By David M. Greenwald
Woodland, CA – Last year Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law AB 1950, authored by then-Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager which limits adult probation terms to a maximum of one year for misdemeanor offenses and two years for felony offenses.
Kamlager argued that the previous system “keeps hundreds of thousands of Californians tethered to the threat of imprisonment.”
“AB 1950 rejects business as usual, and instead offers an approach rooted in research showing that probation services, such as mental healthcare and addiction treatment, are most effective during the first 18 months of supervision,” Kamlager continued. “Research also indicates that providing increased supervision and services earlier reduces an individual’s likelihood to recidivate.”
Lawmakers hoped that limiting the length of probation terms would limit “unnecessary interaction between law enforcement and Californians.” Moreover, “Nearly one-quarter of California’s prison population is behind bars for violating the terms of their probation or parole, costing the state $2 billion annually. Part of that expense is $235 million to incarcerate people for victimless, technical violations, such as breaking curfew or missing an appointment with a supervision officer.”
The Vanguard has learned that the Yolo County District Attorney has filed appeals in more than 30 such cases challenging the constitutionality of AB 1950. The California Attorney General’s office under Rob Bonta has declined to represent the county or fight the law and thus Assistant Chief Deputy DA Ryan Couzens has filed legal briefs in each of these cases.
Previously the DA’s office had challenged the constitutionality of SB 1437, felony murder reform, but the state courts have shot down those challenges.
Couzens, in a filing on one such case, notes that AB 1950 became effective on January 1, 2021.
“The day before AB 1950 became effective, the Yolo County Probation Department unilaterally terminated several probation cases, including the respondent’s, under the belief that AB 1950 set new term lengths for probation cases. This occurred outside any court process or legal authority,” he wrote.
The DA’s office, Couzens argues, “had neither notice nor opportunity to object to this mass-termination. As a result of this termination, both the restitution order and a criminal protective order protecting were dissolved.”
He argues here that “the Probation Department summarily terminated respondent’s probation without legal authority.”
Other attorneys have told the Vanguard that there is nothing stopping the courts from imposing protective orders or restitution even where probation has been terminated—in fact, that occurred in the case briefed here.
Couzens noted that on May 25, 2021, his office filed a motion to reinstate probation, but on August 19, Judge Peter Williams denied the motion but “noted that the victim could still receive restitution and pursue a restraining order.
AB 1950 has exceptions for certain offenses, but Couzens acknowledges those are “not relevant here.”
Couzens argues, “Under certain circumstances, the People have due process rights to have notice of, and have a hearing with an opportunity to be heard before a judge issues a discretional ruling.”
He argues, “The unilateral termination by probation on December 31st was an unlawful termination. The statutory scheme clearly states that before ‘any’ sentence or term or condition of mandatory supervision is modified, a hearing must be held in open court before the judge and notice must be issued to the District Attorney.”
He adds, “The statutory scheme does not support giving the probation department authority to unilaterally terminate probation absent a court order pursuant to section 1203.3, which requires notice to the People and opportunity to respond in an open court setting.”
Instead, he argued, “As opposed to waiting for the term to lapse as a matter of law, the probation department, with no legal authority, took it upon themselves to preemptively terminate respondent’s probation before its conclusion and before the AB 1950 went into effect. Thus, the People were entitled to a hearing on the matter of early termination. The People never received notice of termination nor a hearing, and no court order was granted for early termination that would have authorized the Probation Department’s actions.”
This is a typical Couzens move, using the motion to smack the probation department on very technical grounds—after all, the judge set aside his complaint under the auspices of the law, thus even if a court granted a violation of due process rights, the point is legally moot and was rendered so by the ruling by the judge, who clearly would have granted the termination of probation under the new law.
The second point gets to the heart of the matter—where he argues that the constitutional rights of the victims in this case were violated.
He argues, “The early termination of respondent’s probation subverted the constitutional protections afforded to (the victims of crime in the case).”
He argues that they did not have reasonable notice of public hearings. He argued, “In the instant case, the lack of notice and public hearing prevented the prosecution from fulfilling their constitutional and statutory duty of informing the victims in this case about early termination.”
Here again, he cites the fact that the termination was performed a day prior to the law taking effect and argues, “At the time, AB 1950 was not in effect, and thus, the termination by the probation department constituted an early termination. The victims’ constitutional and statutory rights to be informed of this development should have been respected by allowing the prosecution to be heard beforehand and to provide notice to the victims.”
He continues, “This was not done, therefore, the unilateral termination of probation was unconstitutional, and the trial court should not have denied the People’s motion to reinstate probation.”
Couzens also argues that the victim’s right to restitution was also a violation—even though the judge reinstated it.
Marsy’s Law provides “that all persons who suffer losses as a result of criminal activity shall have the right to restitution from the persons convicted of the crimes for losses they suffer.”
Couzens cites, “A victim’s right to restitution is, therefore a constitutional one; it cannot be bargained away or limited.”
He argues here that “a restitution order for an amount to be determined was incorporated into the terms and conditions of the respondent’s probation.”
Couzens makes a similar argument with respect to the protective order.
Again, Couzens filed at least 30 such cases as of mid-October. The AG’s office did not view the matter as worthy of their time and effort and, reading through the brief, it is fairly easy to see why. It’s very technical on the part of Couzens.
Basically he is arguing that probation should not have terminated probation, but he ignores that the courts then determined that they acted within the confines of the new law—and he argues that it was an early termination (a day before the law took effect, which was also a holiday) as well as that they terminated the protective order and restitution even though the court could and did reimpose it.
In short—there is no there, there. No harm actually occurred. No wonder the AG’s office didn’t want to take this up.
Why is Couzens, and by extension the DA’s office, wasting the court’s time on this matter?