By Danielle Eden C. Silva
The Fourth District Court of Appeals, Division One Court of California, determined that SB 1437 was constitutional in light of arguments relating to voter initiatives, the separation of powers, the finality of convictions, and Marsy’s Law.
On Nov. 12, 2019, two cases relating to Senate Bill 1437 appeared in front of the Fourth District Appellate court for oral arguments. SB 1437 redefines that law for felony-murder liability by excluding “a person who is not the actual killer, did not act with the intent to kill, or was not a major participant in the underlying felony who acted with reckless indifference to human life.” SB 1437 also permits individuals convicted of felony-murder or murder to petition for resentencing.
The first published opinion of the appellate court regarded the case of the People vs. the Superior Court of San Diego County/Gooden/Dominguez.
Allen Gooden “was convicted of first-degree felony murder in 1982 for the death of a neighbor during a burglary… sentenced to 25 years to life.” Marty Dominguez “was found guilty of second-degree murder in 1990 after a companion killed a pedestrian under facts suggesting the jury may have relied on natural and probable consequence doctrine… sentenced to 15 years to life for the murder conviction.”
Both parties filed SB 1437 petitions “under section 1170.95 requesting vacatur of their murder convictions and resentencing.” The District Attorney’s Office of San Diego responded with their own petitions, stating SB 1437 amended voter-approved initiatives Proposition 7 and Proposition 115.
The trial court denied the People’s motions. 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.” The People appealed the decision to the appellate court.
In the opinion, the appellate 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.”
Proposition 7, also known as the Briggs Initiative, increased the punishment for first-degree murder from a term of life imprisonment with parole eligibility after seven years to a term of 25 years to life, and the punishment for second-degree murder from a term of five, six or seven years to a term of 15 years to life.
Proposition 115, also known as the “Crime Victims Justice Reform Act,” amended Penal Code section 189 to add kidnapping, train wrecking, and certain sex offenses to the list of predicate offenses giving rise to first-degree felony-murder liability.
The People’s argument stemmed from Article II, Section 10 of the California Constitution which states that “a statute enacted by voter initiative may be amended or repealed by the Legislature only with the approval of the electorate, unless the initiative statute provides otherwise.”
Since Props 7 and 115 were voter-approved initiatives, the People argued legislation should not amend the existing statute by taking away from it, prohibit what an initiative authorizes, or authorizes what the initiative prohibits. They claimed since crime and punishment are linked, SB 1437 which changes the elements of felony-murder must affect punishments relating to felony-murder. However, the Supreme Court has cautioned that a statute “with the same subject matter as an initiative… is not an amendment.”
The appellate court concluded, “Indeed, for a crime to exist, there must exist both a prohibited act and punishment… However, the elements of an offense and the punishment for an offense are not synonymous.”
“[SB 1437] did not address punishment at all. Instead, it amended the mental state requirements for murder, which ‘is perhaps as close as one might hope to come to a core criminal offense ‘element.’’ Thus, Senate Bill 1437 presents a classic example of legislation that addresses a subject related to, but distinct from, an area addressed by an initiative.”
In response to the People’s argument that the voters intended the current definition of murder at the time, the court found the language of first-degree murder and second-degree murder to be ambiguous in voters’ intent. If voters meant the definitions of murder at the time, the court claimed the voters would have listed the section numbers.
They summarized that Prop. 7 focused on “increased punishments for persons convicted of murder… [but] do not demonstrate an intent to freeze the substantive elements of murder in place as they existed in 1978.”
In regards to Prop. 115, “which altered the circumstances under which a person may be liable for murder,” the appellate court found that SB 1437 worked in the same subject area but ‘did not augment or restrict the list of predicate felonies on which felony murder may be based, which is the pertinent subject of Proposition 115.’”
The court closed their People vs. the Superior Court of San Diego County/Gooden/Dominguez opinion by stating, “In closing, we reiterate a bedrock principle underpinning the rule limiting legislative amendments to voter initiatives: ‘[T]he voters should get what they enacted, not more and not less.’ (Hodges v. Superior Court (1999))… By enacting Senate Bill 1437, the legislature has neither undermined these initiatives nor impinged upon the will of the voters who passed them.”
The second published opinion of the appellate court regarded People v. Lamoureux.
Patty Ann Lamoureux “was convicted of conspiracy to commit robbery and felony murder arising from the killing of a friend’s family member… [and] sentenced to prison for life without the possibility of parole” in 2016. In that trial, “[t]his court affirmed the murder and conspiracy convictions, but concluded the evidence was insufficient to support the finding that Lamoureux had an intent to kill or acted with reckless indifference to human life.”
She filed an SB 1437 petition in 2019 to vacate a first-degree murder conviction and obtain resentencing under section 1170.95. The District Attorney’s Office of San Diego opposed “on the grounds that the amendments effectuated by Senate Bill 1437 were unconstitutional.”
The People’s argument put forth that SB 1437 invalidly amended Prop. 7 and Prop. 115, and “claimed section 1170.95 violated the separation of powers doctrine because it impermissibly interfered with core judicial function of resolving specific controversies between parties… [and] argued that section 1170.95 violated Marsy’s Law.”
Marsy’s Law amended article I, section 28 of the California Constitution and provisions of the Penal Code to strengthen a ‘broad spectrum of victims’ rights…’”
The People specifically point out the “prompt and final conclusion” as one of the victims’ rights listed in Marsy’s Law, arguing section 1170.95 violates that.
The court cited their decision in the Gooden/Dominguez case in response to the claims of invalid amendments of Prop. 7 and Prop. 115. In regards to the separation of powers argument, they found that “‘the separation of powers doctrine has never been applied rigidly’ (Case v. Lazben Financial Co. (2002)…) Instead, it is violated ‘only when the actions of a branch of government defeat or materially impair the inherent functions of another branch.’ (Rosenkrantz)”
Additionally, in response to the argument that the legislature passing SB 1437 impeded on the governor’s pardon power, they stated that “approving section 1170.95… was not to extend ‘an act of grace’ to petitioners… Rather, the Legislature’s statement of findings and declarations confirms it approved Senate Bill 1437 as a part of a broad penal reform effort.”
Most notably, the court talked about the lack of distinction between whether SB 1437 applied to cases from Jan. 1, 2019, onward or SB 1437 cases prior to the enactment date. They argued that “as a matter of statutory interpretation, petitions may obtain relief under section 1170.95 irrespective of whether their murder convictions were final as of January 1, 2019.”
The court also stated that “there is substantial precedent for remedial legislation authorizing the ameliorative reopening of final judgments of conviction to benefit criminal defendants.” They specifically gave the examples of the Three Strikes Reform Act of 2012 (Prop. 36) which amended the Three Strikes Law to reduce the punishment for certain third strike defendants and the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act (Prop. 47) which redefined common theft- and drug-related felonies as misdemeanors for many offenders.
In regards to the Marsy’s Law argument, the court “discern[ed] no reason why a victim cannot receive a prompt and final conclusion under section 1170.95.”
In their conclusion, the appellate court notes that the People argued “section 1170.95 may violate the constitutional rights of petitioners seeking to vacate their convictions and obtain resentencing… permitting the prosecution to present evidence during resentencing ‘potentially violates the principle of double jeopardy’…”
They responded, “[W]e need not decide these matters to resolve this appeal. The People are the individuals on whose behalf violations of criminal laws are prosecuted… They do not represent the particularized interests of persons who have been accused of criminal offenses or petitioners seeking relief from convictions. Therefore, the People lack standing to challenge the hearing and remedy provisions of section 1170.95 based on any alleged infringement ton petitioners’ constitutional rights.”
In both cases, however, Associate Justice Terry O’Rourke dissented. In his dissenting opinion published with the People v. Lamoureux opinion, he argues that SB 1437 is an unconstitutional amendment to Prop. 7, saying it changes the definition of felony-murder at the time the proposition was passed. He argued that “the electorate should be treated as if presumed to be aware of existing laws and their judicial construction in effect at the time legislation is enacted, including legislation enacted by initiative.”
Following the opinions published by the court, California State Senator Nancy Skinner, the author of SB 1437, issued a statement.
“Justice won today,” Skinner said. “The appellate court got it right: SB 1437, which reformed California’s old, unfair felony-murder rule, is clearly constitutional. With this decisive decision, I urge district attorneys throughout California to drop their challenges and join with AG Xavier Becerra in enforcing the state’s new felony-murder statute.”