Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Friday, July 30, 2004


Page 1


Law Punishing Battery of Custodial Officer as Felony Does Not Violate Equal Protection, S.C. Rules


By a MetNews Staff Writer


A state law making it a felony to batter a custodial officer, even if injury does not result, does not violate the constitutional equal protection clauses, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

In a 6-1 decision, the justices overturned a contrary ruling by Div. One of this district’s Court of Appeal.

The lower panel held in a 2-1 decision that Penal Code Sec. 243.1 was irrationally discriminatory, since a another statute allows the same or more serious conduct to be prosecuted as a misdemeanor.

But Chief Justice Ronald M. George, writing for the high court, largely adopted the rationale of Justice Robert Mallano, who argued in dissent that the scheme is rational because prosecutors have discretion whether to file a case against under either statute, depending on the circumstances of the case.

The high court also overturned Div. One’s ruling that Jaleh Wilkinson was entitled to a Kelly hearing on whether polygraph evidence has achieved sufficient acceptance in the scientific community to be admissible. The Supreme Court did not address another Div. One holding, on a habeas corpus petition, that Wilkinson is entitled to an evidentiary hearing on her claim that her lawyer improperly advised her to turn down a plea bargain that would have avoided a felony conviction and a jail term.

 Wilkinson—an Iranian immigrant who says she lost her job as a bank vice president, was denied citizenship, and faces possible deportation as a result of her conviction—was arrested in 1999 after a traffic stop.

A motorist said she crossed a center divider, hit a parked car without stopping, swerved, made a U-turn, and stopped at the curb. Police said she was passed out in her vehicle, got up, looked at an officer, attempted to drive off, stopped after a brief pursuit, appeared to be under the influence of alcohol, and was unable to complete a field sobriety test.

She was taken to jail, where she allegedly grabbed a jailer’s arm so hard as to cause visible welts. Wilkinson denied attacking the jailer, pointing to a videotape of the jailing that she said exonerated her, and claimed that someone had secretly placed the date-rape drug Rohypnol into her drink prior to the incident leading to her arrest.

She was convicted of violating Sec. 243.1, which makes a battery on a custodial officer a felony when “the person committing the offense knows or reasonably should know that the victim is a custodial officer engaged in the performance of his or her duties, and the custodial officer is engaged in the performance of his or her duties.”

She was also convicted of two misdemeanors, drunk driving and hit-and-run. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Stephen Suzukawa sentenced her to 180 days in jail.

Justice Reuben Ortega, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the statutory scheme is irrational because the same conduct that is made a felony by Sec. 243.1 is made a straight misdemeanor by Sec. 243(b), while Sec. 243(c) says that if a custodial officer is battered, and the defendant knows that the officer is performing his or her duties, “and an injury is inflicted on that victim,” the crime is a wobbler.

George saw it differently, however.

“A rational basis for these statutes exists; the Legislature reasonably could have concluded that reduction of the section 243.1 offense is not appropriate in cases of a battery on a custodial officer that is deemed serious enough by the prosecutor to warrant felony prosecution under the latter statute,” the chief justice reasoned. “As the Legislature properly may eliminate a trial court’s discretion to dismiss an action or strike an allegation in furtherance of too may it (by defining an offense as a straight felony)pdeny a trial court discretion to reduce an offense to a misdemeanor.”

 Justice Joyce L. Kennard dissented as to that issue, explaining:

“Although battery on a custodial officer with injury is on its face more egregious that battery on a custodial officer without injury, it carries a lesser minimum penalty (it may be punished as a misdemeanor) and the same maximum penalty. In this respect, the statutory scheme lacks any rational basis, in my view, and thereby violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws.”

The Court of Appeal ruling that Wilkinson was entitled to a hearing in her bid to bring in evidence that she passed a polygraph test concerning the circumstances of the alleged battery was error, George wrote for all seven justices.

Evidence Code Sec. 351.1, which categorically excludes polygraph evidence in criminal cases absent a stipulation, takes precedence over the common law Kelly/Frye rule allowing scientific evidence to be admitted if it is based on methodology considered reliable in the relevant scientific community, the chief justice wrote.

The chief justice also rejected the argument that application of the categorical exclusion to Wilkinson violated her constitutional due process right to present relevant evidence in her defense.

The U.S. Supreme Court, George explained, has held that the application of state evidentiary rules to exclude evidence that is reliable and supports a “substantial interest” of the accused—such as hearsay evidence implicating someone else as the perpetrator—violates due process.

The evidence offered by Wilkinson did not have to be admitted, George said, because there is substantial division over the reliability of polygraph evidence and because Wilkinson’s interest in using such evidence solely to bolster her credibility does not rise to the required level of substantiality.

Two San Diego attorneys, Anthony J. Dain and Eric R. Larson, argued for the defendant in the Supreme Court; Deputy Attorney General Thomas C. Hsieh argued for the state.

The case is People v. Wilkinson, 04 S.O.S. 3983.


Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company