People v. Ramirez (Cal., Dec. 5, 2022, No. S262010) 2022 WL 17410568, at *1
Summary: Although a criminal defendant has a constitutional right to be present at trial, once trial has commenced in the defendant’s presence in a noncapital felony case, the trial court may continue the trial in the defendant’s absence under Penal Code section 1043, subdivision (b)(2) provided that the absence is voluntary. The California Supreme Court granted review to decide whether the Court of Appeal erred when it upheld the trial court’s finding that defendant Ramirez was voluntarily absent under section 1043(b)(2).
Ramirez failed to appear in court on the second day of trial. Earlier that morning, emergency medical personnel and police officers had been dispatched to defendant’s home after a possible drug overdose was reported. According to a police officer who responded to the home, Ramirez was taken by his mother to a hospital rather than to court. The trial court ruled that defendant was voluntarily absent under the circumstances, and it continued trial without him in accordance with section 1043(b)(2).
On appeal, Ramirez claimed the trial court violated his constitutional rights by finding him to be voluntarily absent without conducting an evidentiary hearing regarding the circumstances of his absence. The Court of Appeal ruled that substantial evidence supported the trial court’s finding that Ramirez voluntarily absented himself from trial. It further ruled that the court’s decision to proceed with trial, rather than grant defense counsel’s motion for a one-day continuance, constituted harmless error. (People v. Ramirez (Mar. 5, 2020, F076126) 2020 WL 1061294 [nonpub. opn.].)
A trial court must assess the totality of facts when determining whether a defendant is voluntarily absent under section 1043(b)(2). A defendant’s absence from trial due to drug use is not per se voluntary for purposes of section 1043(b)(2). It is among the relevant circumstances that a trial court must consider when it decides whether a defendant has voluntarily absented himself or herself from trial. To the extent the trial court’s ruling or the Court of Appeal’s decision suggests that a defendant who ingests illicit drugs and subsequently seeks medical attention is voluntarily absent as a matter of law, we disagree with this proposition.
The Supreme Court held hold that substantial evidence supports the trial court’s finding of voluntary absence under the circumstances. When an appellate court reviews a finding that a fact has been proved by clear and convincing evidence, an intermediate standard of proof, the reviewing court evaluates “whether the record as a whole contains substantial evidence from which a reasonable fact finder could have found it highly probable that the fact was true.” Assuming without deciding that we employ this heightened review to the trial court’s determination that defendant’s voluntary absence was clearly established, we conclude that the record as a whole contains substantial evidence from which a reasonable fact finder could have found it highly probable that defendant was voluntarily absent. Because the Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s determination that defendant had voluntarily absented himself from trial under section 1043(b)(2), the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeal.
Right to be present at trial
A criminal defendant’s right to be present at trial is protected under both the federal and state Constitutions. (U.S. Const., 6th & 14th Amends.; Cal. Const., art. I, § 15; People v. Espinoza (2016) 1 Cal.5th 61 (Espinoza).) But that right may be expressly or impliedly waived. (Espinoza, at p. 72.) “[W]here the offense is not capital and the accused is not in custody, the prevailing rule has been, that if, after the trial has begun in his presence, he voluntarily absents himself, this does not nullify what has been done or prevent the completion of trial, but, on the contrary, operates as a waiver of his right to be present and leaves the court free to proceed with the trial in like manner and with like effect as if he were present.” (Diaz v. United States (1912) 223 U.S. 442, 455.) California has codified this rule as section 1043(b)(2).
In determining whether a defendant is absent voluntarily, a court must look at the totality of the facts. If a defendant at liberty remains away during his trial the court may proceed provided it is clearly established that his absence is voluntary. He must be aware of the processes taking place, of his right and of his obligation to be present, and he must have no sound reason for staying away. A trial court must adhere to Taylor’s three-part test when evaluating whether a defendant is voluntarily absent under section 1043(b)(2).
The role of an appellate court in reviewing a finding of voluntary absence is a limited one. Review is restricted to determining whether the finding is supported by substantial evidence. But we have not yet had occasion to explore how the substantial evidence standard of review applies in the context of a trial court’s factual finding that must be “ ‘clearly established.’ ”
Ramirez asserted that the trial court erroneously found that he was voluntarily absent merely because the absence was “self-induced” based on his drug use. A defendant who ingests illicit drugs and subsequently requires medical assistance after trial has commenced has not, invariably, voluntarily absented himself or herself. In determining whether a defendant is absent voluntarily, a court must look at the ‘totality of the facts.’ The record as a whole demonstrates that the trial court did consider all of the information available and made a factual finding that, notwithstanding the effects of his drug use, defendant could have come to court and voluntarily chose not to do so. Substantial evidence supports that finding.
The record as a whole reflects that the trial court tried to ascertain whether defendant was absent voluntarily. The trial court does appear to have considered all the circumstances shown by the evidence before it, even though it placed substantial emphasis on the intentional nature of defendant’s drug use.
Review of the record as a whole reveals substantial evidence from which a reasonable fact finder could have found it highly probable that defendant was aware of the processes taking place, of his right and obligation to be present, and that he had no sound reason for staying away. The Court of Appeal did not err when it affirmed the trial court’s finding that defendant was voluntarily absent.
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