Wednesday, November 24, 2004
C.A. Overturns Hate-Crime Conviction in Highland Park Incident
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A Los Angeles Superior Court erred in failing to hold a competency hearing for a man convicted of battering a patron in a racial incident in front of a Highland Park taco stand, this district’s Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Div. Seven overturned Roy Daniel Sotelo’s conviction of battery in violation of civil rights under Penal Code Sec. 422.7. The statute elevates simple battery and other misdemeanors to wobbler offenses, punishable by up to three years in prison, if the defendant intends to violate the victim’s federally protected rights on account of the victim’s actual or perceived race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, gender, or sexual orientation.
According to trial testimony, Sotelo walked up to Michael Stinson and a friend of his and asked if Stinson was Cuban. When Stinson replied he was black, Sotelo allegedly began cursing, referring to “f—-ing people from Compton” and accused Stinson and his friend of following him.
When Stinson replied that he had no idea what the defendant was talking about, Sotelo allegedly punched him in the jaw and ran down the street calling Stinson a “bitch” and a “monkey.” Police, who stopped Sotelo a block away based on a description provided by Stinson, testified that the defendant called them “nigger lovers.”
Judge Fred Wapner denied a defense request for a competency hearing and allowed the case to go to a jury.
“My examination of him satisfies me that he’s able to remember the incident, talk about it, if not the incident, at least the day that he was arrested,” the judge said in explaining why he saw no need for a competency hearing. “And so when I read all of those reports and I look at his behavior now and his complaints now about things that are happening to him and who’s done what to him, it’s all consistent with a certain mental illness that doesn’t keep him from being competent to stand trial.”
Sotelo was found guilty and sentenced to the three-year upper term plus a one-year prior-prison-term enhancement.
But Justice Earl Johnson Jr., in an unpublished opinion for the Court of Appeal, said the trial judge was required to hold a competency hearing because there was a reasonable doubt as to whether Sotelo was able to assist defense counsel.
The justice noted that Sotelo’s trial counsel described him as “delusional;” that he refused to meet with a psychiatrist engaged by his lawyer; that he refused to discuss a possible plea bargain despite his lack of a reasonable defense; that he “was not responsive” when his lawyer and the judge tried to discuss the case with him, preferring instead to argue that he was the victim of a vendetta by the Sheriff’s Department; and that he often refused to leave the courthouse lockup.
Previous psychiatric examinations resulted in conclusions that Sotelo was at least mildly paranoid, Johnson added.
Wapner erred in focusing primarily on defendant’s conduct on the day of the incident in denying a competency hearing, the justice explained. A trial judge must, under the California Supreme Court’s precedent, also look at “substantial psychiatric evidence of an accused’s mental competence,” Johnson pointed out.
Because the law only requires a reasonable doubt as to mental competency to trigger a hearing, the justice added, the judge cannot deny one solely because he or she gives greater weight to evidence suggesting the defendant is competent.
The case is People v. Sotelo, B171433.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company