Monday, April 18, 2005

People v. Thomas

The defendant was 15 years old when he held up a market at gunpoint. He was charged in criminal court and ultimately pled guilty to 1 count of robbery and use of a firearm. Under the plea agreement, Thomas would not receive more than 13 years in prison. Thomas claimed that, under Penal Code section 1170.19, the criminal court had discretion to order him commited to the CA Youth Authority (CYA) instead of state prison. The prosecution objected to Thomas' request for a juvenile disposition. Under the language of the statute, such an objection automatically bars the trial court from even considering a juvenile disposition. After 1 trip through the Court of Appeal to the CA S. Ct. and back again, the case was resolved by a unanimous Court today.

After concluding that the prosecutorial consent provision in Pen. Code section 1170.19 is a violation of the separation of powers doctrine of the CA Constitution, the Court turned to the issue of the trial court's discretionary authority to order a juvenile disposition. Writing for the Court, Justice Kennard noted that "resolving this issue requires the interpretation and cross-referencing of five statutes from two different codes." Fun stuff...

Two of these statutes - one enacted by voters as Prop. 21; the other enacted by the Legislature before voters passed Prop. 21, but not taking effect until after Prop. 21 - purport to have almost opposite effects on a trial court's discretion in cases like this. However, the Court sidestepped that messy issue by concluding that the one enacted by the Legislature did not apply here. Thus, the Court held that the trial court was correct when it ruled that it had no authority to commit Thomas to the CYA or to a less restrictive juvenile disposition. In doing so, the Court upheld "the voters' view that . . . [minors who use firearms or commit certain other enumerated crimes] need more restrictive confinement."

The Court's opinion is available here.

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