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Criminal Defense Attorneys

What Does a Signed Promise to Appear in Court Mean?

The following fact pattern and issues are common, particularly lately with COVID-19 delays caused by staffing shortages in the prosecuting agencies.  However, the appellate court ruling is nothing short of unexpected and, quite frankly, disturbing.

Robert Ambrose Buchanan IV and Karen Ginger Downs were each arrested, separately, on suspicion of misdemeanor DUI in separate arrests in Santa Cruz County.  After being arrested, each submitted to a blood draw and each were each released upon signing a promise to appear in court at a later date.  In each case, they went to court on the date on which they promised to appear and no case was filed.

For both Buchanan and Downs, the Santa Cruz County District Attorney later filed a criminal case before the one-year statute of limitations expired and in each case, Buchanan and Downs appeared in court about fifteen months after their respective arrests.

Following arraignment, both Buchanan and Downs each moved to dismiss the complaint against them, asserting violation of their federal speedy trial rights.  It is noteworthy that in each motion to dismiss, defendants did not assert a violation of their California Constitution right to a speedy trial, which attaches in a misdemeanor prosecution when a defendant is arrested.  Serna v. Superior Court (1985) 40 Cal 3d 239, 248; Cal. Const. art. I, § 5 (the speedy trial right attached in a felony case once the defendant is arrested with a continuing restraint, i.e., he is held in custody, the filing of an indictment or the filing of an information (not a complaint). People v. Martinez (2000) 22 Cal. 4th 750, 760-761).

In a combined hearing, the Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge determined that: (1) defendants were and remained “accused” within the meaning of the federal Sixth Amendment speedy trial guarantee from the day law enforcement arrested and released them on notices to appear; (2) the lapse of more than one year from the issuance of the notice to appear was presumptively prejudicial under Barker v. Wingo (1972) 407 U.S. 514; (3) although the delay of nearly a year from arrest to the filing of the complaints was justified by a commensurate delay in analyzing blood specimens collected upon arrest; (4) the further delay between the filing of the complaint and arraignment was unjustified.  The trial court therefore dismissed both actions.

The superior court’s appellate department reversed, in split decisions, but certified the cases for transfer to the Sixth Appellate District for further review.

The Sixth Appellate District began its analysis of the federal speedy trial right guarantee by noting that it reviewed a trial court’s grant or denial of a speedy trial motion for abuse of discretion.  People v. Vila (1984) 162 Cal. App. 3d 76, 85.

The appellate court then made startling rulings, most notably a holding that “because both Buchanan and Downs ceased to be under continuing restraint once the date originally noticed for their appearance passed without formal charges, their Sixth Amendment speedy trial right did not reattach until the District Attorney filed the operative charging documents.”

While we understand this ruling aligns the federal speedy trial right with the California speedy trial right, we think it may send the wrong message to a casual reader of this opinion, or worse, a person who equates the date on a signed promise to appear with a statute of limitations.

We ask the reader of this article to understand one thing from this ruling, if nothing else is understood, and that is the Sixth Appellate District’s discussion of a signed promise to appear, which is statutorily provided for under Penal Code § 853.6. which is commonly signed by people being released from law enforcement.

Under section 853.6(e), where the police officer files the notice with the prosecuting attorney in lieu of the court (like in an infraction for traffic court), “the prosecuting attorney, within their discretion, may initiate prosecution by filing the notice or a formal complaint with the magistrate specified in the duplicate notice within 25 days from the time of arrest . . . the failure by the prosecutor to file the notice or formal complaint within 25 days of the time of the arrest shall not bar further prosecution of the misdemeanor charged in the notice to appear.  However, any further prosecution shall be preceded by a new and separate citation or an arrest warrant.”

Here, the Sixth Appellate Court explained, the government imposed limits on defendants’ liberty for 25 days after the arrest.  After all, the failure to appear as promised could be punished by six months in jail and/or a $1,000 file under Penal Code § 853.7 and Vehicle Code § 40508(a). 

Once the government elected not to file charges against defendants pursuant to the Notice to Appear, “defendants were effectively free without restraint,” even though they were subject to ongoing investigation and they ceased to be “accused.”  United States v. MacDonald (1982) 456 U.S. 1, 8 – 9.  Once the prosecution filed the misdemeanor complaint, the defendants became accused again.  Defendants therefore were not entitled to count the time from 25 days after their arrest until the date of the filing toward the one year threshold at which one may presume prejudice under Serna, supra, at pp. 251-253.

Therefore, the trial court rulings dismissing both cases were reversed.

We think this ruling is a big case on interpreting the right to a speedy trial and every criminal defense attorney who practices in California state courts should understand it fully.

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