Thursday, September 13, 2018
Court of Appeal:
17-Year Delay in Trial on SVPA Petition Requires Dismissal
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district yesterday denied a writ of mandate sought by the Office of Los Angeles County District Attorney to block a Superior Court order for the release of a man who, for more than 17 years, had been in state hospitals awaiting trial on a petition to declare him a sexually violent predator.
Div. Seven, in an opinion by Justice Gail Ruderman Feuer, declined to set aside an order by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Bianco directing the release of George Vasquez who, in 1995, was convicted of four counts of committing lewd or lascivious acts on a child under 14 years of age. His sentence for the crimes has expired, but the People, on Sept. 7, 2000, filed a petition under the Sexually Violent Predators Act (“SVPA”) to have Vasquez’s confinement extended based on his continued dangerousness.
His total post-prison confinement, including the time during which the appeals court was considering the matter, now exceeds 18 years.
‘Enough Is Enough’
The Court of Appeal agreed with Vasquez who, Feuer said, “spoke up and declared, ‘Enough is enough.’ ”
Vasquez has had six lawyers, and 10 judicial officers have presided over proceedings. Part of the delay was attributable to severe cutbacks in the Office of Public Defender.
After that office was removed from the case, a lawyer appointed by the court moved for dismissal of the SVPA petition, which Bianco last Jan. 8, 2018 granted, observing:
“[G]iven that if Mr. Vasquez had gone to trial timely and been committed, he was facing just a two-year commitment. Instead, he has been detained without trial for 17 years….[T]he government has no interest in involuntarily detaining an individual for 17 years without trial.”
“[T]he court cannot subordinate the rights of citizens under the United States Constitution in favor of concerns over public safety. Seventeen years awaiting trial for a two-year commitment is far too long a delay, and leaves this court with no choice. The motion to dismiss Mr. Vasquez’s petition is granted.”
The Office of District Attorney filed its writ petition and the Court of Appeal stayed proceedings.
In yesterday’s decision, Feuer said:
“We consider under what circumstances a 17-year delay in bringing to trial an SVPA petition violates an individual’s Fourteenth Amendment due process right to a timely trial. We conclude that while a substantial portion of the delay here resulted from the failure of individual appointed attorneys to move Vasquez’s case forward….”
She said there was a “breakdown in the public defender system” which “must be attributed to the state,” observing:
“This breakdown forced Vasquez to choose between having prepared counsel and a timely trial. Yet under our Constitution he had a right to both. We conclude the trial court did not err in finding that Vasquez’s due process right to a timely trial was violated.”
Criticizes Superior Court
“[D]uring the first 14 years of Vasquez’s confinement, his case was continued over 50 times, either by stipulation of counsel or a request by Vasquez’s counsel. The record does not reflect whether the trial court made a finding of good cause for these continuances…. It does not appear from the record that during the first 14-year period the trial court took meaningful action to set deadlines or otherwise control the proceedings and protect Vasquez’s right to a timely trial.”
“While it may be that Vasquez was not seeking a speedy trial because he was facing evaluations supporting his commitment, we cannot tell because Vasquez was not present in court during most of this period. Neither is there a record of any inquiry by the trial court as to why the case was dragging on for so many years. Even where the attorneys stipulate to continue a trial date, the trial court has an obligation to determine whether there is a good cause for the continuance.”
The jurist added:
“The trial court also has a responsibility absent a written time waiver to inquire of a defendant whether he or she agrees to the delay. Had the trial court inquired of Vasquez during this first 14-year period, we would know whether Vasquez was seeking a speedy trial, or was content to let his case be continued so long as the evaluations supported his commitment.”
The case is People v. Superior Court (Vasquez), 2018 S.O.S. 4488.
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