly Bill 1950, changing the length of probation for most misdemeanors and most felonies, applies retroactively to those on probation and is automatic.  In other words, the shortening of the probation period does not give the prosecution the right to revoke the plea bargain due to a change in conditions (a windfall to defendant in such cases).       
On September 20, 2019, defendant Jerman Flores was charged in Kern County Superior Court with one felony count of possession of a controlled substance for sale (Health & Safety Code § 11378). 

More than a year later, on October 21, 2020, pursuant to the terms of a plea bargain, the prosecution amended the complaint to add one misdemeanor count of possession of a controlled substance, Health & Safety Code § 11377(a), as count two.  Mr. Flores then pled no contest to the misdemeanor count and the judge dismissed count one, the felony possession for sale count.  The judge also placed Flores on three years of informal, or summary, probation for a term of three years with an obligation to serve 60 days in the Kern County jail (or referral to a “Work Release Program”) with credit for 20 days served, as well as certain search terms and an agreement to submit to random testing for narcotics.

Mr. Flores then filed an appeal to the Fifth Appellate District Court in Fresno, arguing only that under Assembly Bill (AB) 1950, effective January 1, 2021, his probation period should be just one year, not three years, due to the changes that AB 1950 made to Penal Code §§ 1203a and 1203.1(a), that limited probation in misdemeanor cases to one year and felony probation to three years, subject to certain exceptions not applicable here.  Mr. Flores argued that the changes to the probation period were retroactive under In re Estrada (1965) 63 Cal. 3d 740, at 744.

By the time the case was heard on appeal, Flores argued that the one year probation period had expired by operation of law if AB 1950 applied.  People v. Chavez (2018) 4 Cal. 5th 771, 783 [“[S]ection 1203.3 provides for automatic discharge at the end of the probation term.”].

In response to the appeal, the People agreed that Estrada is retroactive and would apply to this case because the judgment was not yet final, but argued that remand of the case was required to permit the People the opportunity to withdraw from the plea bargain or for the trial court judge to rescind its approval of the plea bargain, restore the felony charge and allow the parties to renegotiate the plea bargain or proceed to trial, as provided for in People v. Stamps (2020) 9 Cal. 5th 685, 707-708.

The Fifth Appellate District responded that the key was understanding legislative intent in a new law.  Consequently, it held that Stamps was distinguishable and therefore not applicable in this case.  However, it is critical to this article’s value that the reader understand why this is so.

To appreciate this, the reader must understand not only Stamps, but also People v. Collins (1978) 21 Cal. 3d 208 and Harris v. Superior Court (2016) 1 Cal. 5th 984, 991.

In People v. Collins, supra, the California Supreme Court considered the appropriate remedy in a case that was resolved by plea bargain, but, prior to sentencing, the Legislature decriminalized the conduct to which defendant pled.  Mr. Collins was charged with fifteen felony offenses, including three counts of forcible oral copulation in violation of former Penal Code § 288a with one prior felony conviction.  He pled guilty to a single count of oral copulation under former § 288a and the other fourteen counts were dismissed, as well as the prior felony allegation.

The Legislature then repealed former § 288a and enacted a new section.  The new section still criminalized forcible oral copulation, but it decriminalized the conduct to which Mr. Collins pled guilty, simple oral copulation between nonprisoner adults.

Collins then objected to the trial court’s jurisdiction to sentence him for conduct that was no longer criminal.  The trial court overruled the objection and sentenced him as agreed in the plea bargain.

Collins appealed up to the California Supreme Court, which held that where an “external event and not [the] defendant’s repudiation under the plea bargaining agreement,” the court “must fashion a remedy that restores to the state the benefits for which it bargained without depriving [the] defendant of the bargain to which he remains entitled.”  The Supreme Court suggested that the trial court “permit the People to revive one or more of the dismissed counts, but limiting [the] defendant’s potential sentence . . .”

In Harris, supra, the California Supreme Court considered Proposition 47 in the context of a plea bargain and concluded that the electorate intended the change to apply without affording the People the opportunity to rescind the plea bargain.  The California Supreme Court ruled that the People were bound by the changes in the law and had to remain a party to the plea bargain, even if it resulted in a “windfall” to defendant because, as in Harris, a felony was reduced to a misdemeanor by law and sentencing changed from a state prison sentence to less time and in county jail.

Stamps, supra, dealt with a plea bargain entered into, but before sentencing, Senate Bill 1393 was passed and became effective.  Under SB 1393, the trial court was granted discretion to strike or dismiss the previously mandated five-year prior serious felony sentence enhancement under Penal Code § 667(a)(1).  Defendant in Stamps pled to a four year sentence with a five year prior serious felony enhancement.

The court in Stamps ruled that the trial court may not sentence defendant without the consent of the People, which presumably would be withdrawn with the potential sentence reduction to four years.  If the People chose to withdraw the plea, the court could grant such a motion due to the change in the law and permit the parties to renegotiate a resolution (or proceed to trial).

The Fifth Appellate District, turning to Mr. Flores’ appeal, held that Stamps did not apply and that it was bound to simply reduce the term of probation, distinguishing Stamps as a case that turned on the discretion SB 1393 afforded a trial court, whereas AB 1950 provided no such discretion. 

Therefore, Flores’ appeal was granted and his probation was deemed terminated by operation of law.

The citation for the Fifth Appellate District Court ruling discussed above is People v. Jerman Flores (5th App. Dist., 2021) 77 Cal. App. 5th 420, 292 Cal. Rptr. 3d 488.

For more information about AB 1950 issues, please click on the following articles:
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