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Name: People v. Cervantes
Case #: B298077
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 2 DCA
Division: 6
Opinion Date: 01/30/2020

A defendant convicted of voluntary manslaughter is not eligible to petition for resentencing pursuant to Penal Code section 1170.95. In 2012, Cervantes entered a no contest plea to voluntary manslaughter (Pen. Code, § 192, subd. (a)) after being charged with murder and was sentenced to an aggregate term of 13 years in state prison. In 2019, he filed a section 1170.95 petition for resentencing. The trial court denied the petition, ruling Cervantes was not eligible for relief under section 1170.95. Cervantes appealed. Held: Affirmed. Penal Code section 1170.95, subdivision (a) provides, in relevant part, “A person convicted of felony murder or murder under a natural and probable consequences theory may file a petition with the court that sentenced the petitioner to have petitioner’s murder conviction vacated and to be resentenced on any remaining counts when all of the following conditions apply: [¶] . . . [¶] The petitioner was convicted of first degree or second degree murder . . . .” In interpreting a statute, if the statutory language is not ambiguous, then the plain meaning of the language governs. Here, the language of the statute unequivocally applies to murder convictions. There is no reference to the crime of voluntary manslaughter in section 1170.95. The plain reading of the statute is consistent with the legislative goal of correcting the unfairness of the felony murder rule, which is not applicable to the crime of voluntary manslaughter.

Excluding those with voluntary manslaughter convictions from eligibility for resentencing pursuant to section 1170.95 does not violate equal protection or substantive due process. Cervantes also contended the failure to include voluntary manslaughter convictions in section 1170.95 violated his constitutional rights to equal protection and substantive due process. The Court of Appeal disagreed. The first step in a due process analysis is to determine whether the defendant is similarly situated with those who are entitled to the statutory benefit. Voluntary manslaughter is a different crime, and carries a different punishment, than murder. Normally, offenders who commit different crimes are not similarly situated for equal protection purposes. Nor was it an irrational discrimination to provide relief for murderers, but deny it to those who commit the less serious offense of manslaughter. When the Legislature reforms one area of the law, it is not required to reform other areas of the law. Here, the legislative focus was on the unfairness of the felony murder rule. The Legislature could rationally decide to change the law in this area and not be currently concerned with crimes not involved with that rule. A criminal defendant has no vested interest in a specific term of imprisonment or in the designation of a particular crime he or she receives. The court also rejected Cervantes’s substantive due process claim because there was a rational relationship between the objectives of SB 1437 and the methods chosen to achieve those objectives. The goal of eliminating the sentencing disparity caused by the felony murder rule was properly achieved by the section 1170.95 petition procedure to vacate those murder convictions. [Editor’s Note: In a footnote, the court noted it did not reach the issue whether section 1170.95 violates the separation of powers doctrine.]