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Name: People v. Vela
Case #: G052282
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 4 DCA
Division: 3
Opinion Date: 03/28/2018

The provisions of Proposition 57 that require a juvenile transfer hearing before a minor may be prosecuted and sentenced in criminal (adult) court apply retroactively to all cases not yet final. The People directly filed a criminal complaint against Vela, a minor. A jury found him guilty of murder, attempted murder, and found true related gun use and gang enhancements. Though his judgment was affirmed on appeal, he filed a petition for rehearing, arguing that his case should be remanded for a juvenile transfer hearing pursuant to Proposition 57. Held: Conditional reversal. While the appeal in this case was pending, Proposition 57 became effective, amending the Welfare and Institutions Code to eliminate direct filing against minors in criminal court. Instead, the juvenile court must first decide whether a minor should be transferred to adult court (Welf. & Inst. Code § 707, subd. (a)(1)). It is presumed that changes in the law apply prospectively only. However, the Legislature may enact laws that apply retroactively, either expressly or by implication. To determine whether the law applies retroactively, the Legislative or voter intent must be ascertained. Proposition 57 was intended to broaden the number of minors who could potentially stay within the juvenile court system, with its primary emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment. The possibility that a juvenile court judge will exercise his discretion to find a minor should remain in juvenile court is an ameliorating benefit akin to the potential reduction in a criminal defendant’s sentence (In re Estrada (1965) 63 Cal.2d 740), and is therefore retroactive (disagreeing with a contrary holding in People v. Cervantes (2017) 9 Cal.App.5th 569, disapproved of in People v. Superior Court (Lara) (2018) 4 Cal.5th 299, 315).

The application of Proposition 57 to this case requires a conditional reversal dependent on the outcome of a juvenile transfer hearing upon remand. Vela urged that his convictions should be reversed. The Attorney General argued that the failure to accord Vela a fitness hearing is harmless error given the very serious charges and the facts of the case. However, the Court of Appeal is not in a position to evaluate the various factors to be considered at a fitness hearing, such as Vela’s “physical, mental, and emotional health at the time of the alleged offenses (Welf. & Inst. Code, § 707, subd. (a)(1)(A)(ii)).” The appropriate resolution is a conditional reversal of Vela’s convictions and sentence and an order that the juvenile court conduct a juvenile transfer hearing.

Senate Bill No. 620, which affords the trial court discretion to strike a gun use enhancement, is retroactive. On January 1, 2018, the provisions of Senate Bill No. 620 became effective, amending Penal Code sections 12022.5 and 12022.53 to add language allowing the trial court to strike a gun use enhancement in the interest of justice. Because Senate Bill No. 620 provides an opportunity for Vela to receive a more lenient sentence, it is retroactive to cases not yet final under the rationale of In re Estrada. If on remand the juvenile court transfers Vela’s case to criminal court, that court has discretion to strike or dismiss the gun use allegation.

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