Court abused its discretion in denying mental health diversion

The People, Plaintiff and  Respondent, V. Christopher Eric Williams, Defendant And Appellant. (Cal. Ct. App., Apr. 30, 2021, No. A160530) 2021 WL 1712162, At *1–4

 Summary: Christopher Williams pled no contest to one count of felony stalking (Pen. Code, § 646.9, subd. (a)1). Shortly after Williams’s plea, the Legislature passed an omnibus budget bill that took immediate effect (Assem. Bill No. 1810). The bill enacted Penal Code section 1001.36, which authorizes trial courts to grant pretrial diversion for certain defendants suffering from mental health disorders. The court denied mental health diversion and Williams was placed on probation for three years. Williams appealed arguing that the court abused its discretion in finding him unsuitable for mental health diversion because he does not pose an unreasonable risk to public safety. The Court of Appeal ruled that  the trial court abused its discretion in denying his request for mental health diversion and reversed the order.

Mental Health Diversion

Diversion under section 1001.36 entails “the postponement of prosecution, either temporarily or permanently, at any point in the judicial process from the point at which the accused is charged until adjudication, to allow the defendant to undergo mental health treatment,” for a period not to exceed two years. (§ 1001.36, subd. (c).)

If diversion is granted and the defendant completes the process satisfactorily, the defendant’s criminal charges shall be dismissed and the defendant’s arrest “shall be deemed never to have occurred.” (§ 1001.36, subd. (e).) Criminal proceedings may be reinstated if the defendant performs unsatisfactorily in diversion or commits other crimes. (Id., subd. (d).)

Eligibility for Mental Health Diversion

The defendant must meet six statutory criteria.

  1. the defendant must “suffer[ ] from a mental disorder as identified in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ….”
  2. the defendant’s mental disorder must be “a significant factor in the commission of the charged offense.”
  3. “[i]n the opinion of a qualified mental health expert, the defendant’s symptoms of the mental disorder motivating the criminal behavior would respond to mental health treatment.”
  4.  the defendant must consent to diversion and waive the right to a speedy trial.
  5. the defendant must agree to comply with treatment as a condition of diversion.
  6. the court must be satisfied that “the defendant will not pose an unreasonable risk of danger to public safety, as defined in Section 1170.18, if treated in the community.”

Williams’ case factors

The probation department recommended against a prison sentence, even though it acknowledged Williams’s actions were “threatening and racist in nature” and his crime was “serious.” The probation report attached and discussed reports from three mental health professionals.The probation department recommended Williams be placed on three years of supervised probation (plus serve a sentence of 6 months in county jail as punishment), in order to “afford him the opportunity to take advantage of probation services and receive the support he may need to continue counseling and treatment for his anger and other diagnosed mental health issues.” The report also noted Williams had no history of prior arrests or convictions, “expressed great remorse and took full responsibility” for his actions and was participating in counseling.

Abuse of discretion

 The Court  reviewed  the trial court’s ruling for an abuse of discretion. (See People v. Moine (2021) 62 Cal.App.5th 440, 448-449 (Moine).) The standard cannot be boiled down to simply calling for reversal only if a ruling appears to be arbitrary, capricious or utterly irrational. The scope of discretion always resides in the particular law being applied, in the legal principles governing the subject of the action. Action that transgresses the confines of the applicable principles of law is outside the scope of discretion and we call such action an “abuse” of discretion.  The legal principles that govern the subject of discretionary action vary greatly with context. They are derived from the common law or statutes under which discretion is conferred.

The legal standard for assessing an “unreasonable risk of danger to public safety” as used in section 1001.36. The mental health diversion statute incorporates the definition set forth in section 1170.18 (see § 1001.36, subd. (b)(1)(F)), which in turn defines the concept as “an unreasonable risk that the petitioner will commit a new violent felony within the meaning of” subdivision (e)(2)(C)(iv) of section 667. (§ 1170.18, subd. (c).) The offenses listed in the specified portion of section 667, in turn, include: any homicide offense (including any attempted homicide offense), solicitation to commit murder, assault with a machine gun on a peace officer or firefighter, possession of a weapon of mass destruction, any serious or violent felony punishable by life imprisonment or death, and certain sex offenses.

As explained in People v. Moine, supra, 62 Cal.App.5th 440, “The violent felonies encompassed in this definition ‘are known as “super strikes” ….  Section 1001.36’s reliance on the definition of dangerousness in section 1170.18, necessarily encompasses the list of super-strike offenses found at section 667, subdivision (e)(2)(C)(iv). By requiring an assessment of whether the defendant ‘will commit a new violent felony’ within the meaning of section 667, subdivision (e)(2)(C)(iv), a trial court necessarily must find the defendant is ‘likely to commit a super-strike offense.’ [Citation.] Thus, the risk of danger is narrowly confined to the likelihood the defendant will commit a limited subset of violent felonies.” (Id. at pp. 449-450.)

Applying this standard, Moine held that a trial court had abused its discretion in finding that mental health diversion of a defendant would pose an unreasonable risk to public safety in circumstances that were similar to these.

Williams’s charges are not super-strike offenses.And he poses a low risk to public safety in the  opinion of two mental health professionals, there is no evidence he owned, possessed or had access to any weapons and he, too, was released on bond for more than two years without incident. The Court found no support for finding that Williams was reasonably likely to commit a super-strike offense if granted diversion and treated in the community.

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