Tuesday, February 4, 2003
Guilty Plea Does Not Trigger New Bail Hearing Procedural Requirement, Supreme Court Rules
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Evidentiary hearings and findings of fact are not required to keep bail orders in place for defendants who fail to appear for sentencing after pleading guilty, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Penal Code Sec. 1166 requires such findings before a defendant can be set free between conviction and sentencing, but the court ruled that a guilty plea does not count as a conviction for purposes of the statute.
The ruling is bad news for bail bond firms like Seneca Insurance Company, which posted bond to secure the release of Seung Hyun Noh in 1999. Noh was charged with seven counts of receiving stolen property, and the bond provided that he would appear to answer charges and if convicted would appear again for sentencing. Failure to appear meant the insurer would pay the state $70,000.
Noh pled guilty and a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered him free on bail. But he failed to appear for sentencing and the court ordered the bond forfeited.
If the court had followed Sec. 1166 and conducted an evidentiary hearing when Noh appeared and pled guilty, Seneca argued, the judge would have been able to determine at that point whether public safety permitted him to continue to be out on bail. But the company argued that since the statute was not followed, the court’s jurisdiction over bail lapsed and the forfeiture order was invalid as a matter of law.
Justice Janice Rogers Brown said it didn’t work that way.
The context in which the statute was amended in 1999 shows that it was meant to apply to jury verdicts, not guilty pleas, she said.
“We concede that, in many contexts, a guilty plea is not different from a guilty verdict, and where the procedural distinctions between guilty pleas and guilty verdicts are not legally significant, the Legislature might use the term “verdict” broadly to include guilty pleas,” Brown wrote.
But, she added:
“[W]e can think of several plausible reasons why the Legislature might treat a guilty plea differently from a guilty verdict for purposes of custody status pending judgment. Therefore, we must assume in that context that the Legislature chose its words carefully and intended a special rule to apply in the case of a guilty verdict after a contested trial, because otherwise we would nullify the presumptively intentional distinction the Legislature drew.”
All of Brown’s colleagues agreed with her except Justice Ming W. Chin. In his dissent, Chin wrote that Brown’s rationale means the increased public protection the Legislature was seeking when it amended the statute to require courts to commit defendants to custody between conviction and judgment—absent factual findings that release on bail would be safe—would be absent where the defendant pleads guilty.
“The majority’s analysis is flawed and its conclusion is contrary to the Legislature’s intent,” Chin said. “In reaching its conclusion, the majority does not maintain that the statute’s plain meaning requires us to construe section 1166 so as to render its increased protection inapplicable to the great majority of convicted defendants. On the contrary, the majority concedes that the statutory language is ambiguous and that the term ‘verdict’ sometimes encompasses guilty pleas.
The case is People v. Seneca Insurance Company, S014487.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company