Monday, April 07, 2008

People v. Woods (Cal. Ct. App. - April 7, 2008)

There are some holdings that seems so obviously correct that you wonder how the other side could possibly argue the contrary. Like here.

Justice Swager holds that a criminal defendant convicted of being an accessory to murder after the fact can't be ordered to pay restitution to the murder victim's family. And that seems clearly right. The criminal offense for which the defendant was convicted didn't cause the murder. Hence restitution is improper. Seems totally easy.

And, in my view, that's exactly right. But I wanted to make a couple of additional points as well. First, notice that the State actually prevailed below. So obviously it wasn't that easy. Second, Justice Swager's opinion is much more detailed -- and persuasive - - than you might think necessary given the question presented. In particular, Justice Swager does an exceptional job of distinguishing California precedent that holds that in granting probation, a court can order restitution for even uncharged or acquitted offenses; moreover, that squarely holds that restitution orders are proper in probation cases even if based upon an accessory after the fact conviction. Honestly, I was surprised that the latter holdings even existed, since they don't seem to make sense given the nature of the conviction. But Justice Swager not only does a good job of distinguishing those cases, but also making them seem to make sense. Which is true testament an honest and rational attempt to properly distinguish a case: a description that makes the differences between the two cases matter, and make both cases understandable given their factual predicates.

So I was very impressed with this opinion, especially since the issue seemed so facially intuitive at the outset. In the end, my conclusion didn't change, but my understanding markedly improved. And that's a great sign of a quality opinion.