Thursday, October 21, 2010
C.A.: Corpus Delicti Rule Survived ‘Right to Truth-in-Evidence Amendment’
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
A 1982 amendment to the California Constitution did not alter the traditional rule that prosecutors at a preliminary hearing cannot rely solely on a defendant’s out-of-court statement to show that a crime was committed, the First District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Affirming a trial court’s ruling dismissing charges of conspiracy to possess cocaine for sale, a split panel of Div. Two held that the corpus delicti rule survived the amendment’s requirement that all “relevant evidence” be admitted in a criminal proceeding.
Justice James R. Lambden, joined by Presiding Justice J. Anthony Kline, said that although the voter-approved “Right to Truth-in-Evidence amendment” allowed admission of such statements to determine whether four co-defendants could be bound over for trial, the state needed first to show the existence of a conspiracy absent the statements.
Justice Paul R. Haerle dissented, commenting that the trial court could have considered the admissions for the purpose of satisfying the rule if circumstantial evidence or inferences made a “slight or prima facie showing” of a crime.
A Sonoma Superior Court judge ruled in 2008 that probable cause existed to try Frank Evan Powers-Monachello, Dan Edward Scheiner, Dana Deniell Gearardo-Scheiner and Ryan James Floyd on drug possession charges, but the court dismissed the conspiracy charge after ruling that the prosecution did not produce enough independent evidence to establish an agreement.
The Santa Rosa Police Department arrested the four following an elaborate, months-long investigation of Powers-Monachello, a suspected large-scale cocaine dealer. The surveillance included attaching tracking devices to Powers-Monachello’s car, and the car regularly left the county and upon its return went to a home owned by Scheiner and Gearardo-Scheiner.
Prosecutors said Powers-Monachello paid Scheiner and Gearardo-Scheiner with drugs to allow him to keep a safe containing cocaine at the residence, which he held a key to and accessed daily. They also alleged that Powers-Monachello gave cocaine to Floyd in boxes at the home, which Floyd loaded into his vehicle and left with.
The Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office appealed the dismissal of the conspiracy charges against Powers-Monachello, Scheiner and Gearardo-Scheiner. It argued that the Right to Truth-in-Evidence amendment eliminated the corpus delicti requirement at the preliminary hearing stage.
The corpus delicti rule requires the prosecution to prove the body of the crime itself: the fact of the injury, loss or harm, and the existence of a criminal agency as its cause. California courts have traditionally held that prosecutors cannot satisfy that burden by relying exclusively on a defendant’s extrajudicial statements, confessions or admissions.
The District Attorney’s Office contended that the defendants’ statements could have helped provide sufficient independent evidence of the corpus delicti to support the conspiracy charge, but Lambden rejected the theory. He agreed that the trial court erred by refusing to admit statements relevant to the charge, but he wrote that it made no difference because the statements could only be considered for the purpose of determining whether the defendants could be held to answer for the charge, and only after the corpus delicti rule was first satisfied.
Turning to the record, Lambden opined that the other evidence supported an inference of an agreement to store the safe, but he wrote that “it does not contain evidence to connect all the defendants to the safe and its contents or to any sale of cocaine.”
“The existence of a conspiracy may be inferred from the conduct, relationship, interests, and activities of the alleged conspirators. However, mere suspicion of criminal conduct is not enough.”
But Haerle disagreed, writing: “there was ample ‘independent evidence’ of a conspiracy adduced by the prosecution at the preliminary hearing.”
The case is People v. Powers-Monachello, A124358.
Copyright 2010, Metropolitan News Company