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Name: People v. Castaneda-Prado (2023) 94 Cal.App.5th 1260
Case #: A164897
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 1 DCA
Division: 4
Opinion Date: 08/30/2023

The exclusion of impeachment evidence that showed a crucial victim witness was biased violated defendant’s constitutional right to confront a witness against him. When Doe 1 and Doe 2 were 16 years old, they accused defendant (a close family friend) of inappropriately touching them when they were in elementary school. A jury convicted defendant of five counts of committing a lewd act on a child, as well as allegations that the charges involved multiple victims and substantial sexual conduct. He appealed, contending the trial court erred by excluding evidence Doe 2 believed that, by accusing defendant of sexual molestation, she was helping her mother obtain a “U visa,” a type of visa that can provide legal status for victims of certain crimes. Held: Reversed. The Court of Appeal applied the two-step analysis set forth in Delaware v. Van Arsdall (1986) 475 U.S. 673 and concluded defendant’s right to confrontation was violated. First, the trial court did not exercise sound discretion under state law evidentiary standards in limiting the scope of cross-examination. Instead, the trial court abused its discretion under Evidence Code section 352 in finding the bias evidence inadmissible in this case. When a trial court effectively renders cross-examination futile, it raises a further Sixth Amendment constitutional question (the second step of the Van Arsdall analysis): whether a “reasonable jury might have received a significantly different impression” of the challenged witness’s credibility if the proposed line of cross-examination had been permitted. Here, the trial court prohibited defendant from engaging in otherwise appropriate cross-examination designed to show Doe 2’s bias and he had no other meaningful way to impeach Doe 2, who was a crucial prosecution witness. The Court of Appeal concluded the bias evidence might have left a reasonable jury with a “significantly different impression” of Doe 2’s credibility.

The confrontation clause error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt under Chapman. Where courts reach the second step of the Van Arsdall analysis and find error, reversal is required unless the government can show the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt under Chapman. Here, the government failed to carry its burden. The Court of Appeal took into account the disabling effect the trial court’s section 352 ruling had on defendant’s ability to cross-examine Doe 2 and other factors the Van Arsdall court outlined as considerations for the Chapman harmless-error analysis, including the importance of the Doe 2’s testimony in the prosecution’s case, that the testimony was not cumulative, the absence of corroborating physical evidence, the extent of cross-examination otherwise permitted, and the overall strength of the prosecution’s case. The prosecution’s closing argument was particularly important to the court’s prejudice analysis because the argument highlighted that there was no evidence Doe 2 had a motive to lie, which was disingenuous. “Prosecutors should never assert or imply that there is no evidence on a certain point when they know such evidence exists but was excluded by the court.”