Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Tuesday, April 23, 2024


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California Supreme Court:

Witness Dissuasion Law Only Prohibits Pre-Filing Conduct

Guerrero Says Rule of Lenity Requires Interpretation Most Favorable to Defendant Due to Ambiguity


By a MetNews Staff Writer


The California Supreme Court held yesterday that Penal Code §136.1(b)(2), which prohibits the intimidation of a witness to a crime, does not apply to dissuading conduct after a criminal complaint has been filed, finding that the section does not support the conviction of a man who demanded that a witness, and codefendant in a criminal action against the man’s brother, drop the charges.

Chief Justice Patricia Guerrero wrote the opinion for a unanimous court.

Sec. 136.1(b)(2) prohibits the dissuasion of a victim or witness of a crime from “[c]ausing a complaint, indictment, information, probation or parole violation to be sought and prosecuted, and assisting in the prosecution thereof.”

Guerrero wrote:

“The question before us is whether section 136.1(b)(2) supports [a] disjunctive interpretation—in which the statute independently applies where a defendant dissuades a witness from ‘assisting in the prosecution’ of a case after the charging document has already been filed—or whether a conjunctive interpretation precludes a conviction under such circumstances.”

Holding that the conjunctive interpretation applies, Guerrero’s opinion affirms the Sixth District Court of Appeal in reversing the judgment of conviction of Raymond G. Reynoza for violation of §136.1(b)(2).

Rule of Lenity

Guerrero explained that the rule of lenity applies to statutory interpretation only if two reasonable interpretations of the statute are of equal merit and operates to give the defendant the benefit of every reasonable doubt on questions of interpretation.

Finding the ambiguity of the text and legislative history of §136.1(b)(2) to be a case requiring the application of the rule, she wrote:

“The rarity, and egregiousness, of the ambiguity here is underscored by the Legislature’s unusual words in adopting the statute. It recognized it was passing a criminal law despite believing from the very outset that ‘redrafting’ was ‘necessary,’ as it had too closely hewn to an ABA model statute with ‘numerous rough edges’ and language quality ‘far worse’ than typical.”

Under these circumstances, Guerrero declared:

“Accordingly, we adopt the construction more favorable to defendants: section 136.1(b)(2) is to be read conjunctively such that the language ‘assisting in the prosecution thereof’ provides no independent basis for a conviction under the statute. Where criminal charges have already been filed, postcharging dissuasion alone does not constitute an offense under section 136.1(b)(2).”

Language and History

In looking to the plain language of the statute and the legislative history, Guerrero found arguments by Reynoza and the Office of Attorney General to be equally persuasive on both matters. She said:

“On its face, section 136.1(b)(2) is reasonably susceptible to the conjunctive reading, which rests largely on the presence of the connecting ‘and.’ ”

But she also found persuasive the attorney general’s argument that the statute so interpreted could “avoid superfluity” only by requiring two acts of dissuasion.

Under these circumstances, she opined:

“On balance, we conclude the parties each offer equally plausible interpretations of the statute—defendant relying on the ordinarily conjunctive meaning of ‘and,’ and the Attorney General relying on the canon against surplusage.”

Guerrero said that the legislative history of the section provides no further clarity. Noting that the history suggested a desire to substantially broaden the coverage of witness intimidation laws, she nevertheless reasoned:

“[T]he stated legislative intent to substantially broaden the prohibition on dissuasion supports resolving statutory ambiguities in favor of a broader reading—the disjunctive one that prohibits more, rather than less, dissuasive conduct. Yet, this intent is also consistent with a narrower, conjunctive construction because such a construction would also substantially broaden protections against dissuasion as compared to prior law.”

Similarly, the justice found that the insertion of a comma immediately before the “and” in question, without comment as to the purpose of the statute, might tend to show a disjunctive intent but failed to do so with any force. She commented: “But on the other hand, our Legislature’s decision to not do just as other jurisdictions have done, and simply replace ‘and’ with ‘or’ instead of silently inserting a comma, may well suggest that the Legislature had chosen to not give the clause a disjunctive meaning.”

Sixth District’s View

In an opinion authored by Presiding Justice Mary J. Greenwood, the court overturned Reynoza’s conviction. Relying on case law interpreting other subsections of §136.1, Greenwood said:

“[W]e hold section 136.1(b)(2) requires proof that, among other things, the defendant attempted to prevent or dissuade another person from causing a complaint, indictment, information, probation or parole violation to be filed. If the defendant was aware the relevant charging document had already been filed, and the defendant did not attempt to prevent or dissuade the filing of any amended or subsequent charging document, the defendant has not violated section 136.1(b)(2).”

Although agreeing with the result, Guerrero did not find these cases dispositive and said:

“Because none of the cases that the Court of Appeal cited actually addresses the ambiguity at issue here, we find they offer little insight to the proper interpretation of section 136.1(b)(2).”

Intimidation in Question

In February 2017, Reynoza’s brother, Francisco Rosales, and his companions Rafael Cornejo and Benjamin Valladares, had been arrested and charged with misdemeanor possession of an unregistered firearm. In June of that year, Reynoza, Guillermo Cervantes and Cesar Chavez showed up outside of a bar where Cornejo was drinking with Valladares.

When Cornejo and Valladares exited the establishment, Reynoza, Cervantes and Chavez approached them. One of the three men was heard saying “[d]rop the charges” and “it will be all good” and making a derogatory statement about “snitches” before Cervantes punched Cornejo once in the head.

Cornejo fell, struck his head on the pavement and died hours later from blunt force head trauma and acute alcohol intoxication.

The jury found Reynoza not guilty of murder, but found him guilty of violating §136.1(b)(2).

The case is People v. Reynoza, 2024 S.O.S 1367.


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