Thursday, December 16, 2021

Wheeler v. Appellate Div. (Cal. Ct. App. - Dec. 16, 2021)

It's final examination time, so that means tons of students in my office, and not much time to catch up on appellate opinions.

Nonetheless, I wanted to take time out to help the trial court on remand in this one.  As well as to make some substantive points.

It's a misdemeanor case in Los Angeles against Emily Wheeler.  She's an 85-year old woman who owns a commercial storefront in LA that she rents out.  It seems like the actual business is run by her son, but she is the record owner of the property, so her name's on the title.  Unbeknownst to Ms. Wheeler, apparently one of the tenants ran a cannabis business out of her storefront without the proper license.  So the LA City Attorney files criminal charges against Ms. Wheeler and her son, alleging violation of an LA ordinance that purportedly makes owners criminally strictly liable when their property is used for illegal marijuana operations.

Okay, so that's what the law says.  So they drag this 85-year old woman into court for something about which she has absolutely no idea.

The trial judge (actually, a commissioner, since it's a misdemeanor) isn't particularly psyched about that.  Understandably.  On her own motion, the commissioner dismisses the charges pursuant to Section 1385 of the Penal Code, which provides: "The judge or magistrate may, either of his or her motion or upon application of the prosecuting attorney, and in the interests of justice, order an action to be dismissed." She concludes that it's manifestly "in the interests of justice" to dismiss this criminal prosecution, saying:

“You have a woman born in 1934 who has no prior criminal history. There is nothing to suggest that she knows anything about this, other than the fact that she owns the property, and the Code says, ‘in the interest of justice;’ and I think justice can only be served if a person who has lived an exemplary life for 80 plus years, and finds herself, because she owns property, and that property is leased to another individual, and that individual is operating a dispensary, that says to this court that justice would properly be served by dismissing the case in its entirety against Ms. Emily Wheeler. . . . I don’t see where justice requires that she be subjected to prosecution on a situation where there’s no showing that she even knew anything about it.”

So there you have it.  The actual dispensing of justice.

The Appellate Division reversed, and the Court of Appeal agrees with 'em.

The panel recognized that "interests of justice" is a pretty darn broad standard, but held that since the underlying statute was a strict liability offense, the trial court couldn't simply dismiss the charges due to absence of mens rea.  That'd be somewhat akin to just disagreeing with the underlying statute in the first place.  Can't do that.  Gotta be for a different reason, if at all.

So the Court of Appeal reverses the dismissal, and remands the case back down.  The Court of Appeal concludes the opinion by saying: "Upon remand, the trial court may, upon its own motion, reconsider whether to dismiss the charges in the interests of justice, on the basis of factors other than Wheeler’s lack of knowledge."

Great.  Got it.  I totally understand the basis for the holding.

So let me help the trial court out on remand.  Here's exactly what I'd say:

"The Court of Appeal has concluded that lack of knowledge is not a basis for dismissal of the present suit in the interests of justice.  Wonderful.  I hereby dismiss the present action against Ms. Wheeler on the following bases:

First, I find that the interests of justice are best served by imposing no further adverse consequences upon Ms. Wheeler beyond those that have already been imposed.  She is an 85-year old woman with zero criminal history.  Based upon her mere record ownership of a piece of property, she has now, for the first time in her life, been arrested and charged with a criminal offense.  She has had to obtain and work with an attorney to attempt to defend her liberty and reputation.  She has had to defend an appeal to the Appellate Division and the Court of Appeal.  The life and comfort of this 85-year old woman has been substantially disrupted already.  I conclude that the interests of justice would not be advanced by the imposition of any further criminal liability, nor the imposition of any criminal penalty nor additional criminal proceedings, against this 85-year old woman based upon her record ownership of property.  I do not negate the wisdom of the underlying ordinance, but in the unique circumstances of this case, I find that additional criminal prosecution of this action against this particular defendant would not be in the interests of justice.

Second, and independently, I find that the further expenditure of additional private and public resources on the prosecution of this action would not be in the interests of justice.  The present case involves a misdemeanor, and a nonviolent one at that.  The defendant is of advanced years and imposes zero threat to the public.  She has no criminal history.  Without prejudicing the merits of the case, it is extremely unlikely that, even if convicted, Ms. Wheeler would be subjected to anything other than informal probation, if that.  Her continued prosecution will require the devotion of a nontrivial amount of public, private and judicial resources.  The City Attorney will have to be paid.  A public defender will have to be paid.  Court reporters, clerks, judges, and associated staff will all be involved.  Meanwhile, criminal courts are already overburdened with cases, including ones far more serious than the one involving Ms. Wheeler.  Every dollar and second devoted to Ms. Wheeler constitutes resources that could, and should, be better devoted to more pressing matters.  Particularly in an era in which misdemeanor retail theft is (at least perceptionally) exploding in scope, the continued expenditure of additional resources to the prosecution of Ms. Wheeler would not be in the interests of justice, nor society as a whole.

Finally, I conclude that the interests of justice compel dismissal of the present action due to the risks to Ms. Wheeler engendered by continued prosecution.  It bears repetition:  Ms. Wheeler is an 85-year old woman.  Lest anyone fail to notice: she is also an 85-year old woman living in the midst of a global pandemic, and one that is particularly dangerous (and deadly) to our elderly residents.  Prosecution of Ms. Wheeler requires her to consult with lawyers, interact with judicial staff, and potentially enter into public spaces (including, perhaps, a public courtroom).  Even if Ms. Wheeler takes every available precaution possible -- full vaccination, masks, video conferencing when available, etc. -- the continued prosecution of this action is very likely to non-trivially increase her risk of becoming infected with a deadly virus.  Even beyond COVID, her continued prosecution undoubtedly will cause her worry, concern and stress, all to her detriment and none of which will be beneficial to her continuing health.  I hereby conclude that the risk to Ms. Wheeler and others of her continued prosecution outweighs the social interest in her continued prosecution for the present misdemeanor offense.

Ms. Wheeler lived through the Great Depression.  Her early years were spent during the horrors and deprivations of World War II.  Her late teens and twenties were spent during the purportedly halcyon years of the 1950s, which -- despite contemporary nostalgia by some -- was not an era of expansive freedom for women, particularly those (like Ms. Wheeler) who were just then coming into their own.  She is now 85 years old, and confronts a global pandemic with a material risk to her continued freedom, safely and (even) life.  She does not need the present misdemeanor criminal prosecution added on top of that.  It would not be in the interests of justice for it to persist.

The present charges are dismissed.  Ms. Wheeler:  Thank you for your contributions to society.  May your remaining years be filled with comfort, joy and security.  God speed."