Commentary: Like Father, Unlike Son – Couzens and the Constitutionality of SB 1437

Yolo County Deputy DA Ryan Couzens in a photo tweeted by the DA’s office

After the momentous ruling earlier this week on SB 1437 by the 4th District Court of Appeals, a clear question would be on Wednesday, with Judge Paul Richardson to hear arguments on the 2002 Halloween Homicide case and two of the co-defendants – Ernesto Arellano and James Olague, what will Yolo County do with respect to the law and its constitutionality?

It has been nearly a county-by-county decision, with San Francisco County for instance accepting the constitutionality of SB 1437 early on and releasing people under the law, while Judge Dave Rosenberg in Yolo County sided with the District Attorney’s Association and ruled the matter unconstitutional.

The 4th DCA ruling follows briefing by the Attorney General’s office, even prior to AB 991, that SB 1437 does not conflict with Prop. 7 or Prop. 115.

This is the view of the appellate court as well. The court stated, “Senate Bill 1437 did not amend Proposition 7 because it did ‘not reduce sentences for first or second degree-murder.’ [and] did not amend Proposition 115 because it did not ‘in any way modif[y]’ the predicate offenses on which the first degree felony-murder liability may be based.”

Indeed the court noted, “At our request, the Attorney General filed an amicus curiae brief on the issues presented in the petitions. In its brief, the Attorney General urged us to deny the People’s petitions on grounds that Senate Bill 1437 did not amend Proposition 7 or 115.”

What would Yolo County do?  We don’t know yet – although Judge Paul Richardson at this point directed both sides to make a prima facia showing when the matter returns in January before Judge Rosenberg.

At that point the DA’s office, led by Ryan Couzens and Melinda Aiello, apparently intend to argue as Ms. Aiello did on Wednesday that the case does not apply.

She argued that the jury instructions are fatal to either defendant asserting relief under SB 1437.  This is due to the gang charges which automatically puts them as major participants and thus ineligible for relief under SB 1437.

But perhaps more interesting is the position of Ryan J. Couzens, Deputy DA in Yolo County.  He continues to argue that the law is unconstitutional.

He argued that while AB 991 was unanimously passed as clean-up language for SB 1437, “SB 1437 was never legitimately passed in the first place.”

He noted that, while the 4th District ruling is binding on the rest of the state, the 3rd District Court also has it “under submission” and “if the (Yolo) court rules that it’s constitutional, they would seek a writ on that and stay the proceedings.”

That puts both himself and Yolo County at odds with not only the court ruling in the 4th, but also the view of Judge Richard Couzens – yes, the father of Ryan Couzens.

Following the passage of SB 1437, the well-respected retired judge from Placer County along with LA Superior Court Judge William Ryan were commissioned in order to analyze, among other things, the constitutionality, strength and judicial effectiveness of 1437.

In July, Judge Couzens issued a 41-page report (see here) that was used as a model by trial judges across the state.

In the matter of People v. Rettman, Judge Couzens, who was the trial judge in that case originally, noted that in both Lamoureux and Gooden, the court would “reject each of the constitutional challenges the People raise in the current case.”  He added that “the opinions determine that SB 1437 was lawfully enacted by the Legislature.”

He writes, “Not only is this court bound to follow the decision of a higher court on the issues presented here, this court finds the reasoning of the higher court to be a valid and a proper interpretation of the law.”

So here is the judge – that the state judges have brought in to help them deal with the new law and has provided them with their guidance – arguing that not only is the court bound to follow this decision, but the reasoning is valid and is the proper interpretation of the law.

And yet, on the same day, Ryan Couzens is continuing to argue before Judge Richardson that the law was never legitimately passed in the first place.  By that he was continuing to argue, it seems, that SB 1437 needed a two-thirds vote in order to change Prop. 7.  But it matters not, because neither the state court nor the AG’s office believe that SB 1437 amends either Prop. 7 or Prop. 115.

This is important as it not only illustrates that Ryan Couzens is out of step now with the state law, but indeed with his own father.

Perhaps as important, once again it puts lie to the notion that anyone could view the Yolo County DA’s office as anything resembling progressive.

Remember, in Jeff Reisig’s response to criticism, he argued that his office was first in the state to utilize certain technology to clear people of marijuana convictions but ignored the fact that he opposed Prop. 64 in the first place – one of only four DAs in the state to do so.

Now his DA’s office is not only well behind other counties in continuing to oppose SB 1437, itself representing an issue on the forefront of criminal justice reform and progressive prosecution, but even after the state appellate court rules against him, the DA’s office is continuing to want to oppose and fight the law.

That puts Mr. Couzens in the strange place of opposing his own father, but it also puts the DA’s office and Jeff Reisig at the back end of a crucial state reform.

How important is this?  We were provided a list of 15 people who have filed for relief under 1437 – included are four likely wrongful convictions and two cases of prosecutorial misconduct as identified by the state bar.  Will they get relief under the law?  That’s a legitimate question that the courts will have to determine.

But at this point it seems likely that the state courts will recognize 1437 as legal and valid and Yolo’s DA is one of the last hold outs still fighting the change in the law.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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