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Name: People v. Nguyen
Case #: E048880
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 4 DCA
Division: 2
Opinion Date: 08/20/2013
Subsequent History: Review granted 11/26/13: S213703

Defendant’s absence at SVP trial was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Nguyen was found to be a sexually violent predator (SVP) and committed to the Department of Mental Health (DMH) for an indeterminate term following a petition for recommitment. Nguyen appealed on the grounds that the trial court erred in allowing his counsel to waive his presence at trial, and also that the indeterminate term for SVPs violates state and federal guarantees of equal protection. The commitment order was affirmed on appeal, and Nguyen petitioned for review. The California Supreme Court retransferred the case to the appellate court with directions to vacate the decision and suspend further proceedings pending finality of the proceedings on remand in People v. McKee (2010) 47 Cal.4th 1172. The appellate court again affirmed the order. While Nguyen did not have a statutory right to be present at his recommitment hearing, he had a constitutional due process right to be present. Although his attorney lacked the authority to waive his presence, Nguyen’s absence at the trial was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The record shows that Nguyen did not want to participate in the trial. Defense counsel thoroughly cross-examined the prosecution experts and provided a defense expert who disagreed with the diagnosis of the other experts. There was evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that Nguyen met the diagnostic criteria for pedophilia and posed a risk of engaging in sexually violent predatory behavior.

Defendant’s indeterminate SVP term did not violate equal protection guarantees. The appellate court also found that the SVPA and its indeterminate sentencing provisions do not offend equal protection guarantees. The SVPA targets SVPs, who have a poor prognosis for successful treatment and have a higher likelihood of recidivism. Additionally, victims of sexual offenses experience greater trauma. Therefore, the government’s interest in protecting the public from SVPs justifies the disparate treatment between them and other mentally disordered offenders.