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Name: People v. Lopez
Case #: B305783
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 2 DCA
Division: 7
Opinion Date: 06/14/2021

The trial court abused its discretion in concealing the names of prospective jurors from counsel, but the error was harmless. Lopez was charged with murder (Pen. Code, § 187, subd. (a)) and gross vehicular manslaughter (§ 191.5, subd. (a)) for crashing into a parked car while driving under the influence of alcohol and killing the sole occupant. During voir dire, the trial court withheld from the attorneys the names of prospective jurors, identifying them only by their badge number, out of a concern the attorneys or a member of the public or press would obtain additional information about the jurors or contact them. Lopez objected, and the court stated this was its general practice in order to protect the security of the jurors. The jury convicted Lopez, and he appealed. Held: Affirmed. Code of Civil Procedure section 237 does not authorize sealing of juror identifying information at any stage of a civil or criminal action prior to the return of the jury verdict. The empanelment of an anonymous jury is allowed only where (1) there are strong grounds for concluding that it is necessary to ensure juror protection and (2) reasonable safeguards are adopted by the trial court to minimize any risk of infringement upon the fundamental rights of the accused. (People v. Thomas (2012) 53 Cal.4th 771, 788.) Anonymous juries may infer that the dangerousness of those on trial required their anonymity, thereby implicating defendants’ Fifth Amendment right to a presumption of innocence. Here, there was no evidence of any danger of physical harm or likely interference with the prospective jurors if their names were disclosed. The trial court’s concerns were not based on the actual risk to prospective jurors in this specific case. There was no basis under section 237 to keep the prospective jurors’ names concealed from counsel. However, the error was harmless because the court elicited a significant amount of information about each prospective juror and Lopez’s attorney had an extensive opportunity to inquire into any bias a juror may have had about this case.

The admission of defendant’s jail call with his sister was not an abuse of discretion. On the day of his arrest, Lopez was recorded on a call with his sister telling her he was getting charged with a felony because he killed somebody. Prior to trial, Lopez moved to exclude this call under Evidence Code section 352 as it was more prejudicial than probative. The court denied the motion, ruling that the statement was relevant to prove the driver’s identity. All evidence which tends to prove guilt is prejudicial. The “prejudice” referred to in section 352 applies to evidence which uniquely tends to evoke an emotional bias against the defendant as an individual and which has very little effect on the issues. (People v. Jones (2017) 3 Cal.5th 583, 610.)