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Just a few weeks ago, we discussed the concept of constructive possession under California law in a blog post. Recently, a state appellate court issued an opinion in another California gun case raising the issue of constructive possession.

According to the court’s opinion, a police officer approached the defendant’s vehicle when it was illegally parked near a popular lookout point. When the officer approached the car, the defendant, who was with two other people, explained that they were just enjoying the view.

The officer recognized the defendant from a prior contact, and knew him to be on probation. The officer asked if there was any contraband in the car. The defendant responded in the negative. The officer then asked the defendant for his identification. The defendant provided a false name initially, but later gave the officer his real name. The defendant then admitted to having a small amount of marijuana in a backpack that was in the car. The officer searched the backpack, which was located directly behind the center console, within reach of all three occupants. Inside was some marijuana, a knife, and a pistol. The gun was preserved for fingerprints and DNA; however, there were no fingerprints on the gun and the DNA was not tested.

For the most part, when a juvenile is charged with a crime, the state prosecutes the crime within the California juvenile justice system. However, there are some instances where the state will prosecute the juvenile in adult court. States have various ways of determining which offenses that were allegedly committed by juveniles should be prosecuted in adult court.

In California, Proposition 57 requires that prosecutors obtain the approval of a juvenile court before transferring a case to adult court. In 2018, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1391, which prohibited the transfer of 14 or 15-year old children to adult courts in most cases. In a recent case, a prosecutor in Santa Clara argued that SB 1391 was unconstitutional as it unofficially amended Proposition 57.

In that case, the defendant, S.L., was just 15 years old at the time he was charged with murder after shooting someone. The prosecution sought to have the case transferred to adult court, but knew that SB 1391 would prevent it from doing so. Thus, the prosecution filed a writ with the court, asking it to hold that SB 1391 was unconstitutional. The court determined that SB 1391 “did not impermissibly amend Proposition 57 and was therefore constitutional.”

Every California crime has two essential parts: an act element and an intent element. For many offenses, the act and intent elements are easy to identify. In most cases, criminal law requires a finding that the defendant acted willfully or intentionally. However, for some possessory offenses, such as the possession of drugs, the act and intent elements blur.

Typically, California possessory offenses require someone to either have “actual” possession or “constructive” possession. Actual possession is when someone physically possesses an object. For example, someone has actual possession of a gun that is in a holster strapped to their waist. Actual possession is often quite simple to determine. Cases involving actual possession are not unbeatable cases, because there may be a viable motion to suppress the evidence based on illegal police conduct or a violation of the defendant’s rights.

Constructive possession, on the other hand, is a legal fiction that allows the fact finder to determine whether someone possessed an item by considering the surrounding circumstances. In these cases, the contraband is not found on the defendant, but the prosecution argues that the defendant is guilty of possessing the item because the defendant constructively possessed it. If constructive possession is established, it has the same legal effect as actual possession.

Earlier this year, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a California attempted murder case discussing the applicability of the kill-zone theory. Ultimately, the court concluded that the prosecution did not present evidence justifying the kill-zone instruction to the jury, and thus, the defendant’s conviction for murder was reversed.

According to the court’s opinion, the charges in the case arose after a gang-related shooting that was directed at two rival gang members. Neither of the intended targets was hit. However, a bystander was hit in the abdomen with a single bullet and died from those injuries. The defendants, both of which were allegedly shooters in the incident, were charged with one count of murder and two counts of attempted murder.

Regarding the attempted murder charges, the prosecution moved forward on two theories. First, that the shooters were trying to kill the intended victims because they were rival gang members. Second, the prosecution argued the kill-zone theory, which she summarized as “if they’re shooting at someone and people are within the zone that they can get killed, then you’re responsible for attempted murder as to the people who are within the zone of fire.” In an unrelated appeal, the defendants’ murder conviction was reversed. In this appeal, the defendant challenged the prosecution’s use of the kill-zone theory for the attempted murder convictions.

Proposition 57 was enacted by California voters in November, 2016. The proposition eliminated the ability of a district attorney to file charges directly with a California criminal court for minors who were 14 years or older when they allegedly committed the crimes. Senate Bill 1391 (SB 1391), which was passed in 2018, further limits a district attorney’s ability to prosecute minors in criminal court.

In a recent case, after the Superior Court of Solano County blocked the prosecution of a 14-year-old defendant in criminal court, the District Attorney of Solano County filed suit against the court, arguing that SB 1391 was inconsistent with the intent of Proposition 57. Generally, in California, juvenile courts have jurisdiction over offenses allegedly committed by minors. However, prior to Proposition 57, there was a presumption that minors 14 years or older were unfit for the juvenile justice system, and were required to be charged in criminal court for certain crimes. District attorneys had the discretion to charge minors 14 or older directly in criminal court for other cases.

Under Proposition 57, minors can only be tried in criminal court if a juvenile court judge conducts a transfer hearing, considering various factors. District attorneys can request transfers to the criminal court for minors 16 years or older facing any felony offense, but district attorneys can only request transfers for 14 and 15 year olds for certain violent offenses. Proposition 57 was passed in order to concentrate resources on dangerous criminals, “while rehabilitating juvenile and adult inmates and saving tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.”

Who gets to decide on the defendant’s defense in a California criminal trial? The answer is, it is nuanced, and depends —some decisions are up to the lawyer, while others are left to the client. In a recent California case, the appeals court clarified whether the lawyer can admit that a defendant committed an act over the defendant’s objection.

In the case, the defendant was charged with the unlawful possession of weapons, and later with deliberately driving his car into a police officer while the officer was conducting a traffic stop. The officer was seriously injured, but survived. The defendant allegedly drove away, left the car, and went to a train station parking lot. He was arrested there, and later made incriminating statements to cellmates.

Before trial, the defendant told the court about his displeasure with his lawyer, saying that the lawyer wanted “to make him admit to something that [he] didn’t want to admit.” During the trial, the lawyer admitted that the defendant was driving the car, and argued that the defendant never had the premeditated intent to kill which was necessary to sustain a first-degree attempted murder conviction. The defendant objected to his lawyer’s admission that he was driving the car that injured the officer. At a later trial on the charges of weapons possession, the defendant objected when his lawyer admitted that he possessed certain firearms, and argued that he did not knowingly possess them because he did not understand the unlawful nature of the weapons.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that people have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Over the years, courts have interpreted the Fourth Amendment to mean police officers must obtain a warrant before conducting a search. While warrantless arrests are presumptively invalid, there are several fairly large exceptions to the warrant requirement.

Perhaps the most common exception to the warrant requirement is that an officer can make a warrantless arrest, “if there is probable cause to believe that a criminal offense has been or is being committed.” This exception is the basis for most site arrests, where a police officer witnesses a crime, or has the victim of the crime identify the alleged offender, and arrests the suspect at the scene. A recent state appellate decision in a California robbery case illustrates how courts view warrantless arrests and how police officers try to get around the warrant requirement.

According to the court’s opinion, police were investigating a series of robberies that took place in 2012. During the investigation, the assigned officer reviewed surveillance video of several of the robberies. Four days after the most recent robbery, the officer was responding to a report of another robbery. The report indicated that the suspects were two black males, one taller than the other. The detective thought that these might be the men responsible for the robberies he was investigating.

On July 18, 2019, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a California DUI case discussing whether the lower court should have granted the defendant’s motion to suppress statements she made after she was arrested for driving under the influence. Ultimately, the court concluded that each of the statements at issue were not suppressible, and were properly considered by the lower court.

According to the court’s opinion, two people were sitting at a stoplight on Manchester Boulevard in Los Angeles. As the light turned green, they saw the defendant’s vehicle approaching from behind at high speed. The defendant crashed into their car while going an estimated 65 to 70 miles per hour. The speed limit was 35 miles per hour.

After the accident, the passenger in the car got out and approached the unconscious defendant. A few moments later, the defendant woke up, but refused to give the passenger her identification. A witness to the accident tried to get the defendant’s identification, but he was met with hostility. The defendant was also hostile to the police.

Criminal defendants in California and throughout the country have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. However, as a recent California case shows, there are exceptions to the general requirement that police obtain a warrant before conducting a search. The issue before the California appeals court was whether police could enter a residence without a warrant based on the role of the police as a “community caretaker.”

In that case, the police responded to a report that 11 gunshots had been fired. They came to a house and found a spent shell casing on the driveway. They arrested an individual on the scene who was yelling at the officers, and found additional spent casings behind a gate leading to the back yard. An officer knocked on a door on the side of a garage apartment several times. No one answered, but he heard what he believed was items being pushed against the door. The officers spoke to other people at a window and at the front door of the house.

According to police, the defendant’s father let police enter the house and was looking for a key to open the garage apartment when the defendant came out of the apartment, shutting the door behind him, which automatically locked the door. The officer arrested the defendant and kicked the door open to the garage apartment. He found a semiautomatic pistol and an explosive device. The officers later obtained a search warrant and searched the residence. They found an additional handgun, bullets, a body armor vest, spent shell casings, and a bag with a clear, rock-like substance. Police later found surveillance video which showed the defendant walking down the driveway, pulling out a gun and firing six shots into the air. The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence found in his apartment because he claimed the police’s initial search was in violation of the Constitution.

In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 64, which eventually led to the legal recreational use of marijuana. Proposition 64 also contained provisions that reduced the criminal penalties for many California marijuana-related crimes, including for the cultivation and sale of marijuana. In a recent case, a state appellate court considered a defendant’s conviction for felony accessory.

According to the court’s opinion, in 2013, police officers had executed a search warrant at a residence, finding a large amount of marijuana. During their investigation, the defendant was arrested after officers saw him leave through the front door of the house. After his arrest, the defendant told officers that he was helping a friend package marijuana.

Initially, the defendant was charged with two felony counts of possession of marijuana for sale and cultivation of marijuana. However, under an agreement with the prosecution, the defendant pled guilty to felony accessory and was sentenced to a sentence of probation. After violating the terms of his probation several times, the judge revoked the defendant’s probation and sentenced him to two years of incarceration. The defendant appealed his conviction, arguing that under the subsequently enacted Proposition 64, he should be entitled to a resentencing.

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