Thursday, September 12, 2013
Court of Appeal Says Denial of Marsden Hearing in SVPA Case Was Constitutional Error
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Denial of a hearing on a defendant’s motion for appointment of replacement counsel in a Sexual Violent Predator Act proceeding was constitutional error, reviewable under a harmless-beyond-a- reasonable-doubt standard, the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Div. Two, in an opinion by Justice Art McKinster, reversed an order committing Richard Clinton Hill to a state hospital. The order requires a Riverside Superior Court judge to conduct a hearing on Hill’s claim that he was ineffectively represented and to conduct such further proceedings as might be necessary, based on the outcome of that hearing.
Hill was ordered indefinitely committed to Coalinga State Hospital for treatment under the SVPA following a trial in 2011. The trial took place after his motion to replace his court-appointed counsel under People v. Marsden (1970) 2 Cal.3d 118 was denied on the ground that Marsden did not apply to civil commitment hearings under the SVPA.
On appeal, the attorney general conceded that the denial of a Marsden hearing was error, but argued that it was mere statutory error, requiring the defendant to show that a more favorable result would have been likely, not just a reasonable possibility, had the hearing occurred.
McKinster rejected the argument. While the SVPA is a statute, the right to effective legal representation at a hearing under the act is protected by the Sixth Amendment, he said.
He cited a prior Court of Appeal ruling holding that persons facing potential conservatorship on the ground of being gravely mentally ill, pursuant to the state’s Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, are entitled to counsel as a matter of federal constitutional law.
The jurist wrote:
“For the same reasons, we conclude that a defendant in an SVPA proceeding has a due process right to a Marsden hearing. A defendant in SVPA proceedings is generally entitled to due process protections... And, like the LPS Act, the SVPA provides a statutory right to counsel....Indeed, in light of the fact that a commitment under the SVPA is most likely to result in loss of physical liberty for a prolonged period, potentially for the remainder of the defendant’s life, these considerations apply with even greater force in SVPA proceedings than in LPS proceedings.” The error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, he went on to say, because the defendant presented in his motion a list of complaints which, if proven, would be grounds for replacing court-appointed counsel. The same result would have obtained under the probability standard, he added.
In an unpublished portion of the opinion, the justice rejected Hill’s contention that the trial judge’s “multitasking”—she was the duty judge that week and had to consider warrant requests and the like while the trial was going on—deprived him of due process.
“Here, because defendant did not object in the trial court to the judge’s allegedly divided attention, he did not preserve the issue for appeal,” McKinster wrote. “Accordingly, we will not address its merits. We note, however, that defendant does not make any effort to demonstrate that he was prejudiced by the judge’s multitasking.”
The case is People v. Hill, E054823
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