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Name: People v. Villa-Gomez
Case #: C073188
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 3 DCA
Opinion Date: 03/09/2017

Defendant’s admission of gang membership during booking for immigration hold admissible in criminal case arising after defendant’s statements were made. While in jail on an immigration hold, defendant Villa-Gomez was involved in a group assault on another inmate. A jury convicted defendant of two counts of assault and found true allegations that he acted for the benefit of a criminal street gang. He was also convicted of active participation in a criminal street gang. Defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court erred in admitting statements he made to jail booking officers regarding his gang membership. Held: Affirmed. Miranda v. Arizona (1966) 384 U.S. 436 prohibits use of a defendant’s incriminating statements stemming from custodial interrogation unless the defendant was informed of his right against self-incrimination. Under the booking exception, no Miranda warnings are required prior to police communications that are “normally attendant to arrest and custody.” In People v. Elizalde (2015) 61 Cal.4th 523, the court held that gang affiliation questions do not fall under the booking exception and should be analyzed under the test set forth in Rhode Island v. Innis (1980) 446 U.S. 291, which requires a court to determine whether police should have known that their words or actions were reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response. However, nothing in Elizalde suggests that its holding applies to crimes that have not yet been committed at the time the defendant’s admissions were made. Here, the crime for which defendant was prosecuted had not yet occurred at the time defendant answered the deputies’ classification questions. Thus, unlike in Elizalde, where the defendant had a pending charge for murder (a crime often committed by criminal street gangs), it was not reasonably foreseeable that the deputy’s questions in defendant’s case would elicit an incriminating response, as defendant was in custody on an immigration hold and had not been charged with any crime. The trial court properly admitted defendant’s statement that he was a gang member.

Even if the trial court erred in admitting defendant’s statements that he was a gang member, the error was harmless under Chapman v. California (1967) 386 U.S. 18. Under the Chapman standard, the People bear the burden of establishing beyond a reasonable doubt that any error in admitting defendant’s statements to the booking officer regarding his gang membership did not contribute to the jury’s verdict. In Elizalde, the court held that the erroneous admission of responses to the jail booking questions was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt where the defendant’s gang membership was “amply established by independent and uncontradicted evidence.” In defendant’s case, the victim was assaulted by several Norteno gang members after he objected to moving bunks within the pod to make room for an incoming Norteno gang member. The jury’s verdict was supported by witness testimony identifying defendant as participating in the assault, the admissions of his accomplices, defendant’s arrest with other gang members for the current gang-related offense, and his affiliation with the Norteno gang based on having been “identified as the new person in the pod [the other Nortenos] were trying to make room for.” Observing that gang membership is not an element of the gang enhancement under section 186.22, subdivision (b) or the substantive offense of active gang participation under section 186.22, subdivision (a) but is “simply circumstantial evidence establishing that the crime was gang related,” the court found there was ample evidence that the assaults here were gang related and that defendant acted with the requisite intent. Thus, any error in admitting defendant’s admissions about his gang membership was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

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