Friday, May 18, 2012
C.A. Rejects Local Court Policy on Misdemeanor Appearances
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A superior court’s blanket policy of requiring misdemeanor defendants to appear in person at a trial readiness conference violates state law, the Third District Court of Appeal has ruled.
The justices Wednesday acknowledged that the writ petition brought by three El Dorado Superior Court defendants was moot, since the conferences have already taken place. But they exercised their discretion to hear the case based on the likelihood of the issue recurring and to rule prospectively.
The court issued a writ of mandate directing the El Dorado court not to apply its mandatory appearance rule, which requires all criminal defendants to appear at essentially all proceedings in their cases unless excused by the court, to misdemeanors. The appeals court further ordered that the trial court “excuse misdemeanor defendants from personally appearing at the readiness and settlement conference in cases in which counsel is empowered to represent their interests, absent a finding of good cause in a particular case or a specific statutory exception.”
The assistant presiding judge of the El Dorado court responded to the writ petition with a declaration explaining that the court applies its mandatory appearance rule to readiness conferences for both felonies and misdemeanors so that “meaningful settlement negotiations and resolution of cases” may occur. The judges excuse the defendant’s presence if a negotiated disposition has been reached before the conference, or if there is no hope of a negotiated disposition, he noted.
But Justice Harry Hull, writing for the Court of Appeal, said the policy is inconsistent with both the Penal Code and case law. He also noted that in at least one instance, the trial judge erroneously suggested that a state court rule requires misdemeanor defendants to appear, and that in none of the three cases did the judge suggest that there was any reason other than the local rule to require an appearance.
To the extent that immediate consultation between lawyer and counsel might be necessary to respond to a plea offer, the justice added, the court’s concern could generally be addressed by having the defendant agree to be on telephone standby.
“Petitioners point out that the purpose of allowing defendants to appear through counsel is to allow them access to the courts without causing hardship to them,” Hull explained. “In misdemeanor cases, the possible fine or penalty is often small and the burden of appearance at a distant courthouse can exceed it....Our statutory scheme recognizes the inherent differences in real-world consequences between felony and misdemeanor cases. The scheme balances efficiency and the need for a defendant’s participation in proceedings with concerns of convenience and consideration of penalty.”
The case is Bracher v. Superior Court (People), 12 S.O.S. 2318.
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