District Attorney Lacks Standing to Challenge SB 394 Parole Hearings for 16 or 17 year-olds Sentenced to LWOP

The PEOPLE, et al., Plaintiffs and Respondents, v.BOARD OF PAROLE HEARINGS, Defendant and Appellant; Nathan Joshua Ramazzini, Real Party in Interest and Appellant. C093941,Filed September 15, 2022
2022 WL 4244262 (Cal.App. 3 Dist.)

Summary: in 1997, Ramazzini was convicted of a first degree murder with a special circumstance he committed when he was was 16 years old. Ramazzini was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP).At the time Ramazzini was sentenced, courts interpreted section 190.5, subdivision (b) as establishing a presumption in favor of LWOP. (People v. Guinn (1994) 28 Cal.App.4th 1130, 33 Cal.Rptr.2d 791, disapproved by People v. Gutierrez (2014) 58 Cal.4th 1354, 171 Cal.Rptr.3d 421, 324 P.3d 245 (Gutierrez).)

In 2012, the United States Supreme Court held  that the Eighth Amendment to the federal Constitution bars mandatory LWOP sentences for minors. (Miller v. Alabama (2012) 567 U.S. 460.) The California Supreme Court subsequently concluded that section 190.5, subdivision (b) confers discretion on the sentencing court to impose either a sentence of 25 years to life or LWOP, but the presumption in favor of LWOP as stated in Guinn was inconsistent with Miller. (Gutierrez, supra, 58 Cal.4th at pp. 1386-1387.)

The California Legislature passed Senate Bill No. 394 (2017-2018 Reg. Sess.) (Senate Bill No. 394), which provided that those sentenced to LWOP for crimes committed when they were 16 or 17 years old are now eligible for release on parole during their 25th year of incarceration.

Pursuant to Senate Bill No. 394, Ramazzini became eligible for a parole hearing in July 2021. The Colusa County District Attorney’s Office (Office), on behalf of the People of the State of California, petitioned for writ of mandate in the trial court, seeking to invalidate Senate Bill No. 394 on its face and as applied to Ramazzini and to enjoin the Board of Parole Hearings (Board) from enforcing its provisions. The Office asserted that Senate Bill No. 394 violated article II, section 10, subdivision (c) of the California Constitution, which restricts the Legislature’s ability to amend an initiative statute without the approval of the voters except where the initiative statute permits amendment without the voters’ approval.

The trial court granted the Office’s writ petition as applied to Ramazzini.

The Board appeals; it contends the Office lacked standing to petition for writ of mandate, and Senate Bill No. 394 was lawfully enacted because the Legislature may amend initiative statutes to address constitutional violations. Ramazzini also appeals; he joins the Board’s contentions and separately contends that Senate Bill No. 394 was lawfully enacted because it does not amend Proposition 115’s alternative sentencing scheme for 16- and 17-year-old defendants.

The Office argues that the Victims’ Bill of Rights (Cal. Const., art. I, § 28) as well as various cases and statutes provide authority to bring the petition.The Court of Appeal agreed  with the Board that the Office lacks standing to petition for writ of mandate. The court  reversed the judgment invalidating Senate Bill No. 394 as applied to Ramazzini and directed the trial court to dismiss the action.


Legal Developments in Sentencing of Minors

In 2005, the United States Supreme Court held that unduly harsh sentences imposed on minors violate the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. (See Roper v. Simmons (2005) 543 U.S. 551, 569 [8th Amend. bars capital punishment for juveniles]; Graham v. Florida (2010) 560 U.S. 48 [8th Amend. bars LWOP sentences for juveniles who commit nonhomicide offenses]; Miller v. Alabama, supra, 567 U.S. at p. 479 [8th Amend. bars mandatory LWOP sentences for juveniles].)

In 2012, the California Legislature passed a bill adding section 1170, subdivision (d)(2), which allowed certain juvenile offenders serving LWOP sentences to petition for resentencing.  That same year, the California Supreme Court held that sentencing a juvenile to 110 years in prison for a nonhomicide offense violated the Eighth Amendment. (People v. Caballero (2012) 55 Cal.4th 262.)

In 2013, the Legislature added section 3051, which established a youth offender parole hearing procedure “for the purpose of reviewing the parole suitability of any prisoner who was under 18 years of age at the time of his or her controlling offense.” As originally enacted, juveniles sentenced to LWOP were not eligible for youth offender parole hearings.

The California Supreme Court observed that section 190.5, subdivision (b) confers discretion on the sentencing court to impose a sentence of either LWOP or 25 years to life on a 16- or 17-year-old juvenile convicted of special circumstances murder, but Guinn’s presumption in favor of LWOP was inconsistent with the high court’s decision in Miller. (Gutierrez, supra, 58 Cal.4th at pp. 1386-1387.)

In Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) 577 U.S. 190, at page 212, the high court concluded that Miller was a new substantive rule that applies retroactively. The court advised that a state may remedy a Miller violation by permitting juvenile homicide offenders to be considered for parole, rather than by resentencing them.

Senate Bill No. 394

The Legislature passed Senate Bill No. 394 in September 2017,  which was intended to address the issue that offenders serving LWOP sentences committed before they turned 18 . The law added section 3051, subdivision (b)(4), which makes those sentenced to LWOP before they turned 18 years old eligible for parole during their 25th year of incarceration.

The Office’s Authority to Sue the Board

The Board contends the Office lacks authority to sue the Board on behalf of the People; Ramazzini joins the Board’s argument. The Board argues the Office’s petition should be interpreted as a civil action, and the Office can only act in the civil arena when specifically authorized to do so by statute or the Constitution. No  statute or constitutional provision authorizes the Office to petition for writ of mandate to challenge the validity of a statute.

Standard of Review

The scope of the Office’s authority to challenge Senate Bill No. 394 is one of law that is  reviewed de novo. (Abbott Laboratories v. Superior Court (2020) 9 Cal.5th 642, 651.)

“Because the interpretation of constitutional provisions is a purely legal issue, our review is de novo, meaning we determine the provisions’ meaning without deference to the judge’s decision.”

Writ proceeding is a civil actio

The California Supreme Court held long ago that district attorneys may only prosecute and defend civil actions when specifically authorized by the Constitution or by statute.

The writ proceeding here is a “special proceeding”  treated as a civil action. Writs of mandate and prohibition are denominated special proceedings of a civil nature. (Code Civ. Proc., Part 3.) Writs of mandate compel the performance of a ministerial duty and writs of prohibition arrest proceedings conducted in excess of the presiding entity’s jurisdiction.But although the petition for writ of mandate at issue here is of a civil nature, in writ proceedings courts will look to “the nature of the relief sought, not the label or procedural device by which the action is brought,” to determine the parties’ rights. (In re Head (1986) 42 Cal.3d 223, 226.) The relief sought by the Office is indistinguishable from that sought by a civil complaint seeking to invalidate Senate Bill No. 394 and enjoin the Board from enforcing its terms.

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