Thursday, April 25, 2019

People v. Mazumder (Cal. Ct. App. - April 24, 2019)

Justice Goethals is right in this one.  For reasons even beyond the ones he expresses.

Admittedly, Justice Moore's majority opinion makes a ton of sense.  The petitioner pled guilty.  So how can he possibly later file a petition claiming that he was factually innocent of the offense?!  The Court of Appeal holds that he can't.

That pretty much naturally follows, right?

But it's wrong.

The Court of Appeal bases its holding principally on the words of the statute.  It says: "There are three classes of persons who may petition the court for a finding of factual innocence. (§ 851.8, subds. (a)(c)(d) & (e).) 'Those classes are: (1) persons who have been arrested but no accusatory pleading has yet been filed [subd. (a)]; (2) persons who have been arrested and an accusatory pleading has been filed but no conviction has occurred [subds. (c) & (d)]; and (3) persons who are ‘acquitted of a charge and it appears to the judge presiding at trial . . . that the defendant was factually innocent’ [subd. (e)].'"

You see where the majority is coming from here.  The first group doesn't apply to guilty pleas since an accusatory pleading was filed.  The third doesn't apply because the guy wasn't acquitted; he pleaded guilty. And the second only applies when "no conviction has occurred," and with a guilty plead, a conviction has occurred.

So there you have it.  You can't petition.  As a matter of law.

But that's actually not right.  At least in situations like this one.

Because, yes, the guy here pleaded guilty.  But he then moved under Penal Code 1203.4 to vacate his conviction.  Successfully.  So there's no more conviction.

Now, the Court of Appeal understandably says:  "Well, maybe there's a dismissal, but there was still that initial conviction.  He just completed probation successfully, and the Legislature decided to grant him (essentially) clemency under Section 1203.4.  You can still use that conviction for a variety of things."

True.  But we're talking about the words of the statute here.  And the words of Section 1203.4 are crystal clear:  When you successfully file such a petition, you are thereby "permitted by the court to withdraw his or her plead of guilty . . . and enter a plea of not guilty . . . and [have the court] dismiss the accusations or information against the defendant."  So you accordingly don't have a plea of guilty any more.  That's expressly what the statute says.

Which means that you're now in the second group of people who are permitted to file a petition for a finding of factual innocence.  Because, at this point, "no conviction has occurred."

One might respond -- not unreasonably -- that a conviction nonetheless had "occurred" in the past, ostensibly making a Section 851.8 factual innocence petition unavailable.  But such an argument is foreclosed by precedent.  The Court of Appeal held in Laiwala (cited in the majority opinion here) that someone who was convicted at trial but whose conviction was reversed on appeal was permitted to file a factual innocence petition.  And, yes, that's a slightly different case that the on at issue here.  But that holding nonetheless precludes an interpretation of Section 851.8 as barring anyone who had ever been found guilty from filing an innocence petition.  Because such an interpretation would have barred the defendant in that case as well.

What matters is instead whether they currently have a conviction.  And, on that point, the defendant in Laiwala and the defendant here are similarly situated.  That guy had a conviction but on appeal it was vacated.  This guy had a conviction but under Section 1203.4 he was permitted to withdraw his guilty plea and enter a not guilty plea and have the thing dismissed.  Same deal.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm entirely confident that most people who have pleaded guilty will in fact not be able to successfully petition for factual innocence.  Particularly given the fact they previously admitted the offense.  Given that admission, it's going to be incredibly rare for a trial court to find that the guy was in fact factually innocent.  Much less to make such a finding by clear and convincing evidence such that there's essentially no doubt about it.

But the point is that they're allowed to try, and there's no categorical bar to such relief.  Contrary to what the Court of Appeal holds in this opinion.

Nor do I think that such a result is absurd.  Indeed, the contrary seems far more problematic.  Take, for example, a guy who pleads guilty because the police viciously beat him every single day -- and, for good measure, let's say there's video proof that someone had a gun to his mother's head on the day the guy pleaded guilty, with the defendant having to falsely "take the rap" for the underlying crime lest his mother be killed.  Five years later, all this comes out, and the guy is allowed to withdraw his guilty plea and the charges are dismissed.

Under the Court of Appeal's ruling, that guy -- that innocent guy -- can't file a petition to be declared factually innocent.  Because he did, after all, plead guilty, so "none of the three categories" in Section 851.8 apply.  That seems obviously wrong to me.  So too here.

Again:  Unlike the "gun to the head" defendant, in your run-of-the-mill Section 1203.4 case, the fact that the guy previously pleaded guilty will almost certainly stop him from prevailing on the merits of his Section 851.8 petition.

But there's no categorical bar.  He's still eligible.  And if it's that rare case in which he originally pleaded guilty, but he's in fact factually innocent, then he's entitled to -- and should -- obtain relief.

Notwithstanding this opinion to the contrary.