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Name: People v. Almeda
Case #: C077141
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 3 DCA
Opinion Date: 01/12/2017

Admission of cellmate’s testimony relating defendant’s incriminating statements did not violate his Sixth Amendment right to counsel because the cellmate was not acting under the government’s direction. Villa and Almeda were charged with first degree murder for shooting a man parked in the car next to them at a stoplight. While in custody awaiting trial, Villa discussed details of the crime with his cellmate, Rhodes, who in turn reached out to the district attorney to offer Villa’s statements in exchange for leniency for his own sentence. Rhodes, his attorney, and the prosecutor signed an agreement stating that the prosecution would move to reduce Rhodes’ sentence if he were to testify truthfully about his conversations with Villa. The agreement did not direct Rhodes to ask any specific questions or get more information. Rhodes gave more information to the prosecution team at two subsequent meetings but was not given any instructions by the prosecution. Villa moved to exclude Rhodes’ second and third statements under Massiah v. United States (1964) 377 U.S. 201, 206, which prohibits the admission of statements deliberately elicited by the government from an accused in the absence of counsel after the right to counsel attaches. The trial court denied the motion, and the jury convicted Villa and Almeda, who appealed. Held: Affirmed. To prevail on a Massiah claim, a defendant must show that the informant (1) was acting under the direction of the government with the expectation of some resulting benefit; and (2) deliberately elicited incriminating statements. Here, there was no evidence establishing that Rhodes was an agent of the government when Villa spoke with him. The prosecutor did not suggest, request, direct, or command Rhodes to ask any questions or get more information than what he had previously provided. While Rhodes may have solicited incriminating statements from Villa, that alone did not establish Massiah error.

Admission of defendant’s statements to his cellmate did not violate his codefendant’s right to confrontation because the statements were not testimonial in nature. Prior to trial, Almeda moved to exclude Rhodes’ testimony relating Villa’s statements, arguing that admission of the statements violated his Sixth Amendment right to confrontation because they were testimonial, unreliable, and inadmissible under Bruton v. United States (1968) 391 U.S. 123. The Court of Appeal disagreed. In Bruton, the Supreme Court held introducing a nontestifying codefendant’s confession implicating the defendant in a joint trial violated the right of cross-examination secured by the confrontation clause, even if the jury was instructed to consider the confession only against the codefendant. (See also People v. Aranda (1965) 63 Cal.2d 518.) However, Bruton is premised on the confrontation clause and does not apply to non-testimonial statements. “Statements made unwittingly to a Government informant” and “statements from one prisoner to another” are nontestimonial statements. (Davis v. Washington (2006) 547 U.S. 813, 825.) “The confrontation clause and Bruton/Aranda did not prohibit the trial court from admitting Rhodes’s testimony.”

Defendant’s statements to his cellmate inculpating his codefendant qualified as statements against his penal interest and were admissible against both defendant and his codefendant. Almeda also argued that the trial court erred in admitting Rhodes’ testimony relating Villa’s statements because they did not qualify as statements against penal interest (Evid. Code, § 1230). Almeda challenged the court’s admission of Villa’s statements that specifically inculpated Almeda, such as information about a previous drive-by shooting at Almeda’s house, Almeda’s ownership of the car used in this incident, and Almeda’s shots fired at the victim in this case. The trial court did not abuse its discretion by finding Villa’s statements qualified as statements against his penal interest. Statements by a nontestifying codefendant that implicate the defendant may be admissible if they are disserving to the codefendant’s interest and are not exculpatory, self-serving, or collateral. (People v. Cortez (2016) 63 Cal.4th 101.) The question is whether the statement was sufficiently against the declarant’s penal interest that a reasonable person in the declarant’s position would not have made the statement unless believing it to be true in light of all the surrounding circumstances. Here, all of Villa’s statements, including his statements about Almeda, were disserving to his interests and were not exculpatory, self-serving, or collateral. The statements were also reliable because Villa did not minimize his role in the killing or try to shift blame to Almeda. The statements also gave investigators significant details about the crime that they did not have before.

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: