Court Upholds SB 1437 Constitutionality after Orange County DA Denied Petition Review

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By Danielle Silva

California – The Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division Three, upheld the Senate Bill 1437 constitutionality opinions from Division One of the same district, deciding that a man convicted of second-degree murder and other crimes could have a resentencing hearing.

Senate Bill 1437 is a 2019 California law that redefined the felony-murder rule. The law is now amended to state that a person can only be convicted of felony-murder if they are the actual killer, if they are a major participant that acted with reckless indifference to human life, or they acted with the intent to kill. Section 1170.95 was also amended under SB 1437, allowing individuals convicted of felony-murder or murder to petition for resentencing. Resentencing cannot be more than the original sentence but can be less than the original sentence.

In November 2019, the Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division One, determined the constitutionality of SB 1437 under the People v. Gooden (2019) and People v. Lamareoux (2019). Their conclusions were published, allowing them to be used in case law. The arguments against SB 1437’s constitutionality stated the bill amended two voter-approved laws: Proposition 7, which increased the punishment for first- and second-degree murder, and Proposition 115, which expanded the definition of first-degree murder to include “to include murders occurring during the commission or attempted commission of kidnapping, train wrecking, or any act punishable under sections 286, 288, 288a, or 289.”

Two of the three justices that heard the oral arguments rejected these arguments. One justice, however, in his dissenting opinion stated that Proposition 7 was amended under SB 1437, as the elements of a crime and punishment were argued to be closely linked.

The District Attorney of San Diego, the plaintiff in these cases, filed for a review and depublication of the opinion to the California Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, however, denied both requests, making the Lamareoux and Gooden decisions to be the current highest standing case law in California.

In the 4DCA, Division 3 case, the Orange County District Attorney denied the resentencing petition made by Rogelio Vasquez Solis, a man convicted of second-degree murder in 1997. This resentencing petition focuses on Section 1170.95, which allows individuals convicted of felony-murder or murder to be resentenced to a lower to or equal sentence than they had prior.

According to the report, in 1993 the defendant was at the San Clemente state beach with members of the San Clemente Vario Chico, a street gang. The gang allegedly threw objects at a car, one of which was a paint roller that lethally struck the victim’s head. The defendant admitted to being a gang member, associating with the SCVC gang members, and throwing a rock at the car. Solis states that he was throwing the rock at the car out of self-defense as it was driving toward him at a high speed.

Solis was convicted of second-degree murder under the natural and probable consequences doctrine—a theory that states taking a certain action can result in the consequences of another. One example would be if an individual intended to commit an assault which resulted in a murder.

After receiving a 15-year to life sentence for second-degree murder and additional terms for other charges, Solis appealed his case which was upheld in an unpublished decision of the court.

He filed the 1170.95 petition in December 2018. The Orange County Superior Court “denied the petition on the ground Senate Bill No. 1437 was unconstitutional; the court did not address the District Attorney’s alternative argument that the defendant was statutorily ineligible for relief under section 1170.95,” the court opinions notes. The defendant appealed that decision to be brought to the 4DCA, Division 1.

The appellate court ruled in line with the Lamoureux and Gooden decisions, stating that SB 1437 did not amend Prop. 7 and 115. The 4DCA, Division 1 also noted the conditions of the natural and probable consequences doctrine, reiterating SB 1437 amended the doctrine to apply only to individuals who are the actual killers, individuals who are a major participant that acted with reckless indifference to human life, or individuals who acted with the intent to kill.

The court denied the Orange County District Attorney’s motion to dismiss Solis’s 1170.95 petition.

The published opinion can be found here: https://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/G057510.PDF.

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