Wednesday, June 12, 2019

People v. John (Cal. Ct. App. - June 12, 2019)

I'm seriously confused.

Is the Court of Appeal really saying that if both sides (i.e., the defendant and the People) recognize that (1) you're obviously guilty of the offense (i.e., you did it), but (2) you're also obviously insane (i.e., could not recognize right from wrong at the time of the crime), you can't agree to that as part of a plea deal?

That seems to be what today's opinion holds.  But such a holding seems to be so potentially wrong that I'm not at all sure that's what Justice McKinster actually means.

Part of the opinion seems obviously right.  You can't plead "guilty" but also "not guilty by reason of insanity."  One's guilty, the other's not guilty.  So, here, when the defendant ultimately changed her plea to "guilty" -- but both sides stipulated she was insane -- those two don't really mesh.  What you are really pleading is "not guilty by reason of insanity," and the People are agreeing.  So defendant gets to "withdraw" her guilty plea because that's not what you really plead to when you're saying you are insane.

So far so good.

But the Court of Appeal seems to be saying that you can't "mix" these two types of pleadings at all.  That you can't (1) admit that you did the offense (i.e., "plead guilty" to that), but (2) say that you were insane -- and have the People agree to that as well.  The Court of Appeal says that that's "[a]n illegal plea bargain," and hence "null and void."

That implicit holding seems weird.  Why can't the parties so agree?  Especially if it's true.  We want the parties -- desperately -- to strike precisely such deals, particularly when such a plea accurately reflects the obvious mental state of the defendant at the time.

The Court of Appeal correctly describes how the whole plea thing generally works in cases like this.  If you plead not guilty alongside not guilty by reason of insanity, you've got two trials; the first one about whether you did it, and a second one (if the first one finds you did it) about whether you were insane at the time.  Cool.  By contrast, if you just plead straight up NGI (not guilty by reason of insanity), you're essentially admitting that you did it, thus obviating the first trial, so the only issue is whether you were sane.  Again:  Totally fine.

But what I'd like to hear the Court of Appeal say -- at least if it believes it to be true -- is that it's fine for the parties to agree to (1) let the defendant change his plea from not guilty and NGI to a plea of only NGI (i.e., to essentially admit the offense), and (2) have the parties agree that the verdict will then be NGI (i.e., to stipulate that the guy was insane, so will be committed rather than incarcerated).  As the opinion now reads, it nowhere says that's permitted, and at least implicitly, with all these claims about "illegal plea bargains" and the like, seems to cast some doubt as to whether it's legal to do what the parties clearly attempted to do here; i.e., to strike a deal where everyone recognizes the guy did it but was insane.

Which makes me wonder whether the Court of Appeal really thinks you can't do that, or whether it just thinks that the particular "technical" way the parties were went about doing it (with a "guilty" plea) was merely a procedural error that can easily be corrected on remand to accomplish what the parties intended.

It'd be great if the Court of Appeal could make that a bit clearer.  If only because I've read the opinion three different times now, and am still not positive which of these two things it actually means.

Either position is arguably defensible.  I just want to know which one the Court of Appeal thinks is the actual law.