Monday, October 29, 2018

People v. Henry (Cal. Ct. App. - Oct. 29, 2018)

Usually, when one district in the Court of Appeal expressly disagrees with another district, the resulting split is a good candidate for review by the California Supreme Court.  Particularly when -- as in the present case -- the split involves a fact pattern that's fairly prevalent.

But this may be one of those rare cases when leaving things as they are may well be just fine.

Today's opinion says something that sounds pretty right (to me, at least).  If you do X, and there's a statute that expressly says that doing X is a misdeameanor, then you can't be charged with the more general felony Y -- even if what you did technically counts as a violation of Y.  'Cause the passage of X by the Legislature pretty much convincingly proves that they thought that the right penalty for doing X was to find you guilty of a misdemeanor.

To make things less theoretical and more concrete:  Here we're dealing with some who gave a false name to a police officer during a traffic stop.  That's the "X".  That's a misdemeanor.  Because there is a specific statute that says that doing that specific act ("X") is a misdemeanor offense.  But doing that same thing might also count as a felony -- as "false personation".  So that's what the prosecution charges the defendant with as well.

But the Court of Appeal says, nope, can't do that.  Specific statute trumps general.

The only problem with that (or at least the largest one) is that the's a prior Court of Appeal case that expressly goes the other way, and allows the greater ("Y") felony charge.  So the Court of Appeal today creates an intra-California split.  Something that we generally want the California Supreme Court to potentially review.  Particularly when the underlying act (e.g., giving a false name to a police officer) is something that doesn't just happen once in a blue moon.  We don't want what rule applies to depend exclusively on what particular panel you draw on appeal.  We generally want the same rule to apply statewide.

But even though that's the general principle, Justice Premo's opinion explains at some length that the contrary prior opinion in the Court of Appeal was decided a fair piece ago -- before some relevant California Supreme Court cases were decided.  Given that reality, if the California Supreme Court thinks that today's opinion probably got the merits right, you might just want to let the thing stand.  See whether trial courts (and other panels in the Court of Appeal) agree with the most recent case -- Justice Premo's -- and agree that the prior case is old, bad law.  If so, then the world is basically fine.  Everyone (at least in the modern era) agrees.  If not -- i.e., if a subsequent case thinks, contra Justice Premo, that the new case is wrong, and the old case is still right -- then grant review.  Over that one.

But let the issue percolate in the lower courts a bit more.  See what transpires.  Then act if and only if necessary.

That's what I'd probably do here.

If only because there's a decent chance that (1) Justice Premo is right, and (2) future courts will see it that way.  If so, no need for the California Supreme Court -- already super busy -- needs to step in.