Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, January 4, 2022


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California Supreme Court:

Violent Felon Is Not Entitled to Early Parole Hearing

Interpreting Provision of Proposition 57, Justices Reject Literal Interpretation by Court of Appeal Justice Baker And Colleagues, Agree With Interpretation by Superior Court Judge Ryan, Four Court of Appeal Panels  


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The California Supreme Court yesterday eschewed a literal interpretation of the declaration in Proposition 57, that “[a]ny person convicted of a nonviolent felony offense and sentenced to state prison shall be eligible for parole consideration after completing the full term for his or her primary offense,” holding unanimously that a person sentenced for violent felonies as well as nonviolent ones is not entitled to the benefit of the provision.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote the opinion. Justice Goodwin H. Liu added some thoughts in a brief concurring opinion, joined in by Justice Leondra Kruger.

 Cantil-Sakauye’s opinion reverses a determination by Div. Five of the Court of Appeal for this district in an opinion by Acting Presiding Justice Lamar Baker. That decision, which has been repudiated by four other Court of Appeal panels, rejected an interpretation by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan of Art. I, §32(a)(1) of the California Constitution, enacted by voters as Proposition 57, The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016.

Ryan, in November 2018, denied a petition for a writ of habeas corpus filed by prison inmate Mohammad Constitution who pled no contest to nine violent felony counts (second degree robbery) and six nonviolent felony counts (receiving stolen property). Mohammad had been denied an early parole hearing under a regulation promulgated by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (“CDCR”) interpreting §32(a)(1) as applying to inmates who were convicted on nonviolent felonies, only.

The judge found that to be a reasonable reading of the constitutional provision.

Div. Five’s View

Baker and his colleagues in Div. Five—Justices Carl H. Moor and Dorothy Kim—did not. In a Nov. 26, 2019 opinion, a petition for a writ of habeas corpus was granted, the CDCR was ordered to scrap its regulation interpreting the statute, and to be granted a parole hearing within 60 days.

Proclaiming what the termed the “plain meaning” of the statute, Baker wrote:

“Section 32(a)(1) makes early parole healings available to ‘[a]ny person convicted of a nonviolent felony offense’ upon completion of ‘the full term of his or her primary offense.’ The phrase ‘a nonviolent felony offense’ takes the singular form, which indicates it applies to an inmate so long as he or she commits ‘a’ single nonviolent felony offense—even if that offense is not his or her only offense. This interpretation is reinforced by the term ‘primary offense,’ which demonstrates the provision assumes an inmate might be serving a sentence for more than one offense, i.e., a primary offense and other secondary offenses.”

Chief Justice’s Opinion

Cantil-Sakauye expressed this premise:

“Considered alone and outside of the context of the entire initiative, the Court of Appeal’s interpretation is a plausible reading of the language that is, on its face, consistent with article I, section 32(a). But language that seems plain when considered in isolation may be ambiguous when examined within the context of the scheme it implements.”

Examining differing views expressed by courts of appeal, the chief justice said:

“That there are several plausible interpretations of the constitutional language indicates the meaning of the text is ambiguous.”

To resolve the ambiguity, she looked at the legislative history, and found that while the opponents’ argument in the voter’s guide asserted that Proposition 57 would allow parole consideration for “VIOLENT CRIMINALS,” while the proponents insisted in their rebuttal that it would apply “only to prisoners convicted of non-violent felonies.”

Citing that rebuttal, she said that while it was not clear-cut, ballot materials conveyed that “would not authorize early parole consideration for ‘violent offenders’.”

Cantil-Sakauye declared:

“We hold that the Department’s regulation is consistent with article I, section 32, and is reasonably necessary to effectuate the purpose of Proposition 57.”

Concurring Opinion

It is undisputed, Liu noted in his concurring opinion, that Mohammad is presently serving a portion of his sentence relating to violent felonies.

He posed the hypothetical of an inmate who has completed a six-year term for a violent felony and was then serving a three-year sentence for a nonviolent felony, querying whether the inmate is “thus eligible for early parole consideration.”

He continued:

“Or does article I, section 32(a)(1) allow the Department to treat him as currently serving a term for the violent offense throughout the entire nine-year aggregate sentence and find him ineligible for early parole consideration on that basis?

“Today’s decision does not answer these questions, nor does it address at what point, if any, during Mohammad’s consecutive sentence he may become eligible for early parole consideration. These issues await resolution in future cases.”

The case is In re Mohammad, 2021 S.O.S. 6911.

Four Other Decisions

The high court granted review in each of the four Court of Appeal cases which rejected the holding in Mohammad, and held them pending a decision in Mohammad.

•Third District Justice Louis Mauro wrote the majority opinion in In re Douglas, filed April 1 (with Acting Presiding Justice Ronald B. Robie penning a concurring opinion). Mauro said:

“Although the language of section 32(a)(1) supports an interpretation that mixed-offense inmates are entitled to early parole consideration, such an interpretation would lead to absurd results the voters did not intend.” 

Mauro commented:

“Here is but one example of an absurd result. The literal language of section 32(a)(1) suggests that an inmate convicted of 10 violent felonies and one nonviolent felony would be eligible for early parole consideration after serving the full term of his or her primary offense, whatever that primary offense might be. But an inmate convicted of the same 10 violent felonies without a nonviolent felony conviction would be ineligible for early parole consideration under section 32(a)(1). Such a result would encourage and reward a violent felon’s commission of at least one additional nonviolent felony, would be inconsistent with sound public policy, and would make no sense.”

•Six days later, Div. Three of the Fourth District expressed disagreement with Baker’s opinion. Acting Presiding Justice Richard D. Fybel said in In re Viehmeyer that the reading of the provision in that opinion “is contrary to a main purpose of section 32(a), namely to ‘enhance public safety.’ ”

He added that the “inescapable conclusion” drawn from a review of the ballot materials “is that, in approving Proposition 57, the voters intended to enact a mechanism for providing early parole consideration only to nonviolent felons, and not to violent felons who by happenstance were also convicted of a nonviolent felony, even if the nonviolent felony is designated by the trial court as the felon’s primary offense, and the felon has served the full term of that primary offense.”

•On June 21, the Fourth District’s Div. One agreed, saying in an opinion by Justice Patricia Guerrero in In re Ontiveros:

“Even accepting Mohammad’s position that the language of Proposition 57 unambiguously applies to such inmates, such application would lead to the absurd result that an inmate convicted of a violent offense and several nonviolent offenses would be entitled to earlier parole consideration than an inmate convicted of only the violent offense. A policy that rewards inmates for additional convictions is plainly unreasonable.”

•Sixth District Justice Patricia Bamattre-Manoukian, in her July 21 majority opinion in In re Guice, relied largely on the ballot arguments, as Cantil-Sakauye did, concluding that the CDCR regulation was a reasonable interpretation. Justice Mary J. Greenwood dissented, agreeing with Baker’s opinion.


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