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Re-sentencing under Penalty Code section 1170.95 applies only to murder convictions-not manslaughter

The People, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. Daniel Cervantes, Defendant and Appellant.(Court of Appeal, Second District, Division 6); No. B298077; Filed 1/30/2020; 2020 WL 486867

Re-sentencing under Penal Code section 1170.95

Penal Code section 1170.95, subdivision (a) provides that , a person convicted of first degree or second degree murder  under the “felony murder or murder under a natural and probable consequences theory may file a petition with the court that sentenced the petitioner to have petitioner’s murder conviction vacated and to be resentenced on any remaining counts.”

Facts

In 2012, after being charged with murder Cervantes entered a no contest plea to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to  13 years in state prison.

In 2019, following the passage of Senate Bill No. 1437 (2017-2018 Reg. Sess.), Cervantes filed a section 1170.95 petition for resentencing. The trial court denied the petition, ruling that he was not eligible for relief under section 1170.95

Section 1170.95 and Voluntary Manslaughter Convictions

Cervantes contends that section 1170.95 is not limited to murder convictions but also authorizes resentencing for his voluntary manslaughter conviction.

Statutory interpretation

In interpreting a statute the Court first looks at the words the Legislature used. “ ‘ “[I]f the statutory language is not ambiguous, then … the plain meaning of the language governs.” ’ ” (People v. Colbert (2019) 6 Cal.5th 596, 603.)

The Court read the statute to unambiguously apply only to murder convictions without any reference to voluntary manslaughter. Eligibility under section 1170.95,  applies to defendants  who have a first or second degree murder conviction. The plain language of the statute clearly limits its scope to murder convictions. (People v. Colbert, supra, 6 Cal.5th at p. 603.)

No absurd consequence from literal interpretation of 1170.95

Of course, “ ‘language of a statute should not be given a literal meaning if doing so would result in absurd consequences which the Legislature did not intend.’ ” (People v. Pieters (1991) 52 Cal.3d 894, 898.) But the plain reading of the statute is consistent with the legislative goal of Senate Bill No. 1437. That bill addressed the unfairness of the felony murder rule so that murder convictions could be vacated by filing section 1170.95 petitions. (People v. Anthony (2019) 32 Cal.App.5th 1102, 1147; People v. Martinez (2019) 31 Cal.App.5th 719, 722-723; Sen. Bill No. 1437, § 1(f), Stats. 2018, ch. 1015, § 4, pp. 6679-6681.) The felony murder rule does not to the crime of voluntary manslaughter.

Equal Protection/Substantive Due Process Arguments

The Court rejected Cervantes’ claim that 1170.95’s  failure to include voluntary manslaughter convictions violates his constitutional rights to equal protection and substantive due process.

Cervantes is not similarly situated with those who are entitled to the statutory benefit. (People v. Barrera (1993) 14 Cal.App.4th 1555, 1565.) Cervantes was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, a different crime from murder, which carries a different punishment. Normally “offenders who commit different crimes are not similarly situated” for equal protection purposes. (People v. Morales (2019) 33 Cal.App.5th 800, 808.) “[O]nly those persons who are similarly situated are protected from invidiously disparate treatment.” (Barrera, at p. 1565.)

Cervantes claims it is an irrational discrimination to provide section 1170.95 relief for murderers, but to deny it to those who commit the less serious offense of manslaughter. However, when the Legislature reforms one area of the law, it is not required to reform other areas of the law. (Kasler v. Lockyer (2000) 23 Cal.4th 472, 488.) It may elect to make reforms “ ‘ “one step at a time, addressing itself to the phase of the problem which seems most acute to the legislative mind.” ’ ” (Ibid)

With SB 1437, the Legislature  focused on the unfairness of the felony murder rule and  could rationally decide to change the law in this area alone. It could reasonably decide that the punishment for voluntary manslaughter was appropriate, but the punishment for murder based on the felony murder rule could be excessive and reform was needed only there. (Williams v. Illinois (1970) 399 U.S. 235, 241 [“A State has wide latitude in fixing the punishment for state crimes”].)

Legislators could also consider, in restricting their focus to felony murder, the number of prisoners subject to the change and its impact on the “administration of justice.” (Mills v. Municipal Court (1973) 10 Cal.3d 288, 310

The Legislature’s “line-drawing” authority is not constitutionally prohibited. (People v. Chatman (2018) 4 Cal.5th 277, 283.) in making a rational choice not to include manslaughter convictions in 1170.95

“[T]he Legislature is afforded considerable latitude in defining and setting the consequences of criminal offenses.” (Johnson v. Department of Justice (2015) 60 Cal.4th 871, 887.) A classification is not arbitrary or irrational simply because it is “underinclusive.” (Ibid.) “A criminal defendant has no vested interest ‘ “in a specific term of imprisonment or in the designation [of] a particular crime [he or she] receives.” ’ ” (People v. Turnage (2012) 55 Cal.4th 62, 74.) “Courts routinely decline to intrude upon the ‘broad discretion’ such policy judgments entail.” (Ibid.)

“[S]ubstantive due process requires a rational relationship between the objectives of a legislative enactment and the methods chosen to achieve those objectives.” (California Rifle & Pistol Assn. v. City of West Hollywood (1988) 66 Cal.App.4th 1302, 1330.) Here, the legislative goal was to eliminate the sentencing disparity caused by the felony murder rule. That goal was properly achieved by the section 1170.95 petition procedure to vacate those murder convictions.