Receiving a Stolen Vehicle Valued at $950 or Less May be Treated as a Misdemeanor under Prop. 47

People v. Wehr, No. E070345, 2019 WL 5166227, at *1–8 (Cal. Ct. App. Oct. 15, 2019)

Proposition 47 and Receipt of Stolen Property

The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act (Proposition 47) amended Penal Code § 496 so that receiving any stolen property worth $950 or less is a misdemeanor. (§ 496, subd. (a).) Receipt of a stolen vehicle (Penal Code §496, subd. (a).)  is a ‘wobbler,’ an offense that may be punished as either a felony or a misdemeanor. Here, the Court of Appeal determined which statute governs when a defendant receives a stolen vehicle worth $950 or less.

The defendant, Robert Kenneth Wehr, was convicted of receiving a stolen vehicle under section 496d, subdivision (a).  Prior to sentencing, sentencing, he moved to designate his conviction a misdemeanor under Proposition 47. The trial court denied his motion and imposed a sentence of nine years in state prison- consisting of the middle term of two years for receiving a stolen vehicle, doubled to four years for a prior strike, plus five consecutive one-year terms for the five prison priors.

Receipt of a stolen vehicle ineligible for misdemeanor treatment under Varner

Wehr appeals the denial of his motion and argues that his offense is eligible for misdemeanor treatment under section 496 if the value of the stolen vehicle does not exceed $950. In People v. Varner (2016) 3 Cal.App.5th 360, 207 Cal.Rptr.3d 517 (Varner), the Court of Appeal held that a felony conviction for receipt of a stolen vehicle was ineligible for misdemeanor treatment under Proposition 47.2 Since Varner, the California Supreme Court held in People v. Page (2017) 3 Cal.5th 1175, 225 Cal.Rptr.3d 786, 406 P.3d 319 (Page) that the general petty theft statute controls if the stolen vehicle is worth $950 or less.

Page establishes that the reasoning in Varner was flawed and after the passage of Proposition 47, receipt of a stolen vehicle worth $950 or less is eligible for misdemeanor treatment under section 496. The Court held that the People may (1) accept reduction of this conviction to a misdemeanor, or (2) retry him for a felony violation of section 496d. .

BACKGROUND

At Wehr’s sentencing in March 2018, defense counsel moved to reduce his felony conviction for receiving a stolen vehicle to a misdemeanor, relying on Page, which our Supreme Court decided the month after his trial. Wehr maintained  that, under Page, the prosecution had the burden of proving that the stolen property was worth more than $950, and because there was no evidence of the value of the truck, the court had to reduce his felony conviction. The trial court denied the motion, relying on this court’s decision in Varner.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Wehr’s claim of error required the court to interpret various statutes and provisions of Proposition 47, and presented questions of law that were reviewed de novo. (People v. Gonzales (2018) 6 Cal.5th 44, 49, 237 Cal.Rptr.3d 193, 424 P.3d 280.) “In construing the initiative, ‘we apply the same principles that govern statutory construction.’ As a law adopted by the voters, ‘their intent governs.’ In ascertaining that intent, ‘we turn first to the language of the statute, giving the words their ordinary meaning.’ This language is interpreted in the context of the statute as a whole, as well as the overall statutory scheme.” (People v. Valenzuela (2019) 7 Cal.5th 415, 423, 247 Cal.Rptr.3d 651, 441 P.3d 896.) If the statutory language is ambiguous, the court may discern the voters’ intent from extrinsic sources like the uncodified text of Proposition 47 or the Legislative Analyst’s statements in the voter guide. (People v. Romanowski, supra, 2 Cal.5th at pp. 909-910, 215 Cal.Rptr.3d 758, 391 P.3d 633.)

Proposition 47 Background

Effective November 2014, Proposition 47 reduced certain theft- and drug-related offenses from felonies or wobblers to misdemeanors. (People v. Valencia (2017) 3 Cal.5th 347, 351, 220 Cal.Rptr.3d 230, 397 P.3d 936.) Proposition 47 was intended “to ensure that prison spending is focused on violent and serious offenses” and “to maximize alternatives for nonserious, nonviolent crime.” The voters directed that Proposition 47 be construed “broadly” and “liberally” to accomplish its purposes. (Voter Information Guide, Gen. Elec.)

Proposition 47 amended section 496, which punishes “[e]very person who buys or receives any property that has been stolen.” (§ 496, subd. (a).) Before Proposition 47, buying or receiving stolen property worth $950 or less was a wobbler. Section 496d, under which Wehr was convicted, punishes buying or receiving stolen vehicles, trailers, special construction equipment, or other vessels. Proposition 47 did not amend section 496d. The section makes receiving a stolen vehicle a wobbler without reference to the vehicle’s value.4 (§ 496d, subd. (a).)

Proposition 47 Made Petty Theft a Misdemeanor

Proposition 47 also added section 490.2 to the Penal Code, defining petty theft and making the offense a misdemeanor. Section 490.2 states that “[n]otwithstanding Section 487 or any other provision of law defining grand theft, obtaining any property by theft where the value of the money, labor, real or personal property taken does not exceed nine hundred fifty dollars ($950) shall be considered petty theft and shall be punished as a misdemeanor.” (§ 490.2, subd. (a).)

While Proposition 47 also added sections to provide “retrospective relief … to persons who were serving, or who had already completed, felony sentences for offenses now redefined as misdemeanors.” (People v. Dehoyos (2018) 4 Cal.5th 594, 598, 229 Cal.Rptr.3d 687, 412 P.3d 368.) Section 1170.18, subdivision (a), permits people who were serving felony sentences on the measure’s effective date to petition for resentencing.

The Page Decision

Wehr’s case concerns a conflict between the general statute criminalizing receipt of stolen property worth $950 or less (§ 496, subd. (a)) and the more specific statute criminalizing receipt of a stolen vehicle (§ 496d, subd. (a)). Page resolved a similar conflict between general and specific statutes—the general statute criminalizing theft of property worth $950 or less (§ 490.2, subd. (a)) and the more specific statute criminalizing theft of a vehicle (Veh. Code, § 10851, subd. (a)). Vehicle Code section 10851 was not added or amended by Proposition 47, and the provisions of Proposition 47 do not expressly refer to the section. Yet, Page held that a Vehicle Code section 10851 conviction for taking a vehicle is eligible for Proposition 47 relief, assuming that the vehicle is worth $950 or less. (The court reasoned as follows: “By its terms, Proposition 47’s new petty theft provision, section 490.2, covers the theft form of the Vehicle Code section 10851 offense. As noted, section 490.2, subdivision (a), mandates misdemeanor punishment for a defendant who ‘obtain[ed] any property by theft’ where the property is worth no more than $950. An automobile is personal property.” Therefore, after Proposition 47, a defendant “ ‘who obtains a car valued at less than $950 by theft must be charged with petty theft and may not be charged as a felon’ ” under Vehicle Code section 10851 or any other section

Disposition

The Court reversed Wehr’s felony conviction under section 496d and vacated his sentence. On remand, the Court gave the People the option of accepting a reduction of the conviction to a misdemeanor, or allowing the People to retry Wehr for a felony violation of section 496d, which requires proof that the stolen vehicle Wehr received was worth more than $950.