Wednesday, March 04, 2015

In Re G.Y. (Cal. Ct. App. - March 3, 2015)

The Court of Appeal's call for legislative action here might well not fall on deaf ears.

You're not usually going to see the Legislature fall over itself to pass a statute that favors someone who's committed a crime.  Admittedly, the offense here was committed by a juvenile, and it wasn't by any means the worst offense you've ever seen.  Here's what G.Y. did when he was seventeen:

"In November 1998, after appellant was beaten by a group of men in a park, he went to his friend’s house. He and his friend then took the friend’s father’s handgun and drove to the assailants’ house. Appellant held the gun to a woman’s head and threatened to shoot her unless she summoned the men from inside the house. She did so and two men, who were holding baseball bats, came out of the house. Appellant threatened to shoot one of the men, but he and his friend left."

Still, the offense involved a gun, and that's serious.  Indeed, G.Y. gets sentenced to a maximum of 15 years in a juvenile ranch -- hardly a minor disposition.

But G.Y. completes the program, and gets released, in four months.  You read that right:  four months, not four years.

Then look at how G.Y. turns his life around:

"In 2006, appellant enlisted in the Army and served on active duty until November 2009. During that period, appellant was promoted to the rank of sergeant and received two Army Commendation Medals for his service in Iraq. Appellant also received numerous other achievement and leadership awards. Appellant provided two letters of recommendation from his commanding officers in the Army and an NCO (noncommissioned officer) evaluation that described his exemplary performance in the Army. After completing his active duty service, appellant enrolled in California State University, East Bay. In December 2012, he obtained his Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice Administration. In 2013, appellant received another Army Commendation Medal for his outstanding contribution to military intelligence operations in Kuwait."

That's a story that people like to hear.  Did it the old-fashioned way:  Joined the Army and made something of himself.

G.Y. then petitions to have his prior felony convictions reduced to misdemeanors, a motion that the D.A. doesn't even oppose, and the trial court does so.  On similar grounds, he then moves to have his juvenile records sealed.  That way he can go through his new life with a "clean" sheet.

With only one barrier.  In 2000, California voters passed Proposition 21.  Which expressly says that a court can't seal juvenile records for specified (serious) felonies that someone committed when they were 14 or older.  Including but not limited to the offenses committed by G.Y. when he was 17.

The law's clear.  So G.Y.can't get relief.

The Court of Appeal calls upon the Legislature to change this result.  Which is understandable.  This is an extremely sympathetic case.

With two problems.  First, although the Court of Appeal says that it probably wasn't the voter's "intent" to stop relief in cases like this one, I'm not so sure.  The voters expressly passed a law that was deliberately categorical.  No one can get relief.  If you'd have asked the "Yes" voters, "Do you really mean 'no one,' even the most sympathetic?", I think the average person would have said "Yep.  That's exactly what I mean."  The statute was passed because they didn't want exceptions.  Didn't trust courts.  The problem you have here is exactly what you get when you enact such a rule.  It's not an accident.  It's deliberate.

Second, although the Court of Appeal calls upon the "Legislature" to resolve the problem, I'm not really sure that's where the call is properly directed.  Since it's an initiative statute, the Legislature can't amend it, right?  All it can do (if it wants) is to suggest an amendment and send it to the voters.  They passed it, so it's their call.

Sure, the Legislature is a (possible) start.  But really the proper message is to the voters.  Pass something that rectifies this problem.  And, in the future, don't pass stuff like this if you don't really mean it.