Thursday, January 23, 2020
Court of Appeal:
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Div. Three of the Fourth District Court of Appeal has declared that even though it remanded habeas corpus proceedings to the trial court with instructions that an evidentiary hearing be held, the failure of the prosecution to file a return obviated the need to hold such a hearing, clearing the way for a Superior Court judge to grant such relief as was appropriate.
That failure, Justice David A. Thompson said in an opinion filed Tuesday, “effectively dooms their appeal.” He explained:
“Put simply, because the People did not file a return here, they did not dispute the material factual allegations in the petition. And because they did not produce pleadings in response to those allegations, there was no need for the lower court to conduct an evidentiary hearing.”
The opinion affirms an order by Orange Superior Court Judge Cheri T. Pham vacating a defendant’s five-year jail sentence, and resentencing him to a four-year term, following the granting of his unanswered habeas petition.
Thompson emphasized that “the scope of a court’s authority in granting habeas corpus relief is quite broad.”
Defendant Donald Duval had pled guilty to possession for sale and transportation of methamphetamine and other offenses. Under a plea bargain, was to receive a two-year prison sentence.
However, when he failed to show up for sentencing, Pham sentenced him, in absentia, to a term of nine years, eight months. The following day, Duval did appear, Pham vacated the sentence, and resentenced him to five years in prison.
Appellate court proceedings ensued, with the Court of Appeal denying a habeas corpus petition, the California Supreme Court granting review and bouncing the case back to the Court of Appeal, which, in turn, ordered the Orange Superior Court to hold an evidentiary hearing. When the People did not file a return, Pham sliced a year off the sentence, over the prosecution’s protest that there was no “legal basis for the ruling” and that the judge was imposing “an illegal sentence.”
A footnote to Thomson’s opinion observes:
“When the trial court resentenced defendant to the four-year term, he had served 3.97 years, including conduct credits. Thus, the court effectively imposed a credit for time served sentence.”
Attorney General’s Position
The Office of Attorney General insisted on appeal that a return was unnecessary because the Court of Appeal had already ordered that an evidentiary hearing be held.
“This misconstrues fundamental habeas corpus practice and the purpose of a return,” Thompson responded.
The petition, the return, and the petitioner’s traverse, he said, frame the issues. Without a return, Thompson set forth, the allegations of the petition are unchallenged.
“[T]he superior court was directed to hold a hearing, and the People were ordered to show cause before that court why defendant was not entitled to his requested relief. If there were any factual disputes, they were to be resolved at that hearing. However, by failing to file a return, the People ‘showed’ nothing. The court was then entitled to accept the allegations in the petition as true and, as requested in the petition, ‘[g]rant petitioner such further relief as is appropriate and in the interest of justice.’ ”
The People contended that, in light of the Court of Appeal’s order, the trial court was powerless to do anything other than conduct an evidentiary hearing.
“[I]f that were the case,” Thompson said, “we would not have ordered the superior court to ‘determine whether a writ of habeas corpus should be issued’ and make a ‘ruling.’ We did not merely send this matter to superior court for a reference hearing, or appoint Judge Pham to sit as a referee and report back to us so we could determine the merits of the petition.”
The case is In re Duval, 2020 S.O.S. 219.
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