Wednesday, August 7, 2013
C.A. Publishes Opinion Based on Pleas From Prosecutors
Upholds Convictions of Man Who Filed Quitclaim Deeds to Himself to Properties He Didn’t Own
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A Court of Appeal decision upholding convictions of a man who fancied himself a Robin Hood, in turning over unoccupied homes he didn’t own to people in need of shelter, contains significant points of law, according to 12 prosecutorial offices that succeeded in gaining an order for publication.
The opinion, by Justice Betty Ann Richli of the Fourth District Div. Two, affirms convictions of Eugene Denman, who quitclaimed nine distressed properties in Riverside to himself—despite a lack of title to them—then homesteaded them. A jury found him guilty of 20 counts of recording false documents—quitclaim deeds and homestead declarations—in violation of Penal Sec. 115, and nine counts of perjury, in violation of Sec. 118, inasmuch as the documents were filed under penalty of perjury.
The sentences were enhanced based on findings of the jury, pursuant to Sec. 12022.6(a)(1), that the properties that were the subject of three of the counts had as value of at least $65,000, and pursuant to Sec. 12022.6(a)(2), that the other properties were worth more than $200,000.
Another enhancement was based on §186.11(a)(2) which requires a sentence boost where there is a “pattern of related felony conduct involves the taking of, or results in the loss by another person or entity of, more than five hundred thousand dollars ($500,000).”
Based on Denman’s chicanery, titles were clouded and the true owners suffered financial harm.
Denman, who represented himself at trial, argued that a quitclaim deed merely releases all interest which the party holds, and the fact that he held no interest did not render the deeds false documents. Richli replied:
“While defendant is technically correct that he attested in the quitclaim deed that he was only transferring whatever title or interest he possessed, it was clear based on the evidence he had absolutely no interest in the property. The documents themselves were false in that they transferred an interest that he did not have to himself and then he recorded the document, clouding the title of the true property owners. Adopting defendant’s reasoning would be in direct contradiction with the purpose behind section 115 to preserve and protect the integrity of public records. Based on the purpose of the statute and the fact that section 115 has been broadly construed, the quitclaim deeds could reasonably be considered false documents by the jury.”
Denman also contended that sec. 12022.6(a) does not apply. It provides for an enhancement where “any person takes, damages, or destroys any property” of specified value “in the commission or attempted commission of a felony.”
He “took” no property, the appellant argued. Richli wrote:
“However, the People proceeded on a theory that defendant damaged the properties by clouding title, not that he took the properties. Section 12022.6 does not define damage. The ordinary meaning of damage is ‘loss or harm resulting from injury to person, property, or reputation.’ (Webster’s 9th New Collegiate Dict. (1991) p. 323.) Here, by not being able to sell their properties because of the cloud on title, each of the victims suffered loss of the assessed value of their property.”
In similar vein, Denman insisted the enhancement under Sec. §186.11(a)(2) was invalid because he “took nothing.” To that, Richli responded by noting that 17 of the parcels of property were found to have been worth in excess of $200,000, and commented:
“As such, the evidence here is substantial to support the enhancement that the total aggregated loss for two or more counts exceeded $500,000.”
The opinion also holds that Denman is entitled to additional conduct credits and that Riverside Superior Court Judge Jean P. Leonard erred in failing to impose a mandatory restitution fine.
Court of Appeal filed its opinion in the case on July 12, and six days later, the Office of Attorney General made a request for publication. The court, one week after that, wrote to the Supreme Court explaining why it thought publication was not warranted.
It changed its mind, and told the Supreme Court so, by letter of July 31. By then, it had received communications from eight district attorney’s offices—those in the counties of Los Angeles, Fresno, Imperial, Riverside, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Francisco, and Yolo.
Subsequently, behests to publish came from the county prosecutorial agencies in the counties of Kern, Orange, and Monterey.
Late Monday, the court filed its publication order.
Lacey Urges Publication
Los Angeles County District Attorney said in a July 30 letter to the Court of Appeal division’s presiding justice, Manuel A. Ramirez:
“On July 12, 2013, this Court filed an unpublished opinion in People v Denman addressing the application of Penal Code section 115 to quitclaim deeds resulting in the clouding of title, and whether the enhancements under Penal Code sections 12022.6 and 186.11, can be satisfied based on a temporary loss to the victim without a verifiable similar gain to the defendant. Thereafter, the California Attorney General and the Riverside County District Attorney filed letters with the court asking that the opinion be published.
“I am the District Attorney of Los Angeles County, and I have read the final unpublished opinion and foregoing requests for publication. I fully join in those requests and ask this Court, pursuant to California Rules of Court, rule 8.1120(a), to publish the Denman opinion for the benefit of the courts and parties in future cases involving the same issues.”
Sacramento District Attorney
Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully said, in part:
“…I am interested in the opinion because it provides important guidance in cases where individuals with no title or interest in properties file quit claim deeds transferring title to themselves. We have experienced this conduct in our county.
“First, the opinion holds that recording these types of false quitclaim deeds can constitute a violation of Penal Code § 115(a). Second, the opinion establishes that clouding of title with such fraudulent quitclaim deeds constitutes the types of damage and loss required under Penal code §§ 12022.6 and 186.11. Further, the opinion holds these damages and losses may be measured by the assessed value of the property.
“These are all points new to the overall body of published law in this area. The court’s decision advances new interpretations and clarifications of these Penal Code provisions. Moreover, given the frequency of fraudulent conduct in real estate matters, especially following the recent housing crisis, this decision involves a legal issue of continuing public interest.”
The case is People v. Denman, E053798.
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