By Linh Nguyen
Despite the Ventura County District Attorney’s arguments that SB 1437 is unconstitutional in that it conflicts with Propositions 7 and 115, the California Second District Court of Appeal finds that SB 1437 is constitutional and does not impose on the two propositions, in the case of the People v. Bucio.
In 2008, Maria Lissette Urena Bucio was tried for aiding and abetting her nephew in a robbery that resulted in the death of a person. The jury found Bucio guilty of robbery and first-degree murder. The trial court sentenced her to 25 years to life on the murder conviction and a five-year sentence on the robbery conviction. In 2018, Bucio filed a petition for resentencing following the enactment of SB 1437.
Senate Bill 1437 amended the felony murder rule and probable consequences doctrine. The bill ensured that “murder liability is not imposed on 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.” It is also intended to assist in the “reduction of prison overcrowding.”
Now with the enactment of the bill, to be convicted of felony murder the accused must be the actual killer, one who corroborated with intent with the actual killer or be a major participant in the crime who acted with reckless indifference to human life.
In filing her petition, Bucio declared that she was convicted of first-degree murder under the felony murder rule and should no longer be convicted because of changes to the law because she was “not the actual killer,” “did not, with the intent to kill, aid, abet, … or assist the actual killer” and “was not a major participant in the felony or … did not act with reckless indifference to human life.”
The Ventura County District Attorney later filed a motion to dismiss the petition, arguing “SB 1437 is unconstitutional in that it conflicts with… Propositions 7 and 115, and improperly invades the province of the executive branch by effectively granting pardons to defendants who have been convicted and sentenced for felony-murder.” The district attorney argued multiple aspects.
Proposition 7, adopted in 1978, 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.
The district attorney unsuccessfully argued before the Appellate Court that SB 1437 unconstitutionally amended Proposition 7 by changing the penalty for murder through “indirect means,” meaning reclassifying murders as lesser crimes.
The Appellate Court interpreted the language that both and found that Prop. 7 and SB 1437 deal with related “but ‘distinct’” subject matter of the elements of murder. However, SB 1437 is designed to “reserve the harshest penalties for persons with the greatest culpability,” whereas Prop. 7 merely deals with the terms of incarceration for murders. The Court distinguished the difference between penalties and elements of a crime.
“SB 1437 ‘did not prohibit what Proposition 7 authorizes,’” the opinion wrote, “‘[n]or did it authorize what Proposition 7 prohibits.’”
Next, the district attorney argued that SB 1437 unconstitutionally amended Proposition 115, passed in 1990, which added select crimes to the list of predicate offenses for first0degree felony-murder liability.
The Court disagreed and found that SB 1437 did not amend or limit the list of predicate felonies on which felony murder may be based. It did, rather, amend the mental state necessary for murder.
Furthermore, the district attorney contended that SB 1437 conflicts with Marsy’s Law, which protects victims’ rights. One aspect is that it violates a victim’s right to finality and the right to “Truth in Sentencing.”
However, Marsy’s Law addresses the availability of post-judgment proceedings, which provides victims a right to notice of parole and other post-conviction release proceedings. Marsy’s Law does not restrict the legislature from creating new post-conviction procedures.
Lastly, the district attorney contended that the bill violated the separation of powers doctrine by infringing on the “judiciary’s power to resolve specific controversies,” arguing that the legislature may not reopen a judgment of conviction once the case has become final. However, this is permissible when the reopening of a final judgment of conviction does not risk the individual’s liberty interest and potentially provides benefits to individuals whose liberty interests are at stake in criminal prosecutions.
Because the Court disagreed with all of the contentions the district attorney made, they ruled in favor of Bucio’s petition, having previously said that “it is undisputed that Bucio is eligible for relief if SB 1437 is constitutional.”
Bucio’s case will be remanded to the trial court in Ventura County, where she will be resentenced on the remaining counts. The resentencing hearing is scheduled for June 29, 2020.
These similar arguments were brought before the Fourth District Court of Appeal in November 2019 in the cases of the People v. Lamoureux and People v. Gooden/Dominguez. The 4DCA also declared SB 1437 constitutional. The cases were appealed to the Supreme Court, which denied reviewing the cases, making the 4DCA ruling the precedent for all SB 1437 cases.
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