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Court Cannot Summarily Deny A Youthful Offender A Franklin Hearing

People v. Benzler (Cal. Ct. App., Dec. 14, 2021, No. C092779) 2021 WL 5902741, at *1

 Summary: Benzler, sentenced in 2014 for offenses he committed when he was 18 years old, appealed the summary denial of his motion for a Franklin hearing1 under Penal Code section 1203.01.2.  Benzler contends he satisfied the eligibility criteria for such a hearing laid out in In re Cook (2019) 7 Cal.5th 439, 247 Cal.Rptr.3d 669, 441 P.3d 912 (Cook) and did not previously have an opportunity to present evidence related to his status as a juvenile offender. He argued for remand  so he may make a record of this evidence to use in future parole hearings. The court of appeal reversed the trial court’s order and remanded the matter for further proceedings.

 Facts and background

In 2011, when he was 18 years old, Benzler was  charged  with one count of murder (§ 187),  one count of assault with a firearm (§ 245), personal firearm use enhancements (§ 12022.5) and criminal street gang enhancements (§ 186.22, subd. (b)(1)(C)). A jury found him  guilty of the assault with a firearm count, and found true both enhancements as to that count. The jury found Benzler not guilty of first degree murder, and deadlocked on the lesser included offense of second degree murder. Benzler then pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter (§ 192) and admitted the personal firearm use enhancement.

In 2014, when he was 21 years old, Benzler was sentenced to  17 years 4 months and defendant and did not introduce any evidence related to his age or its impact on his culpability.

In 2020, Benzler filed a “Motion for Franklin Hearing” in the trial court seeking a Franklin hearing under section 1203.01, and citing Cook, supra, 7 Cal.5th 439, 247 Cal.Rptr.3d 669, 441 P.3d 912. The motion listed the prosecution’s allegations against defendant, his age at the time of offenses, and his birthdate. The motion cited the legislative changes allowing for youth offender parole hearings and the later expansion of those hearings to offenders under the age of 26 years. The motion stated that Benzler is a youth offender and is entitled to a Franklin hearing to “place on the record any documents, evaluations, [and] testimony (subject to cross-examination) that may be relevant at his eventual youth offender parole hearing.

The trial court denied the motion in a check-box order. The order did not provide any explanation for the denial.

Benzer argues that, as an offender who committed his offense when he was 18 years old, he will be eligible for a youth offender parole hearing during his 15th year of incarceration under section 3051. And, because his sentencing hearing occurred nearly two years before the ruling in Franklin, he did not have a “meaningful chance” to place on the record any evidence relevant to his “youth-related factors” for use in a later parole board hearing. He argued that  matter should be remanded so the trial court may consider whether he “was afforded a sufficient opportunity” to put such evidence on the record. The court agreed.

Youth Offender Parole Hearings and Franklin Hearings

 Senate Bill No. 260 (2013-2014 Reg. Sess.),  effective January 1, 2014, provided  parole eligibility  for juvenile offenders (People v. Perez (2016) 3 Cal.App.5th 612, 618, 208 Cal.Rptr.3d 34 (Perez).) “In October 2015, the Legislature amended section 3051, and effective January 1, 2016, anyone who committed his or her controlling offense before reaching 23 years of age is entitled to a youth offender parole hearing. (§ 3051, subd. (a)(1), amended by Stats. 2015, ch. 471, § 1.)” (Ibid.) The section was later extended to offenders who were “under age 26 when they committed their crimes.” (In re Williams (2020) 57 Cal.App.5th 427, 432, 271 Cal.Rptr.3d 453.) Under section 3051, subdivision (b)(1), a youth offender receiving a determinate sentence “shall be eligible for release on parole at a youth offender parole hearing during the person’s 15th year of incarceration.” “The Legislature’s intent in enacting sections 3051 and 4801 was ‘ “to establish a parole eligibility mechanism that provides a person serving a sentence for crimes that he or she committed as a juvenile the opportunity to obtain release” ’ upon a showing of maturation and rehabilitation.” (Cook, supra, 7 Cal.5th at p. 449, 247 Cal.Rptr.3d 669, 441 P.3d 912.)

In Franklin, a 16-year-old defendant convicted of murder with a firearm enhancement was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 50 years. (Franklin, supra, 63 Cal.4th at p. 268, 202 Cal.Rptr.3d 496, 370 P.3d 1053.) Our Supreme Court found Senate Bill No. 260 granted Franklin a parole hearing during his 25th year in prison, which mooted his Eighth Amendment challenge to his sentence. (Franklin, at pp. 276-277, 202 Cal.Rptr.3d 496, 370 P.3d 1053.) The Franklin court remanded “the matter to the trial court for a determination of whether Franklin was afforded sufficient opportunity to make a record of information relevant to his eventual youth offender parole hearing.” (Id. at p. 284, 202 Cal.Rptr.3d 496, 370 P.3d 1053.)

In Cook, our Supreme Court  stated that youthful offenders may seek a Franklin proceeding for a final conviction is through a motion under section 1203.01. (Cook, supra, 7 Cal.5th at pp. 446-447, 247 Cal.Rptr.3d 669, 441 P.3d 912.) “[T]he proper avenue is to file a motion in superior court under the original caption and case number, citing the authority of section 1203.01 and today’s decision. The motion should establish the inmate’s entitlement to a youth offender parole hearing and indicate when such hearing is anticipated to take place, or if one or more hearings have already occurred…. [C]onsistent with Franklin and the court’s inherent authority, the offender shall have the opportunity to ‘place on the record any documents, evaluations, or testimony (subject to cross-examination) that may be relevant at his eventual youth offender parole hearing, and the prosecution likewise may put on the record any evidence that demonstrates the juvenile offender’s culpability or cognitive maturity, or otherwise bears on the influence of youth-related factors.’ [Citation.]” (Id. at pp. 458-459, 247 Cal.Rptr.3d 669, 441 P.3d 912.)

Purpose of Franklin proceeding
The purpose of the proceeding was to allow the offender to assemble evidence ‘at or near the time of the juvenile’s offense rather than decades later when memories have faded, records may have been lost or destroyed, or family or community members may have relocated or passed away.’ Some offenders who file these postjudgment motions in the trial court may have spent a decade or more in prison. Some may have even come before the Board for a youth offender parole hearing. The court may consider whether a Franklin proceeding is likely to produce fruitful evidence considering such factors as the passage of time and whether the offender has already benefitted from the fact-finding procedures set forth in section 3051, subdivision (f)(1) and (2) with the assistance of appointed counsel (§ 3041.7; Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15, § 2256, subd. (c)).” (Cook, supra, 7 Cal.5th at p. 459, 247 Cal.Rptr.3d 669, 441 P.3d 912.)

Cook confirmed that the manner and extent of a Franklin hearing is left to the discretion of the trial court. (Cook, supra, 7 Cal.5th at p. 459, 247 Cal.Rptr.3d 669,

Evidence considered at a Youth Offender Parole Hearing
Section 3051, subdivision (f) lays out a variety of evidence that a parole board may take into consideration regarding “the diminished culpability of youth as compared to that of adults,” including “psychological evaluations and risk assessment instruments,” as well as statements from “[f]amily members, friends, school personnel, faith leaders, and representatives from community-based organizations with knowledge about the individual before the crime or the individual’s growth and maturity since the time of the crime.” No such evidence was entered into the record, either at sentencing or thereafter.

The Legislature intended that the benefits of youth offender parole hearings be available even to those prisoners with decades-old convictions. (Franklin, supra, 63 Cal.4th at p. 278, 202 Cal.Rptr.3d 496, 370 P.3d 1053 [“The statutory text makes clear that the Legislature intended youth offender parole hearings to apply retrospectively, that is, to all eligible youth offenders regardless of the date of conviction.”].) And, under Franklin, prisoners who are eligible for a youth offender parole hearing are entitled to an opportunity to prepare a record relevant to such a hearing. (Id. at pp. 283-284, 202 Cal.Rptr.3d 496, 370 P.3d 1053.) Benzler was convicted in 2014 and was only later made eligible for a youth offender parole hearing. There is insufficient evidence to support the denial of a Franklin proceeding for which he is eigble.

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