California Supreme Court rules on two juvenile justice issues

04/03/2014 11:05 AM

04/03/2014 11:15 PM

The California Supreme Court on Thursday ruled a juvenile must have the consent of the defense lawyer to plead no contest to criminal charges.

The ruling reversed an opinion by the 3rd District Court of Appeal, which had overturned a decision by a Sacramento Superior Court judge.

In a separate opinion Thursday, the state high court decreed that a minor who has committed a series of criminal offenses, including serious or violent crimes, may not be locked up in a state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation juvenile facility if the most recent offense was nonviolent.

This ruling affirmed the 3rd District Court of Appeal’s take on the issue. The appellate court’s decision had reversed a Sacramento Superior Court judge.

Both cases have been closely watched by juvenile jurists and practitioners throughout the state.

In the case focused on a no contest plea, a 13-year-old, identified in court papers as Alonzo J., was in juvenile hall on allegations that he had committed two felony assaults and misdemeanor vandalism. The prosecution offered a deal in which the child could return to his home on probation if he would plead no contest to one of the assaults.

Alonzo J. wanted to accept the offer, but his attorney refused to consent and the court would not accept the plea without that consent.

After a hearing, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Robert M. Twiss sustained the charges and directed that Alonzo J. be placed in either a foster or group home, a residential treatment center, or the home of a friend or relative.

A three-justice panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal reversed, concluding that Twiss erred in not allowing the child to accept the plea deal over his attorney’s objection.

The Supreme Court sided with Twiss.

“We conclude that, in a delinquency proceeding, the consent of the child’s attorney is required for a no contest plea, just as it is for an admission of the charging allegations,” wrote Associate Justice Joyce L. Kennard for all seven members of the high court.

In the commitment case, Marcus Robinson was parked in front of his mother’s house talking on his cellphone on a May afternoon in 2010. Juvenile D.B., as he is identified in court papers, and another person approached and asked to use the phone.

As he returned the phone, D.B. reached through the window and punched Robinson in the face. Robinson tried to run, but he was grabbed from behind, punched repeatedly, and pinned to the ground. One of the assailants bit his hand, forcing him to release the car keys. D.B. and his cohort took Robinson’s wallet, neck chain and car keys and drove off in his car. Robinson suffered a broken jaw.

Later that day, police officers saw D.B. run a stop sign driving a different vehicle than the one stolen. The officers followed with flashing lights and siren, but D.B. sped away, eventually crashing into a curb. He and his two passengers escaped on foot.

A week later, a police officer in Robinson’s neighborhood stopped D.B. because he matched the description of Robinson’s attacker. D.B. gave a false name. When the officer tried to detain him, D.B. ran but was soon apprehended. Robinson saw the chase, approached police at the scene, and identified D.B.

A charging document, called a “wardship petition,” included counts against D.B. based on these incidents. It alleged seven offenses: carjacking, robbery, battery with great bodily injury, vehicle theft, possession of stolen property, evading the police and resisting arrest.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Stacy Boulware Eurie found the allegations true and sustained the petition. She ordered D.B. to the custody of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s juvenile arm for the maximum term of 11 years and 8 months.

Three justices of the 3rd District Court of Appeal reversed Eurie, holding that commitment to the state facility is barred because, regardless of the violence encompassed in the charging document, the most recent offense is nonviolent.

A section of the state’s Welfare and Institutions Code, adopted by the Legislature in 2007, prohibits a CDCR juvenile incarceration unless “the most recent offense alleged in any petition and admitted or found to be true by the court” is a violent or serious offense listed in another section of the code or a sex offense listed in a section of the Penal Code.

Lawyers for the state “urge us to ignore the plain meaning of the statute because it would produce absurd consequences,” wrote Associate Justice Carol A. Corrigan for a unanimous Supreme Court. She agreed that the consequences “are certainly troubling.”

“The minor’s attempts to evade the police do not make him any less a violent offender, as demonstrated by the crimes he committed a week earlier,” she wrote.

But, she said, she and her colleagues on the high court must affirm the appellate court, because the consequences “are not so absurd that we must override the plain meaning of the statutory language.

“To justify departing from a literal reading of a clearly worded statute, the results produced must be so unreasonable the Legislature could not have intended them. We cannot so conclude here.”

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