Implicit Bias Can Violate the Racial Justice Act

Bonds v. Superior Court; D082187; 2/14/24;2024 WL 617245 (Cal.App. 4 Dist.)

Summary: Bonds was charged with a misdemeanor concealed firearm violation filed a motion for relief under the Racial Justice Act. The Superior Court denied the motion and Bonds  filed petition for writ of mandate.The Court of Appeal held that the trial court applied wrong legal standard in denying defendant’s motion for relief under the Racial Justice Act, and statistical studies regarding practices of city’s police department were admissible in determining whether a violation of the Racial Justice Act occurred during traffic stop.

Purpose of The Racial Justice Act

The Legislature enacted the California Racial Justice Act of 2020 (Racial Justice Act) to reduce or eliminate convictions and sentences that differ based solely on race, ethnicity, or national origin.The Racial Justice Act provides a procedure for criminal defendants to show that some participant in the process has exhibited bias. A defendant can seek relief regardless of whether the discrimination was purposeful or unintentional. The  alleged bias can be implied rather than express. Following an evidentiary hearing, the defendant bears the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence that some participant—including a law enforcement officer—“exhibited bias or animus towards the defendant because of the defendant’s race, ethnicity, or national origin.” (Pen. Code, § 745, subds. (a)(1) and (c)(2).)

Here, Bonds was the subject of a traffic stop by Officer Ryan Cameron of the San Diego Police Department (SDPD). The stop led to Bonds’s arrest on a misdemeanor concealed firearm violation.  Bonds believed he had been stopped because he was Black. During a hearing to address Bonds’s Racial Justice Act claim, Cameron testified that race played no role in his decision to stop Bonds’s vehicle because he could not “see what race was in that vehicle.” The  court ruled it could not find that the officer exhibited any bias because of Bonds’s race.

In denying Bonds’s motion, the trial court ignored a central premise of the Racial Justice Act—that bias can be unconscious and implied as well as conscious and express. By relying on its conclusion that Officer Cameron was not lying when he said he could not discern the race of the occupants in Bonds’s vehicle, the court ignored the possibility that the officer’s actions were a product of an implicit bias that associated things the officer did know—the location of the stop and the clothing Bonds was wearing—with race. The Court of Appeal issued  a writ directing the court to conduct a new hearing at which it considers whether Officer Cameron’s actions in initiating and conducting the traffic stop exhibited implied bias on the basis of race.

Application of The Racial Justice Act

Bonds filed a motion for relief under the Racial Justice Act, section 745. The motion relied on independent studies and statistical evidence purporting to show significant racial disparities in local policing, particularly with regard to the nature and frequency of traffic stops. The court indicated it was “not really considering the studies or conclusions of the experts” and “prefer[red] to rely on the specific facts of the case.” Finding that Bonds had made a prima facie showing of racial discrimination under subdivision (c) of section 745 by offering facts it was required to assume were true (see Finley v. Superior Court (2023) 95 Cal.App.5th 12, 23, 312 Cal.Rptr.3d 907 (Finley)), the court set the matter for an evidentiary hearing.

At the hearing, Bonds offered testimony from three experts and  independent research studies about racial bias in the SDPD. A police expert testified  that Officer Cameron’s conduct during the traffic stop was consistent with racial bias.

Cameron responded to Bonds’s statement—“you turn around like you saw … two black guys in the car obviously”—by suggesting that race wasn’t the motivation for the stop. Rather, it was “the hoodies up and stuff.” In an expert’s opinion, Cameron’s response was an example of racial profiling and the use of “coded language”: “The officer is not having to map out or describe what a hoodie means. There’s an assumption that the hoodie means something about criminality when it’s connected to … people of color.”

The trial court denied the motion and concluded that aggregate statistics about a police department were entitled to little weight because “there is no way for a court to draw … conclusions [about an officer’s state of mind] from general statistics without speculating whether a particular officer’s conduct on a specific occasion falls within those statistics and any conclusions based on such statistics.”

The trial court concluded that Officer Cameron was telling the  truth when he said he did not know and could not see that the occupants of Bonds’s vehicle were Black .

Implicit Bias and the Racial Justice Act

The Racial Justice Act was enacted to address much more than purposeful discrimination based on race.  It was intended to provide meaningful relief to victims of unintentional but implicit bias. In an uncodified section of Assembly Bill No. 2542, the Legislature explained, “Implicit bias, although often unintentional and unconscious, may inject racism and unfairness into proceedings similar to intentional bias. The intent of the Legislature is not to punish this type of bias, but rather to remedy the harm to the defendant’s case and to the integrity of the judicial system.” (Stats. 2020, ch. 317, § 2, subd. (i) [uncodified],.)

The Racial Justice Act “is a countermeasure to the 1987 legal precedent established in the [United States Supreme Court] case of McCleskey v. Kemp[, which] established an unreasonably high standard for victims of racism in the criminal legal system that is almost impossible to meet without direct proof that the racially discriminatory behavior was conscious, deliberate and targeted.” (Sen. Com. on Public Safety, Analysis of Assem. Bill No. 2542 (2019–2020 Reg. Sess.) as amended Aug. 1, 2020, p. 7.) Subdivision (c)(2) of section 745, defines the defendant’s burden of proof on a motion to demonstrate a violation of the Racial Justice Act as”not need[ing] to prove intentional discrimination.”

The trial court applied an incorrect legal standard in concluding that Officer Cameron could not exhibit racial bias unless he “knew” the race of the vehicle’s occupants before initiating the traffic stop.

Use of Statistical Evidence

The People assert that “[g]eneral statistics about the prosecuting agency are appropriate when the alleged violation concerns the charged crime or penalty sought. The same is not true when looking at an individual police officer, or an individual attorney or individual judge or individual expert.” They claim that Bonds “should have obtained statistics concerning the stops this officer made.” Insection 745, subdivision (c)(1), the Legislature has specifically provided that “reliable, statistical evidence, and aggregated data are admissible for the limited purpose of determining whether a violation of subdivision (a) has occurred.” The provision makes no distinction between the various subparts of subdivision (a), so there is no basis to say that such evidence is only admissible to prove certain types of violations but not others. The express terms of the statute make statistical evidence admissible evidence the trial court is entitled to consider in determining whether a violation of the Racial Justice Act has occurred.

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