CA Supreme Court Denies Request to Review the SB 1437 Constitutionality Ruling

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By Danielle Silva

On Feb. 19, 2020, the California Supreme Court denied the depublication and review requests for the Fourth District Appellate court decisions on two cases opinions that ruled Senate Bill 1437 constitutional.

On Nov. 19, 2019, the Fourth District Appellate District, Division One Court of California published opinions on the People v. the Superior Court of San Diego County/Gooden/Dominguez and the People v. Lamoureux, two cases that considered the constitutionality of Senate Bill 1437.

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 under section 1170.95.

In both opinions, the 4th DCA upheld the constitutionality of SB 1437.

Inside the Gooden opinion, the court found that the SB 1437 did not amend the voter-approved initiatives Proposition 7 and Proposition 115 and “that the elements of an offense and the punishment for an offense are not synonymous.”

The Lamoureux opinion stated that SB 1437 applied retroactively, did not violate Marsy’s Law (a penal code addition that broadened victims’ rights), and did not impend on the governor’s pardoning power.

Both opinions received a dissenting opinion from Associate Justice Terry O’Rourke who argued that SB 1437 violated Prop. 7.

The People, represented by Christine Bannon, began the California Supreme Court review petition process in Dec. 18, 2019. Another request would be filed in Jan. 17, 2020, for the depublication of the opinions.

Both requests were denied yesterday.

With the California Supreme Court’s denial to review these SB 1437 cases, the 4th DCA court’s opinions stand as case law precedents concerning the constitutionality of SB 1437. The depublication request is particularly important as published opinions can be used as a precedent for other cases across California.

Some California counties have been holding out for a final ruling on SB 1437 constitutionality.

In Yolo County, Deputy District Attorney Ryan Couzens argued that Assembly Bill 991, a yearly bill that cleans up the legal terminology of many laws, made it so, “SB 1437 was never legitimately passed in the first place.”

On the contrary, his father Judge Richard Couzens, a retired judge from Placer County and the LA Superior Court, released a 41-page report stated, “the [Lamoureux and Gooden] opinions determine that SB 1437 was lawfully enacted by the Legislature.” Though, he does note the court would, “reject each of the constitutional challenges the People raise in the current case.”

A sustained argument over constitutionality could lead to the repeated continuance of cases if the review was taken up by the California Supreme Court. The 4th DCA’s opinions not falling under review now allow the opportunity for cases to move forward and away from the general argument of constitutionality. While some counties had been holding out for further ruling, other counties had been freeing individuals under SB 1437.

The San Francisco Superior Court granted the petition for its first SB 1437 evidentiary hearing for Michael Wilson and Emmitt Lewis. Both were convicted in 2006 after a car they were in collided with another, killing a pedestrian. The prosecution could not prove which one was the driver, and therefore the actual killer or an individual who acted with reckless indifference to human life, in this first-degree felony murder case.

The third individual released under SB 1437, Michael Tirpak, had served 25 years in prison before being released in LA county in early 2019. He was claimed to be the getaway driver but attorneys from the Loyola Project for the Innocent argue that trial evidence may prove he was down the street at a payphone instead.

These are just some of the individuals already released under SB 1437.

Senator Nancy Skinner, a co-author of SB 1437, stated the following after the Gooden and Lamoureux opinions were published on Nov. 19, 2019.

“Justice won today,” she 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.”

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