Tuesday, June 26, 2001
State Supreme Court Narrows ‘Vicinage’ Right in Criminal Trials
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Defendants accused of state crimes in California have no constitutional right to a jury drawn from the county where the crime allegedly was committed, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In rejecting an accused child killer’s bid to block trial in Riverside Superior Court on crimes he is alleged to have committed in Santa Clara County, the high court ruled that “vicinage” the right to a jury from a particular state, county or smaller area is not one of the Sixth Amendment rights deemed so fundamental to a fair trial as to be incorporated by the Fourteenth Amendment and to apply to the states.
Jurors in former times, when the population was small and communities were more close-knit than today, were expected to know something about the defendant, the witnesses and the crime, and that was reflected in common law vicinage, Justice Marvin Baxter wrote. But that was no longer the case even in the late 18th century when the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments were adopted, he said.
“The geographic location from which the jury is selected had no bearing on how the jury selection is influenced by the prosecutor or on the competence and ethics of the judge,” Baxter said. “A Riverside County jury offers no less protection against governmental oppression than would a Santa Clara County jury.”
But two justices, although concurring in the court’s decision, took exception to Baxter’s opinion as unnecessarily reaching the incorporation question. Justices Kathryn Werdegar and Ming Chin noted that the case arose under a statute Penal Code Sec. 784.7 that specifically authorizes the joining in a single county of charges of spousal or child abuse from more than one county.
“Section 784.7 does not dispense with vicinage requirements; trial must still be held in a county where at least one of the charged crimes occurred,” Chin said.
The ruling stems from the prosecution of Shawn Garfield Price, who is alleged to have committed child endangerment against his young daughter, Brooke, in Santa Clara County in 1995, then a host of crimes against his children in Riverside County in 1998, including the torture of his daughter and the murder of his son.
When the Santa Clara case was ordered consolidated with the Riverside cases, Price objected that he was being denied his full jury trial rights in either county.
The Court of Appeal rejected his assertion.
In explaining the high court’s agreement with the appeals court, Baxter delved into history of English common law, the U.S. Bill of Rights and the drafting of the two California constitutions and subsequent amendments.
He concluded that there is “no pattern in state constitutional vicinage clauses adopted before or at the time either the 1849 or 1879 Constitution was adopted to suggest that the delegates intended to replicate the Sixth Amendment or its requirement that the vicinage be previously ascertained by law.”
The justice noted that the constitutions of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Hawaii made a point of including the requirement, but California did not.
“The ‘previously ascertained by law’ requirement does not appear to have been an aspect of the common law right to jury trial that the drafters of the California Constitution intended to secure to the residents of the state,” Baxter said.
Chin noted that travel and communication are easier now than they were in 1849, and asserted that the Legislature may make note of the changes by enacting reasonable reforms to join trials.
The issue, he said, is a narrow one—whether the parties, victims and witnesses must move from county to county for numerous trials or whether they can instead take place at one time and place.
“The answer is clear,” Chin said, without having to reach Fourteenth Amendment incorporation questions.
The case is Price v. Superior Court, People RPI, S085852.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company