Friday, March 25, 2016

People v. Florez (Cal. Ct. App. - March 25, 2016)

I'd mention this opinion even if there wasn't a dissent.  If only because the factual settings are somewhat unusual.

It's a three strikes case where the defendant was sentenced to 25 years to life after the police caught him urinating in public.  At which point he dropped a small bag containing 0.19 grams of cocaine.  That got him put in prison forever.

After Proposition 47 passed, Mr. Florez petitions for resentencing.  But the trial court says that he's too dangerous to release.

His commitment offense -- which was in 1999 -- doesn't demonstrate dangerousness at all, obviously.  But in 1976 (!), Mr. Florez did rob two convenience stores.  More significantly, in 1983, he placed a knife at the throat of a 7-11 store employee and demanded money.  And in 1990, there's another knife at a victim's throat, this time when he also beats the victim and takes his car.

But on Mr. Florez's side, that last violent offense was in 1990.  Over a quarter century ago.

Oh, yeah.  And Mr. Florez is now 66 years old.  Having already served 18 years of his three strikes sentence.

That 66-year old (63 at the time he filed his petition) is the person the trial court thought was way too dangerous to be released.

Now, Mr. Florez has been a bit more, shall we say, "active" in prison than most of your inmates of Social Security age.  Or at least he was when he was a bit younger.  He hit another inmate with a broomstick in 2004, engaged in mutual combat with another inmate in 2007, and fought another inmate again in 2009.  Mr. Florez says that these were basically instances of self-defense.  But they are still fighting.  Albeit in prison.

Still, the last fight was in 2009.  On the bad side, he was reasonably aged then -- the last fight was when he was 55.  But on the good side, 66 ain't 55.  Your ability, or willingness, to get violent with someone in your 50s is a lot different at that age than when you're starting to notice different walker models.  Statistics, not surprisingly, back that up.

So there's an interesting debate here about when this now-66 year old who's served 18 years in prison for dropping a bindle of cocaine in the twentieth century is really sufficiently violent that he's a continuing danger to society.

But then there's also Justice Rushing's dissent on a legal point.  Which would merit mention of this case even if it stood alone.

I won't get into the details.  I'll just let you read the first paragraph of that dissent for yourself:

"My esteemed colleagues join a number of courts in refusing to apply Penal Code section 1170.18, subdivision (c) (§ 1170.18(c)), according to its plain meaning. To the best of my knowledge, only one of those decisions is currently citable. (People v. Esparza (2015) 242 Cal.App.4th 726, 734-737; see Cal. Rules of Court, rules 8.1115(a), 8.1105(e)(1).) Although I joined in that decision, I have concluded on further reflection that I erred in doing so, as I believe my colleagues continue to err here. All of these cases should be governed by the fundamental principle that statutes possessing a plain meaning must be given effect in accordance with that meaning. None of the recognized exceptions to this rule is present. Least of all can the language at issue here be credibly said to involve a 'drafting error.' The real rationale for refusing to enforce the statute according to its terms is that the effect of the statute‘s plain meaning was not pointed out in the ballot pamphlet to the voters who adopted it. I have concluded that for a court to disregard plain statutory language on such a ground is obnoxious to the constitutional separation of powers. I have also concluded that, carefully read, the statute contains ample intrinsic evidence that it is intended to accomplish exactly the result my colleagues attribute to a drafting error. In addition, it is apparent that opponents of the measure were aware of this effect and that, while they apparently chose not to refer to it in their argument in the ballot pamphlet, they did urge it in the surrounding public debate as a ground to reject the measure. For those reasons, I would apply the statute as written and would reverse the judgment here so that the trial court can reassess the issues under the legal standard mandated by section 1170.18(c)."

Read the rest if the foregoing whets your appetite.  Interesting stuff.