Wednesday, August 29, 2018

People v. Martin (Cal. Ct. App. - Aug. 29, 2018)

My presumptive rule is that any opinion entitled "People v. Martin" requires careful review.  And today's opinion only reaffirms this general principle.

The majority and dissenting opinions demonstrate sharply the ideological clash that underlies the competing views.

On the one hand, you have Justice Yegan's majority opinion.  His very first paragraph tells you how strongly he feels about the right way the case should come out:

"The fabric of the law will stretch only so far before it will unravel. Here, a professional thief entered in to an international conspiracy to commit as many petty thefts as she could get away with. She was foiled by security guards and the police. She seeks to stretch Proposition 47 to cover her conspiracy to commit petty theft. She convinced the trial court. But it just won’t stretch that far. It is difficult, if not impossible, to believe that the electorate intended that a person, such as respondent, with five prior separate prison terms who joined an international conspiracy to commit petty theft, would deserve misdemeanor treatment. To say it out loud or put it on paper causes considerable pause."

Wow.  An international conspiracy, eh?  Pretty sophisticated and dangerous, I assume.  I can see why it seems so crazy to think we might knock something that fancy down to a misdemeanor.

Though then you read the actual facts of the case.  Which involve totally run-of-the-mill shoplifting.  Some women go into Wal-Mart, look around nervously, puts some cosmetics in their purse, and walk out without paying.  They do the same basic things in an Albertsons.  So they're convicted.

Oooh!  What danger!  What sophistication!

The only wrinkle that makes this an "international conspiracy" is that the women say they send the cosmetics down to someone in Guatemala who pays 'em twenty cents on the dollar for everything they steal.  By the way, as the majority opinion reflects, the "international" part of the case has totally nothing to do with the holding.  Which is that any "conspiracy" -- domestic or not -- can't be reduced down to a misdemeanor under Prop. 47.

Justice Tangeman dissents.  His reasoning is summed up in his opening paragraphs as well.  In which he says:

"I dissent. I would affirm the order granting respondent’s petition to recall her felony sentence and resentence her to misdemeanor shoplifting. Generally it is proper to charge felony conspiracy even if the underlying conduct is a misdemeanor. [Cite] But this general rule is “subject to an exception in the case law which precludes the use of a conspiracy charge to elevate criminal conduct to felony status where there appears an ‘affirmative legislative intent’ to impose a lesser punishment or no punishment at all.” [Cite] Proposition 47 evinces an affirmative electoral intent to impose a lesser punishment for any conduct that could be charged as shoplifting. [Cite] The Supreme Court has not yet decided whether the ameliorative benefits of Penal Code sections 459.5 and 1170.18 apply to acts of shoplifting by two or more people acting together. Two intermediate courts have reached opposite conclusions. In People v. Huerta (2016) 3 Cal.App.5th 539 (Huerta), the court concluded that conspiracy may not be charged where the defendant enters a commercial establishment during regular business hours with the intent to commit petty theft; while in People v. Segura (2015) 239 Cal.App.4th 1282 (Segura), the court concluded otherwise.

The Supreme Court has disapproved Segura’s reasoning. (Maj. opn. ante, at p. 7.) Huerta’s reasoning is sound. In Huerta, the People argued that a defendant was ineligible for Proposition 47 relief because she “‘went in with another accomplice and they did this together’ so ‘[i]t’s an uncharged conspiracy.’” (Huerta, supra, 3 Cal.App.5th at p. 542.) The court rejected this argument based on the language of section 459.5: “The People’s argument raises the question, conspiracy to do what? They answer the uncharged conspiracy was a conspiracy to commit larceny. They argue intent to commit conspiracy is not shoplifting, and burglary predicated on such a conspiracy may be charged as a felony even after the electorate enacted Proposition 47. That may be true for some forms of conspiracy. It is not true, however, for conspiracy to commit larceny. If Huerta harbored the intent to conspire to commit larceny, she necessarily harbored the intent to commit larceny as well . . . [and] [i]f Huerta harbored the intent to commit larceny, [section 459.5, subdivision (b)] directs the offense ‘shall be charged as shoplifting’ and further that ‘[n]o person who is charged with shoplifting may also be charged with burglary or theft of the same property.’ [Citation.]” (Id. at p. 545.)"

Justice Yegan asserts that "Proposition 47 is poorly drafted" and that "[t]he plethora of case law concerning its construction is a testament to its vagueness," but asserts that "there is no vagueness here" and that the proper answer is clear.  There's no way, he says, that the electorate that voted for Proposition 47 would want someone who "conspired" to commit shoplifting to be sentenced to a misdemeanor.

Now, as a factual matter, I can assure you that's flatly untrue.  Plenty of people who voted for Prop. 47 assuredly would want precisely that, and would not agree that merely because you worked with another person to shove some cosmetics into your purse you're automatically a hard core criminal who should be categorically unable to petition under Prop. 47.

That said, the relevant inquiry is whether that's what the statute says and/or that's what was in general intended by those who voted for it.  And on that point, as the case law reflects, there's a conflict, and one that generally reflects preexisting beliefs.  If you're someone who things that conspiracies are by their very nature more dangerous, and that shoplifting is a serious crime, then you're not going to be predisposed to allow people convicted of such a crime to even petition under Prop. 47. Whereas if you're less confident in those beliefs, as well as a bit worried that prosecutors may sometimes charge conspiracy just to a felony conviction (even if the conspiracy is, as here, to commit petty theft) and -- after today's opinion, anyway -- to also avoid Prop. 47, then you're probably going to be predisposed to go the other way, and let 'em at least file a petition.

People often say that bad cases make bad law.  This is a "bad" case; or, put differently, it's a tolerably "good" one in which Justice Yegan can articulate his vision.  The defendant does indeed steal for a living, and is a recidivist.  There's more than one person involved.  It has an international component to it.  So it's not your "usual" shoplifting case.  Plenty of people might feel like the person here should be punished fairly harshly.

At the same time, the rule that the majority articulates is far broader.  It's not just Ms. Martin who gets a felony conviction for petty theft that she can't reduced notwithstanding Prop. 47.  It's also two kids who go into a grocery store and slip a pack of gum (or liquor bottle) into their pockets.  The rule here applies to ANY felony conspiracy conviction.  'Cause, as Justice Yegan notes, that's a (1) "different" crime, that's (2) ostensibly inherently more dangerous.  Hence Prop. 47 doesn't apply.  Even, again, to a pack of gum (or some Wal-Mart cosmetics).

Ultimately the California Supreme Court will have to resolve this split.  There are definitely two competing visions in play.  One of which is amply demonstrated by the opening paragraph of today's opinion, which essentially asserts that anyone with any sense couldn't possibly think that Prop. 47 would apply when two people are in on the petty theft at issue.

But someone could, in fact, take a quite different view.

Even people whose last name is not "Martin."