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Name: People v. Vela
Case #: G052282
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 4 DCA
Division: 3
Opinion Date: 04/24/2017

Juvenile offender who was charged by direct filing and tried as an adult is retroactively entitled to a transfer hearing under Proposition 57 because his case was pending on direct appeal, and not final, when Proposition 57 was enacted. Vela was sentenced to 72 years to life for murder and related gang charges for an offense committed when he was 16 years old. He was charged by direct filing and tried in adult court. While his appeal was pending, voters passed Proposition 57, which eliminated prosecutors’ ability to directly file charges against juveniles in adult court. Instead, a juvenile’s case may be transferred to adult court only after a transfer (fitness) hearing before a juvenile court judge. In a petition for rehearing in the Court of Appeal, Vela argued he was entitled to Proposition 57 relief under In re Estrada (1965) 63 Cal.2d 740. Held: Conditionally reversed. While laws generally operate prospectively only, Estrada provides that a law passed that lessens punishment should apply to cases pending on appeal, as the amendment represents an express determination that the former penalty was too severe. When a change in the law allows a court to exercise its sentencing discretion more favorably for a particular defendant, the reasoning of Estrada applies. Here, for a minor accused of a crime, it is a potential “ameliorating benefit” to have a neutral judge, rather than a prosecutor, determine that he or she is unfit for rehabilitation within the juvenile justice system. It is also a benefit for a minor to remain in the juvenile court, where the primary emphasis is on rehabilitation. In approving Proposition 57, which was intended to broaden the number of minors who could potentially stay within the juvenile justice system, the electorate determined that the former system of direct filing was too severe. Thus, it is an inevitable inference that the electorate intended the potential ameliorating benefits of Proposition 57 to apply to every case in which it constitutionally could apply. The court disagreed with People v. Cervantes (2017) 9 Cal.App.5th 569.

The appropriate remedy is conditional reversal dependent on the outcome of a juvenile transfer hearing. While Vela argued his convictions should be reversed, the Attorney General argued that the failure to provide Vela with a transfer hearing was harmless error. The court disagreed with both parties, concluding that the appropriate remedy is conditional reversal dependent on the outcome of a juvenile transfer hearing. The court directed the juvenile court to conduct a transfer hearing and, to the extent possible, treat the matter as though the prosecutor had originally filed a juvenile petition in juvenile court and had then moved to transfer the case to adult criminal court. If, after the hearing, the juvenile court determines that it would not have transferred the case, the juvenile court is to treat Vela’s convictions as juvenile adjudications and impose an appropriate “disposition” within its discretion. Alternatively, if the juvenile court determines that it would have transferred the case to adult criminal court, the judgment will be reinstated, and the criminal court shall conduct a Franklin hearing. (See People v. Franklin (2016) 63 Cal.4th 261 [directing trial court to determine whether defendant had an opportunity to make a complete record of information that would be relevant at a youth offender parole hearing and, if not, permitting the parties to put relevant evidence on the record].)

The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: