Friday, October 16, 2020

People v. Villa (Cal. Ct. App. - Oct. 16, 2020)

Defendant Villa is 28 and his girlfriend (and the mother of his child) is 18.

"While driving with his girlfriend, Jane Doe, and their infant child, Dagoberto Shoreque Villa, who was heavily intoxicated, began punching Doe and pulling out her hair in a fit of jealousy. When a police officer pulled them over after seeing him run a red light, he found Doe injured and bleeding and asked Villa to exit the vehicle. Villa identified himself using a false driver’s license and resisted taking a blood alcohol test. Later, Doe accused Villa of having previously beat her with a belt buckle and threatening to have her deported if she disclosed the abuse. Villa denied these last charges but said he didn’t remember the events on the night of the drunken driving."

That's not a good fact pattern for Mr. Villa.  At all.  And the fact that his blood alcohol content was around .20 at the time doesn't help things either.  "A jury convicted Villa of inflicting corporal injury, child endangerment, driving under the influence of alcohol, driving with a blood alcohol content of .08 percent or more, falsely identifying himself to a police officer, giving false information to a police officer, and intimidating a victim."

The Court of Appeal affirms his conviction.

You can definitely quibble with at least parts of Justice Slough's opinion.  She concludes that the trial judge properly prevented the defense from introducing the fact that the victim (who was an unauthorized alien) received a U-visa available only to victims of domestic violence, which -- as the opinion concedes -- might have given her a potential interest in making up (or at least sticking) to her story.  There's lots in that analysis that's credible, particularly since the standard here is abuse of discretion.

At the same time, there are at least a couple of points that are perhaps less persuasive than others.  For example, like the trial court, the Court of Appeal concludes that the issue of the U-visa would have "taken up a lot of time" and required various testimony.  True enough.  But the defendant's facing -- and ultimately gets sentenced to -- a decade in prison for his crimes.  I'm not sure that devoting several hours (or even a day or two) to what's perhaps his best (only?) defense is "too much time" given that exposure, or that we should be looking to rush through things like this.  (It's true that the victim testified that she didn't learn about the U-visa program until after her initial testimony at the preliminary hearing, which is indeed a huge problem with the defense, but a jury need not take her word for that fact -- just as they need not necessarily take her word about the underlying domestic violence.)

Similarly, the Court of Appeal notes that there was indeed a difference in the testimony that she gave in the preliminary hearing and the testimony she gave at trial, since only at the the latter did she testify that Mr. Villa put the child on the center console of the vehicle while driving drunk.  Personally, I think Justice Slough may be right that this might have been a relatively tiny "detail" about which the jury may not have cared (or that the victim was simply "clarifying" at trial).  (Justice Slough says "[T]hat’s just a detail, not a material change to her testimony.")  But when the opinion says that this fact wasn't especially relevant because "it’s a detail about his treatment of the child, not about his abuse of Doe," I'm not particularly persuaded -- if only because the majority of Mr. Villa's sentence (6 of the 10 years) was for the child endangerment conviction.  It's true you don't get a U-visa for endangerment charges, but still, a jury might find the (alleged) change of story relevant and material.

Again, the standard is abuse of discretion, so you're going to have a hard time arguing that a trial court made the wrong "403" call on relevance versus prejudice.  But at the same time, I'm not a huge fan of the "letting the defendant assert a defense to try to avoid a decade in prison will take too much of our valuable time" argument.  On a minor defense without much value, yeah, maybe.  And I can see such an argument here.   We just want to be especially careful that we're weighing the competing values -- trial efficiency versus not incarcerating an innocent person -- with their appropriate respective weights.