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Veterans with military related trauma  eligible for resentencing if sentenced before January 1,2015

People v. Valliant (Cal. Ct. App., Oct. 14, 2020, No. G058568) 2020 WL 6054332, at *1–6

Summary: Valliant petitioned pursuant to Penal Code section 1170.91, subdivision (b),1  which authorizes  recall of sentencing for military veterans who suffer from military-related trauma and substance abuse, who did not have those factors considered as mitigating factors when they were originally sentenced. The court denied his petition on the basis that section 1170.91, subdivision (b)(1)(B) (subdivision (b)(1)(B)) authorizes resentencing relief only for persons who were sentenced before January 1, 2015. Valliant who was sentenced in March of 2015.

Valliant argued that resentencing relief is available to all veterans whose military-related trauma was not considered at their initial sentencing, without regard to when that sentencing took place. The Court of Appel affirmed  the order. Subdivision (b)(1)(B) clearly specifies that its resentencing relief is limited to cases in which “[t]he person was sentenced prior to January 1, 2015.” It further specifies that “[t]his subdivision shall apply retroactively, whether or not the case was final as of January 1, 2015” (italics added). The statutory limitation is unequivocal.

FACTS

Valliant was charged with second degree robbery (count 1; §§ 211, 212.5, subd. (c)); criminal threats (count 2; § 422, subd. (a)); carrying a dirk or dagger (count 3; § 21310); carrying a loaded firearm in public (count 4; § 25850, subd. (a) & (c)(7)); and driving on a suspended license (count 5; Veh. Code, § 14601.1, subd. (a)), all arising out of a single incident in September 2014.

In March 2015, after being unable  to transfer the case to the Veteran’s Court, Valliant agreed to plead guilty to second degree robbery, and to admit he personally used a firearm during the commission of the robbery. In exchange, the District Attorney agreed to dismiss four remaining charges. The parties also agreed that Valliant would serve a prison term of 12 years.

Valliant believed that  he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at the time he entered his guilty plea and was sentenced, but it was not until 2017 that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) verified his that his PTSD and opioid abuse disorder originated from his military service.

In April 2019, Valliant filed a petition for resentencing pursuant to sections 1170.91, 12022.5, subdivision (c), and 1170, subdivision (b). Valiant claimed he was entitled to relief because his PTSD and substance abuse, stemming to his military service, were not considered as a factor in mitigation when the court sentenced him for his earlier crimes. Valliant argued  that subdivision (b)(1)(B) applied not only to cases where “ ‘[t]he person was sentenced prior to January 1, 2015,’ ” but also applied to cases “ ‘whether or not the case was final as of January 1, 2015.’ ”
The trial court disagreed with Valliant’s interpretation of the statute, concluding that section 1170.91, subdivision (b)(1)(A) and (B), limit the resentencing remedy to cases in which the challenged sentence was imposed before January 1, 2015. Because Valliant was sentenced after that date, the court denied his petition.

Analysis

Resentencing of military veterans under 1170.91

The original version of section 1170.91 became effective on January 1, 2015, and required sentencing courts to consider any trauma, substance abuse, and mental health problems caused by a defendant’s service in the United States military as mitigating factors weighing in favor of a low-term sentence. (§ 1170.91, subd. (a), enacted by Stats. 2014, ch. 163, § 2.) This statute was in effect when Valliant was sentenced in March of 2015.

2018 amendment to 1170.91

In 2018, the Legislature amended section 1170.91, designating the original language as subdivision (a), and adding subdivision (b), which created a remedy for qualifying defendants who were sentenced before section 1170.91 went into effect. Section 1170.91, subdivision (b), provides as follows: “(b)(1) A person currently serving a sentence for a felony conviction, whether by trial or plea, who is, or was, a member of the United States military and who may be suffering from sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or mental health problems as a result of his or her military service may petition for a recall of sentence, … to request resentencing pursuant to subdivision (a) if the person meets both of the following conditions:  (A) The circumstance of suffering from sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or mental health problems as a result of the person’s military service was not considered as a factor in mitigation at the time of sentencing.  (B) The person was sentenced prior to January 1, 2015. This subdivision shall apply retroactively, whether or not the case was final as of January 1, 2015.” (§ 1170.91, subd. (b)(1)(A) & (B), italics added.)

People v. Bonilla-Bray (2020) 49 Cal.App.5th 234, 238, 262 Cal.Rptr.3d 754, (Bonilla-Bray) explained: “[t]o be eligible for resentencing, a petitioner must meet the following criteria: He or she is currently serving a sentence for a felony conviction—whether by trial or plea (§ 1170.91, subd. (b)(1));  He or she served in a branch of the United States military (ibid.); As a result of his or her service, he or she suffers from sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or mental health problems (ibid.); The court did not consider those circumstances as a factor in mitigation at the time of sentencing (id., subd. (b)(1)(A)); and He or she was sentenced before January 1, 2015 (id., subd. (b)(1)(B)).” (Italics added.)

Valliant and amicus disagree with Bonilla-Bray’s final criterion for resentencing eligibility, arguing that when properly understood, the resentencing remedy provided for in subdivision (b)(1)(B) is not restricted to “persons [who were] sentenced prior to January 1, 2015.”

The rules of statutory construction are well-settled. “Our task in interpreting a statute ‘is to ascertain and effectuate legislative intent. [Citations.]’ [Citation.] In order to do so, ‘[w]e turn first to the words of the statute themselves, recognizing that “they generally provide the most reliable indicator of legislative intent.” [Citations.] When the language of a statute is “clear and unambiguous” and thus not reasonably susceptible of more than one meaning, “ ‘ “ ‘there is no need for construction, and courts should not indulge in it.’ ” ’ ” ’ ” (People v. Leal (2004) 33 Cal.4th 999, 1007, 16 Cal.Rptr.3d 869, 94 P.3d 1071.)

Courts are obligated to avoid statutory constructions which render other provisions of the statute superfluous. (People v. Arias (2008) 45 Cal.4th 169, 180, 85 Cal.Rptr.3d 1, 195 P.3d 103 [“ ‘a construction that renders a word surplusage should be avoided’ ”].) Valliant’s proposed interpretation of the second sentence of subdivision (b)(1)(B) would render the first sentence surplusage,  and the interpretation is inconsistent with the actual words used, causes us to conclude it is unreasonable.

Veterans who were sentenced before the original version of section 1170.91 went into effect on January 1, 2015, were not aware that  the existence of military-related trauma or substance abuse would become  mitigating factors in sentencing. However, once the statute went into effect, veterans were on notice that any military-related trauma or substance abuse would have to be treated as mitigation and these issues needed to be investigated prior to sentencing; sentencing should be delayed if necessary, to ensure they had a full and fair opportunity to present evidence on the point. Adding subdivision (b)(1)(B) to the statute gave veterans sentenced before January 1, 2015 the same incentive and opportunity to investigate and present the issue as the original version of the statute had given veterans sentenced after that date. Such a scheme is not unfair or unequal.

The Court is obligated to enforce the subdivision in accordance with its clear terms unless we conclude that doing so would lead to “an absurd result that does not advance the legislative purpose.” (Gray Cary Ware & Freidenrich v. Vigilant Insurance Co. (2004) 114 Cal.App.4th 1185, 1190, 8 Cal.Rptr.3d 475; California School Employees Assn. v. Governing Board (1994) 8 Cal.4th 333, 340, 33 Cal.Rptr.2d 109, 878 P.2d 1321.) This “ ‘exception should be used most sparingly by the judiciary and only in extreme cases else we violate the separation of powers principle of government. [Citation.] We do not sit as a “super-legislature.” ’ ” (People v. Pecci (1999) 72 Cal.App.4th 1500, 1507, 86 Cal.Rptr.2d 43.)

The Court, in affirming the order invited the Legislature to revisit this issue and, if it believes it is appropriate to do so, to provide Valliant and any other veteran in a similar position, with statutory relief.

 

 

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