SB 1437 (including the resentencing process established in Penal Code section 1170.95) does not violate the separation of powers doctrine by infringing on the executive’s clemency power. In 2013, defendant was convicted of felony murder with a special circumstance finding. The special circumstance finding was reversed on direct appeal. After SB 1437 passed, defendant filed a petition for resentencing (Pen. Code, § 1170.95). The prosecution opposed the request, claiming that SB 1437 was unconstitutional. The trial court agreed with the prosecution and denied the petition. Defendant appealed. Held: Reversed. The California Constitution establishes three coequal branches of government: legislative, judicial, and executive. Those charged with the exercise of one power may not exercise any other. However, separation of powers is violated only when the actions of a branch of government defeat or materially impair the inherent functions of another branch. SB 1437 amended the mens rea requirements for murder and restricted the circumstances under which a person can be liable for murder under the felony murder rule or the natural and probable consequences doctrine. The prosecution argued this amendment infringed on the executive power to grant clemency to convicted defendants. However, by enacting SB 1437, the Legislature did not intend to extend an “act of grace” to defendants, but to effect broad penal reform. Thus, any interference with the executive’s clemency authority is incidental, and SB 1437 therefore does not impermissibly encroach on the core powers of the executive.
SB 1437 does not violate the separation of powers doctrine by infringing on the judiciary’s core function of resolving controversies between parties insofar as section 1170.95 allows final judgments to be reopened and vacated. The prosecution also argued that SB 1437 violates state separation of powers principles because it allows final judgments to be reopened by legislation which was not in effect when the judgments became final. But this is distinguishable from the lead cases relied upon by the District Attorney, where the prosecution was prohibited from relying on refiling legislation to reprosecute a defendant who obtained a judgment of dismissal that became final prior to the legislation. SB 1437 and section 1170.95 do not present any risk to individual liberty interests, but instead provide a potentially ameliorative benefit to qualified individuals. There is nothing inherently problematic with legislation permitting the reopening of judgments of conviction and, in fact, there is substantial precedent for remedial legislation authorizing the reopening of final convictions to benefit defendants, for example, the Three Strike Reform Act, Proposition 64, and Proposition 47.
SB 1437 does not invalidly amend prior voter initiatives that increased the punishment for murder and augmented the list of predicate offenses giving rise to first degree felony murder liability (Propositions 7 and 115). For the reasons detailed in the companion case, People v. Superior Court (Gooden), SB 1437 does not impermissibly alter prior voter initiatives in violation of the California Constitution, article II, section 10. It does not address the same subject matter as Proposition 7, which increased the punishment for murder to its current level. Rather, SB 1437 amends the mental state required for murder under the felony murder and natural and probable consequences doctrines. It does not amend Proposition 115, which added certain offenses to the list of predicate felonies on which felony murder may be based, because it did not augment or restrict that list.
SB 1437 does not violate the Victim Bill of Rights Act of 2008 (Marsy’s Law). Marsy’s Law amended article I, section 28 of the California Constitution to strengthen crime victims’ rights. The District Attorney argued that SB 1437 violates Marsy’s Law by denying victims a prompt and final resolution of a criminal case. However, Marsy’s Law did not foreclose post-judgment proceedings in criminal cases and in fact provides for reasonable notice to the victim of such proceedings. The prosecution also argued that SB 1437 impermissibly deprives crime victims and their families of their right to have their safety considered before parole is granted to a defendant, as this is not a consideration in a section 1170.95 proceeding. While it is true that safety of the victim and society is not a factor in a section 1170.95 proceeding, if a defendant is successful in obtaining resentencing, the trial court may consider all relevant factors, including whether defendant presents a serious danger to society. This ensures the safety of the both victim and the general public. [Editor’s Notes: (1) The Riverside County District Attorney represented the People’s interests in this appeal. The Attorney General filed an amicus curiae brief defending the constitutionality of SB 1437. (2) The Court of Appeal concluded the District Attorney did not have standing to argue that SB 1437’s resentencing provisions violate petitioners’ rights, specifically the right to a jury, right to due process, and double jeopardy principles. (3) In a dissenting opinion Justice O’Rourke concluded that SB 1437 is an unconstitutional amendment to Prop. 7 because it limits the liability for felony murder and murder under the natural and probable consequences doctrine.]