Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, November 8, 2007


Page 1


Disqualification Did Not Vitiate Judge’s Prior Ruling—C.A.


By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer


The disqualification of a judge for bias resulting from remarks adversely characterizing a criminal defendant’s veracity does not retroactively invalidate a ruling the judge issued immediately prior to making the remarks unless the defendant can demonstrate that the judge was biased or prejudiced before hearing the defendant’s testimony, this District’s Court of Appeal held yesterday.

Div. Six held that the disqualification of San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge John A. Trice for bias as a result of statements he made impugning the credibility of Ronald E. Williams immediately after he denied Williams’ suppression motion did not invalidate Trice’s ruling because Williams could not demonstrate that Trice was biased against him before hearing his testimony.

As a result, the court denied Williams’ request for a de novo hearing on the motion to suppress and affirmed his conviction.

The case arose after Williams was stopped by sheriff’s deputies who were conducting a pre-dawn raid on Aug. 18, 2004 to eradicate a marijuana growing operation in the Los Padres Forest in northern Santa Barbara County. 

Williams consented to a search of his backpack, which led the deputies to connect him to the growing operation.  After being arrested, Williams admitted that he and two partners owned the plants, and gave the deputies verbal and written consent to search his house.

Deputies seized 90 marijuana plants and three to four pounds of processed marijuana from Williams’ home.

Charged with cultivation of marijuana, Williams moved to suppress the evidence under Penal Code Sec. 1538.5.  At a hearing on the motion, Williams was the sole witness to testify on his behalf, and his testimony contradicted that of the deputies. 

Williams categorically denied admitting that he owned the operation in the forest, and argued that the backpack and its contents did not belong to him.  He also said that the similarity between items in his backpack and those found at the operation in the forest, his vicinity in the area that morning, and the growing operation in his home, were all a coincidence.

In an oral ruling, San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge John A. Trice denied the motion.  However, immediately afterward, Trice appraised William’s character for honesty and veracity on the record as “completely unbelievable” and “blatantly false under oath.”

Trice questioned Williams’ suitability for probation and whether his representations to be present for trial could even be believed.  He then revoked Williams’ recognizance release sua sponte, setting bail at $100,000 and taking Williams into custody.

However, Williams’ release and his suitability for probation were not issues before the trial court, so Williams sought Trice’s disqualification for bias.  Judge Martin J. Tangeman granted Williams’ request, and assigned the case to Judge Michael L. Duffy.

Williams then moved for a de novo hearing on the suppression motion.  Duffy denied the request, reasoning that there was no evidence that Trice had been biased or prejudiced against Williams before he testified.

As a result, Williams pled no contest to the charge.  His sentence was suspended, and he was placed on formal probation, one of the terms of which was that he serve 365 days in county jail.

On appeal, Williams argued that he was entitled to a de novo hearing because Trice’s disqualification voided the original ruling on the suppression motion.

However, Justice Kenneth R. Yegan disagreed.  Writing for the court he noted that the grounds for disqualification did not arise until Trice made the comments impugning Williams’ credibility – after Trice denied the motion.

He said that Williams failed to meet the standard set forth under Code of Civil Procedure Sec. 170.3(b)(4), which provides that the rulings of a judge who is later disqualified cannot be set aside without good cause, because Williams could not show that Trice was biased against him before hearing his testimony.

Citing the United States Supreme Court’s opinion in Liteky v. United States (1994) 510 U.S. 540, he said:

“Impartiality is not gullibility.  Disinterestedness does not mean child-like innocence. If the judge did not form judgments of the actors in those court-house dramas called trials, he could never render decisions.”

In affirming the conviction, the court also denied Williams’ challenge to Trice’s original ruling. 

Yegan was joined in his opinion by Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert, and Justice Paul H. Coffee.

The case is People v. Williams, B196202.


Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company