Monday, November 09, 2020

People v. Falcon (Cal. Ct. App. - Nov. 9, 2020)

You read all these Senate Bill 1437 opinions these days; it's a fair amount of work for both trial courts and the Courts of Appeal.  But such is life.  Most of the opinions are unpublished, and even the ones that are published typically don't involve complicated legal doctrine or merit substantial comment.

But I'm legitimately confused about this one.

Christopher Falcon was charged with first degree murder, but pleaded no context to second degree murder.  After Senate Bill 1437 was passed, he filed a petition for resentencing, and included a claim under penalty of perjury that "an information was filed against him which permitted the prosecution to proceed under a theory of felony murder or under the natural and probable consequences doctrine."

The rule is that he's typically entitled to a hearing to see if, indeed, he might have been found guilty under such a theory.  But there's a limited exception that says that a trial court doesn't have to hold a hearing if the underlying documents prove "as a matter of law" that petitioner is ineligible for relief.

There's no trial here, so we can't look at a trial transcript.  So the trial court and Court of Appeal look to the charging document and his preliminary hearing to see if "as a matter of law" he's ineligible for relief.

As for the charging document, it indeed charges him with first-degree murder, having allegedly committed the crime "unlawfully, and with malice aforethought."  But that doesn't prove that he actually engaged in the complained-of conduct.  The Court of Appeal says that this document does not "suggest" that Mr. Falcon "was being prosecuted under the natural and probable consequences doctrine or the felony murder rule" and that, instead, it "suggests he was being prosecuted as a principal."  I agree.  But it doesn't preclude the prosecution from proving his guilt under the felony murder doctrine.  We routinely charge people with first-degree murder in cases in which we in fact end up getting a conviction under the felony murder doctrine.  I don't see how the charging document proves anything close to the fact that "as a matter of law" Mr. Falcon couldn't have been convicted of felony murder.  Any reliance on the charging document is further undercut by the fact that it charged him with first degree murder but that's not what the offense for which he was found guilty; he pleaded no contest only to second degree murder.  So concluding that his being charged with first-degree murder proves as a matter of law that his conviction for a different crime must not have been pursuant the felony murder rule seems a super stretch.

That leaves the preliminary hearing transcript, and at that hearing, a witness testified that about five seconds after approaching the victim, Mr. Falcon told an associate to get his gun out, the associate shot the victim, and then Mr. Falcon said "That's how we do it" (an alleged reference to a gang shooting in response to disrespect).  To me, the meat of that testimony actually supports Mr. Falcon's claim that he was not, in fact, the actual shooter, which is the precise basis for 1437 relief.  Now, it may well be that if Mr. Falcon in fact told the shooter to commit the offense, then he may not be eligible for relief under Senate Bill 1437, since he's more of an "active" participant at that point.  But that there's testimony at a preliminary hearing doesn't necessarily mean that such testimony is true.  Presumably Mr. Falcon will say -- consistent with his declaration in his petition -- that it's not true, and that his associate instead shot the victim on his own.  If that's what a factfinder will conclude actually happened, then I suspect that Mr. Falcon would indeed be eligible for resentencing; the whole point of the hearing would be to figure out whether Mr. Falcon in fact was an active participant or was instead, as he claims, guilty of murder because he was admitted engaged in a felony (e.g., approaching the victim in an attempt to assault and/or intimidate him) and did not in fact direct his associate to shoot the guy.

So I'm confused how the Court of Appeal can conclude as a matter of law that Mr. Falcon's ineligible for relief.  It's a factual dispute.  That's the antithesis of a categorical legal conclusion.  So it would seem to me we have to have a hearing as to what, in fact, went down.  If the witness was right, then Mr. Falcon's original sentence stands.  If the witness was wrong, then Mr. Falcon potentially is entitled to get resentenced.

For someone who teaches Civil Procedure, it just seems strange to me that a genuine factual dispute -- Mr. Falcon's sworn testimony, on the one hand, and the witnesses' contrary sworn testimony on the other -- somehow gets labelled by the Court of Appeal as a factual conflict that proves "as a matter of law" that one of these factual claims is right and the other is wrong.  I definitely did not (and do not) think that's the way it works.