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Name: People v. Watts
Case #: B270324
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 2 DCA
Division: 1
Opinion Date: 04/11/2018

Trial court’s failure to independently weigh the evidence when deciding motion for new trial was an abuse of discretion. Watts was convicted of murder and a gang enhancement was found true. He filed a new trial motion challenging the sufficiency of the evidence of the enhancement. In denying the motion the trial court repeatedly told Watts it could not reweigh the evidence and its only concern was whether the prosecution offered sufficient evidence to present the case to the jury. Watts appealed. Held: Reversed. When ruling on a new trial motion (Pen. Code, § 1181, subd. (6)) the court “extends no evidentiary deference” but “independently examines all the evidence to determine whether it is sufficient to prove each required element beyond a reasonable doubt to the judge, who sits, in effect, as a 13th juror.” Here, the trial court incorrectly stated both the scope of its discretion (that it could not reweigh the evidence) and the legal standard (deference rather than independent judgment) by which defendant’s new trial motion should be evaluated. An abuse of discretion arises if the trial court bases its decision on an incorrect legal standard. The trial court failed to give Watts the benefit of its independent assessment of the sufficiency of credible evidence to support the gang finding. The order denying the motion for new trial was reversed and the matter remanded for a new hearing.

Although a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel (IAC) may be the subject of a new trial motion, it must be supported by admissible evidence. Watts argued the trial court abused its discretion by holding that IAC is not a cognizable basis of a new trial motion. However, the court also denied the claim because Watts failed to present any admissible evidence to support it. There was no reversible error. Although IAC is not listed as a ground for a new trial motion (Pen. Code, § 1181), in appropriate circumstances the trial court should consider an IAC claim in a motion for new trial because justice is expedited by resolution of the issue at the trial level. (People v. Cornwell (2005) 37 Cal.4th 50.) Trial courts are particularly well suited to observe counsel’s courtroom performance and to rule on the adequacy of trial counsel in a case before it. Here, however, Watts’ claim of IAC failed to present any admissible evidence to support an assertion of deficient performance or prejudice. He must pursue any potential claim via a petition for writ of habeas corpus.

The case is remanded for the trial court to consider whether to strike the gun use enhancement. After the initial published opinion in this case, the California Supreme Court granted review and ordered the matter transferred back with directions for the Court of Appeal to vacate its decision and reconsider the case in light of Senate Bill No. 620’s amendment to Penal Code section 12022.53, subdivision (h), giving trial courts discretion to strike gun use enhancements. Pursuant to In re Estrada (1965) 63 Cal.2d 740, the amendment applies here. On remand, the trial court may consider whether to strike the enhancement.

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